Back in 1960, American entrepreneur, manufacturer, avid racer of cars and yachts, and SCCA co-founder Briggs Cunningham entered three Chevrolet Corvettes — numbered 1, 2, and 3 — into the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was the first time a Chevy sports car partook in the race — and the effort was not sponsored by General Motors.
To the chagrin of many, Corvette Racing didn’t exist in the 60s; so if a GM vehicle were to enter a race, it would have had to come from a third party — since GM exited the racing scene in 1957 after the automaker was banned from racing by American Manufacturers Association. Therefore, Cunningham fielded three Corvettes, with a fourth being run by Camoradi USA, which finished 21st. The ban, however, didn’t stop Corvette chief engineer Zora-Arkus Duntov from working with Cunningham and the team’s drivers and mechanics to bring the Vettes to racing condition.
The Corvettes weighed in at over 3,000 pounds, making them the heaviest cars in the race — a statistic that led some observers to question the car’s ability to compete. As the race got into its second hour, the track began to get covered with rain. With William Kimberly behind the wheel, the No. 1 Corvette went off the course and rolled; Kimberly was not hurt, but the ignition wiring was burnt due to the spilling of gasoline that resulted in a fire in the engine compartment. The car could not drive back to the pits by itself — and was thus out of the race. As it were, the No. 1 and No. 2 cars did not finish the race.
Meanwhile, the No. 3 Vette prominently finished first in its class and eighth overall; amusingly, the car had to pit after every lap to allow the pit crew to stuff the engine bay full of ice, all in an effort to keep the engine from overheating due to LeMans rules prohibiting the team from adding more liquid to the cooling system.
All three cars were modified by Cunningham and his team for racing. Specifically, they were pulled off the assembly line in St. Louis and equipped with a fuel-injected 283-cubic-inch V8 good for 290 hp mated to a four-speed manual transmission. The also were given a 24-gallon fuel tank, a quick-release fuel filler, ducting for the brakes, competition shocks, as well as an additional front sway bar. The exhaust was adjusted to exit in front of the rear wheels and each car was painted white with blue stripes–the international paint scheme for American race cars.
After the cars served their racing purposes, they were restored to their street configurations and sold. The No. 2 car is now owned by prominent collected Bruce Meyer, while the No. 3 car belongs to Lancer Miller, whose family produces Corvettes at Carlisle. The No. 1 car, identified by VIN 00867S103535, however, was lost for more than 30 years — only to be recently discovered in the middle of two St. Petersburg, FL. warehouses filled with cars, parts, and furniture.
According to reports, the new owner of the No. 1 Corvette has been searching for the car for 20 years. The Vette now contains a soft top in place of the original hard top, no headlights, and is filled to the brim with dust. The new owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, plans to have the car restored to its racing condition. The car is said to be worth more than $1 million.
Fast-forward to present day: the No. 1 Corvette was destined to be shown publicly at the Corvettes at Carlisle show in Carlisle, Pa, in late August. It was shown briefly to a semi-public crowd on the eve of the official show, but was then inexplicably removed from the expo due to “security purposes”. Apparently, a Florida man has come forth claiming ownership of the car, insisting that it was purchased by his father in the mid-1970s. The purported owner, Dan Mathis Jr., has even presented a digital image of a Florida title to the car; oddly, the document contains a current date of August 17, 2012.
Mr. Mathis claims that the car was stolen from his family’s possession, although the lack of supporting details (such as police reports) casts doubt on his story. As it stands, Mr. Mathis’ trip to Carlisle to take possession of the car was the reason for its unexpected disappearance.
Whatever happens next, we expect that the ordeal will reach courts in due time, but hope that through all of it, the No. 1 Corvette is not lost again.