A Shot in the Arm

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

Photo: A Shot in the Arm 1
June 21, 2018

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.

Photo: A Shot in the Arm 2

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.

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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.

After starting life as production 1956 Corvette VIN E56F002522, the car was shipped directly from the St. Louis plant to GM Styling in Warren, Michigan for “race modifications and cosmetic additions” under Shop Order (SO) 90090. Beginning in early May 1956, according to documentation provided by Kroiz, more than 17 engineers worked “around the clock” modifying the body and mounting it on a special Sebring Racing (SR) chassis with heavy-duty brakes and suspension. The front was lengthened, stainless steel was installed in the side coves, unique parking lamps with brake-cooling screens and fabricated driver and passenger windscreens were installed, and an aero-stabilizing fin was added down the middle of the trunk. By June 13, the comprehensively made-over Corvette was painted, its trim installed and its SCCA number (144) attached to the doors.

Just 10 days later, it was entered in the June Sprints 6-Hour race at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Jerry Earl drove it in practice, but finding it very different from the Ferrari he was used to, spun it off-track. Fortunately the SR-2 was undamaged, enabling Thompson to take over and finish “in a respectable position,” while noting that the car needed less weight and more power. Earl then continued racing it in the SCCA’s Central Region throughout 1956 and ’57.

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Over the winter, the SR-2 got its diet and power boost. Its weight was trimmed some 300 pounds, mostly by removing the stock interior and replacing the seats with lightweight Porsche buckets, and the door panels with light fiberglass panels. For motivation, a new, 331-ci V-8 with prototype dual-meter fuel-injection unit was teamed with a 1957 four-speed transmission. The car also got longer side coves and a taller fin, relocated to behind the driver, with a special gas-filler cap.

Besides Jerry Earl, the SR-2 was piloted at times by Thompson and Fitch, and in 1957 it won a Nassau, Bahamas Speed Weeks GT race with stock-car ace Curtis Turner at the wheel. It was sold to Jim Jeffords on January 28, 1958. (The original bill of sale remains with the car, as do Earl’s and Jeffords’ original titles and notarized transfers.) Jeffords guaranteed Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago an SCCA National Championship if the dealership would sponsor it, and when Nickey agreed, the SR-2 became the “Purple People Eater” Corvette that Jeffords raced at Sebring that March with Auggie Pabst. He then delivered on his promise by winning the 1958 SCCA B-Production National Championship.

Soon after, Jeffords sold the car to Indianapolis Chevrolet dealer and racer Bud Gates, who ran it in SCCA events with his friend Bob Spooner. On July 5, 1962 Gates sold it through his used-car dealership to drag racer Vernon Kispert from Terre Haute, Indiana, who renamed it “The Terror of Terre Haute.” Kispert sold the car on April 11, 1966 to the owner of a recycle yard, who kept it for some time. It then went through a few more owners who stored but never titled it before Rich and Shar Mason purchased it in 1986.

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At this point, the Corvette was restored, painted red and updated with a custom leather interior, a wood steering wheel, a column-mounted 8,000-rpm tachometer and a special dash with custom gauges. And in 1987, when General Motors celebrated its 75th anniversary, the car was awarded the prestigious Monterey Cup/Phil Hill trophy for “the automobile that is judged to have excelled in both Presentation and Performance.” It was fittingly returned to competition in vintage events at the Monterey Historic Automobile Races and other Western U.S. venues.

In 2002, when Corvette celebrated its 50th Anniversary at the Monterey Historic event, the SR-2 was featured in Group 4A, which covered “1955-59 Sports Racing Cars over 2500cc.” It reportedly ran well against the likes of a 1958 Lister Jag, a 1957 Maserati 300S and a 1958 Ferrari 355, and its dash was autographed by two of its famous ’50s drivers, John Fitch and Jim Jeffords. (The red, white and blue flag on its fin also displays the signatures of Jeffords and Zora Arkus-Duntov from 1990.)

Today, having been through a complete and thorough restoration, this well-traveled one-off Corvette is as magnificent as it has ever been. Its distinguishing features include the extended nose with headlight cones and front air ducting, polished-aluminum side coves with functional scoops, special instrumented (and autographed) dash, padded headrest and enclosed roll bar faired into the high rear fin, twin rounded windscreens, functional fender scoops and hood louvers, and aircraft-type hood releases. Competition-grade equipment includes a Spicer clutch–type limited-slip differential, heavier front and five-leaf rear springs, larger and stiffer front shocks, rear Houdaille dampers, a bolt-on quick-steering adaptor, a 36-gallon fuel tank, Halibrand axles and cera-metallic brake linings inside finned drums fronted by Halibrand magnesium knock-off wheels.

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At Amelia Island, we asked Kroiz how he came to own the car. “An old friend decided to sell it,” he responded. “He sold it to a fellow on the West Coast who only had it for a couple years, then put it up for sale. I got a call that it was for sale and was able to make a deal to get it.”

Actually, three ’56 Corvette SR-2s were built. “There were two high-finned SR-2s produced,” Kroiz said. “This is the first one. Then there was a low-finned SR-2, but it was a styling car, never a racecar. Its fin is short and in the center of the trunk.” The second one was built for Bill Mitchell, Harley Earl’s top assistant who would later replace him as GM Styling VP, and the third, show-car version for then-GM President Harlow “Red” Curtice. Kroiz stated that both other SR-2s are also now privately owned, the high-fin ex-Mitchell car by Bill Tower in northern Florida and the low-fin ex-Curtis car by Richard Fortier in Michigan.

Is his mechanically different from the others? “This is the only one with the prototype dual-air-meter fuel-injection unit,” he said. “And this is a 283 V-8 stroked to 331 cubic inches. It was originally a 265, but they needed more horsepower so they stroked the 283 to 331.”

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While some have called it “the first GM-designed-and-sponsored Corvette racer,” that accolade discounts the Ed Cole–supported, Duntov-developed Daytona speed record, Sebring 12-Hour and SCCA C-Production ’56 Corvettes built and raced earlier that year. In truth, this very special Corvette claims two fathers: Harley Earl, the “Father of the Corvette,” and Zora Arkus-Duntov, the “Father of Corvette Performance.”

Tellingly, the SR-2 did not look at all out of place on the gorgeous grounds of the Amelia Island Concours, where it was displayed in front of a dozen 200-plus-mph IMSA GTP racers from three decades later.

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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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