The old “car-in-the-barn” story

Everyone in the collector-car hobby has at one time or another heard the old “car-in-the-barn” story. This is one of those stories. Only the rare find in this true tale turned out to be the lowest documented-mileage 1954 Corvette known to exist in the world.

As the host and producer of an automotive TV show, Classic Car Garage, I get e-mails from enthusiasts from all over the world with questions and comments on just about everything related to collector cars. One recent e-mail caught my interest. It was from a young lady, Tami Turnbull, who told me her father had a 1954 Corvette with, believe it or not, 1,368 original miles! At first I was skeptical, but replied anyway with some questions about the car and how her father came to own it. She wrote back with a few photos and an offer to speak personally with her dad to get the whole story. And what a story it is!

Duane Turnbull has always had more than a passing interest in cars. He has owned over 100 collector cars of all makes and models, but his particular interest is Corvettes, and he’s owned a total of 14 of them since 1967.

In late 1999, Duane traveled back to his hometown of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, to look at a 1954 Corvette offered for sale by the uncle of one of his best grade-school friends. He was initially looking for a 1953 parts car to help with the restoration of a ’53 Corvette he already owned. When he arrived in town, he was told that the ’54 could be found in the old McKeesport Vocational High School parking lot he knew so well. What he found was a ragged-looking red Corvette with bubbling paint, neglected upholstery, and wearing 1957 Illinois license tags. Upon inspecting the car, Duane noticed that the odometer read 1,368 miles. He thought it couldn’t be right. It must be 101,368 miles. All the panels seemed to be aligned and near straight-not worn, and the steering wheel was free of wear, except for some weather deterioration. The rubber on the pedals seemed to be new also. It was missing side windows, hubcaps, and some tools from the trunk. The chrome was pitted, but the stainless was straight. Duane eventually left without buying the car and continued driving on a business trip to Tennessee. All the way, he thought about the Corvette and the odometer reading. Could that possibly be right? Was it possible that these crazy stories about people finding such treasures are sometimes true? Upon arriving in Tennessee, Duane decided to take a chance and buy the car. Not convinced that the mileage was correct, he intended to use the ’54 as a parts car for his ’53!

The little red Corvette was transported back to Duane’s home in West Virginia where it was stored in a trailer over the winter. Upon closer inspection, it was decided that the ’54 was in better shape than his ’53, to which it was originally intended to donate parts. It was becoming more apparent to Duane that he had a very special car in its own right-possibly the most original and lowest-mileage survivor of the entire 1953-55 Corvette run, which numbered under 5,000 cars.

In June 2000, Duane shipped the car to Bill Kuhn of “His Place,” a highly regarded Corvette restoration shop in Emmitsburg, Maryland, to be restored. Bill has been in business for over 40 years, with a specialty in Corvettes. Upon inspecting “every nut and bolt that holds it together,” he was astonished at the authenticity of what he found on this 50-year-old sports car. The wiring was original and untouched. The shocks were the original spiral-type. The mufflers and tailpipes had the original factory paint on the top side. Even the grease packing in the wheel bearings was clear! All the things that are normally replaced with use, such as belts, hoses, tires and spark plugs, were the original factory items and in “like-new” condition! Bill was certain now that the 1,368 miles were indeed authentic. He had a very important car on his hands, and he let Duane know what he had.

With this exciting news, Duane began a quest to locate the extensive documentation he had heard existed for this rare Corvette. With determination, persistence, countless hours of legwork, and modern computer technology, the fascinating history of ownership slowly, but surely, unfolded.

It was discovered, when disassembled, that this special 1954 Corvette actually started its life Polo White with a red interior. In early 1955, TV Guide sponsored a contest on a local Chicago TV station called The “Long Gray Line” contest. Details of the contest are not known. TV Guide, however, wanted to give away a red Corvette, but the one given to them by Chevrolet was white. So they had a local dealer, Merit Chevrolet, paint their giveaway car red. On the evening of March 21, 1955, a Western Union Telegram arrived at the Chicago home of Robert E. Schroeder, from TV Guide, informing him that he was the lucky winner of the car. Mr. Schroeder appeared on “The Tom Duggan Show” to receive the keys.

The winner drove the car for about 300 miles total, and decided he didn’t like it, so he gave it to his sister. She then put about 1,000 miles on it before deciding that she too didn’t like the way the car drove. Although stylish for 1954, these early Corvettes had poor ride and handling characteristics. Around 1957, the Corvette was put away in a barn/shed building behind the Schroeder house, where it sat for the next 33 years! At some point during the car’s hibernation, the front of the building’s roof collapsed, exposing the car’s front end to the elements. Many people had heard about the Corvette over the years, but Mr. Schroeder would never let anyone in the storage barn to see it. His reasons are forever unknown. Mr. Schroeder was very meticulous about keeping records. As a result, he retained every tag, document and bit of documentation that ever existed for the car. He had the original invoice with “N/C” (no charge) for the cost, as it was a promotional giveaway. Also in his possession were such trivial items as the radio instructions, the cigarette lighter tag, engine break-in instructions and the original telegram informing him of his win.

According to Social Security records, Mr. Schroeder died in 1992, so Duane was never able to speak with him or his family about the car. It was discovered that, somewhere around 1990, the car got into the hands of Pro Team Corvette, a dealer in Napoleon, Ohio. A Pro Team spotter at the 2003 Atlantic City Auction, where the car was displayed, told Duane that he was one of the original people to travel to Chicago to remove the Corvette. It is thought that Pro Team acted as brokers. The car was then sold to a Pennsylvania man and his wife in December of 1990. How the original owner was persuaded to sell will never be known. The second owner, who shall remain anonymous, never got to do much with the Corvette. It seems his plans were cut short by a stint in Federal prison on RICO charges. As a result, the car was seized by the Feds sometime thereafter and came into the possession of a company called Vectura Group.

On September 16, 1999, Duane Turnbull finally purchased the car from his childhood friend’s uncle, who represented the Vectura Group. He is now the third owner.

It was quite a detective job in itself to obtain the true story and track down the original documents. Duane says it took several years to finally get all of it. For nearly three years, he searched for the name of the second owner. He finally came up with the idea to track down the man who notarized the original paperwork. With the help of some web detective software, Duane was able to locate the phone number of the notary in Pennsylvania. As it turned out, he was an insurance agent for the second owners and said he would try to find a phone number. Upon successfully getting the number, Duane called. But each time he made contact, someone would hang up, refusing to speak with him. Not giving up so easily after three years, he called again and again and discovered that sometimes the answering machine he got would kick over to a fax tone. So he faxed a letter offering to pay $1,000 for the documentation if they had it. He got no immediate reply. On February 8, 2003, Duane received a call from the 25-year-old son of the second owner. He said that his mother received his fax letter and had indeed retained the original documents. He agreed to speak with his dad, who was by then released, but thought they could make a deal.

On February 12, 2003, Duane Turnbull received a call from the man who was the second owner. They had a brief chat that resulted in the sale of the much sought-after documentation.

The search for these documents from day one of delivery involved hundreds of people, address searches, and three years. All the story and documents came together one week before the car was offered at the Taj Mahal auction in Atlantic City on February 20, 2003. A tremendous snowstorm kept most of the bidders away, but with the few that were there, this 1954 Corvette was bid to a “no-sale” of $102,000!

The car has received an NCRS restoration using one of their judging manuals. All of the original parts and markings have been preserved. Since the original lacquer paint was no longer available, it was decided to paint it to its original Polo White using base coat/clear coat urethane enamel. Several NCRS judges provided divided opinions on this issue.

Because of the authenticity of the mileage and the fact that this is the lowest-mileage 1953-1955 Corvette known, it represents one of the rarest Corvettes in existence. It is even more rare because it retains so many of the original parts that are often replaced in the first couple of years of use, including spark plugs, plug wires, tires, tailpipes and shocks.

So, there you have it-another “car-in-the-barn” story to tell your car buddies about. It gives us hope that somewhere out there is a forgotten relic, just waiting for us to rescue and return it to all its glory. So keep your eyes peeled for those barns, and ask around small towns about old cars. When you find your hidden treasure, give me a call. I need more “car-in-the-barn” stories to get my car buddies through the next winter.

This article originally appeared in the January, 2004 issue of Hemmings Motor News.

Leave a Reply