vh1-corvette-giveaway

That Time When VH-1 Gave Away Every Corvette!

What do you do when you’re the Number Two music video station in the late 1980s, and there are only two contenders to begin with? How do you bump your ratings through the roof? You start the world’s first successful reality TV show…!
the-real-world
No. Wait. That was the other channel…

You create a call-in giveaway contest on a scale that has never been duplicated…! That’s what you do.

VH-1 came to our televisions on the heels of mega-hit channel MTV more than 35 years ago on New Year’s Day 1985 under the Viacom Media umbrella. The two stations battled back and forth for viewership across several decades before both channels eventually dropped music videos from their lineup and started showing reality shows and reruns of Saved by the Bell.
saved-by-the-bell
But in the mid-1980s, viewership of Top 40 music videos is what brought in the advertisers, and advertisers paid the bills. Even though MTV and VH-1 were owned by the same company, VH-1 was targeted toward a more mature audience, and MTV was relegated to the pop and “bubble-gum pop” crowd.

So, how do you draw in a more-sophisticated audience with a more-mature taste? You give them a chance to win a Corvette.

And how do you blow that idea out of the water, and turn it up to 11…? You offer one lucky winner a Corvette from every year of production.
corvette-emblem
And that’s exactly what VH-1’s marketing guru Jim Cahill did. He used almost $1 million of Viacom’s bankroll to track down and purchase one example from all of the 36 years that a Corvette sports car had been made – from the first one in 1953, to the latest model available during the contest – 1988.

[Via] Two By Two 2
Not all the cars were what you’d consider “cherry.” Most were considered “drivers” and not all were completely “collectable.”

Of the 36 models Cahill collected, 14 were convertibles, and only 11 had manual transmissions. Cahill later told an automotive magazine reporter that he drove each of the 36 cars home – one a night for 36 nights – and some of them were “nightmarishly bad.”

But, as we retro collectors sometimes say, “They existed,” and the contest to determine one sole winner was underway.

To enter, a person had to call a 900 number at a charge of $2 per entry. For each call, VH-1 pocketed $1.49.

More than 190,000 people called the number on the first day with more than 1.3 million folks registering altogether. I’ll save you from doing the math. In the first two weeks of the promotion, VH-1 almost doubled their $1 million investment.

The winner of the contest didn’t have to try very hard. Dennis Amadeo only made one call to the contest, and the New York carpenter became the poster-boy of every teen male in the country.

Amadeo flew out to California to take ownership of all his sports cars, and when presented with all the keys by ex-Beach Boy Mike Love, the bag weighed five pounds.

[Via] Jim Cahill
And that’s the end of the story, right? Amado kept all the cars and still has a garage full of vintage and highly-collectable sports cars in his Long Island garage?

Of course not. And that’s where the story takes a drastic left-turn into Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and things get crazy.

Shortly after taking possession of the Corvettes, Amadeo sold them all to a psychedelic artist of the 1960s, Peter Max. The sale price was $250,000 in cash, $250,000 in artwork and a portion of the proceeds should the cars be sold again.
peter-max
Max had a vision to turn all 36 Corvettes into a work of colorful art, but life events got in the way of beginning the project, and the cars were stored in the basement of a Brooklyn apartment building.
1954-corvette
And time took its toll on the Corvettes. None of the cars were prepped for long-term storage, and soon became non-functional.
rotting-away
In 2005, a group of Corvette enthusiasts searched for the cars and found them, and lost them again after Max refused to listen to their pleas to let the cars be saved and restored.
some-of-the-cars
Now, more than 28 years after the cars were given away, Max wanted to purchase additional cars to use for his “project,” but eventually agreed to sell the lot to a family who intend to restore and sell the cars. Many have already been brought back beyond their condition when given away in 1988.
very-dusty-ride

Subscribe to the Retroist Newsletter

* indicates required