Note: The following story was excerpted from the August 2012 issue of Collectible Automobile magazine
As the Chevrolet Corvette’s 60th birthday approaches, it’s easy to forget the two-seater wasn’t a muscular, race-winning sports car from the start. Rushed into production with a “Blue-Flame” six and Chevy’s Powerglide automatic transmission, the car that wowwed Motorama crowds in New York in early ’53 was a tough sell little more than a year later. The addition of Chevy’s new V8 engine in 1955 really didn’t help Corvette sales.
1955 Chevrolet Corvette “Duntov Mule”
Though its prospects looked bleak, the fiberglass-bodied sportster had an important and forceful booster. Early on, Chevrolet engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov thought the car needed a racing heritage. After setting a Pikes Peak record behind the wheel of a disguised 1956 Chevrolet in September 1955, Duntov wanted to demonstrate how fast his beloved Corvette could go, too. His goal: 150 mph during Speed Weeks at Daytona Beach, Florida.
Chevrolet engineering chief Ed Cole gave Duntov his blessing. To prepare for Daytona, a 1954 Corvette was chosen to serve as a development car, or “mule.” Not just any ’54, it was an existing engineering test car, code EX87, that had been fitted with a Chevy V8 by legendary mechanic Smokey Yunick in his Daytona Beach shop. Its original duties complete, the ’Vette was redesignated “5951” by Chevrolet Engineering. Duntov arranged for several aerodynamic modifications including a cut-down windscreen, a tonneau cover over the passenger seat, an underbody fairing, and a finned headrest.
Under the hood was a modified V8, its displacement increased to 307 cubic inches. A new camshaft design was specified by Duntov; it went on to be known as the “Duntov cam,” a name that still merits respect in Corvette circles.
In December 1955, Duntov topped 163 mph at GM’s proving grounds in Mesa, Arizona. Next stop, Daytona.
The engine, transmission, and several other bits from 5951 were transferred to a 1956 Corvette for the Daytona run. Duntov broke 150 mph in a test run on the sand, but during a windy Speed Weeks, his best run averaged 147.3 mph, good for top speed in the modified class.
Corvette’s racing career was off to a good start, thanks to lessons learned from Duntov’s mule that never ran in public. The next stop was the 12-hour race at Sebring, Florida.
Fast forward to 2001. After Yunick’s death, an old Chevy V8 labeled “Record Run” is found in his shop. It’s believed to be the 307 Duntov used at Daytona. The engine is purchased by collector Steve Tate, who soon tracks down 5951’s body, too. Though the original chassis was long ago swapped out by Chevrolet Engineering, the reunited car and engine are restored to the condition they were in when Duntov was prepping for the 1956 Speed Weeks beach run.
1955 Chevrolet Corvette “Duntov Mule” Gallery
(Click below for enlarged images.)