It's a basic principle of marketing high-performance cars: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. Nickey Chevrolet was no stranger to that concept in the late '50s. They'd added a big stock of high-performance parts to their inventory in 1957, while selling Corvettes and high-performance steel-bodied Chevys on Chicago's North Side. The "winning" part was thanks to the cars that they raced on tracks across the United States.
Among the most famous of those race cars is the Purple People Eater Mk III, a '59 Corvette that was an SCCA National Champion in the B/Production class, with Jim Jeffords at the wheel. It was Jeffords' success with this car that solidified the reputation of Corvette's Rochester-built fuel-injection system as a serious piece of race-capable (and race-winning) hardware.
This Corvette wasn't built as a purple one, as that hue wasn't in the Corvette color selection that year. It came out of St. Louis Assembly as a white body/black interior car, optioned with the 290hp fuel-injected 283, four-speed manual transmission, Posi-traction, heavy-duty brakes /suspension, and no heater or defroster. Nickey Chevrolet added a hasp on the hood to keep it closed at speed, as well as a big fuel tank, safety chains underneath, a rollbar (such as it was back then), and replaced the stock windshield and frame with a much smaller windscreen in front of the driver.
Nickey's body shop painted it purple, using a paint formula that, while vivid to the eye, didn't fade like many custom purple paint jobs of the era did. This was the third racing Corvette they'd painted this way, after a '58 that Jeffords drove to the SCCA national B/Production crown the year before, and a '56 SR-2.
Inspiration for the color came from Nickey Chevrolet's secretary/treasurer, Jack Stephani, who thought their cars should stand out from other, factory-painted Corvettes in the paddock. The nickname came from Sheb Wooley's hit song, "Purple People Eater," which was a multimillion-selling chart topper in the summer of 1958, during Jeffords' first B/Production title run. It also came from Jeffords' claim of having only one good eye. What else would you call a car driven by a driver with one good eye that was built with one horn, was larger than most other road-racers of the day, and was painted purple?
Purple People Eater Mk III's success at tracks like Road America, Meadowdale, and other Midwestern road courses came thanks in no small part to Jeffords' driving skill, which Zora Arkus-Duntov brought to Nickey's attention a couple of years earlier, when they started their Corvette racing program, which resulted in the '58 B/Production title.
The success that this car had was nothing short of spectacular. It won or finished Second in every race that it finished in 1959, its mechanical fuel-injection system causing problems only for the competition.
This car was sold by Nickey in 1961 to Bob Spooner of St. Louis, who repainted it and raced it for a couple of years before selling it. With other fuel-injected Corvettes, especially 327-inch ones, as well as newer Sting Rays joining the SCCA Production ranks, this car became just another old car, with at least two subsequent owners before it landed at the first-ever Carlisle swap meet in 1974.
That's where future Carlisle Events promoter Chip Miller saw it for sale for $1,000. He and Ken Heckert were able to get the price down to $800, which they split evenly. They were co-owners of a car whose history had yet to be revealed, but whose condition Miller's son, Lance, says was far from concours. "It was kind of a 'train wreck,' but at least it was still performance-oriented," the younger Miller, who's now the car's custodian and historian, says.
Chip Miller and Bob Heckert autocrossed it for about a year, then it became a paint-mixing table in Heckert's shop until they decided to track down the car's history, with an eye toward restoring it. That happened in 1985, when they sought out the '59's previous owners, to document the special racing and heavy-duty parts the car had on it. To them, those parts had a certain high-quality appearance that could've come from original, factory-installed parts.
Then Heckert saw this car, pictured in action wearing No. 33, in Karl Ludvigsen's masterwork Corvette: America's Star-Spangled Sports Car. Contact with Ludvigsen followed, then Miller and Heckert asked just about everyone they met up with at every Corvette show they attended about this distinctive fuel-injected '59. That led them to early-Vette-racing-expert Mike Pillsbury. He had heard about the No. 33 car, and he knew that Bob Spooner had raced--and won--with it. Pillsbury called Spooner, then handed the phone to Miller. During that call, the car's tie to Spooner was established, and as fast as you could say "Bless my soul, rock and roll, flying purple people eater!" the car's history started to come into focus.
Heckert restored the car back to the way it looked when Jeffords drove it to his second B-Production title in a row, in all its one-eyed, one-horned, flying '59 glory. The restored car debuted in 1998 at Corvettes at Carlisle, where both Spooner and Jeffords autographed the roundel on the driver's door. Since then, the Purple People Eater Mk III has graced events like the Meadow Brook Concours d'Elegance, special displays at the National Corvette Museum and the Monterey Historic Races, and it made a trip to the Amelia Island Concours in 2003 (after an undercarriage detailing by Corvette Repair of Valley Stream, New York), but it stayed in the trailer when heavy rains hit the South Carolina coast on the concours weekend. The list of awards it has won is almost as long as the list of documentation that Heckert and Miller--who bought out Heckert's share of the car--discovered, including extensive Nickey Chevrolet documentation courtesy of Jim Stephani's son, Tom.
The car is part of the Miller Corvette collection, and Lance Miller says it's a big attention-getter any time that it's shown. "Whenever you take that car to a show, immediately everybody gravitates to it," he says. "It's neat to watch."
The song "Purple People Eater" turned out to be one of the top 25 selling records during the early rock 'n' roll era (1955-59), according to Billboard magazine and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Thanks to a desire for Nickey's cars to stand out, plus its success at the hands of Bob Spooner and (especially) Jim Jeffords, Purple People Eater Mk III is just as big a part of Corvette history.
Pensacola, Florida-April 4-5, 1959
>> Virginia International Raceway -
May 1-3, 1959 - National Championships - First Place
>> Marlboro Motor Raceway, Maryland -
April 18-19, 1959 - Second Place
Per Lance Miller, this car raced at the following tracks in 1959:>> Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin -
June 20, 1959 - First Place
>> Buckley Field, Colorado - National Championship -
>> Riverside, California - National Championship - Second Place
WHAT MAKES A MONSTER?
Nickey Chevrolet ordered a '59 Corvette for use as a road-race car, in the wake of their previous success with a '58 Corvette (SCCA National B/Production Champion with Jim Jeffords driving) and before it, a Corvette SR-2.
The '59 car they ordered for their racing program included the following factory options and special equipment:
>> 283ci, 290hp, fuel-injected V-8
>> Four-speed manual transmission
>> Heavy-duty suspension
>> Heavy-duty brakes, including sinteredmetallic linings and "elephant ear" cooling shrouds
>> Radio delete
>> Heater/defroster delete
>> White body/black interior
>> Possibly built with one horn, which may have been removed by Nickey Chevrolet during race preparation
Race preparation by Nickey Chevrolet (4501 West Irving Park Rd., Chicago, IL) for competition in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) B/Production class included the following items:
>> Removal of stock windshield, frame, and windshield wipers, and addition of small curved windscreen in front of driver
>> Addition of a chrome rollbar behinddriver seat
>> Addition of seatbelt and shoulder harness to driver seat
>> Removal of stock "dog dish" hubcaps, stock painted wheels and OEM tires; addition of chrome-plated stock wheels with Firestone Super Sport 170 6.70-15 racing tires .
>> Removal of rear bumper and stock headlights, and covering of headlight openings
>> Addition of hasp to rear edge of hood (to keep hood secure at race speeds)
>> Replacement of factory exhaust system with racing exhaust system, with ends routed through hole in rocker panel under right-side door
>> Addition of safety chains
>> Replacement of stock fuel tank with larger-capacity racing tank
>> Addition of snap-on covers over window openings at the tops of both doors.
>> Repainting body in metallic purple by Nickey Chevrolet's body shop
>> Addition of roundels with No. 1 to both sides, signifying car driven by defending SCCA national champion
>> Addition of "Purple People Eater Mk III" lettering to tops of both doors, with characteristic Nickey "reverse-K"
>> This car was restored to before-it-rolled-out-to-its-first-grid-of-the-'59-season condition by Ken Heckert, with pre-Concours detailing performed in 1993 by Corvette Repair, Valley Stream, New York
>> Purple People Eater stuffie: Not OEM Chevrolet or dealer-installed by Nickey Chevrolet