The world in which the Corvette SR-2 was born was different from the world today.
Back in 1956, most of America's roads were still covered in dirt, there were only 168,903,031 people in the country (about 121 million less than in 2002), most families, if they had any cars at all, had only one, and Congress was still debating the Interstate Highway Act. No American had ever heard of Honda, Toyota, or Nissan, and Volkswagen's success was but a pinprick irritant to Detroit's Big Three. And in 1956 General Motors was the biggest, most successful company the world had ever seen. With annual sales of $13 billion, GM was twice the size of the second largest company, Standard Oil of New Jersey (predecessor of today's ExxonMobil).
Time magazine had in fact named Harlow H. Curtice, GM's 11th president, as Man of the Year for 1955, not because GM had grown even larger, but because he embodied a bold and robust, uniquely American capitalism. Curtice, though, couldn't possibly manage GM singly or autocratically. The company was just too big (bigger than most countries), and the division managers ran their fiefdoms with near autonomy. GM's executive ranks were filled with alpha-type males, constantly jockeying for the best jobs, most prestige and, on occasion, to build the best cars. The SR-2 was a product that reflected GM's arrogant, testosterone-rich, flush-with-success culture.
The Corvette entered its fourth model year with the '56, only its second with V-8 power, and its sports-car credentials had yet to be earned. But the '56 body styling was new and more aggressive. Zora Arkus-Duntov began working on the car, and Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole was determined to earn the world's respect for the Corvette.
Grandfather to the SR-2 was the modified '56 Corvette Duntov brought to Daytona Speedweeks in February 1956 along with essentially stock (though not thoroughly stock) Corvettes for John Fitch and Betty Skelton. Until then, the Corvette's competition career had been limited to say the least, and non-existent at the factory level.
Using bits and pieces that were either already or about to be available for the small-block V-8, Duntov had an engine making 240 hp for a preliminary run on the beach at Daytona in January. He managed a two-way average speed of 150.58 mph. In February, some reworked heads and a compression-ratio bump to 10.3:1 had the V-8s making 255 hp. Duntov's modified Corvette had a single-seat cockpit, a short windscreen, and even a faired-in head restraint; and it steamed to a thrilling 147.300 mph average speed over the sand. Fitch's '56 did 145.543 mph and Betty Skelton managed 137.773 mph. Most importantly during that competition, the best a Ford Thunderbird could do was just 134.404 mph. GM's appetite for Corvette glory was whetted.
Father to the SR-2 were the Corvettes that showed up for the 12 Hours of Sebring at the legendary Florida airport track a month later. "As for the U.S. entries," Motor Trend wrote in a report on the March event in its June '56 issue, "the average sports car racing Joe simply wasn't to be found among the entries; they were strictly the cream of the U.S. crop. But there on the list, virtually rubbing elbows with the world's top-ranking sports car brass, was a team of 1956 Chevrolet Corvettes, looking as awkwardly out of place as a girl in her first high heels."
Those awkward Corvettes at Sebring were the first to wear the SR name. It seems that back in January 1956, Cole and Chevy discovered that the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) which sanctioned the Sebring race required that any and all modifications made to a production car to make it ready for racing be available to the general public and that at least 25 examples of the breed needed to be built. So a new model was created: the "SR." Some say the initials meant "Special Racing" and others contend it meant "Sebring Racer," but the argument is wholly academic because the car's name was just the initials. The SR models were supposed to come with a 37-gallon fuel tank feeding an engine equipped with the legendary "Duntov" cam, Halibrand Sport disc brakes, an Auburn clutch, quick-change wheels, and that racing innovation, seatbelts. The Halibrand brakes didn't make it onto the race cars, but one of the four entered cars did have an engine engorged to a massive 307 cubic inches and fitted with a prototype of the Rochester mechanical fuel-injection system and a ZF close-ratio four-speed transmission. The three regular 265ci displacement cars ran in Class C, while the big-engine machine competed in Class B.
The SRs didn't win at Sebring, but they did earn respect. As Motor Trend's Al Kidd reported, the "Corvette team was entered by Raceway Enterprises of Dundee, Illinois. This dissuaded almost no one from calling it a Chevrolet 'works entry' but it technically avoided the blunt connotation... There was virtually no handling problem with the Corvettes. Heavy-duty springs and shocks (two on each rear wheel) brought about handling that all of the team drivers liked. There was a problem with brakes. At least four different types were tried out (including sport discs) but the final solution came with the use of Cerametalix facings on a slightly wider than stock shoe, along with finned cast-iron drums. The solution, while expensive, gave them outstanding braking power during practice, and excellent staying power in the race."
While two of the four Corvettes dropped out early (including the Class B car), one of the Class C cars finished 15th (with John Fitch as one of the codrivers) and another finished next to last. Hey, it was a start and Motor Trend concluded, "It looks like the Corvette may develop into our number-one challenger in international sports car racing." It did.
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.
"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.
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.
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.