In these pages, we've brought you competition Corvettes that showed that America's Only True Sports Car was more than a mere styling exercise. Here's one that not only had a distinguished on-track record, but also came about in response to an interdivision memo on why Chevrolet should not yield the two-seater segment of the U.S. car market to Ford.
INTER-ORGANIZATION LETTERS ONLY. CONFIDENTIAL
TO: Messrs. E. N. Cole and M. Olley
FROM: Mr. Z. Arkus-Duntov ADDRESS: Research & Development Section
SUBJECT: Corvette DATE: October 15, 1954
In this note, I am speaking out of turn. I am giving options and suggestions without knowing all the factors. I realize this but still am offering my thoughts for what they are. In order to make the content clear and short, I will not use the polite apologetic phrasing and say, "it is" instead of "it possibly might be" - and I apologize for this now.
By the looks of it, the Corvette is on its way out.
I would like to say the following: Dropping the car now will have adverse effect internally and externally.
It is admission of failure. Failure of aggressive thinking in the eyes of the organization, failure to develop a saleable product in the eyes of the outside world.
Above-said can be dismissed as sentimentality. Let's see if it can hurt the cash register. I think it can.
Ford enters the field with the Thunderbird, a car of the same class as the Corvette.
If Ford makes success where we failed, it may hurt.
With aggressiveness of Ford publicity, they may turn the fact to their advantage. I don't mean in terms of Thunderbird sales, but in terms of promotion of theirs and depreciation of our general lines.
We will leave an opening in which they can hit at will. "Ford out-engineered, outsold, or ran Chevrolet's pride and joy off the market." Maybe the idea is far-fetched. I can only gauge in terms of my own reactions or actions. In the bare-fisted fight we are in now, I would hit at any opening I could find, and the situation where Ford enters and where Chevrolet retreats, it is not an opening, it is a hole!
Now if they can hurt us, then we can hurt them! We are one year ahead, and we possibly learned some lessons which Ford has yet to learn.
Is the effort worthwhile? This, I am in no position to say. Obviously, in terms of direct sales, a car for the discriminating low volume market is hardly an efficient investment of efforts. The value must be gauged by effects it may have on an overall picture.
The Corvette failed because it did not meet G.M. standards of a product. It did not have the value for the money.
If the value of a car consists of practical values and emotional appeal, the sports car has very little of the first, and consequently has to have an exaggerated amount of the second. If a passenger car must have an appeal, nothing short of a mating call will extract $4,000 for a small two-seater. The Corvette, as it was offered, had curtailed practical value, being a poor performer. With a 6-cylinder engine, it was no better than the medium-priced family car.
Timing was also unfortunate. When the novelty appeal was the highest, we hadn't had the cars to sell. When the cars became available, hypnotized by the initial overwhelming response, no promotional effort was made.
The little promotion which was made was designed to depreciate the car, rather than enhance it. Hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars contained in the price of a sports or luxury car are paid for exclusivity. What did our promotion say on the radio and advertised in magazines? "Now everybody can have it! Come and get it". What virtues did advertising extoll? Only X inches high, only X inches long, etc. In the country, in which bigger is synonymous with better, and we really know it, we were trying to sell a car, because it is small! Crosley is smaller.......
Were there no virtues to talk about? Quite some, but a condensation of best reports which appeared in motoring press previously had more glow and enthusiasm than our advertising.
Summarizing, the promotion was uninspired, a half-hearted attempt with no evidence of thought or enthusiasm.
Where do we stand now?
The Corvette still has the best and raciest look of all the sports cars, the Thunderbird included. Performance is far superior to all the passenger cars, and to 99 percent of the sports cars used on the road. It has flaws in respect to passenger protection-water leaks and a cumbersome top and side window. With these minor flaws removed, we have a sports car with as much practical value as the sports car can have.
That memo, written by Zora Arkus-Duntov in October 1954, was addressed to his then-superiors, Maurice Olley and Ed Cole. In it, Zora took Chevrolet to task for even thinking about dropping Corvette-at a time when unsold '54 Vettes still sat on dealers' lots.
In it, Zora stated that the lack of success with Corvette to that point was a failure of aggressive thinking, and failure to develop a saleable product. "We will leave an opening in which they [Ford] can hit at will," wrote Zora. "'Ford out-engineered, outsold, or ran Chevrolet's pride and joy off the market.' Maybe the idea is far-fetched. I can only gauge in terms of my own reactions or actions. In the bare-fisted fight we are in now, I would hit at any opening I could find and the situation where Ford enters and where Chevrolet retreats, it is not an opening, it is a hole!" He added, "Now if they can hurt us, then we can hurt them! We are one year ahead, and we possibly learned some lessons which Ford has yet to learn."
As a result of this memo-and also the result of Zora's "Thoughts Pertaining To Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet" memo of a year before to Maurice Olley (where he urged Chevrolet to develop high-performance parts for its then-new V8 to attract younger car buyers to Chevy and away from Ford), Chevrolet developed a range of "Special Racing" parts that were to be made available as regular-production options (RPOs) on the newly-redesigned '56 Corvette.
This particular '56 wears its SR equipment as proudly as it does the coat of Aztec Copper acrylic lacquer that was sprayed on during its restoration. When current owner John Neas found it, it was in need of more than just a freshening. Fortunately, almost the "SR" parts and pieces were still with the car. "The most difficult part was-when I bought the car, I knew that it had significance," says John from his Tulsa, Oklahoma, home. "Getting all the information and documentation on it was really just luck. Once you start working with people who know you have it, they'll say, 'Oh, I think I've got that documentation.'" John says that the late Mike Hunt-who'd found and bought this car back in the mid-'70s-had the original Chevrolet work papers that showed the production part numbers assigned to cars for their respective options, which he had received from noted Corvette restoration authority Nolan Adams. "Then there was Ken Amrick-he had a friend by the name of Bill Hutchison who had the finalized GM documents from March of '56 that told what parts came off when the SR parts went on," John adds, mentioning the documents that were likely given to the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (F.I.A) to homologate the SR-options-equipped '56 Corvette for production-class racing. John says it pointed out every production part for every possible configuration of Corvette produced in March of '56.
Through GM files, Art Armstrong documented a Chevrolet Engineering Department Build Order that showed these were St. Louis production cars. He relayed this through Loren Lundberg. Ken Kayser, in his great book on development of the Chevrolet Rochester Fuel Injection, supplied even more information and production blueprints on the 1956 SR Options. Dwayne Grotewold, the Chevrolet dealer who sold this car (No. 2834) new and then twice as a used car, supplied the original cancelled check plus other information from when he purchased the car from Doane Chevrolet. The second owner of No. 2834, Bruce Geisler, then delivered the original invoice from when he bought the car used from Grotewold Chevrolet. This spelled out every option and its suffix. Bruce Geisler has held approximately 100 records at Bonneville, and credits '56 SR No. 2834 as his first top-end racecar.
Result of the all the historical research: Proof that this particular '56 Vette was one of the first six built at St. Louis with the SR options, and it's also one of only 111 '56s built with RPO 469 (the dual-quad 265) and RPO 449 (the special high-lift "Duntov" camshaft). Further research turned up its racing record, especially in the hands of second owner Bruce Geisler. He set a top-speed record of 126.93 mph with it at El Mirage dry lake in California in 1957, while winning over 25 drag races in a row on legendary California tracks like Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, as well as at strips in San Gabriel, Pomona and Colton.
Once word got out that this one-of-the-first-six, SR-optioned '56 Vettes was for sale, John says the news spread quickly among Vette restorers and collectors. "When I bought this car, people like Rich Mason, Chip Miller and Irvin Kroiz on knew it was for sale," he recalls. "When they talked to [previous owner] Frank Buck, he said, 'This body's on that frame, and that body's on this frame,'" he says. "It was hard for somebody to get the 'vision,' without grabbing hold of it. In retrospect, I'll say I am glad they passed, as this has been a fun project."
This car now has its original body and chassis on it, as opposed to when it appeared at the Rolex Monterey Historic Races in 1987, one of the Corvettes chosen to honor featured marquee Chevrolet. Frank Buck had swapped this '56's body onto the chassis of another SR-equipped '56, the No. 7 Sebring team car, which Zora drove around the track during the '87 Monterey Historics weekend. By the way, John now owns the No. 7 Sebring car, as well as this '56, plus a couple of historic RPO 684 C1s.
John chose Richard Robinson Restorations in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, to bring this '56 back to its original, as-delivered condition. "It took the restorers, Dick Robinson and Jimmy Keegan-who runs The Discovery Channel's restoration shop now-six months trying to come up with the proper metalflake and tint," John says of their efforts to replicate the OEM Aztec Copper finish. "This is one of those cars where, if you show up at a NCRS meet with it, everybody's going to say, 'That's not the color that I remember.'"
Speaking of the No. 7 Sebring Vette, it now shares something with this C1-two brake drums, as John found that locating originals from 1956 was all but impossible. "I do have one full set of the SR brake drums, but two cars that require them," he says, while noting that he may have to use the '57 Corvette's RPO 684 drums if he wants to show both cars at the same time, what with original '56 SR pieces being unobtainable. "I have never seen those for sale," he adds. "I'm just lucky that I have another car that had them."
All the luck and restoration skill resulted in the C1 that you see here, looking like it just drove out of a Chevy dealer's delivery department in the spring of 1956. What's it like to drive? "It's really fun," says John. "We did the California Mille in 2002 with it, and we got a little more than our money's worth-it turned out to be around a 1,250-mile road trip. Rich and Charles Mason from Carson City, Nevada, who own the Jerry Earl/Harley Earl SR2-we ran together with them in that event.
"I do get it out a few times a year. It's fun, but would you want to take off cross-country in it? You'd probably rather have a C6 to do that."
How about vintage racing this '56? John says that it might still hold its own on a road course...maybe. "The technology's changed so much that the Bob Bondurant '57 car that Mick Swezey runs in its '62 configuration was competitive in the '80s, is now mid-pack."
Does John have any advice to those considering a first-generation Corvette as a driver or a resto project? "You have to decide what you really want to do with it," he says. "It's like Dale Pearman said-you have to figure out whether you want a race horse, a show horse or a plow horse, before you get started. It makes it a lot easier, and a lot less frustrating-and less expensive."
Data File: '56 Chevrolet Corvette
Currently owned by John and Sally Neas, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Modified production '56 Corvette
Modifications: Factory-installed rear brake cooling scoops, front-brake cooling holes cut into radiator panel
Bodywork: Richard Robinson Restorations, Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania
Paint: Aztec Copper acrylic lacquer (Original color/paint formulation); Paint preparation & applied by Richard Robinson Restorations, Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania
Frame: Production '56 Corvette
Suspension: Restored RPO SR2F special front/rear suspension (Front) Heavy-duty coil springs with RPO SR6A 410 shocks (Rear) RPO SR9A heavy-duty leaf springs with RPO SR6A 411 shocks plus Houdaille shocks
Steering: Restored OEM GM-Saginaw recirculating-ball, non-power-assisted, with RPO SR10A shortened steering column
Brakes: Restored OEM GM-Delco Moraine drum-and-shoe brakes with 11-inch (OEM size) drums and cerametallic brake shoes, non-power-assisted
Wheels: RPO SR1A Halibrand cast magnesium "Kidney Bean" wheels with three-prong knock-off spinners, 15 x 5 inches all around
Tires: RPO SR12D Firestone "Super Sport" racing tires, 6.70-15 all around
Chevrolet overhead-valve small-block V8 (RPO 469 with RPO 449)
Originally built: Chevrolet Motor Division's Flint Engine Plant, Flint, Michigan
Rebuilt/restored: John Neas (Current owner), Tulsa, Oklahoma
Displacement: 265 cubic inches
OEM modifications: RPO SR5A special HD radiator, RPO SR7A dual fan-belt drive
Compression ratio: 9.25:1
Cylinder heads: Production RPO 449, cast iron
Ignition: OEM Delco points-style ignition with RPO SR11A special ignition wiring
Induction: Two Carter four-barrel carburetors (2419S front, 2362S rear) on a cast iron intake
Camshaft: RPO 449 "Duntov" solid-lifter camshaft, designed by Zora Arkus-Duntov (First high-performance camshaft designed for the smallblock V8)
Exhaust: Cast iron manifolds with RPO SR4A exhaust system with shortened mufflers, 2 1/4-inch pipes and side exit
Horsepower: 240 @ 5600 rpm (Advertised)
Torque: 270 ft. /lbs. @ 5200 rpm (Advertised)
Restored OEM synchromesh close-ratio three-speed manual
Shifter: Original '56 Corvette three-speed shifter
Rear end: Lyeth Engineering "Hi Torque" limited-slip differential with 3.70:1 rear gears
Restored modified production '56 Corvette
Modifications: RPO SR10A Shortened steering column
Seats: Production '56 buckets with Al Knoch reproduction beige vinyl upholstery
Carpets: Al Knock reproduction nylon loop-pile
Instrumentation: OEM '56 Corvette (0-140 mph speedometer, 0-8000 rpm tachometer, plus fuel level, oil pressure, ammeter, coolant temperature gauges and electric clock)
Sound system: RPO 102 GM-Delco "Wonderbar" signal-seeking AM radio
Heater: Restored original RPO 101 heater
A/C: Lower top and windows, then drive briskly