Big-time vintage Corvette race cars, like this Briggs Cunningham Le Mans-winning '60 Corvette, don't usually come back from the dead. Once in a while, they luck out if some far-thinking owner takes them under his wing, seeing the historical value in reviving them. Ask Chip Miller, the owner. Or ask Kevin Mackay, the super-sleuth who tracked down the car, then restored it in his shop, Corvette Repair in Valley Stream, New York. They know.
Those who picked up our September '03 issue will no doubt remember our short story about Duntov's famous race cars. The Briggs Cunningham No. 1 Le Mans-winning car was raced by the legendary driving duo of John Fitch and Bob Grossman, who took first in the 4,000-5,000cc class for GT cars and placed Eighth Overall at Le Mans in 1960. (Only two drivers were used for this 24-hour race. Today, the normal number is three or four drivers for most 24-hour endurance races.)
But, first, a little history. Chevrolet pulled the plug on racing in 1957 with the now infamous AMA (American Manufacturer's Association) ban on direct factory teams. This GM mandate put the big kibosh on Duntov's dream of winning the most prestigious endurance race in the world. Enter Briggs Cunningham. Briggs fielded a trio of Corvettes at that endurance race in 1960. It's a legacy Chip Miller knows well.
"Two of Briggs' cars ran at Sebring that year," Chip says. "Mine was one of them; it was the No. 1 car in 1960. Briggs drove the first leg and noticed a noise in the rear end; he didn't know what it was. He brought it into the pits. They looked things over and Fitch went out again. Shortly thereafter, the rear axle snapped and put Fitch into a flip."
The car was a DNF, of course, but it was fixed for Le Mans and given the No. 3 to wear. Briggs' other entry from Sebring also ran in France, along with a third Cunningham Corvette. The class included still another Corvette entered by the Camoradi team, making four Corvettes in all.
Today, when a Corvette races at Le Mans, there is no losing track of it. The C5-Rs are instant collectibles, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. C5-Rs are built from the beginning as racing cars, which was not the case in 1960. As many modifications as Cunningham did to ready his straight-axle Corvettes for Sebring and Le Mans, he started with an assembly line-created car. That's the way it was in those days.
Sometime in the '60s, somebody, as yet unknown, converted this winning Corvette back to street service. Chip's educated guess was the car disappeared in the 1963-1964 time frame, like the crate in the final scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, cast out in a sea of Corvettes never to be found again.
Then, nine years ago, Kevin Mackay, celebrated for his meticulous restorations of great racing Corvette ghosts of the past, tracked down the long-lost Le Mans winner. Through a title search by VIN, he located the car, which still existed, in far from racing condition. The owner wouldn't sell. At that time, the telltale signs of its racing past were hidden under layers of non-white paint.
Initially, Chip was not involved with the hunt. When he learned of Mackay's quest, he asked to be first in line should Mackay's current customer lose interest. "I told Kevin years ago, if that guy ever wants to step aside, plug me in," Chip says. That's just what happened; Chip got the car. The VIN was for real, and Chip bought the car sight unseen.
Chip recalled his initial inspection. He was talking to Mackay on his cell phone. First, he popped the hood and checked the VIN. It matched. He noticed other details. On the cowl, the windshield-wiper transmission was moved over. You could see the outline of where it was filled in. The same went for the quick-fill gas cap. When the car arrived at Mackay's shop they peeled back the layers of paint and uncovered more unique features. The VIN was also stamped on the frame, so it too was original.
Chip was the right owner for this Corvette. Most Corvette people know Chip and his partner, Bill Miller, for their Corvettes At Carlisle show held every August. But Chip is also a serious Corvette collector and especially likes the '60 model. He vintage-races a '59.
"I graduated from high school in 1960," Chip says. "It was during college that I really discovered Corvettes of the '58-'60 vintage. I just liked them. They were brand new Corvettes of my youth. In 1962, when I graduated from college, I bought a '60 Corvette. It was my first Corvette."
In 1987, Chip was at the Monterey Historic Races when Mike Pillsbury unveiled the No. 2 Dick Thompson '60 Briggs Cunningham Le Mans race Corvette.
"When it came into the Doubletree parking lot on the trailer, I just about fainted when I saw it," Chip says. "I mean, it was so cool. It had the Halibrand wheels, the quick fill, the notch in the back window. I'd never in my life seen a cooler car. And I love Grand Sports. I love a lot of Corvettes, but I have to say for me, having graduated in 1960, that car held a particular mystique."
Not surprisingly, Chip had the enthusiasm to invest the large sum of money needed to restore his car correctly. He also put in thousands of hours researching, locating parts, documentation, and making sure everything was right on the car.
Chip's best source for information was the aforementioned '60 model that Pillsbury (now deceased) restored for the '87 Monterey Historic Automobile Races. Twice sold, it's now owned by Bruce Meyer.
Pillsbury got lucky when he gave a seminar on the '60 Le Mans entry in Boston. Alfred Momo, who was the head of Cunningham's race team, still lived in Long Island. He was in the audience. Moved by Mike's talk, he approached Pillsbury and asked if he would like some original pieces for the old racer. Apparently, Cunningham made extras of everything, like the exotic racing seats. Covered in velour, they were based on aircraft jump seats of World War II vintage. Pillsbury also lucked out with the fabricated dashplate for the gauges, hood louvers, and Halibrand "kidney" style wheels.
Meyer graciously allowed the seats to be pulled from the Thompson racer so they could be accurately re-created for Chip's car. Essentially, the cars are alike, built to the same specifications. The hood pins were especially time-consuming and expensive to reproduce. Including the cost of designing, machining, and plating, Chip explained, "By the time I was done with those two little hood hold-downs, we were talking an investment of $4,000. I had to have a Ferrari guy in Northern California design them, machine them, and assemble them. They are unique to the Cunningham Corvettes only."
What you see is an authentic re-creation of the original Cunningham Corvette racecar. No detail was omitted and no expense spared. As the exhaustive restoration proceeded, it almost seemed like fate was on Chip's side. Even before he bought the '60, he found a set of five Halibrand wheels advertised in the NCRS Driveline. "They were bare wheels-no spinners, hubs, or anything," he says. They were just bare wheels, but they were absolutely 100 percent original Cunningham wheels."
But Chip called too late. The wheels were sold. He got the new owner's name and ended up buying the wheels from him. Amazingly enough, they are precisely the wheels Cunningham used, painted blue to seal the pores in the magnesium. Chip believes some of these very wheels were used on his car at Le Mans.
For now, the '60 model is "eye candy." However, 2010 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Cunningham effort at Le Mans. Although Bob Grossman passed away a couple of years ago, Fitch is still active. The year 2010 is not so far off, and Chip Miller plans to take the '60 model and John Fitch to Le Mans.
"God willing, both he and I will drive that car on the course. That's a goal, and I have a lot of goals. Think about it. I'll have another set of wheels. I'll have newer tires that will be able to go around the corners. It's very well built."
We look forward to seeing you in 2010. Au revoir!