First French Foray

Five decades ago, the Chevrolet Corvette made its debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

June 15, 2010
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In the spring of 1960, the world was experiencing jittery times. In May, a Soviet missile brought down an American U2 spy plane over Russian territory, capturing its pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Two months before, France tested its first atomic bomb in the Sahara Desert. The Cold War between capitalism and communism was raging. In international motor racing, a battle was brewing between the Old World and the New. American Briggs Swift Cunningham was preparing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, planning to take on Europe’s finest sports cars with a trio of blue-striped, Ermine White 1960 Corvettes. It would be the model’s first-ever appearance in the French classic.

Though the Corvette was an unknown entity at Le Mans, Cunningham was an established player at the circuit. The wealthy American had contested the race on five previous occasions, from 1951 through 1955, finishing as high as third overall in his own purpose-built specials powered by big Cadillac and Chrysler V8s. This was before the FIA imposed a 3.0-liter limit on engine capacity. Then, in 1960, the French sanctioning body introduced the 5.0-liter GT class, paving the way for Cunningham’s return to Le Mans.

From General Motors’ Corvette clay model embryo in 1952 to successive production-class SCCA championships in ’58 and ’59, Chevrolet’s two-seater had developed the mature muscle and manner that earned its fame as “America’s Sports Car.” This rapid evolution did not go unnoticed by the 53-year-old Cunningham, but he still realized that even the much-improved Corvette would need significant preparation. To perform it, Cunningham turned to the genius of three men: GM’s design and development engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, Corvette race program director Frank Burrell and race-shop tuning wizard Alfred Momo.

The cars started out as standard-production 1960 models fitted with the optional fuel-injected 283 cubic-inch V8, four-speed manual transmission and Positraction rear axle. Other options included the hardtop, temperature-controlled radiator fan, windshield washers and 5.5 × 15-inch wheels.

For their initial race prep, each Cunningham Corvette received a larger 40-gallon fuel tank and Bendix fuel pumps in place of the production items. To sharpen handling, Koni competition shocks and a front sway bar were fitted. Braking was improved by equipping the cars with larger drum brakes and brake-cooling ducts. The hood was louvered and fitted with a wind deflector for better engine cooling, while the hardtops were bolted to the bodies to keep them from blowing off. Side-exit exhaust pipes improved engine performance and provided the thunderous roar enthusiasts loved.

On the inside, the standard seats were replaced with aircraft “jump seats” to provide more support and reduce weight. A set of Stewart Warner gauges was placed in a specially fabricated dash plate. Additional switch gear was added, controlling such race items as the fog and running lights. An adjustable steering column was also added.

As part of his rigorous preparation for the French classic, Cunningham conducted a private 24-hour test run at Bridgehampton on Long Island. This bumpy circuit helped determine that the Corvettes’ stock steel wheels were not strong enough. As a result, Momo fitted the cars with Halibrand magnesium alloys. Not only were they stronger, the Halibrands were lighter, and their knock-off hubs allowed for quicker wheel changes. To shorten pit times even more, a wide-mouthed aircraft fuel filler were installed. For straightforward access, a cutout was fabricated into the rear window.

Also from Issue 59

  • LMR-tuned ZR1 and C6
  • C6 show car
  • State of the collector-car market
  • Interview: Jim Campbell
  • 1972 LT1 coupe
  • Pratt & Miller LS7/LS9 engine
  • Racing: Laguna Seca ALMS
  • How To: C2/3 frame repair
  • 1965 small-block coupe
  • 1972 LT1 coupe
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