Photos above and below by Lisa Bicknell
Photo below left submitted
By LISA BICKNELL
CV&T News Editor
Last April, Estill Countian Earl Dale Flynn entered two Corvettes in the Mountain Mushroom Festival Car Show.
One was a gleaming black, shiny as a polished mirror. The other wore a faded layer of yellow paint, with spots of dull red showing through. Appearance-wise, the second car paled in comparison to the black one.
Still, it was the shabbier car that captured the most attention.
Thirty years ago, Earl Dale tried unsuccessfully to buy a ‘57 Corvette that was parked in a barn on Crooked Creek.
“I knew it was over there,” he said, “…and I knew it had a roll bar on it, but I thought it was probably just a regular Corvette that had been “chopped up” and raced on the Clay City drag strip.”
Troy Mason owned the car, but he declined to sell it at the time because he had hopes of fixing it up one day.
What neither man knew was that the car was destined to bring a lot of excitement into their lives.
On December 23, 2017, Earl Dale Flynn received an unexpected message from a mutual acquaintance of Troy Mason’s that he had decided to sell the car.
An hour later, Earl Dale was in Lexington, where Troy was living at the time. On December 27, he became the proud owner of the 1957 Corvette.
That’s the year, Earl Dale says, when he became convinced that Santa Claus is real.
Earl Dale is no rookie when it comes to restoring Corvettes, and he estimates that he has probably helped restore 50 of them in his lifetime. After he brought the ’57 home and began to look it over, that’s when he began to notice “some strange looking things.”
And he was up all night doing research on the internet.
Eventually the truth began to materialize. The ‘57 Corvette appeared to be an “Airbox Big Brake,” which was Chevrolet’s first attempt at producing a race car. Only 43 of the special racing editions were built that year.
Earl Dale’s car was built on Sept. 3, 1957 at the Corvette factory in St. Louis, MO, long before the factory was moved to Bowling Green in 1981.
The very last ‘57 Corvette was built on Sept. 6, and it is possible that Earl Dale’s car is the last of the ’57 Airbox editions.
Although the evidence was growing, Earl Dale still wasn’t 100 percent positive that his car was an Airbox, until it was verified by the two men who had restored the first one ever built.
Bill Connell owned that car and restored it with the help of his friend Joel Lauman. They came to Irvine from Ohio in April of 2018 to inspect Earl Dale’s car, and they found that it was indeed one of the Airbox editions.
The car featured an all new fuel-injected 283 engine producing one horsepower per cubic inch, explained Jimmy Miller, Earl Dale’s nephew, also a Corvette enthusiast.
“Following a period of dismal sales, the Corvette was rumored to be eliminated from the Chevrolet line up,” he said.
“…if it hadn’t been for these early cars and the publicity that they and their drivers generated, the Corvette as we know today would be non-existent,” said Miller.
“The cars featured a specially designed airbox that brought in fresh air through the front grille and allowed cool air to be ducted into the engine. That same airbox system fed cool air to the rear brakes, helping to improve braking under extreme racing conditions,” he said.
Special elephant ear-type ducts and fins on the front drums helped direct more air to the front brakes for cooling. The radio and heater were deleted and a special tachometer was mounted to the top of the steering column. The cars were painted black with silver “coves” behind the front fenders, with red interiors. Estimations vary, but 13 to 20 of the Airbox Corvettes are all that are currently accounted for.
But it wasn’t just the mechanics of the car that Earl Dale has found fascinating. Piece by piece, the Flynn family has unraveled much of the car’s long and colorful history. Turns out the scruffy little ’57 Corvette has been raced at Pomona, Calif., at Pike’s Peak, Colorado, in Okinawa, Japan, and in Macau, near Hong Kong, before Troy Mason ever raced it on a drag strip at Clay City, Ky.
The identity of the first owner of Earl Dale’s ‘57 Airbox was determined after second owner Roger Daisley told Earl Dale that he thought the first owner’s last name was Coyle. An internet search turned up information about John Coyle on a tapatalk forum (from 2015), where Kathy Coyle was searching for a magazine featuring her father-in-law John Coyle, who raced at Pike’s Peak in 1964.
From that bit of information, Earl Dale tracked down John Coyle’s obituary and learned that his complete name was John Walter “Jack” Coyle, and he died in February, 2009.
The names in the obituary provided leads that eventually confirmed Jack Coyle was indeed the first owner of Earl Dale’s car. The Flynn family corresponded with Coyle’s children and is very appreciative of the stories and memorabilia the Coyles shared from their father’s era of the car’s history.
They learned that Coyle bought the ’57 Airbox Corvette brand new from a Chevy dealership in Compton, California, just weeks after the car was built.
Coyle raced it as No. 22 on the Pomona Raceway in Pomono, California, between the years of 1959 and 1962. The story goes that he wrecked it after he ran over a hay bale, so he painted the car red with the numbers 220 on it.
In 1964, Coyle raced the car in the 42nd Annual Pike’s Peak Hill Climb. The timed “climb” up Pike’s Peak was on gravel and dirt roads that twisted for almost 12 and a half miles, according to an article in Modern Rod magazine.
“There are 166 turns from start to finish, and not a guard rail on any of them. You have two choices when you “lose it” on this course: run into the side of the mountain, or go over the side into a variable drop of from ten feet to infinity,” said an article in the magazine, titled The Race to the Clouds.
Jack Coyle placed 8th in the sports car division of that race, behind Bobby Unser, who would become a prominent racing personality, one of several in his family.
Coyle’s daughter Peggy has been in touch with Jimmy Miller, and she wrote in an email that they “had the cool dad,” because she and her two brothers got to ride in the front seat of the Corvette and “go speeding onto the LA freeways,” while not wearing a seatbelt.
Peggy said her stepmother Ina still lives in Landers, Ca., and that Ina told her father that he would regret selling the car. Peggy recalls that he sold it for $800 and bought a Thunderbird.
She also wrote in a message to the Flynns, “I hope you repaint the car red, yellow just doesn’t seem right.”
Some of the Coyle family hopes to gather more stories and pictures from Ina and come see the car later this year.
Roger Daisley, who lives in Pullman, Washington, was the second owner of the ’57 Corvette that Earl Dale Flynn acquired in December of 2017. Roger bought the car “sight unseen” in 1966 from Jack Coyle while Roger was stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
Roger remembers being an avid member of a sports car club in Okinawa. The club organized racing events, including auto cross races (cones were set out on the airfield and racers drove around them), hill climbs (the driver started at the bottom of a hill and drove up it as fast as he could while being timed), and the Macau Grand Prix, which was raced in the streets.
He even wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in Okinawa, the only English language paper in the area. Several military bases were located there, so it was a popular paper. His column was simply titled, “It’s about cars.”
A fellow member of the club told Roger all about the Macau Grand Prix. That’s when the idea began to form that it would be fun to have his own little race car and “do something like that.” Then one day he saw an ad in the National Speed Sport News for a Corvette that was for sale in California.
Roger sent a letter and money to his sister who lived in Laguna Beach, California, near where the car was located. He gave her instructions to go look at the car and buy it “if it looks good.”
His sister told him she didn’t know anything about cars; how would she know if it was a good one or not?
“If it starts up and runs, it’s good,” he said. So she bought the car and drove it to her home.
Military personnel were only allowed to ship one car over for their own personal use, and he’d already shipped one, so Roger asked a sergeant he knew if he would bring the car over as his. The sergeant agreed to do so. From Okinawa, the car was shipped to Hong Kong on a freighter, then on a barge to Macau.
Roger said he had never raced in a grand prix, but to do so, he had to qualify with a minimum time. He remembers it as being “about three minutes.” The first time he tried to qualify, he “went about as fast as I could,” but he fell far short of the required minimum time. He didn’t give up though.
“I had to work pretty hard to qualify,” he said, and eventually he did.
The Macau Grand Prix was sponsored by the Sports Car Club of Hong Kong and was a 3.8 mile street course, considered very challenging. Roger’s Corvette was the first to ever race in it. A popular race, people came from all over Southeast Asia, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, to participate.
Macau was a Portuguese possession in the communist Chinese mainland.
“In theory,” Roger said, “We [American soldiers] weren’t really supposed to be there.”
But they dressed in their civilian clothes and went anyway.
Roger described the race as “not as organized” as professional races are today. But he says he wasn’t interested in becoming a professional sports car driver; he was just out to have a good time.
Roger raced the ’57 Corvette in the Macau race two years in a row, in 1967 and 1968. He placed “pretty respectably” in the ’67 race, but in 1968, he had extra gas tanks in the back of the car, and the car spun out during the race, resulting in quite a bit of damage done to it.
In 1969, he was forced to sell the car, because he got a call to report to Vietnam. The little ’57 Corvette slipped from memory. For the next year and a half, his focus was on serving his country-and survival.
Roger was a fighter pilot with the 82nd Fighter Interceptor Squad. He flew F-102s and says that he eventually flew 502 combat missions in southeast Asia. He spent about six months in Vietnam, then for the next year or so, he volunteered for classified clandestine missions, flying unmarked planes.
Fast forward about 50 years. Roger Daisley’s oldest son was unexpectedly contacted in early 2018 by someone in Kentucky named Jerry Flynn (Earl Dale’s brother), asking questions about a car previously owned by his father.
At first, the son thought the whole thing was a scam, but after he relayed the information to his dad, Roger was intrigued and gave approval for his son to share his phone number.
When he learned that the ‘57 Corvette was still in existence and in relatively good shape, he was pleasantly surprised.
“That was exciting news,” said Roger. “I thought it had probably been destroyed in some junk yard.”
That phone call was the beginning of revisiting another era in his life. It was also the beginning of new friendships with the extended Flynn family, who welcomed him warmly to their home in southeastern Kentucky in January of this year.
“I had a great time,” he said.
Since the unexpected phone call, Roger has donated photos, the helmet he wore when he raced the car, and a couple of small trophies from the Macau Grand Prix to Earl Dale, the present owner.
He says he had no idea when he owned the car that it was an Airbox racing edition of the ‘57 Corvette.
Troy Mason is the third owner of the Corvette and the person who owned it longest—from 1969 to 2017. He bought the car from Roger Daisley when they were both serving in the military in Okinawa, Japan.
That Troy was even in Okinawa in the first place was a bit of a twist of fate. He had been bound for Vietnam with 1,300 other shipmates, when 500 of them received orders to get off the ship and set up a depot area in Okinawa. For 18 months, Mason worked there as a mechanic, where he repaired everything from Jeeps to tanks.
“You just never know,” he said.
Roger Daisley says he doesn’t remember much about his first encounter with Troy, but Troy recalls speaking with Roger at the Hill Climb in Okinawa and telling him how much he liked the car.
Roger said, “Well, it’s for sale,” as he explained that he needed to sell the car in ten days, because he had been called for duty in Vietnam.
Troy climbed in the car and started it up, and he liked what he heard. He spoke with his company commander and asked him what he needed to do to get the car back home if he bought it.
The commander gave him a checklist. He told him he’d have to paint it “because it looked too much like a race car.” The car was red with black racing stripes, and it had the number 22 painted on the sides.
The only color paint available was yellow, the same that was commonly used on taxi-cabs, so when the Corvette was shipped back to the United States, it was bright yellow.
The car had to be made street ready. It didn’t have parking lights or turn signals, so those had to be installed. Once all the requirements were met, the car was shipped to Norfolk, Virginia. It arrived ahead of Troy, but the next time he was home on leave, he flew to Norfolk and drove the car home to Estill County.
“It run good,” he said.
After Troy was discharged from the service, he settled back into life in Kentucky. He and his wife Fay now live in Nicholasville, but in the early years of their marriage, they lived on Crooked Creek.
Troy drag-raced the Corvette a few times in Clay City and can’t say for sure if he raced it anywhere else, because he had “three or four other cars” that he also raced on occasion.
“We was wild outfits,” he said with a laugh.
The motor of the Corvette blew up at the drag strip, so he parked it in a barn at Crooked Creek, always intending to fix it up someday.
Eventually, Troy Mason’s half-brother built a garage nearby, and Troy kept the car there until he moved to Lexington a few years ago.
After Troy retired from trucking in 2008, he would tinker with the car every now and then, but he began to have problems with diabetes, and the time came when he could no longer get under the car to work on it.
He never forgot about Earl Dale Flynn offering to buy the car all those years ago.
After he finally made the decision to sell the car in 2017, he had a mutual acquaintance reach out to Flynn on Facebook.
Like Roger Daisley, Troy says he had no idea his ‘57 Corvette was a rare “Airbox” edition.
Naturally, he has some regret that he didn’t find out what a rare car he had before he sold it, but on the other hand, he’s gained a lot from the experience. He’s made “a lot of good friends,” and he’s had fun reliving some of his glory days.
Earl Dale has promised him visitation rights and told him to come up “any time you want to.” He calls Troy frequently to keep him posted on any new historical details they’ve learned.
“You can’t beat that,” said Troy.
Troy always wondered what happened to the fighter pilot who had to leave his car behind, after he received orders to head to Vietnam. He knew it was a possibility that he’d been shot down somewhere and hadn’t made it out alive.
When Earl Dale informed him that Roger Daisley was alive and well, Troy was thrilled.
“I was so glad to hear that he had made it and that he was still in good shape,” he said.
And in January of this year, after nearly 50 years, Daisley and Troy got to meet again, as three of the car’s four owners gathered for a small reunion, where they posed for pictures, filled each other in on the car’s history, and shared memories. Lots and lots of memories.
While Earl Dale Flynn has spent the past year digging up details associated with his Corvette, he hasn’t yet done a lot of work to the car, other than rebuild the engine. But he’s not the only one who’s been digging up stories. His car has been featured in a book written in 2018 by Kenneth W. Kayser, who visited Earl Dale from Florida last June and brought 15 copies of the book to sign for interested parties. Kayser is the author of The History of Zora’s Ramjet Fuel Injection.
The book only featured the history of the car as it relates to Roger Daisley and Troy Mason, the second and third owners, so Kayser plans to write another book about the first Airbox Corvette and Earl Dale’s car, which was probably the last Airbox built. He’ll be adding information gathered since the last book was published.
This year, Earl Dale plans to focus on finding parts for the car. He says he can either restore it to “like new,” which would cost a lot more, or restore it like it was when it was raced in Hong Kong. Either way, replacement parts have to be carefully verified or the value of the car will be diminished. And they are very expensive.
Earl Dale estimates it will take two years to fully restore the car, which will significantly increase the value of an already valuable car.
There’s an incredible amount of interest in it, warts and all. Earl Dale has been invited to bring the car “as is” to national Corvette shows, and he’s thinking he just might attend one in Carlisle, Pa.
Buying the special edition ‘57 Corvette and uncovering its colorful history has been a life-changing experience for Earl Dale Flynn.
“I’ve never seen him excited about anything like he is with this car,” said nephew Jimmy Miller.
It’s also brought a lot of excitement into his children’s lives—Greg, Denise and Jason—as well as other family members who are sports car enthusiasts and have helped him with his research.
Jason “has taken a big interest,” Earl Dale says, and will be helping his dad work on the car and paint it in the future.
In the meantime, Earl Dale and his family will continue piecing together the story of a car he’d once given up on owning.
“I’ve enjoyed this more than anything,” he said.