Monday, November 2, 2009

Legendary 1968 Corvette L88 - Le Mans Car

Chassis No.

Sold at Monterrey: $583,000

Corvette’s road to Le Mans wound a circuitous trail around the strictures of the 1957 AMA racing ban, passing through back doors and the offices of intermediaries and straws. Zora Arkus-Duntov, Corvette’s spiritual father and protector of its concept, was a four-time Le Mans participant and twice class winner. Zora’s Corvettes kept coming back, quietly testing the Sarthe contest. Two generations of Corvette racers have followed the trail that he blazed.

The first, and for many the best-known, foray involved Briggs Cunningham’s 1960 three-car assault, followed in 1962 by Tony Settember and Jack Turner and in 1967 by Dick Guldstrand’s Dana Chevrolet entry co-driven by Bob Bondurant. By this time Chevrolet’s racing activities were less than a deep dark secret, but still had to abide by the form, if not the substance, of the General’s adherence to the AMA ban.

The 1968 Corvette offered here is the survivor of one such not-so-secret effort. The central figure is Henri Greder. Greder nearly won the 1963 Tour de France in a factory entered 427 Ford Galaxie. This earned him a Ford of France ride in a 4.7 liter GT40 at Le Mans in 1966 and 1967. The performance of FoMoCo’s 7-liter Mark IVs demonstrated the possibilities of powerful but lazy, 7-liter V8s at Le Mans and in preparation for the 1968 24 Heures du Mans, GM’s European promotions director (an up and coming Bob Lutz) and Greder approached Swiss racing patron Georges Filipinetti with the idea of entering a two-car Corvette team at Le Mans.

Filipinetti accepted and two of the fabled L88 Corvette coupes shortly arrived from Detroit, fully race prepared for the 24 Hours under Zora Arkus-Duntov’s supervision: one, this car, for Greder and skier Jean-Claude Killy and the other for Sylvain Garant and Jean-Michel Giorgi. In addition to the abundant horsepower of the L88, widely believe to be in the neighborhood of 550 brake horsepower, Zora slipped a coil spring front suspension into the package while retaining Corvette’s standard transverse leaf spring independent rear suspension.

At the last minute GM vetoed Killy and Umberto Maglioli stepped into the breach. Le Mans 1968 was to be Maglioli’s last race, ending a two-decade career that included a long relationship with Ferrari in both Grands Prix and sports cars, an exceptional Mille Miglia record with Lancia, Ferrari and Porsche and a win in the Carrera Panamericana. Zora, knowing the demands of 24 hours at speed at Le Mans, fitted very tall 2.56 rear end gears to take full advantage of the legendary 427 cubic inch L88 engine’s power. The combination was clocked down the Mulsanne straight at 191 mph and turned in a sub-4 minute lap in testing. The Corvettes were fast, but suffered from what the French called the “ennuis de freins”, its brakes not measuring up to the inertia of 1½ tons accelerated to nearly 200 mph by the puissance of the Big Block L88. Greder recalls having to brake for the Mulsanne turn at the 500 meter mark

In the 1968 race Greder and Maglioli dominated the Porsche competition and led the GT category until the 6th hour when a carburetion problem melted a piston. Garant wiped out the other Corvette in the Dunlop curves in the 14th hour.

Returning in 1969, now with Reine Wisell as co-driver and Ronnie Petersen as backup, Greder’s L88 Corvette’s M22 “Rock Crusher” gearbox endured 16 hours of aggressive downshifting, to use engine braking to relieve the brakes’ “ennui”, before it gave up, again while leading the GT category.

Following Le Mans Greder placed 6th overall at Magny Cours then in September reprised the Tour de France, a 5,000km marathon over nine days including 11 events at 9 different tracks. The Corvette was prepared in Greder’s shops in d’Issy-les-Moulineaux using boxes of the latest high performance parts sent to France out of Chevrolet Engineering’s back door.

Despite encountering a constant engine misfire which replacing the carburetor, plugs, wires and even the gas tank didn’t cure, Greder and his co-driver Vigneron captured seven of the eleven events (Nürburgring, Rouen, Le Mans, Cap Fréhel, Charade, Albi and le Tourmalet). At Clermont they finally swapped the distributor for one from a Camaro and the L88’s power returned. Starting the race at Clermont Ferrand (then known as Charade) from the back of the field, Greder (“I was very tired, and so happy to have the power back,” he recalled) passed every car on the straight after the start, went straight across the next two corners, spun and backed into a utility pole. Restarting, again at the back of the field, the rejuvenated Corvette (its driver’s enthusiasm unconstrained by the tachometer, which didn’t work after the distributor swap) charged through the field, catching Gerard Larrousse’s leading Porsche 911R at the start-finish line at the end of the first lap. “Larrousse said he thought I was out for good and was so startled when he saw me in his mirrors he almost went off,” Greder remembered. But it was too late to catch Larrousse in the overall standings. Greder and the Corvette finished second and won the GT category earning the description “La phénoménale Chevrolet Corvette” in Maurice Louche’s history of the Tour de France Automobile.

Greder went on to prepare and race a Big Block Corvette at Le Mans six more times, on this car adding oil coolers for the transmission and differential, culminating in two class wins in 1973-1974, both co-driven by Marie-Claude Beaumont.

The 1968-69 Greder car was sold to Jean-Claude Aubriet and entered by Aubriet’s “Ecurie Leopard” a further four times at Le Mans from 1970-73, finishing as high as 18th overall and 2nd in class, as well as contesting an active schedule of other races including the Tour de France in 1970 and 1971.

Six years at Le Mans, much less consecutive as in this case, is a record unequalled by any single chassis in Le Mans history. Furthermore, the record of the Greder/Aubriet Corvette overwhelms the performance of more notorious Corvettes at Le Mans and opened the door for the enthusiastic reception which later teams from the States like Greenwood, Callaway, Viper and GM have received from the A.C.O. and French race fans.

The Greder Corvette was sold in 1989 to Bob Rubin, then to Marc de Peescara. It was acquired by its present owner in 2000 and was gone through thoroughly and professionally in the owner’s own shop to prepare it for historic racing. Its first appearance was at the Monterey Historics in 2001. It received an invitation to the 2004 Le Mans Classic and was completely stripped in preparation for the competition but the team’s schedule eventually precluded attending. It subsequently has been carefully re-assembled and has been displayed several times at important events without further historic competition.

Today it is powered by the engine it had when acquired in 2000, a 70’s vintage 454 in the guise of the classic L88. It retains the coil spring front suspension developed by Zora. It is prepared for historic racing with a lightened flywheel, carbon fiber clutch, M22 “Rock Crusher” close ratio gearbox and J56 heavy duty brakes. In addition to FIA Historic Vehicle Identity and a new Historic Technical Passport, its documentation includes copies of the original A.C.O. entry forms from its six appearances at Le Mans. It also has a California Certificate of Title and non-current California registration, presenting some intriguing possibilities.

It was recently given a thorough mechanical freshening and it runs, stops and drives well. Its awesome performance and the irreplaceable nature of its history and originality dictate that a complete professional recheck and update for safety and reliability would be a prudent precaution before unleashing its neck-stretching power on the track.

The Greder Corvette 410300 holds a unique place in Le Mans history, not only as one of the most successful, and well-traveled, Corvette race cars in the world but also as the survivor of one of Chevrolet’s “back door” racing programs managed and implemented by Zora Arkus-Duntov. Corvette’s potential has been realized in recent years as Chevrolet’s Corvettes have achieved nearly complete domination of the GT1 class at Le Mans and the other important international endurance races, culminating in this year’s Corvette 1-2 finish in GT1 at La Sarthe, Corvette’s final appearance before turning its attention to the GT2 class. The path to that success began with efforts like this factory-supported and developed 1968 Scuderia Filipinetti Corvette. It is an indispensable part of Corvette’s international racing history.

The dust of thousands of racing miles and some of Europe’s most famous circuits is captured in its nooks and crannies. Its record of six consecutive competitive appearances at the 24 Heures du Mans, one of racing’s top three events, surely will never be equaled, let alone surpassed. It is a champion, in spirit if not in name, whose history and thunderous V-8 will alleviate even the most advanced symptoms of ennui.

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1 comment:

Joel Marcos Cesetti said...

É umas das mais lindas de pista.
Ótimo post,muito bom.