You be ‘The Judge’: Phil Wheeler Flexes Muscle

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 07/2015
  • posted in: Great Garages

Phil Wheeler’s brother got his “goat” early on in life. And then Phil got a lot of them.

“My love for muscle cars started in 1966 when James bought a one-year-old 1965 GTO,” says Phil, who is the manager of the maintenance, restoration and preservation department at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Across the road from the Bowling Green Corvette plant, that’s the venue rebuilding from the karst sinkhole that ate eight prized Corvettes, five of which were not reparable, Feb 12, 2014. The new Skydome opens, in fact, this month at the museum. Phil’s position there entails ensuring its 100 vehicles are kept in running condition and expertly maintained.

“I always wanted ‘that’ car and vowed one day to have one like it,” he says. In the ‘60s, the great Pontiac muscle cars were affectionately referred to by ogling youngsters as “goats.”

“I will always remember the sound of the tri-power kicking in under acceleration. It was just so fast. I would marvel at the ability of an engine to take a 3,500-pound mass of weight and propel it forward so quickly using only the traction of two (sometimes only one) tires. It became clear to me that it was far more fun when the engine power exceeded the traction, and ‘burnouts’ occurred!”

GTO-less, Phil still had a good ride. He was driving a burgundy ‘62 Corvair with 110 horses that he had bought for $400, but his vision always was to own a car similar to his brother’s ‘65 goat, with the M22 4-speed, tri-power and 3:73 rear.

“It was so very fast. As a mechanic, I know that you can have two identical engines but one will run better than the other, don’t know why, it just does. Well, this was one of the ones that everything was right on. The tri-power carbs ran perfectly with no ‘bogging,’ the transmission had a tight shifter and never locked up, always stayed in the gear you put it in, and the engine just always ran great without any problems.”

Marriage and Married to Cars

When Phil was 18, he married Debbie, his best friend who shared his passion for cars and motorcycles.

“We remained inseparable for the next 46 years, going to every car show and swap meet and visiting museums whenever possible throughout our lifetime, until her death June 26, 2014, losing the battle with cancer.”

Together, they restored 25-plus cars and 50 motorcycles. These are in a 15,000-square-foot showroom behind their home. The museum includes the traditional black-and-white checkerboard tile with nostalgic café, a diner, a rack housing 14 tri-power carb sets, another rack of 1,000-plus 8-track tapes and much other memorabilia from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“We would go in there, often in the evening, and sit in our café, have a cup of coffee and just enjoy the beauty of the cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he recalls.

“The collection of cars is representative of my early years that helped define who I am,” he says.

Today, the collection comprises 16 GTOs, seven 442s, three Chevelles, three 409-cid Impalas, several Mopars, a record-holder SS/A Olds W-30, a 1964 Corvair Spyder, an original 1966 Renault Dauphine with only 27,000 miles, a 1967 Opel Kadett Rally and a 1969 Honda 600 coupe.

Most of the motorcycles are from the same era including 10 1969 CB750 Honda “sandcast” models; eight 1969 and 1970 CB750 Honda KOs; eight Z1900 Kawasakis; and many Bridgestones, including the 1966 Bridgestone Daytona winner. “I used to drag race bikes in early ‘70s and still have that need for speed and freedom,” he says.

He still has stored 50 other muscle cars and 40 more bikes awaiting restoration. “I laugh and say to my friends, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking when I bought all these vehicles; I must have thought I was going to live to be 150 years old!’”

Phil and Debbie’s Place

“If I were to list 6 cars that are at the top of my collection and most dear to my heart, they would be as follows,” Phil explains:

•1956 Olds 88 –– “This is a black 2-door post, bought in 1970, and I still drive it to this day; it’s still as beautiful as it was when I first purchased it. Debbie and I used to cruise in this car as an everyday driver for several years, after a minor restoration in 1974; it now stays in the showroom.

“A friend of mine in high school owned it and I just had to have this car. I traded a 1968 Roadrunner and $300 for it (a premium price in 1970). It has a 455-cid Olds engine, Edelbrock intake, 400 turbo tranny, straight-axle front end and it’s as straight as a gun barrel. I later added power steering and brakes.

“Debbie drove this car for 45 years (yes, even in snow!), although she never actually drove it; she always was with me in the middle of the seat beside me. I am not the same person without her, and driving that car will never be the same as I have taken it out only twice in the past year.”

•1958 Corvette –– “My wife bought this car. We were at a car show in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, around 10 years ago when Debbie saw this car and had to have it. She negotiated the purchase price with the seller and ended up purchasing the car for a really good deal. The car still had the matching 283, two 4-barrel carbs, with a manual 3-speed tranny.

“Red is the original color. It was in pretty much original condition with too much ‘patina’ for my wife to accept, so it underwent a complete restoration in my shop. It was her pride and joy.

Her 1958 Corvette has never been started since her passing. Needless to say, I will have both this car and the ’56 Olds cars as long as I live. They are not for sale at any price.”

•1969 GTO Judge –– This is completely restored and has the original drivetrain. The build date was September 21, 1969, past the new-year model change. “It’s a Verdoro green (a true Judge color) automatic on column, has all documents and looks new, just the way it left the factory.”

•1965 GTO –– Life is good: triple black, black vinyl top, 389 tri-power, 4-speed with Indy mags. “I traded my daughter’s Porsche for it in 1995; it’s a rust-free, very beautiful and perfect driving car.”

•1965 4-4-2 Olds convertible –– This was the second year for the model: saffron yellow in color, completely restored, 3-speed auto, 1 of 1,683 built, original motor, original hubcaps: “super-nice car!”

•1967 GTO convertible –– The gorgeous red-on-red with white-top classic has power steering, power brakes, interior, the original 400 cid with 4-speed and period-correct 14-inch Crager mag wheels with redline tires. “This car was restored in my shop about three years ago and now resides in our showroom.”

Phil’s museum is open evenings and then by appointment only at 270.784.4232: “In the past I have allowed many Corvette owners clubs to visit it when they were in town,” Phil says. A car lover’s day: See the Corvette Museum during the day and this one that evening!

If you or someone you know has a GreatGarage and would like it to be considered for an upcoming issue, please e-mail us at [email protected].