As Adam Smith once said, the invisible hand of commerce moves in mysterious ways. With this in mind, let us travel to a tiny hamlet buried deep in the shadowed green folds of the Appalachian ridge.
Here, against all odds, you will find one of the world's largest, most pristine collections of Chevrolet Corvettes, lined up in a gleaming showroom with painted floors and a workshop so meticulously clean it could be used for open-heart surgery instead of V-8 overhauls.
This backwoods jewel is the home of Greg Wyatt, a quiet southern car buff who has spent three decades building a business as a restorer and trader of classic Corvettes. As locations go, there is nothing more unlikely than Wyatt's – you'll never find him without a set of GPS co-ordinates or turn-by-turn directions ("…go past Hog Jowl Road, and look for Uncle Jed's store.")
But the right people know exactly where Wyatt is. Legendary guitarist Jeff Beck called last year and bought a classic Corvette. So did dozens of others. Wyatt sells about 80 cars a year, from about $80,000 to nearly $1-million.
"I've been doing it a while, so some people know me," says Wyatt in his soft Georgia drawl. "So far, it's worked out okay."
I learned about Vintage Corvettes, Wyatt's business, through a fluky connection. One of my friends in Georgia is a Boeing 747 pilot who likes to fly bush planes. He mentioned that he had a hangar at a private strip in the hills, and that the airfield's owner was a Corvette guy.
As we came in for a landing at Wyatt's field the next day, I was expecting a garage with a couple of cars in it. What I encountered was something else again. Finding a world-class collection of cars in backwoods Georgia was like tracking down Colonel Kurtz to find that he had built a Disneyland theme park at the end of his lost jungle trail.
There were dozens of cars in Wyatt's vast showroom, and many were to die for. A mint-condition, fuel-injected 1965 Stingray sat next to a row of cars that included a 1967 convertible that had won the coveted Duntov award (an elite Corvette honour named after legendary engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, a.k.a. the Father of the Corvette). There were unrestored convertibles, an Indianapolis pace car, and a row of custom-built hot rods.
The hills of Georgia had yielded an unexpected treasure. This wasn't the first time I'd seen a vehicle operation flourish in an unlikely location. RM Auctions, one of the world's pre-eminent restorers and sellers of classic vehicles, is set in Blenheim, Ont., a town best known for field crops.
In the 1970s, Mark Appleton started selling British motorcycle parts out of a backroom next to a laundromat in Wolfville, N.S. As his business grew, Appleton built a warehouse in the woods outside town, doing business by mail and telephone. Today, British Cycle Supply is the biggest operation of its kind in the world.
Like RMS and British Cycle Supply, Wyatt's remote location confers key advantages – real estate costs are low, and he doesn't get pestered by time-wasting tire kickers. When someone arrives at Vintage Corvette, they know what they're looking for.
When Wyatt opened Vintage Corvettes in 1981, the business ran through phone and word of mouth. Wyatt's operation grew, and the arrival of the Internet let him connect with a worldwide network of car buffs. Many of Wyatt's customers buy Corvettes without ever seeing them in the flesh – they look at pictures, then have the car shipped in an enclosed container.
Wyatt can trace the roots of his business back to 1965, when he was seven years old. As he stood on the main street of Summerhill (population 1,900) a white 1959 Corvette rolled past. Wyatt had never seen a Corvette before. He fell in love.
Wyatt's father was a brick mason, and his mom worked in a glove mill. To make money, Wyatt delivered newspapers and sold snow cones.
"We were dirt poor, but I made some money to buy things I wanted," he says. "It was all right."
Wyatt bought his Corvette (a Pennant Blue 1954) when he was 15 with money he scraped together from his snow cone business. He spent the next two years rebuilding the 1954 from the frame up, then sold it for $13,500, turning a tidy profit. Today, that car would be worth about $125,000.
Since then, Wyatt has swapped and restored hundreds of cars, and learned a lot about the classic Corvette business. The fundamentals are simple: the most valuable cars are those that wealthy baby boomers lusted for as teenagers – a 1967 L88 model, for example, recently sold at auction for $3.2-million.
The business demands the deep knowledge that can be acquired only through a long-time, hands-on relationship with a car. There are countless ways to destroy the value of a classic Corvette – such as installing an aftermarket front end in place of the factory original.
To the unschooled, all Corvette front ends look the same. But to Wyatt, the differences are glaring. In the 1950s and 1960s, GM made the Corvette's nose from half a dozen intricately moulded fibreglass pieces that were fitted together on the assembly line. When a car was damaged in a collision, many body shops fitted aftermarket front ends that were moulded in a single piece. The one-piece front ends were cheaper, and most people can't tell the difference.
Unlike the factory parts, which were press-molded in two-sided steel jigs, the one-piece front ends were built like cheap hot tubs, using chopper-gun fibreglass sprayed into a one-sided mould.
"Most people can't see the difference," Wyatt said, "but once you know Corvettes, it jumps right out at you. And it destroys the car. You can lose 40 per cent of its value, right there."
This was just one detail in the vast trove of Corvette knowledge that Wyatt has accumulated since the day that white 1959 rolled through town, setting him off on a lifetime of buying, selling, fixing and learning. If you want to build an automotive empire out at the end of a country road, there are no shortcuts. But get it right, and the world will come to your door.
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