One of the pleasures in dealing with a car that has a long history is that there are an unending number of interesting little stories scattered throughout that span of time. Some may be recent and some are certainly old, but even if you’ve heard them before, the passing of time somehow seems to increase their enjoyment, if not their relevance.
Harley Earl was a pioneer of several important innovations within GM during his tenure as Vice President of Design. Among these were the annual model change, planned obsolescence, concept cars and the GM Autorama. Of all the cars he worked with, the Corvette was Earl’s dream car, which was first shown as a concept car early in 1953.
In 1955, Chevrolet replaced the Corvette’s “Blue Flame” straight six engine with a new 265 cubic inch V8 that delivered 195 horsepower, giving the 2805 pound car much more ‘sporting’ character. The years since introduction had not gone as well as hoped, but the car was up for a major restyling for the 1956 model year, and a manual transmission had finally become available late in the previous model year.
Zora Arkus-Duntov, Corvette’s chief engineer, had what he needed to establish the Corvette as a competitive motorsports entry. Early in 1956, Duntov took a preproduction car to Pikes Peak, setting a stock car record with the 255 V8. Ed Cole, then chief engineer of the Chevrolet division, subsequently sent Arkus-Duntov to Daytona Beach, where he established a new record of 150 MPH on the flying mile, driving a modified, 307 CI Corvette. Based on that success, Cole announced that Chevrolet Division would provide factory support to a private team entering Corvettes at the 1956 Sebring 12-hour endurance race.
Keeping it in the Family
Road racing in America was a relatively recent sport and one that was quickly becoming popular. Even Harley Earl’s son, Jerome (Jerry) C. Earl, was taken with it and in the closing months of 1955, had bought a 1953 Ferrari 250 MM Vignale with the intention of taking it racing. This fact was commonly known among GM management at the time, but after the Corvette’s potential was established, it was ‘suggested’ that Jerry Earl should be campaigning a Corvette instead. Harley Earl spoke to his son, who later explained the situation for the family web site.
My father, Harley J. Earl, made an offer that was hard to turn down. He recommended building a custom one-of-a-kind Corvette racer inside GM Styling for me to take on the 1956 race circuit versus my racing a Ferrari (which I’d have to end up paying for everything on my own).
Shortly after, a Corvette arrived at the GM Styling Studios in Warren, Michigan. Bearing serial number E56F002522, work began in early May 1956, modifying the car and adding Sebring Racing (SR) brakes and suspension. Reportedly, at least 17 engineers worked around the clock and by mid-June, it was ready. There were two other SR-2 being built – one for Earl’s assistant, Bill Mitchell, and another for GM president, Harlow Curtice – but Jerry Earl’s had the highest priority. No cost or manpower was spared in building it.
Aside from the updated brakes and suspension, the SR-2 Corvette became more distinct from an extended front end that included modified parking lights with screens to allow cooling air to the brakes, dual racing windshields, air scoops grafted into the side coves and a vertical fin on the decklid.
Aerodynamics by Trial and Error
In late June, 1956 the car was entered in the June Sprints at Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI. Jerry Earl ‘s practice session ended with a spin, that luckily did no damage to his SR-2. Dick Thompson – the “Flying Dentist” – took over the controls and finished the six-hour race in a somewhat respectable position. Based on Thompson’s feedback, the car was returned to the Warren labs and a number of changes were requested. The most visible of these was the removal of the low tail fin and its replacement with a higher one used during the Daytona speed trials.
These changes did little to increase the success of the car which Jerry Earl continued to campaign through 1957. At the end of the season, Earl sold the car to Jim Jeffords, who had been a factory driver for Chevrolet. With a successful season behind him and a car for the next, Jeffords approached Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago for sponsorship. That deal was done and subsequent modifications at the Nickey facilities resulted in the car becoming known as the “Purple People Eater.”
Jeffords made good on a promise to bring Nickey the SCCA National Championship in 1958. He did it again in 1959 and carried on with a Corvette-dominated racing career that earned him a 2002 induction into the Corvette Hall of Fame.