The Mecum Kissimmee auction is approaching and will be held at Osceola Heritage Park from January 17th through the 26th. This 1956 Corvette SR, otherwise known as “The Car That Saved the Corvette Brand,” will be auctioned to the highest bidder on Saturday, January 18th at 2:30 p.m.
The ’56 SR Sebring Racer #1194 is known to many as “The Real McCoy” (thanks to a successful post-Sebring advertising campaign) – a prototype that devastated the competition and saved the Corvette from extinction. In essence, it did what it was created to do – rescue the ailing brand, which was quickly dissolving due to the success of Ford’s Thunderbird.
This 2012 Bloomington Gold Great Hall Inductee is one of the first Corvettes equipped with a 4-speed transmission and wears super rare Halibrand magnesium knock-off wheels brought to a stop by special heavy-duty brakes with cooling scoops. Other details include heavy-duty shocks and sway bars along with an upgraded high-capacity fuel tank. The car won the Spirit of Detroit award at the Concours of America in 2011.
A Brief History of the 1956 Corvette Sebring Racer
Zora Arkus Duntov supervised the creation of the beast, which began life as Engineering Project Tracking Number 6901. The project was fitted with a special bored-out 307 cubic-inch engine equipped with dual Carter 4-barrel carburetors and the “Duntov cam.” With Duntov at the wheel, it tapped into its estimated 255 horsepower to secure a Flying Mile Speed Record at Daytona Speed Week. Two months later, John Fitch and Walt Hansgen piloted the car through the 12 Hours of Sebring and placed 1st in class and 9th overall.
To backtrack though, one must understand where Corvette was headed before “The Real McCoy” made one hell of an entrance into the racing world and saved the Corvette namesake. The 1953 Vette, conceived in secrecy in a small building in Flint, Michigan, was deemed a success by head of GM Styling Harley Earl and Chevrolet Division Chief Engineer Ed Cole. In 1956, Cole would become Duntov’s overseer as Chevrolet’s General Manager. The 1953 Corvette was of great success and 1954 was promising as well, as the new St. Louis plant was readied with the capacity to produce 10,000 cars annually. However, just as production reached its peak, demand faltered. Potential buyers were unimpressed by the car’s driveline and lack of basic amenities such as roll-up windows. All of this matched with Ford’s announcement that they would launch the 1955 Thunderbird, in competition with the Corvette, resulted in a perfect storm for Chevrolet. The steel-body Thunderbird was offered with a wide variety of colors and options, including choice of transmissions, roll-up and power side windows, power seat, and fiberglass hard top, making the choice between Corvette and Thunderbird easy for consumers.
Though a new 265 cubic-inch V-8 engine was installed in the Corvette for the 1955 model year, the pairing to the previous cast iron-cased 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission still hurt sales, as they slumped from 3,640 in 1954 to only 700 in 1955. Meanwhile, Ford sold more than 16,000 Thunderbirds.
Zora Arkus Duntov came to the rescue however, writing a letter to GM management warning that ending the Corvette would surrender many sales to Ford in the years ahead. He advised Chevy to accelerate Corvette development in hopes of turning it into a world-class sports car, and in 1956 the Corvette was given a chance to reach that potential. Entering 1956, it was realized by an automotive writer, and then Duntov, that Corvette’s major problem might have something to do with the fact that it was “without credentials,” so Duntov decided to target the Flying Mile (then at a two-way average of just over 127mph). With the car’s 307 cubic-inch, Duntov cam-equipped motor, it raced to a record-setting average of 150.583mph just days before the opening of the 1956 Motorama at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
The car was then slated to enter competition at the 12 Hours of Sebring, but Duntov was worried. He knew that the brakes were unsuited to the challenging and rigorous 12-hour race and he was also aware of such inherent dangers as numerous hidden concrete hazards, closely-situated buildings, and lack of spectator-safety. When he presented these worries to Ed Cole, he was promptly reassigned to manage spare parts and vehicle testing programs, and Fitch was hired in his place. Fitch had plenty of experience in Europe and as a Mercedes-Benz factory team driver with such greats as Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio under Alfred Neubauer.
Given just five weeks to prepare the Corvette for the challenging race, Fitch enlisted the help of Henry “Smokey” Yunick, who took delivery of 6901 and three stock production model Corvettes and prepared them for delivery to Sebring. While Yunick had the cars, Fitch ran through testing with a single patched-together mule composed of a 1956 chassis and 1955 body, which revealed a host of problems.
In Fitch’s 1959 book Adventure on Wheels: The Autobiography of a Road Racing Champion, he told the story of his initial experience with the mule: “As the early days went by, and as we pounded our test car through exercises that simulated the wrenching strains of the road race, the expected troubles began – also some unexpected ones. We developed oil leaks, we loosened engine mounts, we threw fan belts, we struggled with handling problems. We had the wrong oil in the rear end, but we had to burn out several of them before we found the solution. March 24th seemed just around the corner, yet we had only begun to learn how to turn Corvettes into the taut, tough competition machines that they would have to be.”
Soon after, the Corvettes prepared by Yunick arrived – three equipped with 265 cubic-inch engines, paired with three-speed transmissions for C Production and the 6901 with a new ZF 4-speed, which could run in class B. All five cars proceeded to test, and since Chevrolet was void of a racing history upon which to draw conclusions, problems were harder to recognize and solve.
“When we had a breakdown…we didn’t know what to blame: design fault, parts failure, wrong lubrication, or possible misuse. Our Corvettes were in deep water and learning to swim at the last minute,” Fitch later wrote.
This is where Duntov’s brilliance came back into play. With each lesson learned came the demand for new equipment for the team of cars. Duntov designed a new piece, assigned part numbers, catalogued them as factory options (to qualify for homologation) and provided ongoing improvements that allowed testing to continue.
Though the team could have used more time, they finally ran out and the day of the race arrived. The cars’ positions and numbers were decided by engine displacement, so the 6901 was placed at the front and the other three team cars ran behind a 5.0L Ferrari. The race was not smooth sailing, however. It began as planned, but on the second lap, a rising exhaust note eluded to a bigger problem: a slipping clutch. Fitch, being a skilled racer, employed a trick he had used at Le Mans in 1953 to curb the problem, deliberately slipping the clutch in high gear so that the interior filled with smoke before nursing it for a lap and allowing the clutch to cool and stabilize. Though its maximum revs were reduced by 400rpm at the top of the torque range, this trick proved to be what kept the car in the race. At the conclusion of the third lap, the team’s Number 5 Corvette ended up with only three wheels and in the 22nd lap, their Number 7 car’s engine blew up. It was down to the wire with only an hour to go and the 6901 car (with a shaky clutch) and one of the other Corvettes with only high gear left in the transmission, when Hansgen took the wheel and brought home a first in class victory and ninth overall. A mere 24 of 60 cars that began the race managed to complete it. The Corvette emerged from the trying challenge as victor and scored both production team and production sports car honors.
The victory made for a spectacular announcement, and dramatic print advertisements hailed Corvette as “a tough, road-gripping torpedo on wheels” and “the most remarkable car made in America today.” Corvette had managed to prove itself within international sports car racing earning it the headline: “The Real McCoy,” saving it from extinction and securing a place in the hearts of enthusiasts for years to come.
For more information on this 1956 SR Sebring Racer #1194 or to learn how to bid, visit www.mecum.com.