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The C3 Stingray and me

By Dave Poppenga

Having grown up on a farm south of Lennox, South Dakota, I worked with my dad, Sam Poppenga, and my older brother, Sandy Poppenga, on tractors, trucks, and vintage cars. So, I was accustomed to turning a wrench to tweak or fix them, and as a result I gained a passion for vintage cars.

This passion started early on in my teen years, mostly because I was influenced by my older brother, Sandy, who owned two corvettes – a 1957 and a 1963 split-window. I had friends who were also influential to me as they were driving 1960s Corvettes while I was driving either my 1957 pea-green Chevy Bel Air or 1964 butternut yellow Chevy Impala.

In the early 1970s, I began searching for a Corvette. I asked my dad for financial help if I found the right one. He bought into that plea when I told him I found a 1969 Corvette Roadster advertised in the Argus Leader. After making contact with the seller, Dad and I drove to Sioux Falls to Burnside and West 6th Street. There it was, shining like a silver bullet amongst the other vehicles parked around it; a ragtop convertible with a big block engine, factory side exhaust, and a 4-speed transmission.

That September day in 1973, I purchased that cortez-silver 1969 Corvette C3 Stingray Roadster. While driving the “Silver Bullet” back to the farm, I was pinching myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream.

In my first winter season with this car, I thought the interior heating system did not keep up with my idea of being cozy and warm in below freezing temps. Of course, the ragtop had a lot to do with the inefficient heating. The so-called hourglass shape of this ’69 ‘vette didn’t allow much room for a big guy, with only a few more inches of cockpit space than a Cessna 150 airplane. So, it wasn’t conducive for a driver or passenger to wear a heavy-duty thick winter coat.

Driving a car like this on snow or ice with standard tread tires is not recommended. Attempts to let the clutch out gently without spinning the tires or the rear end sliding left and right was a trick in itself. Stopping the car on icy roads also had its issues. Therefore, midwinter, I decided to park the car in storage to avoid the possibility of a heartbreaking crash with my recent purchase.

After the car was pulled out of storage, I was wondering what 390 horsepower, 427 cu. in. engine would do for top speed. Doesn’t everybody think about that? Thus, on a warm summer night in July 1974, on the way home to the farm, trying to get home before the rooster crowed, I decided it was time. Before me were three good miles of familiar pavement on Highway 17 just north of Highway 18, and that was the stretch of road to determine the car’s potential.

It didn’t take long to reach 100 mph. I noticed the steering of the car was similar to what I experienced with my dad’s International Farmall 460 tractor with a heavy 4-row-field cultivator mounted on the back and the feel of the tractor bouncing down the road going to the cornfield. In other words, I was losing steering because the front end was getting light and the rear wheels were basically keeping the car straight. The last time I looked through the steering wheel at the speedometer, the needle was on 155 mph! As I backed off the gas pedal, I noticed sparkler-like fire reflecting in my door mirror. Turns out I had just cleaned out the carbon buildup in the mufflers from this high speed. I’m not sure if I ever told Dad or Mom about that wild ride (God bless their souls).

At one time, I replaced the wheels and engine hood giving the car a new cosmetic look, but that was short-lived. Soon thereafter, I put the original parts back on the “Silver Bullet.” Howard Goehring, who owned Howard’s Corvettes located at the Tea exit off I-29 (business is now in Mesa, Arizona) found a hardtop, and he painted it by color matching the car. Howard also supplied me with parts and information on my ‘69 Corvette. In 1994, an engine overhaul was necessary. That project, which required many new engine parts, was completed without sparing any greenbacks. The L36 block was bored .030 over with all new components in the short block, including an Ultradyne Inc. roller camshaft and Crower roller lifters. The stock heads were fitted with all new components including Crower roller rocker arms and a quadrajet carburetor that sits on top of a stock aluminum intake manifold. Mallory Unilite distributor provides the spark, and Flowmaster performance headers move the exhaust to the stock side exhaust mufflers. The M22 transmission was rebuilt and the 3.08 rear gear had a general maintenance performed to it. When completed, the power of the “Silver Bullet” was increased from stock rated 390hp to 475hp. Many other mechanical items have been replaced due to the age of the car and everyday wear and tear.

This 1969 Corvette C3 Roadster with a gunmetal interior seems to be a bit of a rarity without air conditioning, power brakes, power steering, or any other power options. However, it is a great design that will be forever looked upon as one of the great car classics.

I discovered a piece of history on the “Silver Bullet” that was hidden in the dash pocket – a 1972 South Dakota Vehicle Registration of this car in the name of Mikes Motors, which was once was located on South Cliff Avenue in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Note to owners – save the registration of your vehicles!

Forty-three years later, I still own the “Silver Bullet” – 1969 Corvette Stingray C3 Roadster. In the early 1990s I also owned a 1985 Corvette C4 for a few years, but sold that one as I knew I wanted to hang onto the old ’69, which believe it or not, at one time was stored in a hog house for several years in the 1980s. No warm garage for the “Silver Bullet” back then. Regardless, the car still has the original paint, exclusive of a few areas where it was essential to touch it up, such as the radio antenna mount that was gnawed at by a horse that ruined the paint surrounding the antenna mount screw. (I don’t have that horse anymore!)  Because I continue to use original replacement parts when possible, the car remains near stock condition, closely replicating the 1969 factory appearance.

I’ve accumulated many memories with the “Silver Bullet” – enough to at least write a paperback book. I owe many thanks to my dad, Sam, and mother, Fran, for saying yes to me forty-three years ago back in 1973. It allowed me to purchase the 1969 Corvette Stingray C3 Roadster.

Approaching forty-four years with owning this car, I still think about the ’64 butternut yellow Chevy Impala, but it doesn’t compare to the ’69 “Silver Bullet.”

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