LOS ANGELES — The cherry-red 1989 Corvette convertible that Corky Rice has is in cherry condition.
It ought to be. It still has its original new car invoice sticker on its windshield and a mere 67 miles on its odometer.
The shiny two-seater was stolen in 1989 from the new car sales lot at what was then called C & M Chevrolet in San Diego and driven straight to a nearby self-storage facility, where it was locked in a garage-size unit and left there. For 23 years.
The rent on the unit started at $50 a month. Over the decades, it gradually increased until it reached $300 last summer. That's when the renter stopped paying and called his attorney.
In early September, the lawyer contacted San Diego Police Department auto theft Detective Andrew Spear to explain that self-storage operators would soon be cutting off the lock and opening the unit, and would discover the stolen sports car.
Spear said the lawyer gave this account: He said the renter was a recent immigrant from Ireland in 1989 who got mixed up with some men who had somehow leveraged him into stealing the car, or helping them steal it. He had rented the storage locker to stash it.
"The story from the lawyer was that after that, he would periodically get calls from the men checking up on him, asking 'Do you still have the car?' '' Spear said. "He was supposedly instructed to continue hanging on to it. If it's true, then he felt threatened and kept paying."
When he hung up the phone, Spear hurried to the storage unit. He found that the facility's operators had already cut open the lock and were preparing to file a lien against the renter, whom they assumed was the car's legal owner. Examining the storage unit's records, Spear discovered that over the 23 years the renter had paid $70,000 for the space.
"We didn't get a search warrant since the guy was being cooperative through his lawyer," Spear said.
Sitting on four flat tires and covered with a layer of dust so thick that the color of its hood was hard to determine, the Corvette otherwise looked like it had just rolled off the assembly line in Bowling Green, Ky. There were no keys to the car so Spear called a tow truck to pull it out of the storage space.
The tow operator used his truck's compressor to re-inflate the Corvette's tires. "They still held air," Spear said. "And it still had that new-car smell on the inside."
Because stolen vehicle databases are purged after five years, Spear checked insurance records to see if the car's VIN number popped up. Sure enough, it had been stolen and C & M's insurance company had long ago reimbursed the dealership for its loss.
Because of the renter's cooperation and the amount of time that had elapsed since the theft, authorities decided not to file charges against him. He has not been identified.
Rice entered the picture when the insurance company recharged the Corvette's original Delco battery, dusted the car off and sold it to a friend of his who specializes in buying cars that have been repossessed. He resold it to Rice, who is wholesale car manager for Glendale Kia and a subsidiary called Cars 911.
Rice won't disclose the price he paid because he and his partner, the Kia dealership, plan to sell it for as much as they can. It's currently listed on eBay in an auction that will close shortly before noon Sunday. As of Friday night, $24,600 was the top bid.
If he's not satisfied with the closing bid, Rice intends to load the Corvette in a trailer and take it to a large Phoenix car auction scheduled for January.
"I've bought and sold over 25,000 cars in my career, and I've never encountered something like this," Rice, 58, of Los Angeles said as he popped the hood and gazed at the spotless 5.7-liter, V8 engine. He estimates the car's value is as high as $40,000. "It would be a perfect display piece in a Chevrolet dealer's showroom," he said.
The sticker price of the car in 1989 was $39,480. The value of a used 1989 Corvette ranges from $8,600 to $9,700, according to the Kelley Blue Book.
"But with the Internet, the interest in this car is now global," said Al Shirali, manager of Cars 911. "If a guy in Dubai wants it, he has money to spend on anything he wants."
The Corvette's selling price could surprise everyone, said Raymond Amerson of Mid America Motorworks in Effingham, Ill., which specializes in Corvette parts and accessories.
"If I owned it, I'd drive it, not park it," Amerson said. "I don't buy cars to collect them, not in this economy."