Born Again: The Peter Max Corvette Collection is Given New Life
Last year, photos surfaced again of a Corvette collection of awe inspiring proportion. They pictured 36 cars, one from each year starting with the debut, 1953 ’vette and ending with a 1989 model. Covered in thick layers of dust, the cars were systematically lined up in a New York City parking garage. It looked as if they were crying out in unison for the adoration they so deserved. If you saw them — depending on the type of car lover you are — you either died a little inside, gasped with excitement or did both. If you’re a Corvette enthusiast, most likely you knew which set of cars these were before ever seeing headlines.
If you were shocked when the pictures of the collection surfaced, you know what Chris Mazzilli, co-owner of Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan and a Corvette connoisseur himself, was feeling one Sunday in June of 2014 at the Old Westbury Gardens car show in Westbury Gardens, New York. Mazzilli was busy showing his 1971 Corvette when a man approached him asking questions about bringing dozens of cars back to their original glory.
“What about a ’53 Corvette? What about a ’55? What about a ’57?” the man asked. On a hunch Mazilli asked, “Are you talking about the Peter Max Corvettes?”
Stunned, the man, Peter Heller, said, “Yes, how did you know?”
Peter, a self-described, crazy car guy, had recently restored a 1968 Corvette, and he quickly discovered Mazilli was both personable and knowledgeable. Peter is the cousin of Scott Heller, the owner of a full-service real estate firm that specializes in New York City parking garages. Scott, along with New York parking management executive, Gary Spindler, was considering purchasing a collection of Corvettes from the famous pop artist, Peter Max and had called on other members of the Heller family to help him research the idea.
Over the years, Max had moved the cars from public parking garage to public parking garage in New York with little regard for the cars or their nostalgia. Corvette aficionados shuttered at the thought of the collection being treated with such disrespect. After all, a collection of this caliber deserved to be revered or put in a museum for the community to enjoy.
In 2001, Scott helped Max find a new home for the cars in New York’s Flatiron district. A few years later, Scott moved the collection for Max to the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Finally, in 2010 the collection was relocated to another garage in upper Manhattan. This time, Scott suggested partnering with Max to bring the cars back to their original splendor, but Max didn’t jump at the idea. However, he did think of Scott when he decided to sell the collection, at which time Scott reached out to Spindler, his friend and colleague.
“I’m an old-school car nut,” Spindler gushed, “with a diverse collection that includes a stock 1965 396 Corvette, a stock ’68 Camaro convertible, a ’67 Camaro that I’m resto-modding, a ’70 Road Runner, a ’76 Volkswagen Beetle and a ’52 Chevy pickup. It really hurt me to see the cars in the state they were in. About once a year I’d speak with Peter Max and urge him to care for them. [In 2014] I even offered to get one car cleaned up and running again at my own expense, just to see something done with them.”
In July of 2014, Max reached an agreement with Scott and Spindler, and they became proud owners of the 36 Corvettes. They declined to say how much they paid.
By the fall of 2014, the collection was everywhere. Publications like The New York Times, Corvette Magazine and Car and Driver picked up the story. T.V. programs like Insider Edition covered the story, too. The coveted 1956 model, which had been restored and is one of only 290 made, was highlighted on the popular Internet series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Jerry Seinfeld and Jimmy Fallon took the cascade green Corvette for a spin in the webisode. Although unappreciated and covered in dust for most of their lives, the ’vettes weren’t strangers to the spotlight. Being born again in 2014 was a fairytale ending to a story that started out with the same buzz and excitement.
New York, 1988 — Jeff Rowe, vice president of programming for VH1 asked marketing consultant, Jim Cahill to out do the success VH1’s sister channel, MTV had a few years earlier. MTV ran an incredibly popular and equally quirky, “Paint the Mutha Pink” campaign. The prizes included a “party house” in Bloomington, Indiana, where the winner was required to repaint it an obnoxious shade of pink. Other prizes included a Jeep, massive amounts of Hawaiian Punch, a private concert featuring “Pink Houses” singer John Cougar Mellencamp and were perfectly positioned for MTV’s teen audience. Cahill had a creative mountain to climb for VH1 and not much time to reach the top.
“I didn’t have a lot of time,” Cahill recalled. “I definitely felt some pressure. Right after the meeting in New York, I flew back to California, and on my way home from the airport I was caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway. While sitting there, going nowhere, I happened to glance at the other side of the freeway just as a 1962 Corvette rolled by. That was it: a Corvette giveaway!”
Although the idea struck him quickly, Cahill’s reason for choosing the Corvette was strategic. VH1’s target audience was baby boomers, and as an admirer of Corvettes himself, Cahill was sure it would resonate.
“The Corvette was — and remains — a baby boomer icon,” Cahill said. “It’s something people aspire to own, just as I always aspired to own one, and it spans generations. There are Corvettes for people who grew up with Elvis, Corvettes for people who grew up with the Beatles and Corvettes for people who grew up with the Eagles.”
On the tails of the “Paint the Mutha Pink” giveaway, Cahill knew this campaign would have to be gigantic. He began thinking of what year Corvette would be best to giveaway.
“I began asking myself, which model year would I most want to own? Every model year,” Cahill said.
Without hesitation, that’s exactly what Cahill set out to convince MTV Networks had to be done. They would award one winner with a Corvette from each year from 1953 to 1989.
“The ‘abracadabra pitch’ culminated with me pulling the cover off of 36 scale-model Corvettes to reveal the idea,” Cahill said. “The entire pitch was just six words, ‘36 Corvettes. One winner. No Kidding.’ Tom [Freston] (president and CEO of MTV Networks) immediately said, ‘Let’s do it!’ and the whole conference room went [crazy]. It was one of the most exciting pitch meetings I’ve ever attended. With everyone on board with the idea, we set off to do [what would be] cable TV’s most successful promotion.”
Cahill wasted no time buying all the cars and promoting the giveaway, but not before MTV general manager, Jarl Mohn gave him some advice.
“Jarl told me, ‘Buy all the cars right away because if someone calls a finance meeting and analyzes this, the idea will be killed. But if the cars are already purchased, it’ll be too late to stop us,’” Cahill recalled.
With the help of expert Ty Knutson, Cahill set out to find stock Corvettes that looked good, ran well and were affordable.
“I would have spent three times as much if I was chasing big-blocks and matching numbers,” Cahill explained. “I wasn’t concerned with that. I went with the classic showroom-stock look. We got nice cars and stayed on budget.”
MTV Networks and parent company, Viacom were pleased with the budget staying on track, but Cahill came up with a way to do more than keep a reality check on costs. To enter the contest, participants had to pay a two-dollar fee every time they called a 900-phone number to put their name in the pot. More than 1.4 million calls were placed over the course of the contest, generating gross revenues of more than 2.8 million dollars. While the campaign budget was never made public, it’s certain that the entry fees exceeded Viacom’s costs.
When it came time to pick a winner, a computer chose Dennis Amodeo, a carpenter from Long Island, New York. He’d entered the contest early on but admittedly forgot about it as time passed by.
“Once I started reading the legalese to him, he was so over come with emotion that he actually started crying,” Cahill remembered.
Beach boys co-founder and lyricist, Mike Love presented Amodeo with the keys to the cars at a party in Culver City, California.
In August of 2014, the group began shipping the collection to Vintage Automotive Restoration, Meanwhile, the cars were all over the media, and it didn’t take long for Max to take interest in the collection. As the story goes, after a friend called Max and told him about the giveaway he had a dream about the cars coming out of tunnels into a football stadium. Atop each ride was a cheerleader waving pom-poms and shouting, “They’re Peter Max’s cars!”
Max contacted Amodeo and struck a deal.
“I was surprised to learn that Dennis sold the cars when he got home to New York,” Cahill said.
As the years went on, the Corvettes fell away from the spotlight and out of the public eye. From time to time people would spot them moving from one warehouse or parking facility to another, but Max didn’t give up his dream of doing something with them. In 2010, photos of the cars in the basement of the Brooklyn parking garage appeared. They were dingy, deteriorating and people were frustrated. Max told The New York Times he planned on painting them in a subtle way, contradictory to his iconic style. Max said it would represent “a blend between what Peter Max the artist would do and what Corvette people would do.” But the concept never came to fruition, and the cars continued to sit until last year when they were rescued by Scott and Spindler.
The Heller family and Spindler have called upon multiple Corvette experts to help them along the way. Mazzilli and Dave Weber, a restoration expert, have spent many hours studying the condition of the cars, offering their advice and approximating how much each car is worth. Weber’s shop in Hicksville, New York. The team there has worked on each car, giving them the TLC they’ve always demanded and never received. Originally, the new owners thought about selling the cars privately or at auction but a year later, they have different plans that could bring the collection full circle.
“We’re still figuring out what we want to do with them, but we’ve decided we’re not going to be selling them one by one or as a collection at auction,” Adam Heller said. “About a year ago, Jim Cahill contacted us about the cars. Since he’s the original person who put the campaign together for VH1 we think it would be really neat to do a new age version of what they did back then.”
If 1.4 million people entered in ’89 when they had to call in from corded phones and social media didn’t exist, a similar campaign could be wildly successful today.
We’ll wait with baited breath, continue to work out our texting muscles and hope we get our chance to own a piece of Corvette history.