Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The 1956 "Real McCoy" Corvette That Saved the Corvette Brand

Just about anybody in the world who knows just a little bit about cars knows that the Corvette was the first American sports car and is now the most popular, fastest and most recognizable American sports car to date. But a lot people may not know is that this was not always true. In fact, by the year 1955 the Corvette almost seen extinction.

Rumors about the move to drop the Corvette flooded out of Chevrolet's top offices with very sad sales numbers to back-up what only seemed to be a good ideal. Their competition, the two-seater Ford Thunderbird, sold an astonishing 16,000 units in 1955 while the Corvette only sold a depressing 700 units.

But consequently enough, the same car that was taking so many sales away from the Corvette would be the inspiration for keeping the car in the product line-up. The ideal behind keeping the Corvette and spending more money on a car that was obviously tanking was brought on by a few of Chevrolet big wigs including former Corvette chief engineer Dave McLellan. He released a statement concurring that if the Ford Thunderbird was doing so well that there is obviously a market for two-seater sports cars and with a solid change for the better and the right amount of marketing the Corvette should be able to become a money maker.

In an ironic twist, the very car that Chevy planned to piggy back off of, the Ford Thunderbird, had already made future plans to market the car differently by doing away with the two-seater style and making it a four-seater touring car, thus leaving the American sports car market wide open.

"The Real McCoy" 
But as wide open as the market was, the Corvette needed some changes. Ideally in the form of performance and a new body-style and that is when Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus Dutov came in. He decided that one thing the Corvette needed to bring to the table to get the publics attention was documented performance achievements, but to get that, first they had to build something that could accomplish such achievements.

With a '55 chassis, Chevrolet engineers went to work. First they ditched the boring and heavy two-speed power-glide transmission and replaced it with an up-graded four-speed. They also took the original 265 cu. in. motor and bored it out to a 307 that sported dual Cater carbs and a now famous "Dutov high-performance cam." Chassis up-grades were also included: very rare Halibrand magnesium knock-off wheels, special heavy duty brakes with cooling scoops, heavy duty shocks and sway bars, upgraded high capacity fuel tank - all newly implicated to help achieve what would become some of Chevrolet's most important accomplishments for the Corvette.

After all of those up-grades, top-engineers slapped a new SR Prototype body on what was now know as project Corvette #6901 "The Real McCoy" and headed to the racetrack. The first stop was at the Dayton Speed Week for a two-way flying speed mile. This is where the Corvette would make its first milestone. At the time the record for the Corvettes class was 127mph. With Dutov as driver, the 255hp Corvette sped to an average speed of 150.58mph to crush the record. This was an extremely sufficient record because it occurred just weeks before the New York Motorama where the Corvette would be on display to many potential buyers, most of which would have already heard the news of the record breaking performance.

A few months later in March, the ground-breaking Corvette made its way to the famous 12 hour Sebring race. This was a race that was only made for the toughest of the toughest, the fastest of the fastest. Only cars like Jaguars, Bentleys and Aston Martins graced the racetracks for events like this. But wanting to prove that the Corvette has changed and deserved respect of a true powerful sport car, Chevrolet did not shy away.

Race drivers John Fitch and Walter Hansgen were brought on board to take on the challenging race. When the green flag dropped the race was on, but early on in the race the Corvette experienced mechanical problems, so much so they did not think that it would finish. But in the end not only did it finish, but the Corvette finished first in its respected class and 9th over-all. This was an incredible accomplishment especially considering 60 cars entered the event, but only 24 would cross the finish-line.

This was another huge milestone and Chevrolet exploited it in printing ads praising the Corvette: "a tough, road-gripping torpedo on wheels" and "the most remarkable car made in America today." Those ads were to send a message: Corvette had finally arrived as a force in international sports car racing, a feat symbolized in the simple headline: "The Real McCoy."
Between those accomplishments and Chevrolet's ad campaigns, the '56 Corvette sold 3,467 units and in '57 they nearly double that with 6,339 sold. One of the main reasons why the Corvette seem such success after the big win at the Sebring race was the fact that engineers replaced and tooled around with many different parts to get the performance that it needed to win, but to be able to race in their respected class every part that they changed or modified had to be documented and later made available to the public. This gave car enthusiast the feeling that they could go to the dealer and buy a Corvette with close to the same type of performance of which broke records at the Daytona two-way flying mile and at the Sebring 12 hour race.

In any event, if it was not for the #6901 '56 PJ Prototype "Real McCoy" Corvette, and possibly the success of the Thunderbird, Chevrolet may have never went forward with the Corvette and the automobile industry would definitely not be the same today.

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