By Brian Earnest
Seventeen years into their marriage, Michael Brown’s wife, Sandra, figured he was going through a typical mid-life crisis. He had been longing for a 1963 Corvette since he was a kid, and since not many things are better remedies for such a condition than the iconic “Split-Window” Corvette, Sandra generously consented.
That was 27 years and more than a dozen Corvettes ago, and while Brown isn’t sure he was ever really suffering from any crises, his fixation with the ’63 Vettes hasn’t waned a bit. He’s still got his first one, and he has no problem picking it as his favorite among 13 fabulous Corvettes of all vintages that he keeps stored in his “man cave” in Arlington, Texas.
“Hah, she’s pretty well convinced that I did not get over my middle-aged ‘crazies’ — that’s what she calls them,” Brown says of his wife. “It really fulfilled a longterm goal for me. I’m not sure in high school I could ever convince myself it could happen, that I could ever really own one. Acquiring it was literally a means to an end for me.”
Of course, Sandra probably needed something to keep Michael out her hair at the time. Her career as a novelist had not yet taken off when the first ‘Vette arrived, but she has gone on to become one of the country’s most prolific and high-profile mystery writers, with 60 New York Times best-sellers to her credit. Michael says his first Corvette was a 40th birthday present from Sandra. There have been more spectacular cars to follow, but none have meant more than the ’63.
Like untold thousands of red-blooded American males, Brown was blown away by the radically new 1963 Corvettes when they were first unveiled to the public. They were certainly among the most exciting new cars ever built on American soil, with European looks, sports car handling and good old American horsepower under the bonnet. Brown was a teenager in Hugo, Okla., at the time, and the 10th anniversary ‘Vette immediately became his Holy Grail of cars.
“I was smitten then and was from then on,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Some day I’d love to have one of those beautiful cars,’ and it took me 22 years to be in a position to acquire one.”
Brown finally found his dream machine in a suburb of Dallas after spotting a classified ad in the newspaper. The ad featured a silver coupe with a four-speed, black interior and L76 327-cid/340-hp engine. Brown jumped on it, and although he’s driven it regularly over the years, he hasn’t had to touch a thing mechanically or cosmetically. The coupe is almost exactly the way it was when he first saw it.
“I never thought about tearing it down or doing anything to it. I just took care of it and drove it when I could and only on pretty days,” he says. “I’ve kept it completely stock and that’s really the way it was when I got it. It’s just been an amazing car … I’ve never even tuned it up! It’s always run so well as long as I put leaded gasoline in it, so figured, ‘Why mess with it?’”
The silver ’Vette had a good life even before Brown came along and had been restored back to original condition once at some point in its life. “It was an older restoration done by two brothers that owned a dealership in Iowa, I think,” he said. Aside from splurging on expensive 105-octane fuel, Brown hasn’t had to make any real investment in the car since.
There was one episode, however, that he’d like to forget, and it almost sent his prized ’63 to the boneyard. “I had one scary incident,” he recalls. “I took it to [a tire shop] in north Texas and had new tires put on it … Usually, I would stay, but this time I didn’t stay there, I left on an errand while they were doing the work. And, of course, the car has the knock-off wheels … Well, I came back a couple hours later, got the car, and I was driving on Interstate 30 and the right front wheel came off! Fortunately it started vibrating and I slowed down, but I was still doing probably 50 mph when it separated and it did quite a bit of damage to the right front …
“Clearly they didn’t know what they were doing putting on knock-off wheels, and looking back, I was equally at fault for not overseeing it to make sure the mechanics did it right … You’d never know it’s been damaged now.”
If you are going to have a “first” Corvette, then the 1963 Sting Ray coupe is a fitting one to have because it was a car of many firsts. The model year marked the first time the Corvette was available as a hard-top, and the first and only time it had the split-window design. The hidden headlights, leather upholstery and knock-off wheels were all debut items as well. Air-conditioning was introduced late in the year for the first time and was installed in only 1.3 percent of 1963 Corvettes, making A/C cars particularly attractive these days. The independent rear suspension was new on Corvettes, as was the selection of new metallic paints colors. On the convertibles, a beige softtop was on the options list for the first time since 1957.
The base engine was the 327-cid/250-hp V-8, but 300- and 340-hp single-four-barrel carb power plants were available, as was the now-coveted 360-hp “Fuelie.”
The 1963 production ‘Vettes were spin-offs of the Sting Ray racing car of that had been the brainchild of GM styling honcho Bill Mitchell and designer Larry Shinoda. Mitchell was a fan of the split glass, although original Corvette designer Zora Arkus-Duntov didn’t like the limited visibility and sight lines of the new body style.
The 1963 production run was split almost evenly between the coupes and hardtops. The fastback carried a base price of $4,257 and 10,594 copies were produced. The convertible was slightly cheaper at $4,037 and slightly more popular with 10,919 built.
Brown didn’t hang out with any other Corvette owners during the early years, when his collection consisted of just one car. But he managed to get his ‘Vette fix all alone every year in Pennsylvania. “I’ve been going to Corvettes at Carlisle for years,” he says. “Years ago I had no friends in Texas who were into the hobby, so I went for many, many years by myself and stayed 48 hours and loved it… For many years it was an individual passion I had.”
Of course, when your collection grows to 13 Corvettes, you have a spectacular 3,000-square foot garage-museum-playhouse to show them off, and you don’t mind having visitors and groups come and check them out, you acquire some ‘Vette-loving friends. Brown has plenty these days. “I’m an honorary member of many car clubs in North Texas,” he said. “I do welcome tours and so forth, when I’m asked.”
Brown’s collection can be viewed online at www.hookedonvettes.com. In addition to his ’63, the jaw-dropping fleet includes Corvettes from 1954, ’57, ’62, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67, ’78, 2003, ’06, ’09 and ’12. The 2009 and 2012 cars are both ZR1s. Non-’Vettes in the collection include a 1955 Chevy Bel Air hardtop and fuel-injected 1957 Bel Air convertible.
Brown tries to drive all of his cars periodically, if not more than that, and that means he still gets the ’63 out on the road as often as he can. It provides the same feeling of satisfaction and same familiar ride and excitement these days as it did years ago. “It’s still an exhilarating drive, because of that 340-hp with the 4-speed,” he says. “There’s no air-conditioning, and because you don’t really have much weight with that light fiberglass body, it’s pure power. It doesn’t compare to a ZR1 that I have now, but for its year it’s a very peppy car and a lot of fun to dive. It’s very light, has a lot of torque and a lot of horsepower to those rear wheels. It’s a fast car, but I don’t drive it like that.”
Brown jokes that even if he does somehow graduate from his “mid-life crazies,” he’ll never be able to part with his beloved “Split-Window.” It was the car that changed him from a Corvette dreamer into a Corvette owner, and the car that led to the many Corvettes that followed.
“It was a gift from my wife, so it means a lot,” he says. “I don’t think she or I ever thought it would take us to where we are today, but it’s been a fun ride, literally and figuratively.”
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