Jeff Grillo, of Rochester Hills, purchased this 1961 Chevrolet Corvette in 2018. He keeps cigars on hand in honor of the car’s previous owner, Bob Johnson Sr., who passed away before the Corvette was restored.

Jeff Grillo, of Rochester Hills, purchased this 1961 Chevrolet Corvette in 2018. He keeps cigars on hand in honor of the car’s previous owner, Bob Johnson Sr., who passed away before the Corvette was restored.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

Behind the Wheel: Cigars, clocks and a classic Corvette

By: Maria Allard | Rochester Post | Published June 23, 2022

Photo by Donna Dalziel


ROCHESTER HILLS — During his first year in college in 1994, Jeff Grillo was paired with roommate Bob Johnson Jr. at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

Although they did not know each other prior to starting college, they became very good friends while in school. One weekend, the pair went to Elk Grove Village, Illinois, to visit Johnson Jr.’s family.

That’s when Grillo, age 18 at the time, spotted a white 1961 Chevrolet Corvette with red interior that belonged to Bob’s dad — Bob Johnson Sr.

“I just fell in love with it,” the Rochester Hills resident said. But the car wasn’t for sale, and even if it was, he said he couldn’t afford it.

Grillo never forgot the vintage vehicle, which Johnson Sr. purchased in 1968. According to Grillo, the senior Johnson tinkered on the car quite often and used it as his primary ride.

“He spent a lot of time in the garage smoking cigars and building clocks when he wasn’t fooling around with his Corvette,” Grillo said. “The Corvette was covered in sawdust and smelled like years of cigar smoke, but I loved it just the same.”

Grillo and Johnson Jr. have remained friends. Grillo wasn’t shy about telling his buddy that he wanted to someday own the ’61 Corvette. Grillo even bribed Johnson Sr. “with quality cigars to see if he’d sell it to me. The answer was always no.”

By the 1980s, Johnson Sr. didn’t drive the Corvette anymore, and it stayed parked in a tiny one-car garage.

“From that moment on, the car probably only saw the light of day a couple of times over the years when my friend, Bob, would take it out to stretch its legs,” Grillo said. Johnson Jr. also had married and started a family.

About four years ago, Johnson Sr. began experiencing health issues and decided to sell the vehicle. He didn’t have to look too far for a buyer.

“I was the first one who called. Whatever the price is, I wanted to buy the car. I acquired it two weeks later,” Grillo said.

Grillo, now married with three children, bought the car just a few months after moving to Michigan. He said the timing to purchase the car “was less than ideal,” but he knew this was his chance to own the Corvette he had wanted for so many years.

“It needed a whole lot of work. It drove OK, but it didn’t ride all that well,” Grillo said. “Everything on the car has been rebuilt, but I left the original drivetrain.”

After finally obtaining the classic car, Grillo brought it to the experts at Relic Restomods in Richmond, Illinois, and the restoration process began. The shop was located about 30 minutes from where Johnson Sr. lived.

Not long after Johnson Sr. sold the car, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The hope was that the ’61 Corvette would be finished in time for Johnson Sr. to take one last ride in it.

Unfortunately, the project was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the elder Johnson died before the job was completed. The family had Johnson Sr. cremated, “and his final resting spot is a clock that looked just like one he had built earlier in his life,” Grillo said.

Once the car was ready, Grillo picked it up and met up with Johnson Jr. and his mom, Marcia. Grillo made sure to give Marcia a ride in his new wheels.

“It was very emotional because (Johnson Sr.) didn’t get to see it finished,” Grillo said. “She got to see it as the car should be.”

Johnson Jr. also took a cruise with Grillo, and they brought Johnson Sr.’s ashes with them.

“I was able to take Bob and his dad for one last ride in the Corvette after all,” Grillo said.

Grillo’s back license plate reads “Timepce” in honor of Johnson Sr.’s fondness for clocks. Grillo also keeps cigars on hand because of Johnson Sr.

When Grillo takes the car out, it’s always a conversation piece. He takes his kids for rides in the Corvette, one at a time. He’s also won trophies at various car shows and is a regular at the annual Woodward Dream Cruise.

“I’m very happy with it. I like to show off the car and let other people enjoy it,” Grillo said. “I love the story behind it. It’s just great to talk to people about the car.”

Do you own a vehicle with an interesting history? Email Maria Allard at for a chance to be in an upcoming edition of Behind the Wheel.