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1955 Chevrolet Corvette - The Privateer

This Sebring 12-hour veteran is actually a '55 in disguise.

Scott Ross Mar 10, 2014
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Imagine driving America's Only True Sports Car from Chicago to Florida, piloting that same Corvette in the 12 Hours of Sebring—and then driving it back to Chicago.

It can't be done, you say? Believe it or not, it already has been—and this was the first Corvette to do it, the only privately entered Vette in the 1956 12-hour race.

And, despite its outward appearance, it's a 1955 Corvette.

Kevin Mackay says one photograph taken of the car at Sebring eventually led to its discovery, restoration, and purchase by current owner Phil Schwartz. Mackay, owner and proprietor of Corvette Repair in Valley Stream, New York, explains how the search started. "[C1 authority] Loren Lundberg found a photograph with five cars in it, numbered 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7. One of them, the No. 3 car, had a visible license number on the back of it."

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Armed with that 1956 Illinois plate number (4346), Lundberg contacted the Illinois Secretary of State's office, which provided microfiche copies of its motor-vehicle registration information, including the serial number of that Corvette and its original owner. "The guy who owned the car was Carl Buehler III," says Mackay. "He got the car before Sebring in 1956, out of Dick Doane Chevrolet in Chicago. Carl was a successful businessman who always wanted to go racing. He had a personal relationship with Dick Doane himself, and he was able to get one of these special cars."

"Special" doesn't begin to describe the differences between this Arctic Blue C1 (and the factory-sponsored Vettes that ran at Sebring that year) and the regular-production '56s. "These cars had 1955 VIN numbers on them—except for the No. 7, which had a '56 VIN—with prototype '56 bodies," says Mackay.

He adds, "It had a 265 with a 9.25:1 compression ratio, stock valves and camshaft, 225 horsepower...two stock four-barrel carburetors, and straight exhaust pipes going out the sides. It also had a 3.27:1 open rearend, stock brake drums and wheels, Firestone Super Sport racing tires, a stock 16-gallon fuel tank, and heavy-duty front and rear springs."

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Exotic for its time, the non-original 265-inch small-block boasts two Carter four-barrels atop an early-'56 2x4-barrel intake.

How did the car do at Sebring? "It went 136 laps, and finished Seventh in its class and 23rd overall," says Mackay, noting that it was still going after 12 hours on the chassis-punishing circuit.

Then, after its return to Chicago, the car disappeared. "Somehow it caught on fire later on," says Mackay, referring to a carburetor fire while at Dick Doane Chevrolet that damaged the C1's '56 body. "The owner didn't want the car after that, so he traded it in on a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. And then the Corvette lost its history until 1985, when Loren ran the license-plate number, got the VIN, and spoke with the original owner."

Current owner Phil Schwartz picks up the story. "Kevin had heard that the car may have been re-bodied at one point, and that it had been sold to somebody else."

Mackay found the car a few years back but passed on it. Schwartz, however, had an interest in the rare Vette, and told Mackay to track it down again. But he was too late: It had been sold to a dealer in Atlanta. Mackay contacted the dealer, who looked it up in his records. "He told me he had sold the car to a Texas collector," says Mackay, who adds that it was still on the dealership's website, wearing a '55 body. (It had even earned an NCRS Duntov Award in that configuration.)

"We asked the dealer if he'd get in touch with the car's owner, [to see] if he would sell," says Schwartz. The owner, who was unaware of the Corvette's unique history, initially declined.

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"Finally, after I gave him a world-record price for a '55, he decided to sell."

Transforming the Vette from a Duntov Award–winning '55 to its 1956 Sebring race configuration took the Corvette Repair crew about two years. During the build, they discovered more about the C1's history, and its '56-to-'55 transformation.

"They left the original dashboard on it," says Schwartz. "When we took pictures, the holes for the little [racing] windshield were still in there." The floor, an original one modified for a three-speed, had been re-converted for a Powerglide automatic, which Corvette Repair re-reconverted for the three-speed that's in it now.

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Inside, it's 1956 all over again. Dash (including factory radio) stayed in the car after its conversion to a '55, and back to a '56. 

Schwartz adds that, even though the original 265 was long gone, they located a lot of original parts they needed. "We found the 2x4-barrel carburetors and intake manifold, which have a very early '56 date code on them. We also found the original tachometer and driving lights.

"We used as many parts as we could from the '55 and '56 combined, and we built a car around this chassis," adds Schwartz. "I bought a '56 Corvette for its original body, and we used all the body panels from it."

The result of all that work is a C1 that looks ready to run the 12 Hours again, despite its lack of modern-day driveability, which Schwartz likens to that of a truck. "It's like all the early cars," he says. "At low speed, it's a little rough."

If you're thinking about tracking down other pieces of Corvette's racing history, Schwartz counsels patience. "You can try...but it's becoming more and more difficult because a lot of those cars have already been found and restored."

He adds, "You have to go to as many Corvette shows and NCRS meets as you can, and speak to the people there. You never know what they might have in their garage."

With luck, you might find another piece of Corvette history—though maybe not one that made the Chicago-to-Sebring round trip without a trailer!

Spec Sheet

'55 Corvette
Owner Phil Schwartz; Roslyn, NY
Block Stock cast-iron SBC (casting # 3703254)
Displacement 265 ci
Heads Stock cast-iron (casting # 3703523)
Valves Stock 1.72/1.50-in steel
Camshaft Stock hydraulic lifter
Pistons Stock forged aluminum
Compression Ratio 9.25:1
Crankshaft Stock forged steel
Rods Stock forged steel
Oil System Stock with AC/Delco mechanical pump
Carburetion '56 Corvette RPO 469 2x4-barrel (Carter 2419S front/2362S rear)
Intake Manifold '56 Corvette RPO 469
Ignition Stock AC/Delco with dual-point distributor
Exhaust Stock manifolds, restored side-exit racing system (no mufflers)
Transmission Stock three-speed manual
Clutch Stock
Driveshaft Stock
Rearend Stock open type with 3.27 gears
Suspension Stock unequal-length A-arms, heavy-duty coil springs, antiroll bar, and tubular hydraulic shock absorbers (front); stock axle on heavy-duty semi-elliptic leaf springs, antiroll bar, and tubular hydraulic shock absorbers (rear)
Brakes Stock manual 11-in drums
Wheels Stock stamped steel, 15x5-in (front/rear)
Tires Firestone Super Sport racing bias-ply, 6.70-15 (front/rear)
Mileage 15 (since restoration)

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