The General Motors Corporation is famous in its history for making a lot of questionable decisions, but the worst of all for Corvette fans would have been to kill the fiberglass-bodied two-seat sports car in its fourth year of production.
A pilot run of sorts, there were 300 Corvettes produced in Flint, Michigan, in 1953, and then full production moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with 3,640 Corvettes manufactured for the 1954 model year. The year 1955, with the introduction of the 265-inch small-block V-8, was a banner sales year for Chevrolet passenger cars and pickups, but only a total of 700 Corvettes were built for 1955. There were 693 ’55 Corvettes equipped with the 265-inch V-8 and a mere 7 powered by the 235-inch Blue Flame inline 6.
Believe it or not, it was thanks to the Ford Thunderbird that GM decided to continue production of the Corvette in 1956. It was that good old Ford versus Chevrolet friendly competition that made it all happen. Ford’s kneejerk reaction to the 1953 Corvette was announcing the coming of the ’55 T-bird on February 20, 1954. The ’55 T-bird went on sale October 22, 1954, and cleaned Chevrolet’s clock with 16,155 ’55 T-birds sold.
Even with a new V-8 engine, the ’55 Corvette was no match for the ’55 T-bird in offering the luxury features Americans demanded in an automobile. The ’55 T-bird had roll-up windows and the ’55 Corvette side curtains. The ’55 T-bird offered the three-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission, a three-speed manual or a three-speed manual with Overdrive. It was late 1955 before Corvette offered a three-speed manual as a choice instead of the two-speed Powerglide. The ’55 Corvette was a ragtop only and the ’55 T-bird came standard with a removable fiberglass hardtop, offering two tops with a folding convertible top as an option.
Totally caught with their corporate knickers down, it was a matter of pride that prompted GM to continue with the ’56 Corvette and present it in a completely redesigned exterior. The first ’56 Corvettes made could only be bought fully loaded. It’s interesting to note that the early ’56 Corvettes prepared for competition were fully loaded cars stripped down to race.
The Arctic Blue Corvette featured here belongs to Pete LeClair, and it’s the 11th ’56 Corvette that rolled off the assembly line. Pete explained to Vette, “the first time I saw this car it was in a thousand pieces. The color caught me right away and I had to have it.”
LeClair’s Corvette was a complete basket case, but the one thing it did have was a nice enough restoration paintjob that it didn’t have to be repainted. There were 390 Corvettes painted Arctic Blue in 1956, but add RPO 440 two-tone paint to the buildsheet with Metallic Silver coves and the number dwindles to 172.
Vette questioned LeClair what he would do differently if he had it to do over again. “Not a thing! It’s been a great process working with master Corvette restorer Ralph Ridge at Rocky Mountain Ridge, as well as the others involved. Jim Lennartz assisted Ralph with some assembly, rebuilt many original parts such as the differential, steering box and windshield wiper motor assisted by RPO 109 windshield washers.”
Refinished in basecoat/clearcoat urethane, there were a few areas where the previous owner hadn’t completed repainting the ’56 Arctic Blue. Ron Clark did the fiberglass bodywork, and then Newstalgia Custom Paint & Design of Fort Collins, Colorado, color-matched Arctic Blue in the unfinished areas with PPG urethane. From the factory all Corvettes in 1956 were painted in nitro cellulose lacquer. The first Magic Mirror acrylic lacquer appeared in 1957 and was only available in Inca Silver. The silver coves on ’56 and ’57 Vettes were done in Silver Metallic nitro cellulose. Not only will a urethane paintjob far outlast nitro cellulose it provides a prettier version of color and a clear topcoat adds depth. True to early ’56 Corvettes, LeClair’s headlight bezels are painted body color, not chromed.
Accompanying a garage full of loose parts, LeClair acquired a pair of Carter WCFB four-barrel carburetors. The ones with fuel crossover tubes; they were signed by Zora Arkus-Duntov, John Fitch and M.S. “Rosie” Rosenberger. It was rumored, but never proven No. 011 was one of three Corvettes factory prepped for Sebring. LeClair told Vette that after 30 years of no one being able to corroborate the Sebring rumor he restored the car to exactly how it was when it left St Louis. Intriguingly, during restoration traces of No. 011 having a racing history were found, including fender scoops that had been drilled out for brake cooling.
The bulk of ’56 Corvettes were factory equipped with both top options. The new-for-1956 RPO 419 fiberglass removable hardtop with Plexiglas rear window appears the same as 1957-’62 hardtops, but had an anodized aluminum header molding instead of stainless steel, and was painted body color on early cars. Auto Entec restored the hardtop, and John Schell of Fort Wayne, Indiana, restored the RPO 473 power operated folding top. Schell estimates he’s rebuilt 70-80 Corvette power convertible tops and has incorporated upgrades undetectable to the eye to improve operation.
Ford upped the T-bird’s power ante in 1956 with an optional 312-inch Y-block offering 20 more cubes than the base 292 Y-block. In turn, 3,080 ’56 Corvettes were fitted with the optional RPO 469 225-horse 265-inch Dual-Quad Corvette engine. Reported to produce 240 hp LeClair told Vette No. 011 has the “for racing purposes only” RPO 449 special high-lift camshaft that was factory installed in only 111 cars. Corvette nine-fin aluminum valve covers were included with RPO 469, and ’56 engines were painted red. No. 011 has the early two-bolt cast-iron exhaust manifolds superseded later in ’56 by three-bolt manifolds.
LeClair mentioned they discovered a lot of 1955 parts on his car while they were restoring it. The RPO 101 heater is a non-fresh air ’55 unit with a mechanical heater valve on the inner fender well. Also an early piece, a white plastic shift knob rows three speeds to an RPO 471 3.23 ratio rearend. Present on all early ’56 Corvettes are RPO 426 power windows, RPO 102 signal seeking transistor AM radio, RPO 107 parking brake alarm and RPO 108 courtesy lights. One of 887 beige interiors, Al Knoch Interiors was the source for the interior components, including waffle seats and door panels, carpet, dashpad and soft top. For rolling stock, Coker Firestone 6.70x15 whitewall tires are exact replicas of original equipment RPO 290 rubber.
LeClair explained to Vette, “Under my ownership, No. 011 has been restored to original condition, and every option works. It has been judged twice by National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS) and has scored an average of 99 percent meaning it’s nearly perfect.” The next time out for No. 011 will be a shot at the 2018 NCRS Duntov Mark of Excellence Award in Las Vegas. Vette
Photography by Don Kates