Paying homage to a wheel fantasy

Cars: The sports car's owners figure the cost is worth it to have "something special" to play with.

July 31, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

In his regular life, Mike Sibiski, 41, and a father of three, drives a Chevy minivan.

You'd never know it from the torch-red Corvette he revs up on weekends.

"Always wanted a Corvette," he says, showing off his 1996 LT-4 with a souped-up 335-horsepower engine and six-speed transmission. "It's America's sports car."

Sibiski, who's from Bel Air, was surrounded yesterday by similarly swooning car owners and enthusiasts at the Fells Point Corvette Fest in the Broadway Market square, where over 50 Corvettes - washed, waxed, wiped and wiped again - were on display.

The oldest model was a 1958; the most valuable, a 1998 Twin Turbo coupe priced about $43,000 new, but worth over $100,000 after months of overhauling everything from the engine to the exhaust system. Practically the only original feature is the seats.

Richard Rembold of Jarrettsville, the Twin Turbo's owner, has three other Corvettes - one white, one red, one pewter, all convertibles.

"They're just big-boys' toys," says the associate vice president for academic affairs at Coppin State College. "Bigger the boys, the bigger the toys."

The first Corvette came off the assembly line at Chevrolet Plant No. 35 near Flint, Mich., in 1953. The sticker price was just over $3,000.

Today, they compete with glamorous foreign sports cars such as the Porsche and Alfa Romeo. But the Corvette, its admirers argue, has a distinctly American charm. There's even a National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., that houses over 50 models and traces the sports car's history. Its collection includes the historic 1 millionth Corvette, donated by the manufacturer.

"These guys, when it comes to their cars, they're like a mother with a new baby," says Stuart Denrich, manager of the Corvette Fest, who doesn't own one himself.

Yesterday's event - the first in what organizers hope will be an annual tradition - was sponsored by the Chesapeake Corvette Club and the Fells Point Food and Beverage Association. Proceeds from the $10 entry fee benefit the Ronald McDonald House.

Walt Sperl, 60, always coveted a Corvette, but with four kids to raise, he couldn't afford one - until three years ago.

"Finally, they all moved out," he says. "It was time for me to play."

Sperl, a foreman for Bethlehem Steel Corp. and a member of the Bel Air Corvette Club, has a 1970 Stingray convertible in Daytona yellow with a four-speed transmission and a 300-horsepower engine. The base price in 1970 was $4,849; he paid $17,000 for it in 1997. His wife came up with the perfect license plate: "Y B OLD."

The car has 53,000 miles on it, 7,000 of them his, mostly from drives on nice days or trips to the beach. Sometimes, he and his wife take it to run an errand at the store.

"But I have to park way up on the hill away from everybody," he says.

Sperl became famous among local Corvette Club members last year when he got a $50 ticket during the town's Fourth of July parade. He was driving 3 mph at the time; the transgression was spinning his wheels.

Sperl doesn't consider himself a fanatic about keeping the car clean. He washes it every week or two. For a few hours yesterday, he was parked under a tree in the Broadway Market square, but the fear of bird droppings got to be too much, so he moved to a safer spot.

Rembold, the owner of the Twin Turbo, is somewhat more obsessive about dirt and dents. In addition to a feather duster and a Dustbuster, he arrived with a big plastic box of supplies, including paint cleaner, polish, detailer, wax, water, Windex, canned air and an array of brushes in varying lengths and sizes.

"It's not only a hobby," says Rembold. "You become a fanatic about it. It's almost a passion."

Sibiski, a district manager for S. C. Johnson Wax Co., says his car can reach 175 mph to 180 mph. (He's been up to 130 mph on a track.) But even at lesser speeds, he knows his car gets attention. His children fight over who gets to ride in it - especially during parades - because it has room for only one passenger.

"His is the cream of the crop," says Bernie Zeller, 47, of Bel Air, who owns a 1992 Corvette in a color called black rose. "His is righteous."

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