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Chevrolet Corvette Class History - National Treasure

Decades of dust and faded paint couldn't hide a rich Corvette racing history

Tom Shaw Oct 1, 2006
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It's funny how so many celebrities move into the spotlight, shine like a star for a brief moment, and then disappear, never to be heard from again. But it is with unforgettable fondness we remember them in the brilliance of their prime.

And that is what we've got here. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this Corvette, despite its humble appearance. In the formative years of the Corvette becoming a world-class performer, this Corvette was at the forefront of that charge-a prototype fuelie, hand-assembled with racing hardware at the Chevrolet Engineering Center to compete in high-profile races.

The Corvette had found its direction with the new V-8, and in the fall of 1956, Ed Cole, general manager of Chevrolet, was getting serious about making a name for the new sports car. They took aim at the Governor's Trophy race, a swank affair run annually in Nassau, the Bahamas, since 1954 that drew the beautiful people and the prestige cars: Ferrari, Mercedes, Jaguar, and Maserati. To make a good showing here, you had to get past drivers such as Carroll Shelby, Sterling Moss, Carl Haas, Colin Chapman, Marquis de Portago, Phil Hill, John Fitch, and others. That was just what Chevrolet wanted-a visible opportunity for its new sports car to challenge the best.

Chevrolet had several areas of development in progress at the same time: chassis, transmission, and the new Ram Jet fuel injection. Chevrolet placed an order for 50 fuelie units to be used on race cars, show cars, and for testing. In October 1956, Chevrolet issued work order No. 17792, calling for the assembly of three Chevrolet sedans for stock car racing and two Corvettes that would get factory backing while competing in sports car races and introduce fuel injection at Nassau. At the St. Louis plant, the two Corvettes were built with hardtop only, radio/heater delete, then sent to Chevrolet Engineering in Warren, Michigan, and fitted with the new high-performance parts outlined in the special assembly work order, including:* Ram Jet Fuel Injection* 37.5 Gallon Quick-Fill Fuel Tank* Rollbar* Big Brakes w/Cooling Ducts* Large Pulley Generator* RPO 581 Rear Traction Bar Suspension (became RPO 684)* Quick Steering Adaptor* Shortened steering column* Driver Seat Modifications* Sun Electric Tach

After shakedown testing at Sebring by "the flying dentist" Dr. Dick Thompson, the '56 SCCA C-Production Champion, the cars were shipped to Nassau for the Speedweeks racing. In the Corvette's first public outing, Thompson drove this car, chassis No. 775 and wearing No. 15, to a first-in-class finish.

The next event on the dance card was the February 1957 NASCAR-sanctioned Speedweeks on the beach at Daytona. The car was shipped to Smokey Yunick for preparation. Paul Goldsmith, five-time American Motorcycle National Champion and NASCAR driver, was at the wheel, and the Corvette was on top of its game, setting a new record of 91.301 mph in the standing mile and 131.941 mph in the two-way flying mile.

From there, it competed in NASCAR's inaugural National Sports Car Day Feature, an international race aimed at world-class sports cars. Running in C-production as number 9, Corvette No. 775 again finished first in its class, four laps ahead of the number two C-production finisher, a Jaguar XK140.

Its spectacular achievements were chronicled in the premiere issue of Corvette News, Vol.1, Issue 1, and in a press kit sent to Chevrolet dealers in 1957 to promote Chevrolet Racing.

With a chestful of medals, it was sent to Sedco in Atlanta, Chevrolet's outside (wink, wink) contractor, where it was prepped for the annual March race at Sebring. By then, two more fresh Corvettes had been rotated into the system, and No. 775 reported for duty with Borg-Warner for development of the T-10 four-speed.

In May 1958, Chevrolet processed No. 775 out of the racing stable. Its conversion to street trim consisted of replacing the steel 37.5-gallon fuel tank (renowned for leaking) with a stock unit, and replacing the racing brakes with conventional drums. Erwin Rohrer, an engineer at Rockwell, had been tipped off about the sale and bought the car through Dick Doane Chevrolet in Dundee, Illinois, one of Chevrolet's key racing dealerships. Erwin enjoyed some limited street driving and added a radio and heater to cope with the Windy City winters. In 1961, it got a trendy gold metalflake paint job over the original white with blue stripes, and the red interior was dyed black. In 1967, with just 33,541 miles on the clock, it was rolled into the garage at Erwin's Chicago-area home. It was the last daylight No. 775 would see for eight presidents and 37 years.

As Mr. Rohrer aged and began facing health issues, his family decided it was time to part with the Corvette. The sale was negotiated between a small circle of enthusiasts who understood the historical weight that No. 775 carried. Joe Trybulec, a businessman from Arkansas who owned several other Corvettes of historical significance, was in the final negotiations. During his trip to look at the car, Joe noticed a woodshop project in the seller's basement and knew it was a high school woodshop project. He knew because he'd made the same Indian head in the same high school woodshop 26 years earlier. Amazingly, both Erwin and Joe graduated from the same Chicago-area high school-a factor weighing heavily in the family's decision about who would eventually end up with the car.

With 30 years of NCRS experience and with veteran GM engine specialist and fuel-injection historian Ken Kayser helping ID things, Joe knew what he pulled from that garage in 2004 was an untouched time capsule. Other than the repaint and interior being recolored, the car was very close to its as-raced setup from 1957. The original 283 engine was still there and stamped with its No. 17792 work order ID number, as were the three-speed manual transmission and axle. The metalflake paint had deteriorated as the metal particles began to oxidize, but the original white and blue stripes racing colors are clearly visible where the gold has flaked off.

Under the hood is a goldmine of pre-production parts and info. Those first 50 fuelie units were individually hand-stamped beginning with number 101. This one is No. 132 and still has its ID tag to prove it.

The engine hasn't run under its own power for almost 40 years now. Joe has not tried to start it, but he has put a battery in the car and spun it over. Amazingly, it still turns over freely.

When word of the find began to trickle out into the Corvette hobby, Joe got an invitation to display the factory team car at Bloomington Gold. He explained to Bloomington's Bill Locke that the car was not restored, wasn't running, and still had 40 years of dirt on it. Bill told him that was just how they'd like it presented. Joe showed it in Bloomington Gold's '05 Great Stories Special Collection. The response was overwhelming, including a call from GM opening the door to GM's racing archives for vintage pictures of the car.

Joe says he may soon prep the engine for starting, possibly to show at the upcoming 50th anniversary of its racing exploits at next year's Daytona 500. He's also interested in finding out if the gold metalflake paint can be removed without harming the original white/blue paint underneath. The success of that operation will determine if it will be repainted.

As for a restoration, Joe says he's undecided. You know what they say about a car being original only once. And he's not the type to make a rash decision.

The second Corvette, teammate to this one, has never been found. Lots of Corvettes have amassed quite a list of checkered flags over the years, but they can all trace their roots back to a certain '57 that was sent out to slay some powerful dragons for four dramatic months in the winter of 1956-1957. one of the marque's brightest stars, the Nassau/Daytona No. 775 Corvette is back in a big way.

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