Saturday, January 24, 2015

Claymobile: Stolen Custom 1965 Corvair Corsa linked to Muhammad Ali, the whole story

Claymobile in 2008, in a state of disrepair, and at a 1977 Eastwood Mall car show with Claymobile in purple metallic paint.

The Claymobile almost got me arrested. I had no idea that the mysterious, custom car, with a rumored, legendary ownership, would eventually be stolen. The Claymobile story fueled my journey from junk yards to Junkyard Life and is the reason I continue to document automotive history, one junkyard dream at a time.
  Finally, the story comes home.

The Claymobile facts
  The Claymobile, previously owned by retired pilot and Corvair enthusiast, Orville Lippert, is a highly-customized 1965 Corvair Corsa convertible. The car is reportedly linked to boxing great Muhammad Ali (previously known as Cassius Clay).
  Legend has it that GM presented Cassius Clay with the modified Corvair in 1964. Hence the name “Clay”-mobile. Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964. Skeptics are quick to note that the raised white lettering on the tires reads “CLAYMOBILE CORVAIR 1965,” and that Ali would not have accepted the Corvair with his “slave name” attached.  
  The Claymobile was stolen six months after I “uncovered” the custom Corvair and published a story about it online. I’m still searching for the truth and the Claymobile.


Lead on Mystery Car
9:04 a.m. – December 6, 2008

  “You’ve never seen a car like this!”
  My brother-from-another-mother, Michael Reeder, had been feeding me a tale about acres of Corvairs surrounding a mystery machine in a field. He was convinced that one of the cars had to be a George Barris custom hot rod.
  “Looks like a home-built ‘Speed Racer’ car.”
  I was determined to lay eyes on the mystery car myself on a blustery, cold Saturday in December 2008. Three children tucked into the backseat of my battered, silver, Mazda 626. Reeder and I drove toward an overgrown triangle of land in Cullman County, Alabama. Armed with a camera and a box of Pop Tarts, we were ready for anything.
  “Are we there, yet?”


Legend has it that the car was presented to Muhammad Ali when new.
A mysterious, custom car, seemingly abandoned. The Claymobile!


First look: The Claymobile
10:13 a.m. – December 6, 2008

  “What the heck?”
  The Bermuda Triangle of oddball cars sits along a 55 MPH stretch of two-lane highway. A gray and black 1965 Fitch “Sprint” Corvair was planted a few feet from the road and served as our landmark. The location was desolate and surrounded only by farmland and swift traffic along the land bordering the highway.
  Hesitantly, our daddy daycare brood toured the abandoned car collection disguised as a junk yard. A line of four Corvair wagons, fighting a losing battle with the unrelenting hedgerow, caught our attention first. Stepping gently through the briar-laden property, with kids in tow, Reeder and I eye-balled dozens of complete, restorable cars. Almost all were mid-to-late 1960s-era. Mostly Corvairs. They were scattered among several vandalized and heavily damaged buildings, including a cinder block garage and single-wide mobile home.
  Cast-off parts, including doors, hoods and wheels, were piled, strewn and stacked in weeds. Bags of trash and pockets of decay resembling a garbage dump and war zone were sprinkled around the property for good measure.
Centered among the chaos sat the CLAYMOBILE!

The car was complete except for the paint being stripped away in preparation for a restoration.
Check out the smooth curve on the top edge of the frameless windshield and dramatic swoop along the top edge of the Claymobile’s eight-inch-thick doors.


Walk-around
10:24 a.m. – December 6, 2008

  An open air cockpit, tail fins and long snout? Really, I had never seen anything like it. Long and low with an exaggerated set of tail fins and enormous diamond-shaped exhaust ports. Movie set rocket ships of the late 1950s had nothing on this car.
  A closer look revealed a rear-mounted, flat-six, multi-carb Corvair engine and a Corsa emblem on the glove box. All clues to Corvair origins. Raised, white letter tires proudly displayed “CLAYMOBILE CORVAIR 1965” around the vintage ET II wheels.
  Was this a home-built tribute to the “Speed Racer” car of cartoon fame? Could it really be a George Barris custom hot rod? Why was it sitting in a field next to a destroyed, single-wide trailer?
  It was time to ask the nearest neighbor about the place.

The 1965 Corvair Claymobile was photographed with three original ET II Wheels and custom Claymobile lettering on the raised white letter tires.
Custom, raised-white-letter tires tell the story, “ Claymobile Corvair 1965,” and dig those ET II mag wheels!


Knock-knock!
  “Hi! You don’t know me but I’ve got some questions about that land with all the old Corvairs.”
  Initially, the neighboring property owner was reluctant to divulge any details. But the story was just too good to keep secret.
  I learned that Orville Lippert, the owner of the land and all the Corvairs, had passed in 1989. Orville, originally from Michigan, was an airplane mechanic, inspector and pilot. He built his own airplane, the Lippert-Fokker, and established Lippert’s field, a landing strip in Michigan. Orville survived a 1969 airplane crash while practicing touch-and-go landing in his WWI German fighter plane. He moved from Michigan to Florida, then decided to retire and move to  property in Alabama, where he maintained a large collection of Corvairs.
  According to a neighbor, Eric, Orville’s son, had taken up residence on the property but struggled to maintain the place, because he was working in another town. Eventually, Eric moved away and seldom checked on his dad’s old place. Other alleged details from the neighbor, including arrests, drug busts, and a meth lab explosion, seemed plausible considering the condition of the property.

 
Love it or hate it, the Claymobile challenged you to look find a wilder design on any custom car.
Giant tail fins and large exhaust ports highlight the Claymobile’s rocketship styling.


Retracing my steps, the first Claymobile story
4:00 a.m. – December 9, 2008

  My automotive journalism career, if you can call it that, began in March of 2008. I co-authored a blog on al.com with two like-minded, fellow, newspaper journalists, Chris Tutor and Bill Kimber. We covered the local automotive scene for fun, receiving little recognition for our unpaid pursuits. My first story was about exploring junkyards. I was hooked.
  I posted the first Claymobile story three days after I saw it in that field. It was 4 a.m. and I was anxious to find out more about the mystery car.


Recognition
2 p.m. – December 9, 2008

  A few hours after the Claymobile story hit the web, Hemmings Motor News posted their own story, complete with my photos and details about the Claymobile. My colleague, Chris Tutor, had sent them word of our Claymobile scoop. The Hemmings story garnered immediate reaction. I watched as the Claymobile story and images spread to automotive websites and forums across the globe. I soon added a brief video, walking viewers around the Claymobile, in response to a comment posted on the Hemmings site.
  A local Corvair club, Vulcan Corvair Enthusiasts, in Birmingham, Alabama reported that the Claymobile was originally painted yellow. A photo from a late 1970s car show at Eastwood Mall shows that the Claymobile was painted purple by 1977. 
  Many theories circulated, none confirmed. Joji Barris, George Barris’s daughter, dispelled the myth that the Claymobile was a Barris creation. “No recollection,” she said.
  Ali Center, the Muhammad Ali museum in Louisville, also had no knowledge of any Claymobile connections to Ali.
  A rumor that the Claymobile appeared in Playboy magazine remains unfounded.
  I did learn that original content, especially automotive unicorns like the Claymobile, will be devoured by the web before you can blink.


The Claymobile was built around and on a 1965 Corvair Corsa. Many parts including the 6-pod gauges were found intact on the Claymobile.
The Claymobile retained many 1965 Corvair Corsa-specific parts, like the Corsa instrument cluster.

Stolen
10:45 a.m. – June 28, 2009

  “I need to talk to you, now!”
The Claymobile was stolen six months after I unveiled it to the world wide web.
Eric Lippert, the understandably shaken owner of the Claymobile, reached out to me in a desperate attempt to locate his one-of-a-kind custom Corvair.
  “I don’t have any paperwork or VIN information on the car,” Lippert said. “Did you take a photo of the VIN?”
  Unfortunately, I did not.
  The car was Eric’s family treasure. He inherited the car from his father, Orville Lippert, in 1989, and had plans of restoring the car to its former glory. He planned to sell the car, for what he hoped would be a huge profit, to fund his daughter's education and his own retirement.
  Lippert, now living in a distant city, rarely visited the Claymobile property. As soon as the Claymobile was discovered missing, Lippert notified the sheriff’s office and reported the theft. The authorities were unable to offer assistance without photos, paperwork or VIN information.

Long hood, low slung and rear engine gave the Claymobile balance to handle twisting roads.
I gave the car's shark nose front end a firm tap. It responded with the dull thud of lead or Bondo. It must have been molded solid.

Blame game
  Lippert looked to the web for help. He Googled “Claymobile,” and Boom! my photos appeared.
  Mystery solved.
  Lippert sought my help –– after deciding not to press charges against me for trespassing.
  I received a phone call from the sheriff’s office and my employer’s legal team were involved. Luckily, I kept my job. My boss allowed me to continue posting content, that did not involve the police or lawyers, to al.com.


2nd Story Plea
11:00 p.m. – June 28, 2009

  I wanted to help Lippert find his Claymobile. The car was more than the sum of Corvair parts molded into a custom hot rod. It represented the family’s dreams. Lippert, convinced that the Claymobile once belonged to Ali, planned to complete the car’s restoration in hopes that it would garner the family a windfall. The same day I found out about the theft, I posted a new story alerting readers of the news. It included Lippert’s contact information.


Piles of leaves and sticks landed in the interior of the Claymobile’s the open air cockpit during its years parked outdoors.
The Claymobile was stolen from an overgrown triangle of land in Alabama where it had been stashed for many years, uncovered.

5+ year Claymobile update
  Still missing. Lippert has no leads on the Claymobile.
  “Maybe it will show up one day?,” Lippert said. “If they didn’t sink it in a lake.”
More vehicles went missing from his Cullman property after the Claymobile vanished.
  Lippert had enough.
  “I got tired of everyone stealing everything,” said Lippert.
Eric decided to scrap the remaining cars and sold the land. His father’s Corvair collection is no more.
  The Claymobile, and the Cassius Clay connection, a distant memory.


What did I learn?
  The story beneath the rust has value. Original content is king and everybody wanted a piece of the Claymobile for their website. Before I brought this story to light, few had ever seen the car or knew details about the mystery surrounding its existence.
  The photos I took and excerpts from my stories can be found on blogs and forums across the web. The mystery of Muhammad Ali and the Claymobile created quite a stir and led me to tell my tales on Junkyard Life.
  I continue to dig for dream cars on the cheap and will tell the stories of the people who held the keys.


Jody Potter
— Junkyard Life


The Claymobile’s fins and exhaust outlets mimic the rocket age of design. I suspect the large exhausts were designed with the Corvair’s rear engine in mind.
Fins from the 1950s and imaginative design helped to make the Claymobile a one-of-a-kind custom that will never be recreated.


A sporty stick shift in a custom convertible was the hot ticket in the 1960s.
Small pillars support the windshield. High-backed bucket seats. Seat belts? No.

Distinctive styling points the Claymobile as a George Barris creation. Not so.
What was a custom Corvair built for Cassius Clay doing in a field?

A wood, three-spoked steering wheel, full compliment of analog gauges and bucket seats complete the Claymobile’s interior.
Power locks or power window switch on the door panel of the neglected interior?

Considered a $500,000 car by the owners, the Claymobile was stolen from an unfenced field.
Imagine rowing through the gears in the open cockpit. Did the legendary Muhammad Ali once hold the Claymobile’s steering wheel?

The Claymobile’s engine had been stripped of several parts. I spotted only a 2 carburetor set-up, unusual if this was built on a Corsa chasis.
Multi-carb, rear-mounted flat six Corvair engine powered the Claymobile.


An optional 180-hp turbocharged, 164-cu. inch engine was available on the Corvair Corsa.
A TV was installed in the glovebox of the heavily customized Claymobile when the car was first completed. Note the Corsa emblem.


The Claymobile was originally painted Yellow but underwent a color change in the 1970 to a bright purple.
The headlight trim and mouth-like grill were created in the use-what-you-have school of design. Notice the purple paint under layers of primer?

Headrest padded occupants heads from hitting the raised cove behind occupants.
The Claymobile’s seats included headrests.
The white lettering on the Silvertown tires looks deceivingly like a factory built tire.
Vintage ET II mag wheels were wrapped with Silvertown tires lettered with "Claymobile Corvair 1965."

The ad mentioned the Claymobile available fro purchase in South Carolina.
The Claymobile was advertised in Hemmings in the late-1970s.

The Clymobile was purple in 1977 in this Vulcan Corvair Club photo.
Claymobile in 1977 at an Eastwood Mall Corvair show – Birmingham, Alabama.

Decades of neglect sealed the fate of the Claymobile. The prized car with a rumored legendary pedigree was stolen and hasn't been found.
Surprised at how good the Claymobile looks in 1977? What a difference 30 years can make when parked out in the elements.


Send Claymobile information, photos, money, junkyard tips and stories to Junkyard Life!
Email junkyardbull@gmail.com