By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - Elvis Presley, who in his lifetime owned more than 200 automobiles and crooned the tune "No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car," took the wheel of one of his favorite cars in 1977 for what was to be his final drive.
After Presley drove his black 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III home, just hours before his death, the 230-horsepower V-8 vehicle with soft red leather interior and 18-karat gold trim sat nearly idle for decades at Graceland, the entertainer's Tennessee estate.
The vintage car is on display this weekend in North Carolina, for the first time since undergoing a refurbishment aimed at getting it back in working condition without losing any of its physical ties to the "King of Rock and Roll."
"It still has all of Elvis' DNA on it," said Walt Hollifield, the car collector and restorer chosen to oversee the recent 12-week preservation effort.
The Stutz will be featured in an auto show at Charlotte Motor Speedway through Sunday, then returned to the Graceland auto museum in Memphis to be exhibited with more than 20 others in the performer's collection.
Presley typically drove cars for about six months before trading them in or giving them away, but the 1973 Stutz proved to be one of his favorites, said Angie Marchese, director of archives at Graceland.
He put 8,450 miles on the car in about three years and, unlike his others, did not allow any members of his entourage to drive it, Marchese said.
A fan waiting outside the Graceland gates snapped a photo of Presley in the car just after midnight on August 16, 1977, as he returned from a dentist appointment. The singer was found dead in his house later that day.
The Graceland staff chose the Stutz as the first in the collection to undergo preservation work, and tapped 67-year-old Hollifield of Mint Hill, North Carolina, for the job.
After an 11-hour, white-knuckle drive through a January snowstorm to deliver the car to Hollifield's shop, his team began a systematic review of the car's components to see what still worked and what needed fixing.
They replaced the tires with duplicates of the originals and changed the oil and fluids, but left intact the paint job and any dents on the exterior, said Hollifield, an avid Presley fan. The car's interior was not cleaned in order to maintain its time-capsule quality.
"It was very important to us to preserve the integrity of the car the way Elvis had it," Marchese said. "To hear the car started up for the first time in 36 years was absolutely amazing."
The work brought some surprises even to those most familiar with the car. Because of a long-missing key and a blown fuse, no one had seen the inside of the trunk since Presley's death, Hollifield said. After replacing the fuse, his team found a hidden button that popped the trunk open.
"And lo and behold, it's got black, long furry carpet inside," he said. "It is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous."