Reeves Callaway, Maker of Really, Really Fast Cars, Dies at 75

Reeves Callaway, who started out driving fast cars and then focused on creating them, including one that set a speed record of 254.76 miles per hour in 1988, died on July 11 at his home in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 75.

His company, Callaway Cars, said the cause was injuries from a fall.

Mr. Callaway and his company were well known in the world of high-performance automobiles custom-made for deep-pocketed clients. He began by modifying cars out of his garage, then established his company in Old Lyme, Conn., with the goal of challenging the European manufacturers like Porsche and Ferrari that were then making the world’s fastest vehicles.

Soon the modified cars coming out of his small shop were drawing attention in motor magazines and in speed competitions. A key moment came in the mid-1980s when Alfa Romeo, the Italian auto company, sought him out.

“They came to us,” he told the Truck Show Podcast in 2021, “and they said, ‘Look, could you, within one year’s time, develop an Alfa twin-turbo system for us that we could use to compete against the Maserati?’”

He did, making about three dozen modified vehicles, but then Alfa Romeo lost interest in the project. Yet somehow one of those modified Alfas found its way to General Motors’ Black Lake testing ground in Michigan, and soon GM was asking if he could do the same thing to its Chevrolet Corvette.

“This was a huge opportunity, to become associated with Corvette,” Mr. Callaway said. “So we saluted and said, ‘Yes, sir; immediately, sir; may I have another, sir?’”

The result was an unusual agreement that made Mr. Callaway’s company an authorized “aftermarket tuner,” as news accounts put it at the time — customers could order a limited-edition Callaway-modified Corvette at select Chevrolet dealers, and the car would be shipped to Old Lyme and outfitted with turbochargers and other modifications. The first version, in 1987, added about $20,000 to the price, putting the starting price that year at about $51,000.

Automobile journalists were impressed.

“The awesome power of the turbos is revealed in three ways,” Brock Yates wrote in Playboy in 1989, “a faint shriek of impellers as they pump gobs of fuel into the combustion chambers, the whisk of the gauge on the dash toward maximum boost and, most vivid of all, the G-force that seems to want to compress the driver and the passenger into the luggage compartment behind the seats.”

John Hicks of The Orlando Sentinel ended a 1988 review of the car by saying, “It’s enjoyable to imagine standing on a street corner telling the driver of a smoked-out Euro rod that the Callaway went that-a-way.”

In the podcast, Mr. Callaway said Chevrolet had estimated that demand worldwide for the Callaway Corvette would be about 25 cars. In 1988, the second year of production, an article in The New York Times said output that year could reach 400 vehicles. The car, which Mr. Callaway produced through 1991, could hit speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, though it was made for driving on ordinary roads.

“People who buy these cars don’t go that fast,” Mr. Callaway told The Times in 1988. “What they’re buying is a configuration capable of doing that. Why do people buy a 400-watt stereo when 99 percent of the time they’re listening to music at much lower levels?”

In late 1988 Mr. Callaway and his engineers tweaked the Corvette some more, taking aim at 250 miles per hour with a version of the car that they called the Sledgehammer.

“We basically decided that 250 m.p.h. was a reachable goal,” he told the McClatchy News Service. “But if it was to have any meaning, the car had to be docile at low speeds as well. It had to retain all the things that make a car usable on the street, such as air-conditioning.”

To prove the point, Mr. Callaway’s team drove the car from Connecticut to a seven-and-a-half mile oval track in Ohio. (It got 16 miles per gallon, they said.) At the track, it hit 210 m.p.h. on its first run, 223 on its second. After more tweaking, it reached 254.76 on its third, a record for a car made for normal driving. Mr. Callaway’s company, in its announcement of his death, said that record stood for more than 20 years.

Ely Reeves Callaway III was born on Nov. 22, 1947, in Bryn Mawr, Pa. His father, Ely Reeves Callaway Jr., was a textile executive who in the 1980s founded the Callaway Golf Company, and his mother, Jeanne Delaplaine (Wiler) Callaway, was a homemaker.

He grew up in the Philadelphia area and in Connecticut, where he graduated from New Canaan High School in 1966. In 1970 he earned a fine arts degree at Amherst College; for his senior project he restored a Ferrari that had won the 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France.

Mr. Callaway, a self-taught tinkerer, started out racing dune buggies and other vehicles he had modified, having some success, including on the Formula Vee circuit. But it wasn’t a lucrative profession. A 1971 article in The Gazette-Telegraph of Colorado Springs noted that he had spent about $2,000 to bring a buggy to compete in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb that year, for the prospect of winning barely more than $2,000. (He won nothing; his vehicle broke down during the race.)

“I decided I couldn’t earn a living as a driver,” he told The Times in 1994, and instead he turned to making souped-up vehicles.

Though the Callaway Corvette was perhaps his best-known car, he and his company worked on many types of cars, adapting to computerization and other new technologies and opening locations in California and Germany.

“Dad’s passion for making beautifully designed and crafted machines can be seen in each and every project,” his son Peter, president of the company, said in a statement.

Mr. Callaway’s marriages to Dale Vosburgh, Sue Zesiger and Nicole Jones ended in divorce. In addition to his son Peter, from his marriage to Ms. Vosburgh, he is survived by a daughter from that marriage, Augusta Boone Callaway; two children from his marriage to Ms. Zesiger, Sebastian and Walker Callaway; a sister, Louise Wiler Callaway; a brother, Nicholas; and two grandchildren.

In the podcast, Mr. Callaway noted that he wasn’t an engineer, though he’d worked with some good ones.

“I’m still the guy who loves building stuff more than anything else,” he said. His philosophy? “Just put your mind to it, sit down, build stuff, learn what’s wrong with it, fix it and get on with life.”

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