Over the years, I kept in touch with Mike as he would excitedly send me info about some new discovery (the original fuel-injection plenum or whatever) and snapshots of the car’s progress. In 1987, he trailered the car to the Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca for its first public outing. I couldn’t attend, and in any case the car didn’t parade around the track as planned because Mike had installed the clutch backwards (a strange mistake for a Corvette restorer). A few years later, he would bring the car East, to the big Corvette swap-meet at Carlisle. I agreed to meet him there.
The car looked exactly as I had remembered it. The extra hood latches, the bungie cord securing the trunk lid, the running lights above doors, the stainless-steel exhaust-flashing ahead of the rear wheels, the dechromed fenders, the blue velour upholstery, the jerky movements of the big mechanical tachometer, everything. It even smelled the same and sounded the same when he fired it up. It didn’t run trouble-free for the whole weekend, but I did get to drive it partway between the Fairgrounds and town, with crowds thronging the route and cheering us on. It was like a time machine. Magical.
Shortly thereafter, I heard that Mike had died. Of cirrhosis of the liver. Mike was an alcoholic. He had always said the value of the restored #2 Le Mans Corvette would pay for his retirement…but it was not to be. His widow sold the car, in magnificent condition, to a restaurateur on Long Island (for considerably less than it worth, I understand), who in turn sold it to Otis Chandler, a fabulously wealthy car collector (his family owned the Los Angeles Times back when the Times was a great newspaper) who treasured American muscle cars. When Chandler died in 2006, his estate sold the car to Mitt Romney-lookalike Bruce Meyer, another fabulously wealthy collector (a real estate investor), who owns it to this day. The last I heard, it was on permanent display in the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.
Over the years, there have been various “experts” who’ve debated whether I owned the #2 car or the #3 car, even those who’ve insinuated that I may not even have owned one of the original Cunningham Le Mans Corvettes at all. But I know what I know. When I first took possession of the #2 car, you could still see the faint outline of the number “2” on its flanks (Cunningham had put the numbers on with electrical tape). And the serial numbers match (the #1 car was 3535; the #2, mine, was 4117; the #3 was 2538 – all confirmed in Michael Brown’s documentary of Chip Miller’s restoration of the #3 car). I know the difference. And I always will. You never forget the one that got away.
I wrote this piece for my children, who think I’m just some old dude who fixes their bikes and book-bag zippers. “No,” I’ve told them, “I used to be somebody. A real car guy. The Editor-in-Chief of Car and Driver in the Sixties.” “Sure, Dad,” they say, embarrassed for me. So I wrote this to prove my bona fides (not that they’d even know the meaning of the term) by creating an original story out of whole cloth and line-editing it (the kids pointed out that one doesn’t need proofreader’s squiggles in this age of computers). I never planned to see it in print. Then I showed it to Sports Car Digest’s Jamie Doyle and he expressed an interest in publishing it, so I thought I’d better double-check my facts. Knowing that the Corvette faithful were coming to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, last May 6th for the premiere of the movie, “The Quest,” about the restoration of the #3 car by Capt. Jack Sparrow-doppelganger Kevin Mackay (of the world-famous shop, Corvette Repairs, in Valley Stream, Long Island), I wangled an invitation. John Fitch himself was there, still the sharpest knife in the drawer at 94 years old. The #3 car was parked in front of the movie theater, and looked every bit as good as Mike Pillsbury’s restoration of the #2 car. That is to say, perfect.
I sought out Kevin Mackay in the audience. He told me that Briggs later forgave Zora. Fourteen years after the debacle at Le Mans, upon the occasion of Zora’s retirement from GM, Briggs was unable to attend the ceremony, but sent along a hand-written note saying he hoped Zora wasn’t still mad at him for not letting him drive the #3 car. Zora smiled his rueful Russian smile.
Chip Miller, who dogged the unknowing owner of the #3 car for years (“unknowing” because the #3 had inexplicably been restored as an ordinary 1960 Corvette; the airline pilot who owned it was blissfully ignorant of its history) before the owner caved in and sold him the car, had had the dream of reuniting Fitch and the #3 car for the 50th anniversary of the Le Mans race, but Chip died unexpectedly of an incredibly rare disease (amyloidosis; 3,000 deaths a year, worldwide) in March of 2004. Chip’s son Lance, who shares his father’s unbridled optimism for all things Corvette, leaped into the breech, took over the project, and fulfilled his father’s wish. Bob Grossman had also passed away (in 2002), but Fitch, then 92, was there in 2010 with bells on, and drove a ceremonial lap of the Circuit de la Sarthe in the #3 car. High fives all around.
Lance has also created the Chip Miller Charitable Foundation for Amyloidosis Research, so if you want to help, please check it out at chipmiller.org. Chip’s motto was “Life is Good,” and he lived every minute of his life by it. God speed to the Millers and to Kevin Mackay, who has given new life to so many long-forgotten Corvette race cars.
Now, if only they could find the missing #1 Cunningham Corvette. Mackay traced its existence to as recently as 1974, but when he went down to Florida to search the neighborhood where it had been registered, nobody remembered the owner…or the car. My kids probably won’t get this either, but sic transit gloria mundi might be appropriate here.