Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Unbeatable 1959 Corvette: The Purple Eater Corvette

Hemmings Muscle Machines George Mattar

The Purple People Eater MKIII is a 1959 Corvette that was literally unbeatable in SCCA B-Production racing in the late 1950s. There were three Purple People Eaters built in 1958 and 1959. Our feature car, the 1959 model, won every race it entered, except the last one, with Jim Jeffords behind the wheel and mechanic Ronnie Kaplan turning wrenches.

The car was built by a team at Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago, said Tom Stephani, whose father, Jack Stephani, was Nickey's secretary/treasurer. "Primarily, my father was the marketing, sales and promotions guy. My uncle (Ed Stephani) was the finance and operations guy. While my uncle was interested in racing and supported the effort, my dad was the one who really got bit by the racing bug," Stephani told HMM in a telephone interview. The Stephani family acquired Nickey Chevrolet in 1933, when Tom's grandfather, Edward, got it in exchange for a mortgage he held on Mr. Nickey's home.

The car got its name in 1958, when Nickey Chevrolet first got into racing Corvettes. The dealership ordered a stock Corvette with all available "racing" options. "The first car was silver, and when they took it for a shakedown run at a Wilmot Hills, Wisconsin, regional race, my father complained that it was hard to pick out Nickey's car. Most racers of the day just left their cars whatever color they came in, and there was an abundance of white, silver and light blue Corvettes. Since my dad was new to racing, he wanted his car to stand out. So, after some discussion with the crew, they took it over to the Nickey paint shop and directed them to come up with a metallic purple paint job. This coincided with Sheb Wooley's 'Flying Purple People Eater' song that peaked on the charts in June 1958," Tom Stephani said.

This story may be argued, but due to the fact that his father was directly involved with this famous race car, Stephani is certain this is what transpired. Today, Stephani is a resource for the Miller family of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who owns the car. The owner was the co-owner of the Carlisle Fairgrounds, Chip Miller, who passed away more than a year ago. Today, his son Lance is the caretaker of the car. At last year's Corvettes at Carlisle Racers Reunion, Stephani gave Lance Miller some of the original paperwork on the Purple People Eater that, without a doubt, provided authentication for this famous car.

When the Nickey team was looking for a driver, none other than Zora Arkus-Duntov recommended Jeffords to Nickey. Jeffords was considered a very fast race driver, but hard on equipment. So confident was Jeffords that he told Ed and Jack Stephani if he didn't win the SCCA B-Production Championships in 1958 and 1959, he would reimburse Nickey for expenses. "He basically guaranteed my dad that with the right funding, equipment and personnel he would win the championship, and he did."

Mechanic Ronnie Kaplan, now 78, and still living in his hometown of Chicago, said he was working for another race team in the late 1950s when the driver, Pat O'Connor, was killed in a racing accident. "I was out of a job, and I was at Milwaukee race. Jim Jeffords asked me to work on this project, and I took the job. It was a great job, the pay was pretty good, and we won every race we entered. I think we only had two DNF's due to silly stuff like a blown clutch, and I think a fan belt flew off."

 Kaplan said the car had a Chevrolet V-8 with factory Rochester fuel injection and a four-speed manual transmission. "GM helped with some technical advice, and I got that fuel injection figured out pretty quick. It was very reliable. I told Jim to keep that engine about 6,000 rpm, and it never broke. He is a very big, strong man and was tough on equipment. I swear he could break off a shifter." 

Kaplan said the hardest part of his job was to make sure Jeffords's seat was low and far back enough in the body so he could fit. "He was about 6 feet 3 inches tall, at least, and I had to work that seat for him." Kaplan said Jeffords's abilities as a driver were irreproachable. "His best attribute was his desire to win. As a driver, second place wasn't tolerable for him."

In 1961, this car was sold by Nickey Chevrolet to Bob Spooner, who raced it extensively, and it was eventually sold to Chip Miller, who at the time did not realize the historical significance of the car, Stephani said.

Lance Miller tells this story about how his dad acquired the famous car: "It sat all weekend at the very first Carlisle event in 1974. It had a $1,000 price tag on it, and nobody wanted it. On the final day of the event, Ken Heckert and my father approached the owner of the car and made an $800 offer. After they each put in $400, the old beater was theirs," Lance recalled. "They had no idea that car was the Purple People Eater."

Chip and Ken autocrossed the car a few times and then it was parked in the back of his body shop, where it was used as a lunch table for about 14 years. Enter Mike Philsbury. He noticed a roll bar on the Corvette and some other changes on the car, like an L-shaped windshield bracket, cut-out for side exhaust, latch on the hood and some remnants of purple paint.

After some research, Ken and Chip learned it was, indeed, the Purple People Eater. Under the hood remained the correct, 290hp fuel-injected V-8. Upon learning what they had, Ken tore into the car and restored it. About five years later, Chip offered to buy Ken's half of the car back. Chip then had the car restored again.

It was recently shown at the Nickey Reunion at Road America and took first in class at Elkhart Lake. The car has won an American Heritage Award and was displayed in 2002 at the Monterey Historics, where Chip drove Jeffords, in the passenger seat, around the track.