The headline car at the Corvette Chevy Expo in Houston, Tex. Feb. 15-16 is a special big-block ’69 Corvette called the Astrovette. Don’t confuse this car, specially built for a U.S. astronaut, with the GM Astrovette prototype.
In the ’60s, astronauts were regarded as American heroes. They were military and test pilots who were brave enough to volunteer for space exploration. Even TV sitcoms like “I Dream of Genie” included astronauts as characters. It was set in Cocoa Beach, Fla., where many people in the Space Program lived.
After Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space GM’s Ed Cole presented him with a white 1962 Corvette that had a custom-designed space-age interior.” It would not be the last “Astronaut Corvette,”
1960 Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann owned a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership in Melbourne, Fla., less than 20 miles south of CoCoa Beach. With the Space Center close by, Rathmamm became friends with many astronauts. He negotiated a Chevrolet program to lease cars to astronauts for $1 per year. Not surprisingly six of the first group picked Corvettes.
Astronaut Alan Bean ordered his 1969 Corvette when he was in the crew of the Apollo 12. Bean would become the fourth man to walk on the moon. The the Apollo 12 crew members were close knit and astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon agreed with Bean on the idea of ordering look-alike gold Corvettes.
Classic car designer Alex Tremulis of Tucker fame was commissioned to do custom paint schemes for the three astronauts’ cars. He took the gold from the Goldenrod Bonneville car and the Gyronaut Triumph Bonneville motorcycle. Then he added black “wings” to represent space flight.
Tremulis worked on a tight deadline, but the cars were delivered on time. Some say Rathmann painted them following Tremulis designs, but this isn’t a certainty. Rathmann did add a quarter-inch white stripe between the black and the gold and special red-white-blue badges for each car owner.
Bean was 37 when he received his car via the special program. He enjoyed driving the Corvette around Cocoa Beach at night. The car had a special factory gas tank sticker that read: “Courtesy car delivered to Alan L. Bean.” The astronaut resigned from NASA in 1981 to become a fine art painter.
Danny Reed was a space enthusiast and Corvette fan. He had seen photos of the car in Life magazine in 1969. In 1971, he spotted it for sale in a GMAC lot in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Reed put an offer in, but didn’t have the highest bid. But, several weeks later, GMAC called and asked if he still wanted the car. The winning bidder had failed to come up with $3,230. Reed did.
In the late-1990s, Reed started restoring the car. He elected not to do a frame-off restoration, but simply to recondition it. His goal was to maintain its originality. Ray Repczynski, the owner of Corvettes by Ray in Houston did the work. Ray was one of the earliest National Corvette Restorers Society members.
Reed has owned the car for over 42 years. He’s done extensive research and gathered vast amounts of official documentation. The Astrovette has been awarded Top Flight honors, the Duntov Award of Excellence and the American Heritage Award. (It is the only Corvette to receive all three). The car has been displayed at NASA events, the National Corvette Museum, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, the Johnson Space Center and the Houston Space Center. Reed starts the car weekly, brings it up to temperature, and drives it for about four miles every third week. The odometer shows 35,000 total miles.