Speed Over Time

Ken Kavalchek’s near-original ’56 roadster is a throwback to the early days of Corvette performance

Photo: Speed Over Time 1
June 24, 2021

He had a steady, good-paying job in the steel industry, and he was ready for a new car. But 22-year-old Ken Kavalchek of Medina, Ohio, had looked around and hadn’t found too many vehicles that struck a chord. Being young, single, and from America’s Heartland, a domestic sports car seemed a natural choice, but in the mid-1950s the only real options in that segment were the Thunderbird and the Corvette.

Kavalchek didn’t see many Corvettes running around Medina, so he paid a visit to a Chevrolet dealer in Cleveland. There, he found a pristine Onyx Black/Inca Silver 1956 convertible that was being used as a demonstrator. Well-equipped, it had accumulated only a few thousand miles, so it was still essentially a new car.

The asking price was a reasonable $2,500, marked down from the base MSRP of $3,120, and the car was loaded up with options. After visiting the Republic Steel Employees’ Credit Union, Kavalchek walked out with a loan check for $2,007.38. That, along with some cash he’d put aside, covered the purchase and licensing costs.

A title was issued September 9, 1957, and Kavalchek’s name has been the only one to appear on this Corvette’s registration ever since. That’s some 63 years of ownership, and the car has never been restored in that time, just carefully maintained. During those many years, Kavalchek has become a devoted Corvette enthusiast.

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Corvette Gets Serious

The ’56 Corvette featured updated styling conceived by a team led by GM Design VP Harley Earl. Chevrolet had listened carefully to the marketplace and found that Americans wanted a different look. And so Chevy gave customers a handsome new body with modern “coves” molded into its flanks, edged by some thin brightwork that begins at the top of the front wheelwell and carries in a graceful loop to the middle of the doors and back again. Tack-on gimmickry was minimal, quite the opposite of the excessive trim that was finding its way onto nearly every American car of that decade. Other than a pair of non-functional air scoops on the front fenders, the body was clean and attractive.

Proper wind-up windows replaced the awkward, European-style plastic side curtains offered on the early first-gen roadsters, and new outside door handles made cabin access much easier. The headlights were now flush with the fender caps rather than recessed, and the taillights followed the top edge of the rear fenders. Small, front bumper segments and over-riders protected the radiator opening, while the ends of the rear fenders were capped with chrome “bumperettes” housing the exhaust tips.

The wheelbase of 102 inches was identical to that of the 1953-55 model, as were the front and rear tracks, at 57 and 59 inches, respectively. But underhood, the 150-hp “Blue Flame” inline six from the original Corvette was gone, replaced across the board by a compact, 265-cubic-inch V-8 labeled the “Turbo-Fire Special.” Developed under the watchful eye of Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole, this engine first appeared in 1955 but did little to boost sales, and the entire program was nearly scrapped. For ’56, GM made the V-8 available in a range of power choices, to satisfy a broad swath of potential buyers. All, however, featured a cast-iron block and heads with a drop-forged steel crankshaft and a 9.5:1 compression ratio.

Atop the base engine sat a single four-barrel carburetor that gave 210 hp, feeding a three-speed manual transmission with a floor shifter. (Such a trans was deemed perfectly adequate for a car that tipped the scales at less than 3,000 pounds.) A two-speed Powerglide automatic was among the extra-cost options, and it was one that proved popular for urban dwellers. You might think a heater would be standard, but nope: GM charged an extra $123.65 to keep your toes warm and the windshield defogged. Go figure.

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Customers seeking more power could order RPO 469, which delivered an engine fitted with a pair of Carter four-barrel carbs that boosted output to 225 hp. Some 3,080 engines were delivered with that option, and when the RPO 449 “Duntov” high-lift cam was added to the mix, the new Vette could deliver a hefty (if unofficial) 240-hp punch. Chevrolet cautioned that this package was intended only for competition purposes, but many speed-hungry buyers disregarded that warning when filling out the order form.

As noted previously, the demonstrator that Kavalchek drove home was loaded up with optional equipment, including a close-ratio three-speed. But the most important add-ons were RPOs 469 and RPO 449, which, along with a 3.70 rear axle, helped give the car 130-mph capability. Sturdy drum brakes were fitted at all four corners, but these could be prone to fade if used hard.

Other extra-cost items installed on Kavalchek’s ’56 included a signal-seeking AM radio, a windshield washer, 670/15 whitewalls, and courtesy lights. But despite its hefty equipment tally, the car was fairly conventional in terms of color. The most popular paint shade that year was Venetian Red, at 30 percent, while just over 23 percent, or 810 units of the total run, were painted Onyx Black. All of them had red vinyl interiors. Soft tops could be had in either black or white, and the optional hard tops could be painted in either the main body color or that of the cove, if the latter was different. Kavalchek’s car, vehicle E56S002914, was delivered with an optional hard top painted black with a red headliner. He’d passed on a folding fabric lid because his car would be stored outdoors for several years while he lived in a home that lacked a garage. He later bought a white folding top from a ’57 and relegated the hard top to storage, where it remains.

Street, Race, and Show

Pop the hood on Kavalchek’s car, and you’re immediately faced with a pair of stainless-steel air cleaners that help keep the local insect population out of the Carter four-barrels. These carbs, says Kavalchek, were specific to the 1956 engine and are set up with a progressive linkage. The exhaust manifolds are of the three-bolt type, and the “Twin-Tower” heads are dressed up with nine-fin aluminum valve covers carrying the Corvette name in script.

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Though Chevy didn’t provide an official horsepower number for the Duntov-cammed 265, the engine’s output is generally considered to have been 240 (gross) hp.

In May of 1957, shortly before Kavalchek brought his ’56 home, a small group of other local Corvette owners began planning a new club of like-minded enthusiasts called Corvette Cleveland. “Early on, the club was one of just five recognized by General Motors,” he says. “[Today] it has over 200 members and is quite active in shows, autocross, rallies, and social activities. I am one of two founding members still standing [and] I never…dreamed of this happening.”

One day in the summer of 1958, Kavalchek was driving home from the local drag strip after dropping a friend off at his home. “I spotted a blonde driving a 1957 T-Bird with a dark-haired passenger, another girl,” he recalls. “After the blonde dropped off her passenger, I followed her home. In November 1961 the blonde, whose name was Betty, became my wife, and [she] later became the mother of our two children, Lara and Ken.”

Kavalchek actively drag-raced the car starting in 1957, eventually swapping out the Duntov cam for a special racing grind from Giovanni, replacing the standard 3.70 rear gears with 4.11s, and mounting a pair of cheater slicks. After one weekend run, clutch failure mandated a new disc, pressure plate, and throw-out bearing. Kavalchek even reports that his car was one of the first to employ a flywheel scatter-shield, designed by a friend. Today, everything is back to stock.

“Racing ended when I got married in 1961,” he says. “I’d been working 72 hours a week and going to night school to get a degree…there was no time left for racing.

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[I] got a degree in Traffic and Business Management in 1968 [and] the kids arrived in 1968 and 1970.” In the interim, Kavalchek’s career in the iron-ore and steel-making industries prospered. “The Corvette was laid up until mid-’80s, then Ken and I began showing it.”

Over time, various mechanical items were replaced with OEM parts as they wore out, including the rear end, front-end kingpins, wheel bearings, suspension bushings, and shock absorbers. The original mild-steel exhaust system was also exchanged for a more durable stainless setup. In a testament to the Corvette’s build quality, Kavalchek tells us that neither the engine nor transmission has ever been overhauled (though he does deal with the occasional oil leak). And while the stock BFGoodrich whitewalls have been replaced by equivalents from Coker, Kavalchek says the BFG spare in the trunk is factory original. “It’s only been on the ground once, when I had a flat.”

Incredibly, the car’s interior is completely original as well. Despite some sun-fading, the door panels and carpet were deemed good enough to be used by Al Knoch Interiors in Canutillo, Texas, as patterns to create new replacement kits. “I don’t plan any improvements,” says Kavalchek, “I just keep the car up.”

What about this old Corvette appeals so much to Kavalchek? “I love the design and stance of the car. You look at it and see a classic look that will never be produced again. It’s a beauty sculpture built for power and speed. In fact, it stands still and looks like it’s going 60 mph. With the cars of today all looking alike except for color, it stands out as a classic.”

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Long Hauler

The driving experience also brings a smile to his face. “The car gets driven during the meet-and-show season,” Kavalchek reports. “In traffic I can jam it in Second gear, and it responds with authority.”

The lack of power steering presents a bit of problem, however. “It takes more than two full turns to move the front wheels side to side. The thin, plastic-and-aluminum steering wheel is 15 inches in diameter. It wanders a bit because it has kingpin suspension up front, and being a solid-axle car, [there’s] no four-wheel independent suspension.

“With power steering and independent suspension, today’s cars ride quite smooth and easy. With the 1956 you go over an ant in the road, and you feel like you went over a bump. However, I’m used to it, and it really doesn’t bother me.”

The car draws a lot of attention when Kavalchek takes it out. “I have won at many shows, including some small, private ones.

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It’s won at the International Show Car Association, the National Corvette Restorers’ Society, the National Council of Corvette Clubs, the Straight-Axle Corvette Enthusiasts, the Milestone Car Society, and other Corvette club shows, plus charity events and parades.”

Given Kavalchek’s intense interest in the marque—he is a charter member of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky—it should come as no surprise that there are several other Corvettes in his family. “My son began to judge NCRS events,” he says. “We began going to meets together when he was 12. Today I try to keep within a 100-mile radius of home.”

“In the 1980s we met…Reggie Jackson at an NCRS meet, [and] he took dozens of photos of the ’56. Also in that period, I drove cross-country with Ken to Reno, Las Vegas, California, and home again. We drove

from Ohio to New York and Boston, to Bloomington Gold Shows in Lake Charles, the D.C. area, and [Solid-Axle Corvette Club] meets. At Reno we met [Corvette expert] Noland Adams [and] Zora Duntov. Noland and Zora became personal friends of me and my son.”

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Decals from various car shows attest to a life spent largely on the road.

Kavalchek also made friends within the corporate management team. “Back when Corvette was about to build the 1970 ZR1, a friend, Ken Kayser, manager of engine design at the North Tonawanda Chevy plant, invited me to ride in one of the examples made available to the public,” he recalls. “I rode in #8, an experimental car with more goodies than the regular ZR1.

“Several years later at the same NCRS show, Ken asked me if I’d like to ride in the new ZR2 convertible. Wow, what a ride! They only built two of those—one Sunflower Yellow and the other Ontario Orange—along with 10 coupes, because Plymouth was thinking about mass-producing its own sports car.”

That didn’t happen, but coming home from his niece’s wedding, “my family and I stopped at the Corvette Museum. What on the floor did we see but that orange ZR2 convertible on loan from GM. I said something to one of the museum officials [about how] I rode in that car, to which he replied ‘You couldn’t have!’ I found out later that I had been one of about four outsiders to have done so—what an honor. That ZR2 later sold for only $150,000—someone got a deal!”

By the time you read this, Kavalchek will have watched his ’56 Corvette’s odometer roll over past 100,000 miles, and this senior statesman for the marque, now a youthful 85, plans to add even more.

Also from Issue 147

  • Arrow Electronics SAM C8
  • Market Report: C5
  • 1,100-HP C6 Street Car
  • History: Refining the '62
  • LS3 '67 Restomod
  • C8 DCT Road Test
  • Racing: C8.R's Euro Debut
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