Payne: 'Lost Corvettes' find owners at Motor Bella charity giveaway

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Pontiac — When Corvette expert Chris Mazzilli saw 36 forlorn Corvettes buried in dust and bird droppings in New York garages, one thought crossed his mind: “This is the greatest barn find in history.”

Today at Motor Bella on M1 Concourse's event center stage, six of those historic coupes — polished like new — were given away to six lucky ticket holders in the 'Vettes for Vets Sweepstakes.

Corvette collector, restorer, and expert Chris Mazzilli spearheads the restoration of the 36 "Lost Corvettes" from the Peter Max collection.

"I can't believe I won. I bought $100 of tickets a while ago, and forgot about it until I got the phone call," said Joseph Keller of Stoughton, Wisconsin, who will be taking home the jewel of the six 'Vettes: a white 1955 model. One of only 700 produced, its estimated value is $150,000-$200,000.

Mazzilli and his New York partners, the Heller and Spindler families, created Corvette Heroes and have spent the last seven years restoring the “Lost Corvettes” from legendary pop artist Peter Max’s collection to their former glory. In the process they have raised over a million dollars for American military veterans with disabilities like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

As part of their fundraising efforts Corvette Heroes created a national Sweepstakes to win the rare 'Vettes in which participants could buy $3 tickets online at TheLostCorvettes.com. Of the the 36 Lost Corvettes, 22 have already been given away in drawings on Veterans Day and Memorial Day in New York City — and in Chicago in July. After the Pontiac giveaway, eight will be left.

Corvette Heroes flew the six winners into Detroit from all corners of the USA to collect their treasure at the 'Vettes for Vets event — but winners didn't know which cars they would take home (tax-free) until Friday at Motor Bella.

"I think we all wanted the '55," smiled Tommy Cain of Austin, Texas, who was thrilled to win a stunning red ’89 convertible. "But this beauty has just 7,000 miles on the odometer!"

The six ‘Vettes are classics.

In addition to the 1955 and 1989 models, David Trautenberg of New Orleans is taking home a '73 Stingray with unique chrome bumpers featured for only one model year. An ’82 model in two-tone blue is the last of the Corvette C3 generation and now belongs to Steven Mortensen from Parkland, Florida.

The 1955 Corvette (right) is valued at up to $200,000.

A black 1962 Corvette will go cross-country with Peter Lawrence from Studio City, California, and Jean Lamborn of Grapevine, Texas, won a 1971 model. All six vehicles have been on display since Tuesday and twinkled in the sun Friday after two days of heavy rain.

Artist Max purchased the collection in 1989 from the winner of a VH1 giveaway. His intent was to use them as one-of-a-kind art canvases — but instead they sat for more than a quarter-century in a series of New York City parking garages managed by the Hellers and Spindlers. 

“The dust and layer of grime actually protected them,” laughs Mazzilli. “But some were in pretty bad shape. We restored them or, in some cases, modified them, like a 1967 Corvette that we upgraded with a 427 big block engine.”

A Lost Corvette before and after its restoration.

The Hellers and Spindlers bought the collection from Max in 2014 and set about restoring it with Mazzilli’s assistance.

“It’s very personal to me,” said Mazzilli who owns the Dream Car Restorations shop on Long Island. “A number of my family have served in the military and we are very close to veterans.”

The sweepstakes money benefits Stand for the Troops, a national nonprofit that offers a diverse set of therapies to veterans suffering from PTSD, brain injuries and other permanent and debilitating psychological and physical wounds of war. 

After the Pontiac six are awarded at Motor Bella, eight Lost Corvettes remain to be auctioned in Los Angeles later this year. 

'Vettes for Vets

WINNERS of the six classic Chevrolet Corvettes Sweepstakes: 

Tommy Cain from Austin, Texas — 1989 Corvette

Joseph Keller from Stoughton, Wisconsin — 1955 Corvette

Jean Lamborn from Grapevine, Texas — 1971 Corvette

Peter Lawrence from Studio City, California — 1962 Corvette

Steven Mortensen from Parkland, Florida — 1982 Corvette

David Trautenberg from New Orleans, Louisiana — 1973 Corvette

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.