One of the Original 1960 Le Mans Corvette Racers Goes to Auction at RM Sotheby’s
Long before the Corvette became synonymous with winning at Le Mans, there was a brief, but no less poignant era where Briggs Cunningham successfully navigated – and won – the 24 Hour endurance classic….even when nobody believed they could. These Corvette – a trio of 1960 Corvettes – have become the stuff of legend. And like so many legends, these cars have disappeared into the annals of history….until now.
This past Saturday, one of the three original 1960 Le Mans Corvettes originally owned and raced by Briggs Cunningham travelled across the auction block of RM Sotheby’s. Despite being in very rough condition, the Corvette fetched a “hammer price” of $685,000. While a respectable sales price in the world of unique collector cars, RM Sotheby’s had listed the car with an expected pre-auction sell price of $900,000 to $1.3 million dollars.
The identity of the winning bidder, as is customary, was not announced.
Part of the mystique of this car is the backstory that comes with it. After its impressive debut at the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, this car disappeared for nearly 40 years until resurfacing in 2011 amidst a flurry of legal drama and accusations between waring factions, all of whom argued they were the “heir apparent” to the classic Corvette.
This car was one of three identical white with blue stripes/accents Corvettes – numbered 1, 2, and 3 – which made up the “Briggs Cunningham” race team for the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans. Although this car’s livery – No. 1- was involved in a crash with another of the Corvettes from the BG team during the race, the third Corvette went on to win its class and, by so doing, establish the Corvette as a genuine contender on the world racing stage.
Because Chevrolet was officially participating in the AMA racing ban, they couldn’t leverage Corvette’s success at Le Mans in any of their marketing campaigns. As such, the Briggs Cunningham Corvettes disappeared into obscurity, each being purchased by private individuals and disappearing into the annals of history.
Fast forward thirty years.
The Briggs Cunningham Corvettes were now a popular topic of discussion amongst enthusiasts and collectors. In the Corvette community, each car had become something akin to Arthur’s “holy grail.” Once the research began, two of the cars surfaced pretty quickly and were restored to their original specifications by Corvette enthusiast Lance Miller of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Once complete, these cars were showcased at the 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their original appearance at that race in 1960. Original driver John Fitch – then 92 years old – participated in the ceremony.
The third Corvette – and the topic of this article – was purchased by an amateur sports car racer. He had inexplicably transformed the original Corvette racer into a car resembling the 1950’s-era Zagato Gran Turismo. He also installed a different V8 engine out of a 70s-era Pontiac beneath the car’s hood. Some time after these modifications were made, the car changed hands again and became the property of a Tampa-area drag racer. His only contribution to the car was that he had it painted purple.
Fast forward again.
Lance Miller and his restoration partner, Kevin Mackay of Valley Stream, New York were floored when they found a newspaper posting for a “Zagato-bodied Pontiac prototype” for sale with a VIN number that matched the third (and still missing) Briggs Cunningham Corvette race car. They purchased the car from the ad and received a bill of sale from the “alleged” owner of the sadly (and badly) disfigured Corvette.
After taking time to untangle the car from its disfigured form, Miller and Mackay planned a public unveiling of the Corvette racer at Carlisle. On the eve of the event, the men were accosted by police officers who presented them with a Florida title and stolen vehicle report. One of the men present – a retired police officer – happened to be the son of the deceased drag racer (the guy who painted the car purple). He claimed the car had been stolen off his father’s property several years earlier.
A legal battle ensured. Mr. Miller, unwilling to become entangled in the controversy and legal battle, sold his interest in the car to Mr. Mackay. Mackay was unwilling to go down without a fight and remained part of the legal battle. A third party – an Indiana car dealer – also asserted a claim of ownership in the car, claiming financial difficulties involving creditors for a past transaction involving the Corvette.
In the end, the judge overseeing the legal debate, decided that since no clear owner could be identified, the car should be sold and each party receive a third of the total proceeds. It was at this point that the car was assigned to be sold at auction. The car’s proceeds, less than originally predicted, were slated to be distributed between the three individuals involved in the lawsuit.
Mr. Mackay commented that the car would eventually be restored and take its rightful place in history along with the two other fully restored Corvettes. It will be interesting to see if future history will culminate with the car returning to the capable hands of Mr. Miller and Mr. Mackay – both of whom would be the obvious “heir apparent” for this car given their history with the other two.