Museum in Summerville showcases love for cars, 1950s America

Greg Wyatt first fell in love with Corvettes when he rode his bike to Summerville’s Chevrolet dealership and peered through the front windows.

Over the decades, that building was closed and fell into disrepair. But now, fully restored, the building showcases Wyatt’s multi-million dollar classic car collection and tribute to 1950s American culture.

The 1950s was a golden age of the United States, Wyatt said. It’s the best era for cars, too, he said.

“Really, look at the cars, look how they look versus today,” Wyatt said, standing in a recreated 1950s diner connected to the showroom floor. “You can’t tell what kind of car it is going down the road. But in the ‘50s, oh yeah, that was a work of art.”

Credit: Robin Rudd

Credit: Robin Rudd

Through his vintage Corvettes website and the telephone, Wyatt said he sells about 50 cars annually. Corvettes from the 1950s are probably the most collectible because fewer were built, though he said he’s still amazed by the technology and performance of the new Corvettes.

Wyatt said he is in his 43rd year of buying and selling cars. When he started in 1980, he said ‘58, ‘59 and ‘61 Corvettes could be bought for around $2,000 -- now they sell for $130,000 to $150,000.

Rarest in his collection are the two final 1955 Corvettes off the assembly line of the 700 made that year, Wyatt said. Both are gold with green accents, he said, and worth about $1 million dollars a piece.

“There’s so many of these cars in collections that people wouldn’t sell for nothing,” Wyatt said. “They like the cars, and, of course, that’s what drives the price up as well.”

Credit: Robin Rudd

Credit: Robin Rudd

Wyatt said he sells and ships cars all over the country and Europe, based on the car’s reputation and photographs on his website.

Only one car on the museum floor isn’t for sale: a 1934 Ford hot rod that Dee Pitts, Wyatt’s girlfriend, calls her Barbie car. The car has a pink and white custom paint job, with special touches like a rhinestone steering wheel and Dee’s name in cursive on the driver’s side door.

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Along with cars, Wyatt has 1950s-era gas pumps and gas station-related memorabilia on the showroom floor, classic scooters, motorcycles and even an open-cockpit Heath Parasol airplane from 1925. When he needed a kitchenette, Wyatt re-created a 1950s diner with plenty of chrome, turquoise and a life-sized statue of Elvis Presley playing guitar on a stage.

Wyatt said he has a few more modern cars, but everyone -- including children -- are immediately attracted to the early model Corvettes.

Credit: Robin Rudd

Credit: Robin Rudd

Named after a small maneuverable warship, the first Corvette was manufactured in the early 1950s. Originally manufactured in Detroit and St. Louis, the Corvette has been produced in Bowling Green, Kentucky, since 1981. Bowling Green is also home to the National Corvette Museum.

“Chevrolet made the first (Corvette) in ‘53, which looked just like these cars,” he said, gesturing to some of the perfectly-maintained early models. In 1955, Chevrolet made just 700 of the cars because the company thought they were not selling well.

All the ‘55s sold out, and because of that, Wyatt said Chevrolet started back up in ‘56 by changing the car’s body, beefing up the engine and adding features like roll-up windows instead of leaky detachable plastic windows.

“When they did that, it took off,” Wyatt said. “They kept making ‘em, and still make ‘em today.”

Credit: Robin Rudd

Credit: Robin Rudd

Corvettes from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s are the most collectible, but he said even Corvettes from the ‘80s are still good cars for the money. The newer Corvettes look as good as and perform competitively with European brands such as Lamborghini and Ferrari, Wyatt said.

Wyatt doesn’t talk about himself much, Pitts said, so it’s her job to detail his hard work restoring the cars and the building where the museum is located.

“This building was the worst dilapidated (building) you can ever imagine,” she said. It took two-plus years to reconstruct the building, Pitts said in an interview. Vintage metal tiles were found for the ceiling, she said, in an attempt to keep the original style of the 1952 building.

It seems like the city of Summerville is also working on a restoration effort, the couple said, returning to its classic, small town American downtown to its original glory.

Wyatt said downtown is looking much better lately.

“They’ve (Summerville city leadership) actually kind of embraced this vintage look,” Pitts said. Old vintage lights have been added downtown, she said, giving it “a feeling of cool” at night.

A classic neon sign now graces the Tooga Theater downtown, too, and she added that there have been other storefront rehabilitation efforts in downtown Summerville. Vintage Corvettes also has a neon sign, similar to the one that advertised the Chevrolet dealership in its heyday.

Pitts said she and Wyatt hope the Corvette museum will become a landmark for Summerville, a town of 4,435 residents, according to the 2020 U.S. census. At the grand opening a few months ago, about 500 people toured the museum. Admission was free, as a way to share their collection with the community, she said.

Located at 10601 Commerce St. in Summerville, the museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $20 per person, Wyatt said.

Wyatt wryly called his drive to collect memorabilia a sickness, but Pitts said it’s all a great way for people to see items along with the cars from a classic era that otherwise they could only read about in history books.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.


Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press

Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press

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