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At long last, 'The Shark' comes home

By JON WILSON
Published July 5, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Nearly a half-century ago, a young designer worked midnights and long weekends, crafting a car that became a St. Petersburg metaphor for the space age.

It stopped traffic and turned heads on 58th Street N, where Henry Covington built in his Disston Heights garage the sleek, low-slung vehicle he nicknamed El Tiburon - The Shark. People thought of it as the car of the future and nationally circulated automotive magazines published feature articles about it.

But Covington did not have the opportunity to see what might have been. A heart attack killed him on a Sunday afternoon in May 1962. He was 38 years old. The car never was mass produced.

A few were built and, through the years, became scattered around the nation as car enthusiasts jumped on the design.

Now one has come home, or very nearly so.

Thanks to avid Tampa collector Geoff Hacker, a Tiburon hardtop roadster is on long-term loan at the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum in Pinellas Park.

It is just a few miles from Covington's home in Westgate Manor, a 1950s subdivision on the western edge of Disston Heights.

Hacker, an industrial psychologist, has researched the cars for years. Besides the car in the museum, he also owns a convertible version.

He has been relentless in pursuing El Tiburon's essence; he has in a way become the curator of its memory.

"It's emotion, passion," he said.

Reflecting on his hobby in an e-mail, Hacker compared his research about cars to his work as a consultant. Both involve long, difficult but enjoyable hours, he wrote.

Chasing details "can be a nonstop process that takes you days, weeks, months, years, and to places and people that can impact your life forever," Hacker wrote.

Hacker, 44, was born the same month and year in which Henry Covington died. As a teenager, Hacker first saw the car in Clearwater.

The version he bought sits in the auto museum's second showroom, a ways back from the entrance. Even among about 40 polished, vintage cars, El Tiburon glows. It still draws the eye.

Days ago, it captured a fourth generation.

Covington's great-granddaughter Alyse, age 4, sat with her father Cory Covington in El Tiburon's cockpit, craning a bit to peer over the dashboard and through the windshield.

Her comment: "Cool."

It was the same reaction as that of the 1950s and 1960s kids who had just learned the word but knew where it needed to be applied.

Henry Covington's sons Jim and John sometimes conspired with neighborhood pals to rise in the wee hours, slip into the Covington garage and ever so quietly roll the car outside where they dreamed of starting it and vanishing into a misty, Florida night.

Twenty years later, Cory Covington played with a balsa model of the car and pretended to drive a version of the real thing his father John Covington had.

"It was great to see the car," Cory Covington said of the museum piece. "I had never seen a good example of it and seeing a pristine one was something I never expected to happen."

He is an architect who lives in San Francisco. John Covington is an electrical engineer who lives in Texas and who won an Emmy in 1991 for his contributions to television show lighting. Jim Covington was a Pinellas County journalist who died in 1997 at age 51.

"My thanks to Geoff for being so interested in my family history and being able to provide glimpses into it that I never thought possible," Cory Covington said.

"I'm sure my grandfather never imagined that 40-plus years later his great-granddaughter would be sitting in the car as it sits in a museum."

The car is believed to be the only one designed, built and marketed in the Tampa Bay area. Glen Gums, who lived a half-block from Henry Covington, built the car's fiberglass molds.

Frank and Patricia Cacciatore, through their Tampa company Cacci-Craft built the production versions of the roadster.

Sometimes called the Covington Tiburon or the Covington Special, magazines compared it to such elite autos as the Maserati and the Lamborghini.

In an April 1962 Mechanix Illustrated article, Henry Covington called the car an "aerodynamical, sculptured form on wheels." He credited the late Augustus Raspet, a Mississippi State University professor who studied aerodynamics.

The same piece said of El Tiburon: "It is probably the most streamlined body we will ever see on the street."

Hacker believes more of the cars remain to be found, perhaps in the Tampa Bay area. He is eager to track them down and asks anyone who knows where one might be found to call him at (813) 888-8888 or (813) 888-8883 or e-mail geoffrey@grhacker.com.

Finding more, Hacker believes, would be nothing but cool.

Jon Wilson was among the neighborhood kids who conspired with Henry Covington's sons to take the original Tiburon on a wee-hours spin.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Tampa Bay Automobile Museum

WHERE: 3301 Gateway Centre Blvd., Pinellas Park.

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; closed Tuesdays and holidays.

ADMISSION: $8 per person, $6 seniors, $5 for students or people in groups of 12 or more. Children under 6 are free.

 

[Last modified July 4, 2006, 23:33:17]


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