Astronaut's Corvette, civil rights pioneers' Volkswagen added to National Register of Historic Vehicles

Daniel Strohl Jul 31 2019

Photos courtesy Historic Vehicle Association, except where noted.

Fifty years ago, while Alan Bean watched his fellow astronauts walk on the moon knowing that he too would soon leave footprints there, Esau and Janie Jenkins traveled South Carolina empowering black people and encouraging them to vote. Bean’s 1969 Corvette and the Jenkinses’ 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 couldn’t appear any less similar, but both represented an era of struggle and ascension in America, and both will now join the National Historic Vehicle Register.

Starting in the late Forties, the Jenkinses turned to transportation as a way to organize the local black population in and around Charleston, South Carolina. While they’d started the Progressive Club as a community hub incorporating a grocery store, post office, gas station, and day care (and hosted Martin Luther King Jr. at one of their workshops), children still needed to get to school and adults still needed to get to work, so they began busing blacks on their own, using vehicles they purchased from their farming proceeds.

They soon realized that they could use the time transporting the adults from Johns Island to downtown Charleston to educate their passengers on the U.S. Constitution and to teach them what they needed to know to pass literacy tests, which remained legal in federal elections until 1970. As the Jenkinses traveled the area, the two-tone Type 2 Deluxe Station Wagon became widely known, in part due to the “Love Is Progress; Hate Is Expensive” slogan they painted on the back panel of it. Their efforts, according to the Preservation Society of Charleston, “played a critical role in building the base for the Civil Rights Movement.”

 

The Jenkinses held on to the Volkswagen even after retiring it from service, but told their children they didn’t wish to see it restored. Though the van has started to rust through in areas and the lettering on the side of the bus has faded, the back panel remained bright and legible, leading the Jenkins family – with the help of the Preservation Society of Charleston – to donate that panel to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in June 2014.

The rest of the bus – flat tires and busted-out headlamps – has also made its way to Washington, D.C., as part of the Historic Vehicle Association’s digitization and documentation efforts prior to including the bus on the register. Of the two dozen or so vehicles already on the register, the Type 2 is the first civil rights-related vehicle the HVA has recognized.

Alan Bean (right) in September 1969. Photo by Ralph Morse, courtesy General Motors.

Alan Bean (right) in September 1969. Photo by Ralph Morse, courtesy General Motors.

Recruited for NASA’s astronaut program in 1963, Bean piloted the Apollo 12 Lunar Module to land on the moon in November 1969 and later commanded Skylab 3 for 59 days in 1973. He’s perhaps best known among auto enthusiasts, however, for the 1969 Corvette he briefly leased from Chevrolet.

To capitalize on the popularity of the space program, former Indy 500 winner and Florida-based Chevrolet dealer Jim Rathmann convinced Chevrolet to allow him to lease Corvettes from his dealership to astronauts for $1 per year. Bean  – along with his Apollo 12 crewmates Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon – took Rathmann up on his offer and all three got matching Riverside Gold 390hp 427 four-speed Stingrays customized with black “wings” covering the sail panels and the upper portions of the doors and quarter panels.

“We had ’em all painted this color so that we’d be identified as a crew,” Bean told James May. “When we’d go to work, we’d park ’em side by side; they looked great.”

The widely circulated LIFE magazine photo of the trio of astronauts atop their matching Corvettes ended up attracting the attention of NASA administrators, who saw it as a product endorsement and thus against the rules at NASA. Regardless, Rathmann’s leasing program continued for another couple of years.

Bean’s Corvette, the last remaining Apollo 12 Stingray and the one with “LMP” monogrammed in the red/white/blue fender badge, has remained with its current owner, Danny Reed, for the last 48 years and covered just 35,000 miles, according to the HVA. In Reed’s time owning the Corvette, it has taken the National Corvette Restorers Society’s Top Flight, Duntov, and American Heritage awards.

As part of their induction into the National Historic Vehicle Register, the Corvette and the Type 2 will each spend some time in the HVA’s display case on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The former will go on display September 12-19 while the latter will go on display September 20-26.

Selection to the register also involves a complete documentation of the vehicle, including a fully referenced narrative of the vehicle’s provenance and full photography, which will then be placed in the Library of Congress. No restrictions are placed on subsequent use or sale of the vehicle.

For more information on the National Historic Vehicle Register, visit HistoricVehicle.org.

SOURCE: HEMMINGS

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