With a grin, Alan Poster jumped into the driver's seat of the Chevrolet Corvette that was stolen from him nearly 37 years ago. But he didn't get far.
The gleaming silver convertible's gas tank was still missing.
Nonetheless, the return of his 1968 sports car Tuesday in Carson was a sweet moment for the Petaluma man who long ago gave up hope he would ever see it again.
"It's unbelievable. It's absolutely beautiful," said Poster, 63. "Now I've got to figure what it means -- why this came back to me."
The answer to the second part of that is easy.
The stolen two-seater was discovered last month in a Sweden-bound shipping container at the Port of Los Angeles by customs and California Highway Patrol officers conducting a routine check of cars being exported. When its vehicle identification number was run through an insurance industry data base that lists cars stolen in this country since 1968, the Corvette popped up as having been swiped Jan. 22, 1969, in New York City.
New York police traced Poster to California. Then they phoned him with the startling news.
"I thought it was a joke when they called and asked if I had a car stolen in 1969 and then told me it had been recovered," Poster said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection and CHP officials returned the car to Poster in a ceremony staged behind a Carson export warehouse. They said it is the oldest of 68 stolen cars they have recovered over the last three years from containers destined to be shipped overseas.
"Both the Vette and Mr. Poster are somewhat older now, but I'm sure they have many more miles left in them," said Kevin Weeks, the customs agency's field operations director for Los Angeles. Added CHP Assistant Chief Warren Stanley: "We're returning the only car he says he ever loved back to him."
Poster posed in the Corvette's red leather seats and thanked the "passionate people at the New York Police Department and out here" as cameras recorded the moment. Asked if he would lower its canvas top for photographers, he admitted that he didn't remember how. "If we all got back whatever we've lost, how many socks would we have?" he joked.
Poster said the theft of his Corvette was just one of several blows he suffered in the late 1960s. His marriage had failed and the 26-year-old guitar salesman had spent about $5,900 on the newly released muscle car to perk himself up.
"It was the hottest thing going. I couldn't afford it, but I bought it anyway. I couldn't afford insurance. So it wasn't insured," he said. "I had it for about three months. After it was stolen, I didn't have a car for years."
Poster moved to California in 1988. He now owns a company that makes high-end covers for musical instruments. These days he drives a Mercedes.
The vintage Corvette looked in good shape, despite its missing fuel tank. It had been repainted silver from its original blue.
Its original 327-cubic-inch engine had been replaced by a 454 big-block Chevy engine. Its odometer read 59,846 miles.
The car had been headed for Stockholm, where a Swedish car buff had purchased it from a U.S. collector for $10,000. CHP investigators so far have traced it back three owners, to 2001. The investigation is continuing.
The Corvette's current value is between $12,000 and $25,000. It would be worth more if it still had its original engine, said Ralph Lumpkin, a director of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, whose data bank lists stolen cars.
Customs and Border Protection Officer Damon Driver was one of those who opened the steel shipping container carrying the car. It was covered and tucked behind cardboard boxes and office file cabinets.
Driver called New York police to make certain the car had not been previously recovered but not removed from the stolen-vehicle list.
A pair of New York detectives spent four days reeling through old microfilmed car theft reports before finding the complaint Poster had filed after the car disappeared from a garage on Manhattan's West 23rd Street.
When they found the one-page "grand larceny auto" report, they visited Poster's former home on West 21st Street and learned from its current occupant that he had moved to California.
That New York police found Poster is remarkable, Driver said. "They were having 300 cars a day stolen in New York City back then," he said.
Poster, a single father, said he plans to restore the car, repaint it blue and give it to his daughter, Allie. She's only 17, so he'll wait awhile so that nothing happens to the Corvette again.
"I'm worried about that. But it won't be stolen again," he pledged.
Losing the car "was a lesson" to him about the futility of being enamored of material things, Poster said. And its recovery could be another wake-up call, he suggested.
As he stepped away from his car, he was cornered by representatives from network morning news shows begging him to come on their television programs today. Sure, Poster replied -- provided they pick him up at the hotel where he's staying.
He currently has no wheels, he said. His 1968 Corvette is a beauty. But it's out of gas.