1956 Corvette SR-2

The Soul of the Corvette and the Soul of GM

John Pearley Huffman Jun 5, 2003 0 Comment(s)

The SR-2 sprang first in the mind of Jerry Earl, the son of Harley Earl who was then the head of GM styling, and a rabid sports car enthusiast. Taking the basic chassis developed for Sebring racers, the SR-2 used a special body designed by Robert Cumberford (who was then a GM designer and is currently the automotive design editor for Corvette Fever's sister magazine at Primedia, Automobile), aided by Tony Lapine (who was then a draftsman and would go on to head Porsche styling) that borrowed liberally from the classic Jaguar D-Type including the fin behind the head restraint for extra stability.

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This self-explanatory signature shifter plate sits next to the first Corvette ever equipped with a four-speed transmission.

"That car was done in four or five weeks," Cumberford recalls in Randy Leffingwell's Corvette: Fifty Years (Motorbooks International, 2002), "They brought in a car in early May, took the body off, did molds, and sent it off. The windshield panel was the same as the Sebring car. There was no headrest on it at the beginning and the fin came later too. Other than extending the front out 10 inches to make a better aerodynamic line over the hood, there were very few changes. It was just a stock car. It had a radio."

After Cumberford and Lapine's work, the car went to Duntov who upgraded the mechanical bits to Sebring specs. Then, at the suggestion of Harley Earl, the headrest and a center-mounted fin were added. The younger Earl's SR-2 had blue vinyl upholstery, instrumentation sunk into a stainless steel panel, and a wood-rimmed steering wheel--all heavy stuff that kept the car from being competitive when it first showed up in competition at Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin in June 1956. So weight was taken out of the car with such tricks as the installation of thin-shell Porsche Spyder seats.

A second SR-2 (the red one now owned by Bill Tower) was built for GM's heir apparent in the styling department, Bill Mitchell. Also carrying the Sebring equipment, the red SR-2 ran a thrilling 152.886 mph in the flying mile at Daytona Speedweeks in 1957 with Buck Baker behind the wheel. The engine was prepared by legendary tuner Smokey Yunick and featured special brakes and ducting to ensure the ultimate in stopping power. While most Corvettes of the time tipped the scales at close to 3,000 pounds, this race car was a very light 2,300 pounds in fighting weight.

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The SR-2's unique rear-hinged trunk is fully functional and includes a working spare tire just in case Bill requires a replacement while circling the Indy 500 track at 140 mph.

The third SR-2 was built for GM President Harlow Curtice. It featured a shallower fin, stock Corvette mechanical pieces, Dayton wire wheels, and a bolt-on/bolt-off stainless steel top. It never raced and instead was used as a show car.

The greatest racing glory earned by the SR-2 came in 1958 when the number-one car, now owned by Jim Jeffords who drove for Chicago's Nickey Chevrolet, took it to the '58 SCCA B-Production championship. But the importance of the SR-2s isn't in how well they did on the racetrack, but how they emboldened GM's plans for the Corvette in the future.

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Originally planned to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, this eyelet on the gas cap was part of the sealing mechanism required for competition at that track. At the start of the race, the gas tanks were sealed and, during the first fueling stop, the seal was broken.

By 1957, many elements of the Sebring race machines were showing up in production Corvettes including the four-speed transmission and fuel-injection system, and Zora Arkus-Duntov was named chief engineer for the car. All the special Corvettes that have come subsequently--SS, CERV-1, Mako Shark, Grand Sport, ZL-1, ZR-1, and Z06--owe a debt to the SR-2. It was hardly the most radical Corvette ever built, but it was a pioneer.

GM has been up and down since 1956 and, while it's still a huge corporation, ($186.76 billion now in annual sales, according to Fortune magazine) it's fallen to number two behind Wal-Mart ($246.52 billion in sales), and Toyota makes more total profit. The world has in fact changed and the people (including some women) who run GM now rarely swagger like their forefathers did in the '50s. But the Corvette still has the soul of that robust GM; a soul it found during those first races of 1956 and expressed in the SR-2.

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