The Saudia Connection
By: Sarah Wilkinson
No, that’s not a spelling mistake, but actually Saudi Arabia’s national carrier, which for one year had a very unusual connection to America’s favourite sports car. Paul Bussey explains...
Over the years there have been numerous Corvettes that have appeared in Classic American Magazine, all with their own interesting story to tell, though arguably perhaps none quite as fascinating as Paul Hawkins’ 1977 model. Let us explain: Way back in 1977, the GM main agent in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, ordered a shipment of cars from the USA. Included in that shipment were a number of Corvettes. Unfortunately not all the cars found buyers and some seven Corvettes, all painted in different colours, were stored in the desert for the next two years.
Then one day, a group of British engineers working for the state airline Saudia Airlines stumbled upon these seven Corvettes, and managed to purchase them for a bargain price of only £4500 each (Don’t you just hate these kind of stories!). The engineers really wanted to get them back to the UK, but how? After much discussion with the GM dealership and their employer, a deal was struck whereby Saudia Airlines would put together a package to make it all possible.
At the time, Saudia Airlines were a major sponsor of the Williams Grand Prix Engineering Formula One Team based at Didcot, Oxon. Part of the special package that they came up with would be for all seven Corvettes to be painted white, with the two-tone stripes in blue and green running from front to rear, including over the T-Tops, together with the crossed scimitars of the Saudi Royal Coat of Arms in gold on the bonnet, plus numerous other various adverting decals.
The paint-spraying team working for Saudia Airlines in Jeddah arrived for work one day and lined up outside their spraybooth were the seven Corvettes. The colour scheme to be applied to the cars was to emulate that of the airline and the 1979 Williams Grand Prix Engineering Formula 1 Team FW07 race cars. The Goodyear Tyre Company supplied five tyres for each Corvette, while Gulf Oil paid all the fuel expenses. Once the cars had been painted and prepared, they were then all flown by Saudia Airlines Douglas
DC-9 from Jeddah to Athens, Greece, from where they were driven across Greece by the engineers to a seaport where they boarded a ferry over to Southern Italy.
Part of the sponsorship package deal was for the Corvettes to visit major cities en route to the UK and stop off at Saudia Airlines offices, where stickers and badges were given away to enthusiasts and the public alike. The route took the Corvettes via Rome, Genoa, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Luxembourg and Paris. The Corvette driver crew included Kenny Davies, Bryan Burton, Steve Shinnfeild, Mick O’Neil, Steve Garland, Jeff Gladstone, Steve Jones, and someone called ‘Nabil’.
The seven Corvettes finally arrived in the UK at Silverstone Race Circuit, Northamptonshire, on the eve of the British Grand Prix in July 1979. The sight of these cars all in formation must have been very impressive. One of the Williams Formula 1 Team drivers at the time, Alan Jones, procured some tickets for the drivers, thus allowing the Corvettes to be parked together behind the pits. That weekend Williams enjoyed its first Grand Prix victory when Clay Regazzoni took the chequered flag for the team! Following the epic drive from Athens, the seven engineers returned to work in Jeddah, Saudia Airlines withdrew their sponsorship of the Williams Formula 1 Team at the end of the season, and the seven Corvettes found new homes with owners in Wrexham, Manchester, Derby, and four went to the London area.
The Corvette in this feature was purchased by John Smith in 1982, who later discovered much about the Saudia Airlines connection quite by chance when he was speaking to Cath Caddick at a CCCUK Nationals event at Knebworth Park. Her father had close contacts with the mechanics, paint sprayers and drivers in the late Seventies and was able to provide much useful information. Nowadays the Corvette is owned by Paul Hawkins, who purchased it around two years ago when it was advertised as ‘an historic Corvette’. The car had retained its overall white paintwork and some of the previously applied decals, but it was not 100-percent authentic, as Paul was later to discover. He did a lot of research and gradually pieced the whole story together that you have just read. He’s got lots of documentation about the cars, much of it in Arabic.
The accuracy of the story has been confirmed by Kenny Davies, who was one of the seven engineers that drove the cars back from Greece. There are some fine period accessories that have survived from that epic trip, which include a white suitcase complete with the two-tone blue and green stripes, a jacket with similar stripes, plus logos, and even the Trade Pass that allowed the cars access to behind the pits at the 1979 British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
One particularly endearing anecdote was when the cars pulled into a service station in the UK, and naturally attracted much attention. Several young lads gathered around the cars and mentioned that they had written to Jim’ll Fix It, in a vain attempt for him to arrange a ride for them in a Formula 1 race car. Two-seater F1 race cars hadn’t been built in those days, so it was perhaps not surprising that no word was ever forthcoming from Jim. Anyway, several of the Corvette engineers did the next best thing for the two said lads and gave them both a ride up the motorway cruising at 100mph, the next best thing to a spin in an F1 race car – maybe even better!
With the help of many period photographs of the seven Corvettes en route from Greece to the UK, Paul Hawkins was able to refurbish his car with the exact body graphics down to the very last detail as worn in 1979. He even went to the trouble of contacting Jonathan Williams at Williams Grand Prix Engineering at Didcot, Oxon, who administers their archives and museum of Formula 1 cars (not open to the public) and welcomed him to come and view the FW07 race car, and was able to supply the exact code for the white paint for the respray. Once painted, Paul had his local graphics company, Ashfield Signs, make a complete set of original logos, right down to the map on the door which followed the route from Greece to the UK.
Interestingly Paul’s Corvette remains in around 90-percent original condition with matching numbers engine and four-speed manual gearbox. He had to replace the differential casing due to it having a crack in it. The seats have been re-covered using a kit purchased in the US for a very reasonable £65 for the pair and these were fitted by a local trimmer. Just about the only non-standard component on the car are the side-pipes, which Paul particularly likes for their mellifluous burble. These were fabricated by his son Kevin, who works for Milltek Exhaust Systems in Ilkeston, Derbys, and were presented to him as a birthday present. The only thing missing from the car is the air conditioning system that has gone missing over the years.
To add even more authenticity, Paul plans to have Ashfield Signs make up replicas of the original Arabic registration plates for show purposes. The originals had to be returned to Saudi once the cars had been re-registered in the UK.
Paul had the great pleasure of meeting one of the original Saudia Airlines engineers, Kenny Davies, at the Classic Car Show at the NEC in November 2009 where the Corvette was on display. Kenny commented that the car looked exactly how he had remembered it and was thrilled to see it after all these years.
Paul and his wife Angie are members of the CCCUK (Classic Corvette Club UK) and the AACUK (American Auto Club UK) and attend many shows with their car, that’s always driven and not trailered anywhere. In 2009 at an AAC UK show at Hatton Country World, Warks, their Corvette picked up the award for Best Seventies car.
Of the seven original Saudia Airlines-sponsored Corvettes, Paul’s car is the only known survivor to sport the full livery and decals; does anyone know the fate of the other six cars?
A remarkable and most unusual story in Corvette folklore history, we’re sure you will agree. Top marks too, to Paul and Angie Hawkins, for the restoration and preservation back to its full livery. The whole story was a brilliant marketing ploy by Saudia Airlines, which was not only great publicity for them, but also the Williams Formula 1 Team and of course the Corvette itself!
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