A Shot in the Arm

With its dazzling looks and cutting-edge performance, Harley Earl’s SR-2 Corvette reinvigorated the brand

June 21, 2018
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As we know, Chevrolet’s fledgling sports car fought for its life during its first few years. Production totaled just 300 ’53s, 3,640 ’54s and a paltry 700 ’55s, with calendar-year sales of just 183, 2,780 and 1,639 units, respectively. The addition of the impressive new “small-block” V-8 as an option on the ’55 model certainly burnished its appeal, but it was clear that much more—both in product improvement and promotion—was needed if Corvette was to survive, let alone thrive.

Very fortunately, Chevrolet Chief Engineer (and soon-to-be General Manager) Ed Cole was not ready to give up on the car. So the handsomely restyled ’56 Corvette also benefited from substantial chassis and other improvements designed, as engineer/development driver Zora Arkus-Duntov wrote in Auto Age, “to attain such handling characteristics that the driver of some ability could get really high performance.” It helped that the 265-cubic-inch V-8 weighed 41 pounds less that the old inline six it replaced as standard and generated a fairly healthy 221 horsepower with a single four-barrel carburetor, or 225 hp with the available dual four-barrels.

While this much-improved ’56 model’s debut was delayed to January of that year, its reputation was soon boosted by a 150.583-mph (two-way average) record run made by Duntov on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida. Power for the aerodynamically slickened development car came from a specially cammed, high-compression version of the 265 V-8 generating an estimated 255 hp.

Following his triumph on the beach, Duntov was tasked with building three ’56 Corvettes for the mid-February Daytona Speed Weeks, to be followed by the March Sebring 12-Hour race, then (maybe) the Le Mans 24-Hour. Despite strong winds, he clocked a 147.3-mph two-way average in his modified car on the hard-packed sand, while John Fitch and Betty Skelton in less-altered Corvettes logged 145.543 and 137.773 mph, respectively.

Meanwhile, auto writers were driving ’56 Corvettes and finding them impressive. “This very early production model showed a willingness and ability to be driven fast and hard under almost all conditions and demonstrated an even greater potential for competitive use,” wrote Karl Ludvigsen for the May 1956 issue of Sports Cars Illustrated. “In my opinion, the Corvette as it stands is fully as much a dual-purpose machine as the stock Jaguar, Triumph or Austin-Healey. Without qualification, General Motors is now building a sports car.”

Fitch and Walt Hansgen co-drove one of four factory-prepped ’56 Corvettes to a class victory and a respectable Ninth Place overall at Sebring, behind some of the world’s best drivers in Ferrari 860 Monzas, Jaguar D-Types, Porsche 550s, a Maserati 300S and an Aston Martin DB3S. And while there would be no GM Le Mans effort for four more years, Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) amateur road racer Dr. Dick “the Flying Dentist” Thompson piloted a GM-prepared ’56 Vette to the 1956 C-Production National Championship.

So when GM executives learned that aspiring racer Jerry Earl—who happened to be GM Styling Vice President Harley Earl’s son—was racing a Ferrari, they gently suggested to Earl that maybe his son should be competing in a Corvette instead of an expensive Italian sports car. Harley dutifully “suggested” to Jerry that he sell the Ferrari, promising to have a special racing Corvette built for him as a replacement. The result was this ’56 Corvette SR-2, which current owner Irwin Kroiz displayed at the March 2018 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. No one knows for sure the origin of its name, but “SR” likely stood for either “Special Racing” or “Sebring Racer,” and “2” probably means “second generation,” following those earlier ’56 Corvette racers.

Also from Issue 123

  • "Euro-Style" C7 Stingray
  • LS-Powered ’60 Driver
  • Buyer's Guide: $20K
  • Callaway C7 GT3-R
  • ’67 ZL-1 Coupe
  • Yenko-Modded ’70 Coupe
  • Corvette ABS Explained
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