When Dick Guldstrand went to France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in 1967, getting there was half the fun.
Somebody on the team forgot to airlift the trailer, so Guldstrand and fellow championship driver Bob Bondurant had to drive their red-white-and blue Corvette from Orly airport outside Paris to the track 110 miles away. A thundering but elegant machine that sputtered and popped when driven less than 70 mph, it would have been a spectacle on California freeways, no less the quiet roads winding through the French countryside.
"The sidepipe exhausts were wide open, and in every little town we went through, the crowds got bigger," Guldstrand recalled in 2010 for motorsport.com. "When we got to Chartres, we damn near broke the stained glass windows out of the cathedral. A gendarme was standing on his little box in the middle of the square directing traffic, and he gave us a salute as we drove by and about blew him off the box."
Guldstrand's team ultimately lost the race — the engine threw a connecting rod after 13 hours at speeds as high as 180 mph — but the crazy Americans had become a crowd favorite and Guldstrand fueled his reputation as a Corvette racer, builder, engineer and innovator.
Guldstrand, who became known to aficionados as "Mr. Corvette," died Wednesday at his North Hollywood home He was 87.
Guldstrand's death from natural causes was confirmed by his stepson, Victor Nelli.
He worked on Corvettes and other high-performance cars at his Burbank automotive shop virtually until his death. He also drove — fast — well into his later years.
"It's like you're cheating death," he told a Times writer who accompanied him as a passenger on tortuous Mulholland Drive in 2006. "You push yourself to the point where you're way beyond doing anything right if something should go wrong."
"He may be 80," the writer noted, "but waiting for the light to change he's as restless as a teenager on a drag strip."
From 1963 through 1965, Guldstrand won three consecutive Sports Car Club of America Pacific Coast championships. In 1966, he set a Le Mans track record. The same year, he came in first in his class at the Daytona 24-hour race — despite a punctured radiator, a smashed front end, and makeshift headlamps fashioned from two taped-on flashlights.
He attributed his success to team owner Roger Penske, the racing legend who took a chance by hiring him as one of the team's drivers.
"Back then, he had that green-flag mentality that absolutely doesn't know the meaning of the word quit," Guldstrand told The Times in 1992. "I don't know anyone else who would have kept us going that way — with two flashlights hanging on the front end."
In 1968, he opened Guldstrand Engineering in Culver City, where he worked for an international clientele that included James Garner, Bruce Springsteen, Nicolas Cage and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"He had an entourage like a rock star's," said automotive journalist Chuck Koch, a longtime friend. "Corvette people idolized him."
Guldstrand came up with out-of-the-box mechanical improvements that helped Corvettes handle better at high speeds.
"It was something instinctual," said Koch, who is writing a Guldstrand biography. "He could make things work. And when it came to vehicle suspensions, he was a genius."
Born in Los Angeles on Dec. 1, 1927, Richard Herman Guldstrand grew up with an engineer father and a mother who had performed in vaudeville.
"Dick inherited that part," Koch said of Guldstrand's love of the spotlight. "He never met a mike he didn't like. When he was sent to Europe during the Korean War, he ended up touring with the USO as a singer."
In high school, Guldstrand was a hot-rodder. Later, he studied electrical engineering at UCLA. After his Army stint, he worked for an aeronautics firm but, as he put it in an interview, his heart was "about 500 feet out in the parking lot in a tattered '56 Corvette."
He went into racing full-time in the early 1960s, landing sponsorships from local Chevrolet dealers.
In 1999, he was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky.
Besides his stepson, Guldstrand's survivors include Willy Guldstrand, his wife since 1974; children Gary and Gay, from a previous marriage; brother Bob; and six grandchildren. Stepdaughter Christine predeceased him.
Guldstrand kept up his ties with Corvette owners in frequent talks before car clubs. In 2005, he returned to Le Mans and received an ovation from French spectators at a drivers' parade.
"He was such a hero," Victor Nelli said. "He always told me that the difference between a disaster and an adventure is attitude."