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Long-Lost Le Mans Corvette, Found at Last?

By Jerry Garrett on August 8, 2012, 3:54 pm

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The three Corvettes fielded by Briggs Cunningham for the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1960. A car recently discovered in Florida may be the No. 1 car pictured above, the only one in the trio that was unaccounted for.

Chip Miller, a noted collector of Chevrolet Corvettes who died in 2004 at age 61, spent much of his later life searching for a Corvette fielded by Briggs Cunningham  the driver, automotive manufacturer, yachtsman and race-team privateer  at Le Mans in 1960. Though he was unsuccessful in his search, before his death Miller passed along a valuable clue he had kept closely guarded.

"I've got the VIN number," he told Larry Berman, who chronicles the history of Cunningham at "I'll give it to you, but you've got to promise not to put it up on the Web site until after I'm gone."

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Mr. Berman described Miller's search as deeply personal. "Chip had a rare but fatal disease, amyloidosis. He knew he was dying," Mr. Berman said. "But until the end, he was still looking for the car, and wanted to keep that clue to himself."

Mr. Berman said he published the vehicle's identification number after Miller died, in accordance with the collector's wishes. Eight years passed with no progress until, on June 21, he received an e-mail through the Web site from a man in Florida.

"He said he was cleaning out a warehouse full of junk that he had inherited from his late father," Mr. Berman said. "And he came across this dusty, broken-down old creation that looked like some kind of drag-racing car. It doesn't even look like a Corvette anymore."

Crawling under the car to locate a serial number or other identifying mark, the son found the alphanumerical sequence 00867S103535 stamped on the chassis, which he matched to a stamp on the steering column. He entered the sequence in a Google search, which led him to Mr. Berman's site.

"Well, I couldn't believe it, at first," Mr. Berman said. "Because, I mean, everyone has been searching for this car for so long, and they've found nothing. But finally I realized, This guy may have something.'"

That's when Mr. Berman contacted Lance Miller, son of Chip Miller, who had carried on his father's quest to find the car. Mr. Miller recounted his and his father's search for another Corvette from the 1960 Le Mans campaign in the 2011 documentary "The Quest."

In an e-mail on Tuesday, Mr. Miller wrote that the complete story of the search would be shared on Aug. 23, the eve of Corvettes at Carlisle, an annual collectors' event held in Carlisle, Pa., and co-founded by Mr. Miller's father. There, the car will be displayed in its found state from Aug. 24 to 26.

"It'll blow people away when they hear the full story behind it," Mr. Miller wrote. "But it's an ugly car. So ugly!"

Mr. Berman noted that the original body was gone, as was its drivetrain. An incongruous, home-built fiberglass body sat atop the chassis, with large cut-outs to accommodate drag tires.

On Aug. 3, a man identified as Rick Carr wrote in a comment thread on that Mr. Miller "bought the car from me last week." Mr. Miller did not deny the commenter's assertion, but he would not confirm it either.

"Rick did say that, and I know you have to report it," Mr. Miller said when contacted by telephone. He emphasized that the car's ownership was only a portion of the story, but confirmed that the vehicle would be restored from the ground up to match the Corvettes' 1960 livery, when Cunningham raced at Le Mans. Painted white with blue stripes, the three cars were fielded by Cunningham with unofficial assistance from General Motors.

Cunningham and his co-driver, William Kimberly, drove the No. 1 car, the machine that Mr. Carr claimed to have sold to Mr. Miller. Dick Thompson and Fred Windridge were paired in No. 2, the car in the above photo. John Fitch and Bob Grossman started in No. 3. The Cunningham-Kimberly car crashed during an early-race deluge, while the No. 2 was retired after experiencing mechanical problems. But Fitch and Grossman persevered in the No. 3, finishing first in class and eighth over all.

"It was one of the proudest occasions in the history of Corvette," a historian, Karl Ludvigsen, wrote in a book about the sports car.

"We were told they were going into a museum at General Motors," Thompson said at a 2010 Corvette reunion. "But they were converted back to street use and sold. We didn't know for many years what had happened to these very historic Corvettes."

Bruce Meyer, a prominent collector and founding chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum, hunted down the No. 2 about 15 years ago and restored it. No. 1 went missing shortly after Le Mans.

"The 1960-1972 time frame for this car is unknown," Mr. Berman said. "All we know is that the father of this man in Florida bought it from a junkyard in Brooksville, Fla., in about 1972. It's been tucked away in that warehouse since at least 1976."

Chip Miller's unsuccessful search for No. 1 rather accidentally led him to No. 3, which had a near-death experience in a junkyard in Irwindale, Calif., before being spotted by a car enthusiast. Miller bought the car and, with the help of Fitch and Grossman, was able to verify its provenance thanks to a replacement fender that Fitch knew was installed after he flipped the car in a race at Sebring, Fla., in March 1960.

After Miller died, his son completed the restoration of No. 3 and arranged for its return to Le Mans in 2010 for a lap of honor to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its triumph. Although Grossman died during the course of the restoration, Fitch, then 92, was fit enough to drive his Corvette again on the French circuit.

Fitch, incidentally, celebrated his 95th birthday on Sunday at his home in Lakeville, Conn., a mile away from the Lime Rock racetrack he managed for many years. Mr. Berman said Fitch was delighted with the news that all the team cars were accounted for.

Mr. Berman expects all three cars to be reunited at a Briggs Cunningham retrospective on Labor Day next year, by which point the restoration of No. 1 should be complete. He added that Fitch, who would be 96 at that time, told his birthday guests last weekend he had every intention of attending.

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