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The Dead Vet's Vette

Claim:   Buyer who answers unbelievable ad in paper offering a vintage Corvette for a pittance discovers the car belonged to the seller's son, who was killed in Vietnam, and is being offered for so low a price because the bereaved mother has no inkling of the vehicle's true value.

LEGEND

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2001]

Back in 1963, a young man bought a brand new 1963 Corvette Split Window Coupe (a very collectible one-year-only model). He drove it around for a year or so, and was then drafted into the Army. He carefully prepped the car for storage, went to Viet Nam, and was promptly killed. Years later (when the car had achieved a rare collectible status), his mother decided she was tired of looking at his car up on blocks and decided to sell. She put an ad in the newspaper (or alternately, a sign in front of the house) that stated "'63 Chevy for sale. $50. As is." Of course, the first person to call on her bought it and got the deal of the century.
 

Variations:
  • The dead son's car is nearly always a vintage Corvette, one that has always been meticulously cared for and is now carefully stored to keep it in mint condition.
  • Most tellings now assert the son died or was declared missing in action in the Vietnam War, but older versions place the son's death before that conflict and do not specify how or where the boy died. The lad's death is thus divorced of any "dead hero" associations and becomes merely another youthful tragedy.
  • Sometimes the grieving mother calls a car dealer to ascertain how much her son's old car is worth. The dealer takes advantage of her lack of understanding of the vehicle's value and tells her it's worth a few hundred dollars at most.
Origins:   This legend was first reported in print by folklorist Jan Brunvand in a 1988 newspaper article. One of the versions he'd collected placed this legend as being in circulation in 1961.

This is a "wishful thinking" legend, one in which we picture ourselves in the place of the lucky lad who answered the ad and is now about to gain the bargain of a lifetime. Yet unlike other windfall legends (such as the Elvis Harley and the Samaritan rewarded by a celebrity yarns), the pathos of the backstory almost overwhelms the sense of delight inherent to
such tales — we feel for the bereaved woman even as we plan to make off with her dead son's car. Probably because of this moral contradiction (deep down we're really nice people, but we're still not averse to profiting from someone else's misfortune, even if in the process we have to skin the mother of a dead war hero), the legend almost always ends with the mother's telling her tale of how the car came to be offered for sale. In those few instances where the sale is completed, the car usually goes to someone else — the prospective buyer sees the car being driven off as he arrives and is therefore spared from having to make a very difficult ethical decision.

A closely-related "cheap car" legend also features the plot point of a valuable car being offered for an unbelievably low price but lacks the key feature of the seller being unaware of the vehicle's true value. This is the venerable $50 Porsche tale, wherein a discarded wife punishes her philandering husband who has run off with his secretary by following his instructions to the letter: "Keep the house and the bank account, but sell my car and send me the proceeds from the sale." Unlike the mother of the dead soldier, the avenging wife is all too aware of how much the car should fetch on the open market but chooses to sell it for a pittance as her way of getting back at her errant husband.

Barbara "sale of the buick century" Mikkelson

Sightings:   This legend forms the basis for David Ball's 2001 country song, "Riding with Private Malone."

Last updated:   24 March 2011

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 123-125).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   "Urban Legends."
    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   14 April 1988   (p. D2).