Car of the Week: 1955 Chevrolet Corvette

By John Gunnell

Motorsports history was made in the middle of November 1954 when the first appearance of a Corvette in an international race took place during the fifth Carrera Panamericana, aka Mexican Road Race. The Corvette wore race No. 12 and was owned by Chicago speed shop owner and hot rodder Bill von Esser, Sr.

According to the March 1955 issue of Speed Age, the early Corvette was the 12th car to start the race and was a Heavy Sports Car class entrant. Cars in that class were the first to leave the starting line in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico, on Nov. 19. The Corvette was among 149 cars that were trying to win the 1,908-mile contest.

von Esser did not get far. He failed to complete the first leg of the race, a 329.4-mile run to Oaxaca. Speed Age said that the car was “stalled by mechanical trouble.” Over the years, it was thought that the Corvette’s inline six threw a rod, but Bill Peter of Mequon, Wis., says that’s not accurate. Peter constructed a replica of the car as a tribute to the original and during the project, he made contact with von Esser’s son. Bill von Esser, Jr. told him the car had valve train problems.

A few days after the race, the senior von Esser and co-pilot Ernest Pultz found a bus in Mexico with good valve train parts and repaired the ’Vette.

“They fixed it, drove it back to Chicago and then it sat in front of von Esser’s shop for months,” said Peter. “Suddenly, it disappeared. No one seems to know what became of it. Bill von Esser, Jr. thinks maybe they gave it back to Chevrolet.”

The real car has been discussed by Corvette historians and there is a scale model of it, plus a decal set for model makers. The racing car was known for its red Dayton wire wheels and a modified grille insert that can be seen in some of the few photos taken of it in the day. The engine also had minor internal modifications, some of which gave it a higher-than-stock compression ratio.

“It’s also unique in that the body panel under where the convertible top is stored was taken out so that a bigger fuel tank could be installed,” said Peter. “If someone found the real car sitting in a barn, the Corvette experts would know what it is.”

Peter and John Schentz built the tribute car to run the La Carrera Panamericana, a recreation of the original race that started in the early 1980s as the Little La Carrera. This road race, between Ensenada and San Felipe, Mexico, was started by motorcycle enthusiast Loyal Truesdale. It evolved into the La Carrera Panamericana with Truesdale serving as its United States coordinator before his death.

In 2008, Peter and Schentz took a 1954 Oldsmobile to Mexico and entered the car in the Historic Class. The dark green Olds has been seen at several vintage race weekends at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. The Corvette was created for the 2010 La Carrera.

“It was basically a tip of the hat to Bill von Esser, Sr.,” Peter explained. “We wanted to run an old Corvette and it had to be a pre-’65 model. Since it was built as a new car, it had to be up to new car standards; we didn’t just rebuild an old car and take it down there. It needed an FIA cage, for instance, and they let us do some upgrades like disc brakes and a few other safety sorts of things. But other than that, it looks exactly like the original car that von Esser ran in 1954.”

The six-cylinder engine in the car is beefed up with GMC army truck connecting rods. “They’re heavy duty and built better than stock rods,” advised Peter. “Hot rodders used them in 216- and 235-cid Chevy sixes. Jerry White — a six-cylinder expert — helped me out with the engine and he was a lot of help.”

The car in the accompanying photos is actually a rebuilt version of the 2010 racer.

“We were doing really good in that race until halfway through it,” Peter explained. “We were in first place when we crashed it really badly into a guardrail. That’s how my partner met the local Mexican sheriff, who didn’t speak English. Instead of taking the car away on a flatbed, the sheriff came by and took him to a junkyard where he got him for about $2000 of stuff to fix the guardrail.”

Peter forgot the name of the man in Tennessee from whom he bought the replacement chassis, but remembers that the fellow was having Chip Foose build him a new chassis. Peter bought the old chassis and a new reproduction body from Lone Star in Texas.

“We saved the crossmember and the wheels from the first Corvette,” he said. “Bill von Esser, Jr. had a lot of old pictures and stuff related to the original car and he was a big help to us.”

Peter said he is not a big Corvette guy, but he’s had some kicks with his tribute car. “We just decided to redo the Corvette and bring it out,” he said. “We took it to Sebring in to shake it out before we brought it to Road America.”

 

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