Celebrity Drive: Lou Gramm, Foreigner’s Original Lead Singer

Quick Stats: Lou Gramm, original lead singer of Foreigner
Daily Driver: 2011 Chevrolet Tahoe Z71 (Lou’s rating: 8.5 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Other cars: see below
Favorite road trip: Lake Ontario Beach Parkway
Car he learned to drive in: 1963 Buick LeSabre
First car bought: 1963 Oldsmobile Cutlass F-85

Cars and music are the closest things we have to time machines. And something miraculous happened last year for Foreigner fans: Lou Gramm reunited with three other original band members to make the magic only they could together to send them back in time, if only for a night. It became four nights.

But for Gramm, it’s his GM muscle car collection—lovingly restored and kept in as close to original condition as possible—that transports him back in time. All the rock star has to do is get behind the wheel and he’s back in the mid-1960s.

Years before belting out iconic power ballads like “I Want to Know What Love Is” at the height of Foreigner’s fame, Gramm was lusting after cars as a kid in Rochester, New York.

“I’m an American muscle car guy,” Gramm tells MotorTrend. “I used to sit in the back of my dad’s car and tell him the year, make, and model of every car that was going by us. Mind you, there were a lot fewer cars than there were now.”

Becoming the frontman of a major rock band afforded Gramm the luxury of buying some of the muscle cars he saw around him when he was younger. “I’ve always been a GM guy from the time I was old enough to know the difference between GM, Ford, and Chrysler,” he says. “And I’m a muscle car fanatic—I have five muscle cars, and they’re all GM. I have an affinity for mid- and late-’60s Chevelles, 442s, GTOs, and Gran Sports. That’s just my thing.”

Gramm found his cars by looking through ads, years ago. “I don’t buy them all spiffed up. There’s a couple of my cars that I bought from little old ladies who were getting too old to drive and the car was in good shape but needed a good going through, a rubout, and a new carburetor, a new exhaust, and things like that,” he says.

In Rochester, Gramm has a music studio that houses both of his passions. “I record and write songs there, and I also keep my cars,” he says. “[Rochester has] a lot of cruise nights. I go to as many of them as I can in our short summers here.”

1965 Pontiac GTO

Rating: 9.5

One beloved muscle car that Gramm is happy to have back in his possession is his 1965 Pontiac GTO, which he originally bought in Arizona from a man in his 70s, who used to race the car at the Pomona dragstrip with a friend.

Gramm went to Arizona to see the car and immediately fell in love with it. “Silver blue with black interior, no rust, no dings, it’s just a beautiful, beautiful car, and I bought it for $12,500. Very, very cheap,” he says. “I had about nine cars eight years ago and I thought I had to thin out the collection because I was having trouble storing them all. I sold four of the cars, and one of them was the GTO.”

After he sold it at a Mecum auction, he immediately had pangs of regret that lingered throughout the years. “I kept thinking about it and kicking myself for selling it,” he says. “This one was gone for almost seven years and my wife happened to be online, and the guy who owned the car was reaching out to me to see if I wanted to buy the car back.”

By then the car was with its new owner in El Paso, where Gramm flew to make sure it was in the same shape as when he left it. After seeing how beautiful the car still was, he bought it and had it shipped back.

1968 Chevrolet Camaro SS

Rating: 10

When Gramm got this Camaro, it had 17,000 original miles on it and was seemingly frozen in time, to his delight. He saw an ad in the paper from someone in Syracuse asking $17,000 for it.

“There’s no stripes or patches—it’s just very plain and very beautiful,” he says. “I’ve always liked them. I drove down there and [the owner] pointed to the corner of the barn where the car sat with a white sheet over it, and I pulled the sheet off and was just stunned that the car was in beautiful shape.”

Gramm was with a friend who came along to make sure everything was in good condition. “Everything checked out on it. I had planned on trying to talk the guy down, and my buddy, who knows about these cars, whispered to me, ‘Just pay the man,'” Gramm says, laughing. “The price was about a third of what they were going for.”

That owner bought the Camaro from the original owner, who lost his license after having the car for just six months. “So this guy I bought it from has had the car its whole life and it only had 17,000 miles on it. He said it was a little too much car for him,” Gramm says, with a laugh. “I told him, ‘I’ll take care of that!'”

1965 Oldsmobile 442

Rating: 10

Gramm sees his Oldsmobile as a perfect 10. He found this ride during a trip to Los Angeles in 1991 from yet another ad. The ad read “1965 Olds 442, automatic, $3,500.”

“My friend was taking me to LAX because I was flying home. We had extra time, so we were going to have lunch and hang out a little bit. I see this ad, and I call on it, and a young guy answers the phone and says he’ll meet me at a certain gas station. He pulls up in a ’65 Olds 442, pale yellow, two-door sedan. It’s low to the ground, and I say to my buddy, ‘Don’t tell me this kid made a lowrider out of it. ‘”

It turned out the guy’s mom bought the car at the end of 1965. “She went into the dealership wanting a Cutlass automatic. The guy sold her the 442 automatic on the column, bench seats, and she drove it almost 30 years,” Gramm says. “She was backing out of the garage and scratched the rear quarter. As soon as she heard the ‘err!’ where it scratched, she put the car in park, turned it off, and wouldn’t drive it anymore.”

Her son didn’t want the car, so she told him to sell it. “The paint was faded in the California sun, and it had a rip in the seat, but everything else about it was completely stock and in beautiful shape aside from the one scratch she put in it before she sold it,” he recalls.

Photo courtesy of Karsten Steiger

Again, Gramm was going to try to get the guy down from $3,500. “But I thought if I try and get him down and I insult him, he’s not going to sell it to me at any price,” Gramm says. “So I said, ‘I’ll take it. ‘”

The seller let Gramm drive the 442 to his friend’s house in Los Angeles and they returned the plates before he left town. “My friend took me to the airport and I flew back to Rochester, and within 10 days the car was in Rochester,” he says.

When Gramm got the car, it only had 31,000 miles. “I had the whole thing rubbed out—it’s 95 percent original paint. I had the little tear in the seat fixed, the exhaust fixed. It looks like new now. I sanded down the frame. It was beautiful. I spray-painted it Rust-Oleum black. I’ve had it almost 29 years, and it’s got 40,000 miles on it now. So I’ve driven 9,000 miles in 27 years,” he says, with a laugh.

1967 Buick Gran Sport

Rating: 8.5

Gramm found this Buick in a small ad from a used car dealer as he was leafing through Hemmings. “Beautiful, beautiful car. The guy was advertising Buick Rivieras, a TR6, an Austin-Healey, and it said—”67 Gran Sport, one owner,'” Gramm recalls. “I called him and he described the car. My brother-in-law and I flew to Kennedy, because he was in Long Island, and we rented a car and went over to see the car.”

Although the car was filthy, they ran a hose over it to reveal yet another hidden gem. “The body was just beautiful, and the interior was beautiful. It was a medium blue with a dark blue interior and a black vinyl top,” Gramm says. “It was a 400 automatic with positraction, AM/FM radio, air. Under the hood, it had the 400 motor and this fiberglass air filter they call the ‘Star Wars’ air cleaner, because it looks like the Stars Wars X-Wing fighter.”

This was a one-owner car, as well. “The guy was an Army lifer who bought the car in Atlanta and was stationed in Florida, so he owned the car all his life. I ended up getting the car for $17,500 and had a friend of mine come down and drive it back,” Gramm says. “It’s got 92,000 miles on it, but the thing’s perfect.”

Photo courtesy of Karsten Steiger

Gramm always likes keeping a car’s original paint. “Unless there was something on it that needed to be touched up, then I had the paint matched because you can match the paint via computer now,” he says.

He likes that the computer also takes into consideration the age and fade factor, so he can touch up the car with a color that has the same fade, matching it perfectly.

“It’s a beauty. And they didn’t make very many of those ’67 Gran Sports,” he says.

Because he bought all of his cars through ads years ago, not long after the height of Foreigner, did the sellers have any idea they were selling a car to the lead singer of a popular band?

“No. That’s the way I like it. I don’t tell them who I am,” Gramm says, adding that the price would suddenly go up. “I think that works against me if they know who I am. I’ve got my baseball hat pulled over my face. Even if I wasn’t a rock and roll star, I’d still dress the way I dress.”

2011 Chevrolet Tahoe Z71

Rating: 8.5

Gramm’s daily driver is a more current GM ride, a 2011 Chevy Tahoe Z71. “I like that it feels very heavy duty, and when I go down the road I feel like I’m really driving something,” he says. He adds that he likes the V-8’s power, the steering, and the brakes. His one complaint? “The wires keep breaking off the rear window defroster. That’s my only gripe.”

He got this SUV because he liked the shape and style of it. “I’m a GM guy, and the winters we have up here, you’ve got to be driving something like that from November through the end of February. You better be in a four-wheel drive.”

Car he learned to drive in

Gramm learned to drive and took his driver’s test in his dad’s car. “He had a ’63 Buick LeSabre with a Wildcat motor in it. It was a two-door hardtop. Beautiful, beautiful car,” he says. “They were also big boats.”

His dad taught him to drive on the streets of Rochester, which should have been easy. “I don’t think it was that easy at first. He had a lot of patience, but I could always tell when he was ready to snap it, because his voice would go up an octave, and he’d be going, ‘Louis, Louis! Turn, turn!'” Gramm says, with a laugh. “I can remember that like it was yesterday. ‘I am, Dad!’ It took me a little while to get the hang of it, but I was into cars when I was eight years old.”

Photo courtesy of Karsten Steiger

First car bought

While in high school, Gramm worked at a Wegmans grocery store. “I was a bag boy. I used to carry the grocery bags out to people’s cars for them,” he says. “I did that for about two years and I would completely save every check I got, and I got up to $1,700 after two years.”

He saved enough money to buy his high school car. “I drove a ’63 Oldsmobile F-85, small V-8, three-speed on the column, and it was a sweet little car,” he says. “I had it for three or four years and I passed my test the first time.”

Gramm will always fondly remember the Oldsmobile as the car he drove to his first date and the senior prom. The Olds was also the car Gramm had his first drag race in, on a street that heads toward the beach.

“When the light turned red, you’d always see one muscle car in one lane and another muscle car in another lane. When that light turned green, they’d race and chances are they’d catch the next red light and they’d do it again, and if one car made it past the other one, then the one who caught the red light, somebody else would pull up next to him and those two would race,” Gramm recalls.

“I used to love doing that,” Gramm says, wistfully. “That preoccupied my weekends, and I was in a little local rock band then. It was really a great bunch of years at that time.”

Gramm kept the Oldsmobile until a better ride caught his eye. “I sold it because I saw something else for sale, a ’66 442. I keep them a long time—my Camaro and my GTO and the 442—I’ve had them all for over 20 years,” he says.

Favorite road trip

“There’s a place about 40 miles outside of Rochester that once a year has a huge gathering of muscle cars. It’s on a parkway where the roads are paved so smoothly you’d think you were driving on a rug,” Gramm says. “The scenery’s beautiful, and it twists and winds, so that particular day when they have that huge muscle car meeting, as you’re driving there, you’re seeing muscle cars all over the place—next to you, in front of you, behind you.”

Photo courtesy of Karsten Steiger

Gramm describes what it’s like to see up to 600 muscle cars drive on Lake Ontario Beach Parkway for the last car show of the year, the Olcott Beach Car Show, which takes place in September .

“It’s a park, so you see people park besides a tree, and that’s also on Lake Ontario, so you see people parked right near the beach, just near where the water starts. It’s an awesome setting,” he says.

Back with Foreigner starting Nov. 9

Gramm’s reunion with Foreigner last year started with a show at Jones Beach. It became four shows, joined by current lead singer and past Celeb Drive subject Kelly Hansen.

It’s well known among Foreigner fans that Gramm has overcome a brain tumor and related issues, so these precious few reunion concerts are special for those who want to once again see the original lineup.

This year, Gramm joins Foreigner back on stage in Los Angeles on Nov. 9 at Microsoft Theater. They’re in Rancho Mirage the next day, and later in the month at the Hard Rock in Atlantic City and then their last tour date together this year is in Connecticut.

Though he’s been through a lot medically, Gramm is always careful about the instrument that got him to the top of his game.

“I’ve always taken care of my voice. I stay away from sodas, I exercise my voice at least a week or 10 days before a show,” he says. “I warm up my voice before the show doing scales, hitting high notes. I just don’t walk out on stage and start screaming, especially now that I’m in my 60s. I’ve got to take good care of whatever I’ve got.”

Photo courtesy of Karsten Steiger

Being on stage with his former rock band lately has been like a d j vu experience for Gramm.

“It really is. When we did our first show together at Jones Beach, I looked to my left and I saw Ian McDonald and Rick Wills, and I looked to my right and I saw Mick [Jones] right next to me, and Al Greenwood just behind him on the keyboards and I was off playing tambourine,” Gramm says. “I turned around and saw Dennis [Elliott] on drums and I had this feeling come over me like it was our first gig again. There were a lot of smiles between us, and they were genuine.”

Gramm understands that it’s a gift for fans to see the original members together on stage again.

“I don’t know of a lot of bands that will have a reunion and have basically the original band together playing again. A lot of times they’ll have reunions, but it’s maybe one or two members and everybody else is a side man,” Gramm says. “It’s fun to step on stage and feel that warmth.”

Gramm still records his own solo music and may release an EP in the not too distant future. But for now, he’s focused on his four shows with Foreigner.

“When you look out in the audience, there’s young teenagers, but a lot of people in the 35-to-60 age group that probably were there when we were at our peak, and you could see that they identify with the real band,” he says.

For more information please visit lou-gramm.com or foreigneronline.com.


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