DECATUR - Once upon a time, when Detroit dinosaurs ruled the Earth and General Motors' leadership thought a bailout was only something that affected sailors, Chevrolet was a steel passport to excitement.
The iconic GM brand couldn't put a tire wrong: It gave car-crazed America the sensuously curvy Corvette, the muscle-bound Impala and, in 1967, the brute force of the Camaro.
Decatur businessman LaVelle Hunt says that by 1969, the Camaro had become one of the most popular models GM ever built and accelerated the company's reputation for building affordable dream machines that put a nation on the road to happiness.
Fast forward to today, and we find GM with its hood up, facing bankruptcy while begging for a taxpayer jump-start. But the metallic dreams it created are still out there, still turning heads and hearts. And soon, paying visitors will be able to gaze upon the fast and furious chariots that took, and take, our breath away.
Hunt, a diehard car collector with deep pockets, is set to open the "Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum" by mid-March. It occupies an ocean of space in the former Eagle's supermarket on U.S. 36 with 50 classic and modern cars that include Corvettes, Camaros, Impalas and Chevelles, with more coming. The collector, whose father owned a '57 Chevy convertible, never lost his sense of thrill with the homegrown brand's looks and performance and believes GM will triumph again.
"It really is a great product, it really is," he says. "They've got the Corvette, they got the new Malibu, a fantastic car, the new Camaro, another fantastic car, and the Chevrolet truck is the best truck ever built. They've just got to win back the American customer, and I think they are trying to do that now."
Hunt's eyes blaze with the light of the converted, and his museum pays homage to what GM can do when it's got its groove on. The lineup is stunning, with a long rank of some 16 Corvettes featuring genuine Indianapolis 500 pace cars with ornate paintwork dating from 1978 through 2008. The 2007 model, in "sunset orange metallic," left the Bowling Green, Ky., factory capable of more than 160 mph, with acceleration that would make your eyeballs bleed.
Then change gear, slip over a lane and zip back in time to see the early and practical days of the Chevrolet brand with a 1928 car capable of maybe 45 mph flat-out. But the jalopy's tough wooden body could haul a lot of stuff and it was cheap, rugged and reliable.
"This particular car was used to bring produce out of the fields, and these rolled up (Hunt indicates leather sides) so they could sell produce out the back of it."
He leads visitors on at a dizzying pace past rows of gleaming machines, young and old, a pied piper singing the praises of what his fellow Americans could build.
The 43-year-old Hunt is also a self-confessed workaholic who owns a Conseco Insurance Agency and believes in putting his hard-earned money where his heart is: The new museum now holds more than $1 million worth of automotive heritage.
There's method to his passion, too, as Wall Street continues to suffer a major transmission failure. Hunt says classic cars are a good and appreciating place to park your cash, and there aren't many investments that can do 0 to 60 mph in four seconds.
The automotive impresario then pauses to admire a Chevelle SS 396 that takes us into the era of the Johnson administration. This jet black '66 model could punch laughing drivers to 120 mph at warp acceleration and cost maybe $3,500 new.
"The buyers were your everyday workers, middle class people could afford these," explains Hunt. "Speed and horsepower is what sold them."
And Chevrolet is still capable of firing off creative sparks, like the SSR, a kind of car-truck crossbreed with swoopy lines and a fire-breathing Corvette engine lurking under the hood. Watching the hardtop fold itself out of the back, swing over and latch itself into place is to witness a precise and graceful mechanical ballet.
"This vehicle was really way ahead of its time," laments Hunt, who says GM shelved it in 2006. "The price tag was close to a Corvette, and so a lot of people just bought the Corvette instead. Now, all the collectors are kicking themselves in the butt because they didn't buy one when they could."
There are no missed opportunities in the museum, however, which uses posters, signage and memorabilia to conjure up every aspect of the Chevrolet automotive experience. One section even re-creates a parts department from yesteryear, while others look at racing history and feature Corvette race cars and a ferocious '67 Camaro dragster that is actually street-legal.
Displaying the kind of business acumen that GM could use more of, Hunt has set aside a section to chronicle the history of Miles Chevrolet, the big Decatur GM dealer, and hopes to forge a business partnership.
"Maybe we can display some of the new models out here," he muses. "And maybe have people pick up their new cars out here, too, get their photos taken and have a free meal at the restaurant."
The aptly named "Dreamer's Diner" is pulled up next door, with windows looking into the museum. The blinds are closed at the moment but will be pulled to allow tantalizing views of the glittering horsepower on the other side of the glass when the museum opens. The restaurant has been up and running for six weeks and is owned by Glenn Calhoun, who leases the space from Hunt.
"A lot of people who come in here like what they are seeing with the museum, and they want to know when it is going to be open," said Calhoun, 63. He's a Ford guy himself and in the process of restoring the '68 LTD he bought new for the $3,800 he saved up while serving Uncle Sam in Vietnam. Calhoun says Hunt will be holding classic car auctions and other events, and his restaurant is going to be available to provide suitably classic American cuisine.
"Great cars and food go together like hot dogs and baseball," he says. "We've got a good location here."
All fine museums should have a nice gift shop, and the Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum doesn't just show you dreams, it retails them. Some of the classic cars on display are on consignment from other owners and so, after drinking to them with thine eyes, you can break out the wallet and take one home. How about a golden 1962 50th Chevrolet anniversary edition of the 1962 Impala Super Sport?
"Sure," says Hunt. "You'll need $50,000 to buy that one."
If you go
The Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum will open by mid-March with hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Owner LaVelle Hunt also offers climate-controlled storage on his site for cars, campers and boats. For more information about this or the museum, call 454-4583.