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1967 Corvette C2 L88 in blue
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How the 1955 Le Mans Disaster Nearly Prevented the Corvette L88

NOTE: While all care and attention has been taken to avoid showing any images containing bodies, there are some images in this article that may be distressing to some readers.

In today’s world, we can look back through Chevrolet’s history and appreciate the legendary C2 and C3 L88 Corvettes. We can admire the 427 V8 that was chucking out “435 HP,” although in reality it was pushing from 540 to 580 HP.

We can admire the classic lines of the C2 version, the hood with the functional ram scoops either side of the center ridge. We can admire the huge hood bulge in the C3 version with the “427” badge on it so that there was no denying what was underneath.

Yet, just over a decade before the L88 option was available to consumers, the entirety of the racing program at Chevrolet was put into doubt due to one of the worst motoring accidents that the world has ever seen. It was the accident that caused racing to be banned, in any form, in Switzerland.

It was the accident that caused Mercedes-Benz to withdraw from endurance racing, and racing as a whole, for nearly two and a half decades. It was the accident that caused a controversial ruling in the Auto Manufacturers Association of the USA, under heavy pressure from the Federal Government, in 1957 that put the future of the American sports car in doubt.

We are, of course, talking about the 1955 Le Mans disaster.

What Is the 1955 Le Mans Disaster?

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is these days a legendary race that takes place on le Circuit de la Sarthe, near the town of Le Mans, in the NorthWest of France. The track consists of public roads with a very few specially built sections that are open only during the race, and in 1955, was in its 23rd year of running.

The race itself took place on June 11 and 12, 1955, and involved 60 cars of multiple classes. The highlights, of course, were Ferrari, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz—all previous winners of the race—battling it out in the top tier sports car class.

1955 24 Hours Of Le Mans "running start"
The start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 11, 1955. Note at the bottom the crowd of spectators pushing right up to the dirt berm that separated the track from the crowds, with no fencing or other crowd safety measures in place. As well, the dashed line in the road is the pit lane marker, so the pits were exposed to the live race track at all times. Image Via: PennLive

Different Safety Standards

In the 1950s, safety was mostly an afterthought. The pitlane, for example, had no dividing wall between the track and the service areas. The cars did not have seatbelts, as the prevailing thought was that it was better to be thrown from the car and maybe survive, instead of being strapped into the car and killed for sure. There were no fireproof clothes worn by the mechanics or the drivers. Hay Bales were used to line the course instead of barriers at some points.

Famous Drivers

There was a who’s who of famous names of the time driving in the 1955 race. Juan-Manuel Fangio and Sterling Moss were in one Mercedes. Pierre Levegh and John Fitch were in another. Up-and-coming driver Lance Macklin was in an Austin-Healey. British racing royalty and future F1 champion Mike Hawthorne was in a Jaguar, which crucially was running with the newly developed racing technology of disc brakes.

Pierre Levegh driving his Mercedes 300 SLR in the 1955 Le Mans race
Pierre Levegh at the wheel of the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR just a lap before the disaster that would shake motorsports to its core. Image Via: The BBC

Disaster Strikes

On lap 34, the Jaguar pit had signaled that Hawthorne was to pit the next lap. During his lap, he drove hard, working to keep the Mercedes of Fangio behind him. He caught up to Levegh during the lap and passed him at Arnage, the slowest corner on the circuit.

He rocketed away down the straight to Maison Blanche, and after navigating the chicane there at speed, he came up behind Macklin in the Austin-Healey. Macklin acknowledged the faster car and moved over to the right side of the track to let Hawthorne pass, who was being closed in on by a resurgent Levegh.

What happened next occurred in the space of about two seconds, but left a black mark in motorsports history.

Hawthorne put his hand up, a signal at the time that he was pitting, and moved over to the right in front of Macklin to join the pitlane. He braked to slow down so he wouldn’t overshoot his pit box, but the disc brakes of the Jaguar were in their prime temperature range and slowed him down very quickly. Macklin braked hard in the Austin-Healey, which had the standard drum brakes of the time, but saw that he wouldn’t slow down in time to stop from hitting Hawthorne, so he swerved hard left to avoid a collision.

At that moment, Levegh in his Mercedes was moving out to the left to overtake Macklin. Macklin’s left rear hit the right front of Levegh’s car, which caused the Mercedes to ride up the sloped tail of the Austin-Healey and launch into the air at over 120 MPH.

The instant before the deadliest crash in motorsports history
Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes after riding up and over the back of Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey at over 120 MPH, taken from a film newsreel of the event. On the left you can see Mike Hawthorne in his Jaguar. In the lower left, you can see damage caused to the film front the ensuing impact and fire. Image Via: Wikimedia Commons.

The Mercedes impacted one of the few safety concessions for the track, an earthen embankment built up in front of a spectator’s plaza that led to and from the grandstand. Levegh was killed instantly on impact and thrown clear of the car onto the track, but crucially, the Mercedes itself shattered from the sheer momentum it carried. This disintegration sent the hood, engine, radiator, and rear axle assembly hurtling into the main grandstand and across the spectator plaza in front of it.

Collateral Damage

The hood acted almost as a scythe and cut a swathe through the crowd, the engine following with enough inertia to plow through the packed crowds with little abatement of its speed, followed closely by the spinning rear axle that carried just as much momentum. In total, 83 spectators were killed, and several hundreds were wounded, some severely.

To make matters even more dire, the Mercedes was using magnesium as a major metal in its body, and when the fuel tank exploded as the car disintegrated, it burned so blindingly white hot that firefighters could do nothing else but pull Levegh’s body from where it had come to rest on the track away from the wreckage to attempt any time of life saving measures. Only once the car had burned down to its frame were they able to attack it with water, as pouring water onto burning magnesium only caused further explosions of white hot sparks.

Spectators running from a fuel and magnesium fire at the 1955 Le Mans race
Spectators in the main plaza fleeing the intense heat of the fire that was caused by the fuel tank of the Mercedes exploding. Adding to the inferno was the fact that the car was partially made of magnesium, which when ignited, burns at over 4,000 F (2,200 C), almost half as hot as the surface of the sun. Image Via: PennLive

Aftermath

The ACO, the sanctioning body of Le Mans, opted to not show the red flag to stop the race, with the reasoning that if it was stopped, there was the possibility of a stampede out of the main grandstand that would block any access to the injured and dead for emergency services. Still, Mercedes withdrew their other car immediately on the next lap in anguish over what had happened, and did not take part in any endurance races until the 1980s as a factory team.

To this day, the 1955 Le Mans Disaster remains the single largest loss of life at a motorsports event.

Why the Auto Manufacturer’s Association Passed the Racing & Race Promotion Ban of 1957

Following the news and newsreels of the disaster, which are available online (although for sensitivity’s sake, we will not link to them here), Congress turned a critical eye to American auto-makers that were also involved in racing. Heavy pressure came down from the federal government on almost any racing program, and even President Eisenhower insisted that racing programs be curtailed or canceled. This pressure lasted through 1956, and was coming to a boiling point in the early Summer of 1957.

In June 1957, the Auto Manufacturer’s Association (AMA), comprised of representatives from all of the major American companies, passed a ruling that effectively banned racing, promotion of race results for marketing, advertising speed features against competitors cars, supplying pace cars for racing events, and otherwise using speed and racing in any way, shape, or form in marketing. As Corvette enthusiasts, we all know that 1957 was the year that the C1 gained its 283 Small Block V8 with 245 or 270 HP, the most powerful V8 engine available in a C1 Corvette at that time.

1957 283/270 Small-Block V8 in a Corvette C1
The 1957 283/270 Small Block V8 with dual downdraft quad carburetors. Image Via: Corvsport

As General Motors and Chevrolet were both members of the AMA, they were bound by the ruling to not use any promotional material related to racing or speed. However, the ruling never said anything about privateers doing the marketing.

And so, GM began selling “Corvettes,” or at least all the parts to assemble a Corvette, to companies such as Southern Engineering and Development Company (SEDCO), where they would be transformed into race cars. Vince Piggins, founder and owner of SEDCO, even wrote The 1957 Chevrolet Stock Car Competition Guide based on his infamous “Black Widow” Corvette-powered stock car.

The "Black Widow" stock car that had a 283/290 fuelie V8 under the hood
The 1957 Chevy Utility 150 “Black Widow” stock car built by SEDCO. Under the hood was a 283/290 Fuelie V8 from a Corvette C1, a racing engine that, by the ruling of the AMA, should never have been made. Image Via: Chevy Hardcore

Even Zora Arkus-Duntov, at the time head of Corvette engineering, launching the Corvette C2 Grand Sport program was affected five years after the ruling. Five Grand Sports, specially modified lightweight cars with 377 aluminum V8’s with 485 HP, were made, and at the Nassau Speed Week in 1963, three of them thoroughly beat all the Shelby Cobras in attendance.

It was absolutely sheer coincidence that a full team of Corvette engineers just happened to be taking a company vacation in Nassau at the same time. Sheer coincidence.

1963 Corvette C2 Grand Sport, one of five
One of the five 1963 Corvette Grand Sports to be made before Zora Arkus-Duntov’s Grand Sport program was shuttered because of the AMA ban. Image Via: Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, the shadow of the Le Mans disaster was still casting a dark and deep shadow over many auto manufacturers the world over. The AMA had not repealed their ruling, Mercedes-Benz had by the 1960s left motorsport entirely, Switzerland was coming up on a decade of its total motorsports ban, and even the Japanese automakers, who had not even been in attendance at the 1955 race, were having difficulty selling their sports cars in several countries.

Things were looking quite grim, to say the least. The C2 Corvette was selling at a good rate, but there was demand from the paying public who wanted to have a Corvette that could be entered into races and win them.

There was demand from international teams that wanted to take the Corvette to races such as the 24 Hours of Spa. Yet, because of the ban, Chevrolet’s hands were tied.

Or were they?

How the Corvette L88 Was Made Despite the AMA Ban

So how does a member of the AMA, bound by the decision to not promote racing or speed, decide to promote racing and speed by making one of the most legendary option packages in the history of Corvette? The simplest answer is that Chevrolet, in effect, simply danced around it.

To go more in depth, the Corvette L88 was a program that was a very thinly-veiled attempt to get a race-ready car into the hands of road racers. If you really looked at the engine specs closely during its development, which thankfully the AMA did not, it was a pure motorsports V8.

The 427 cubic inch engine had four-bolt mains, forged pistons and rods, performance solid-lifter cams, transistorized ignition coils, an aluminum air intake with a Holley 850 CFM downdraft carburetor, feeding an engine with a 12.5:1 compression ratio.

How Chevrolet was able to market the option package was that in all official marketing materials, the L88 had a claimed power figure of 430 HP. Again, as the AMA did not pay particularly close attention, this was five less HP than the top-of-the-options L71.

See Also: The Complete Collection of C2 Corvette Engines

To put it another way, it was a blatant lie, and Chevy’s way of wagging the middle finger in the face of the AMA without being seen doing so. Thankfully, as the option package was “within acceptable power ratings,” the AMA didn’t investigate any deeper than a cursory glance at the marketing materials to make sure no racing or speed was mentioned.

1969 Corvette C3 L88 from the side
A 1969 Corvette C3 L88. Nothing screams power more than that massive hood bulge, the side exit exhausts, and the way the car hunkers down on its F41 suspension kit. Image Via: Supercars.net

They thankfully also didn’t see the mandatory performance package that came with the L88 option. This included the Muncie M22 “Rock Crusher” four-speed transmission, J56 special heavy duty disc brakes, a positraction rear diff, and the F41 special front and rear suspension package.

Oddly (actually intentionally), there were several standard options absent from the car when fitting it with the L88 package, including no power steering, no electric windows, no air conditioning, and no radio.

To the common man, that sounds like the perfect set of mandatory equipment and option omissions to turn their “street-only” Corvette into a race car. In total, between the C2 and C3 model years of 1967 to 1969, 216 Corvette L88’s were made, making them some of the rarest and most highly sought after collector cars. In fact, in September 2022, the last 1969 Corvette C3 L88 ever made sold on Bring-A-Trailer for a whopping $631,000 USD.

Thankfully, after a lot of lobbying, the AMA finally repealed the ban in the mid-1970s, and cars could once again be marketed with official speed figures and racing pedigree attached. Mercedes returned to endurance racing in the 1980s during the Group C era of prototype cars, and rejoined Formula One in 2010, after 55 years away from the sport. Even Switzerland, if rumors are to be believed, is considering dropping its nearly 70 year old ban on racing.

As Corvette fanatics here at CorvSport, we’re just glad that GM and Chevy pretty much ignored the ban and danced their dance on the tightrope so that the L88 could be made. As evidenced by the auction above, the demand is still there for them!

  1. Worth looking at the life of John Fitch, the co-driver of the Mercedes that crashed. From wikipedia:

    “His biggest legacy is motor sport safety, as well as pioneering work to improve road car safety, and this has helped save countless lives. He had worked on advanced driver safety capsule systems. He was also a track design consultant, as well as inventing many other automotive devices. Even into his 90s, Fitch was still a consultant, and appeared at historic events.”

    and

    “In the aftermath of the Le Mans disaster of 1955, Fitch devoted a great deal of effort to the task of increasing the safety of motorsports and driving in general, resulting in his company, Impact Attenuation Inc. His innovations were characterized not only by their effectiveness, but also by their real-world practicality, as affordable and easily installed and maintained solutions.[3]
    Fitch barrier

    Inspired by sand-filled fuel cans which he used to protect his tent from strafing during the war, he devised the Fitch Barrier system, now ubiquitous on American highways, for installation around fixed objects on racetracks and highways to absorb impact. Typically, Fitch insisted on testing the system himself. Since first being used in the late 1960s, it is estimated that they have saved as many as 17,000 lives.[20]

    Other impact absorbing systems designed by Fitch are the Fitch Compression Barrier, suited for oval tracks and other such high speed situations with little runoff area, which comprises a set of strong, thick-walled resilient elastomer cylinders about a yard in diameter placed between the guardrail and the wall, gently absorbing the vehicle’s energy without bouncing it back onto the track, and the Fitch Displaceable Guardrail where more room is available, a guardrail mounted on skids so that it can slide backwards on impact, gradually capturing the car. This reduces the mechanical forces and redirects the car parallel to the wall”

    So, a result of the crash that cost 83 spectators motivated John Fitch to save “as many as 17,000 lives”.

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