The Real McCoy 1956 Corvette SR Prototype.
Photos by David Newhardt, courtesy Mecum Auctions.
Kurt Ernst Dec 23rd, 2013 at 8am
In 1955, Chevrolet was struggling to find buyers for its Corvette roadster, which had yet to be proven in competition. Chevrolet engineering head Ed Cole understood that the surest way to boost the car’s stock was with an on-track victory, so Cole reached out to legendary American driver John Fitch. Tasked with producing a victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1956, Fitch and his team worked tirelessly to test and improve the Corvette before the race, and when the checkered flag fell, a pair of Corvettes took class wins at the prestigious event. Now, the 1956 Chevrolet Corvette SR prototype that first crossed the finish line at Sebring, known as The Real McCoy, will head to auction next month.
While Fitch’s skill as a driver was without question, Cole needed him to act in a team management role as well. With just five weeks of development time before the race, Fitch’s initial experience with the Corvette was disheartening. While Smokey Yunick prepared four cars for the race, Fitch began testing with a Corvette mule at Sebring, only to find that the car was scarcely capable of turning a lap at speed without a component failure. Engines lost oil pressure, wheel bearings seized, oil seals failed and so did the cars’ brakes.
When Yunick delivered his Corvettes, the situation failed to improve dramatically. Each issue discovered in testing had to be sent up the chain of command by an on-site Chevrolet engineer, and improved parts had to be sourced from suppliers or constructed in house. In keeping with SCCA regulations, each improved part had to be cataloged as well, available (theoretically, at least) for any Corvette owner to purchase.
Three of the cars prepared by Yunick were equipped with Chevrolet’s 265-cu.in. V-8, fitted with a custom-ground Duntov camshaft, and fed via a pair of dual four-barrel carburetors. The fourth car, a modified 1955 chassis (number 1194) with a prototype 1956 body, was fitted with a bored and stroked V-8 that now displaced 307 cubic inches, and thus would compete in a different class during the event. To handle the engine’s higher output, a custom four-speed transmission was supplied by ZF, and on race day the car would be driven by Fitch himself, paired with Walt Hansgen.
The 307-cu.in. V-8, topped by a pair of dual four-barrel carburetors. Though Fitch, Cole and the others involved in the project (including legendary Corvette engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, who was heading the parts engineering effort in Detroit) struggled to get the bugs worked out in advance of the event, five weeks wasn’t enough time to develop a fully sorted race car. To maximize the team’s chances of victory, each of the 265-cu.in. V-8 cars (numbered 5, 6 and 7) would run a different strategy involving gearing and engine speed. As for the 307-cu.in. car, issued number 1, it would be up to Fitch and co-driver Hansgen to bring the car home in one piece, hopefully with a class win.
When the green flag flew, things immediately began to look bleak for the Corvette team. On the second lap, the clutch on car number 1 began to slip, while just 20 miles into the race the rear axle failed on car number 5. Two hours into the race, car number 7’s engine let go, and car number 6 experienced a transmission problem that left it with only top gear. Despite the obstacles, cars 1 and 6 pressed on, down but far from out, and when the checkered flag waved, both cars had taken victories in their respective classes. Fitch and Hansgen’s car crossed the line first, finishing ninth overall. A few minutes later, the second Corvette, number 6, finished the race in 15th overall position.
1956 Chevrolet Corvette SR Prototype 1956 Chevrolet Corvette SR Prototype 1956 Chevrolet Corvette SR Prototype 1956 Chevrolet Corvette SR Prototype
Though the victories immediately prompted Chevrolet print advertising to bill the Corvette as “a tough, road-gripping torpedo on wheels,” and, more significantly, “The Real McCoy,” they achieved far more than that. The general availability of the homologated high-performance parts suddenly made the Corvette attractive to other racers, and more and more Corvettes began appearing at SCCA events. In 1955, the first year of the V-8 engine, Chevrolet had produced just 700 Corvettes; in 1956, this number swelled to 3,467, and in 1957 jumped again to 6,339. Any thoughts that General Motors may have had about conceding the two-seater market to the Ford Thunderbird were banished, and it’s quite likely that the victory realized by Fitch and Hansgen saved the Corvette from extinction.
In addition to its class win at Sebring, chassis 1194 was also driven by Arkus-Duntov to a new two-way Flying Mile Speed Record at the 1956 Daytona Speed Week. It’s been the recipient of numerous awards over the years, including a 2012 Bloomington Gold Great Hall induction and the Spirit of Detroit award at the 2011 Concours of America.
Mecum will offer the Real McCoy Corvette at its Kissimmee, Florida, auction, which will take place January 17 to 26, 2014. For additional details, visit Mecum.com.