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Lingenfelter in the News - Road & Track - This Is the Moment the Corvette Became the American Sports Car

Lingenfelter in the News - Road & Track

Road & Track


As I pull my truck through the gates of the paddock at NCM Motorsports Park, I catch it out of the corner of my eye. Ahead of me sits a flimsy white car, donning a huge headrest spoiler and distinctive red wheels. The Mach Five doesn’t hold a candle to the drama that surrounds this machine. It’s quite a bit smaller than I had expected, though perhaps its legacy inflated the car’s proportions in my mind. All alone in a large lot, it’s a fundamental piece of automotive history known as #EX87/5951. You might know it as the first Corvette prototype to receive a small-block V-8 engine under the hood almost 70 years ago.

To understand the importance of EX87, it’s important to recall the early days of the Corvette. In the midst of a larger postwar sales slump, senior management at General Motors saw an opportunity to bring some excitement back to their flagship brand. General Motors’ design head Harley Earl would task Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole with overseeing a sports car program. The public would get their first look at the effort during the automaker's annual concept car show at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City in January 1953. The white-over-red roadster was simple yet elegant in its form, unsurprising given its roots with design lead Earl at the helm. To say that these early cars were more style than substance is perhaps not entirely fair, but the race-bred 300 SL it was not. At least not yet.

GM moved quickly to get the two-seater into production just six months later, with a total of 300 units built in Flint, Michigan for the 1953 model year. The car utilized a number of off-the-shelf GM parts in an effort to keep costs down, including much of the chassis hardware, suspension, and powertrain components. The latter included a 235 cubic-inch inline-six engine, which was introduced to the brand’s sedans for 1950. In fact, the 235 engine was actually the standard engine in almost every GM product at the time. A hotter cam, mechanical lifters, and a Carter side-draft carburetor setup meant the Blue Flame engine provided 150 hp in Corvette spec, but it was still a relatively regular lump. Our period road tests highlight a 0-60 mph time somewhere in the 11 second range, which isn’t exactly rapid even in 1954. A two-speed Powerglide automatic was GM’s only gearbox able to handle that sort of grunt, an engineering decision that was lamented by the enthusiast press from the start. Every car was also finished in the same Polo White over Red color scheme as the original concept during the 1953 model year. The Corvette found some success with owners of European sports cars, with 183 units actually sold by the model year's end. The concept also managed to impress one Zora Arkus-Duntov upon his viewing.

1955 chevrolet corvette ex87View Photos
Yve Assad
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Duntov was an accomplished engineer himself, founding the Ardun Mechanical Corporation alongside brother Yura in 1942. After the war ended, Ardun began producing a hot-rodded cylinder head for the flat-head Ford, devised by Duntov. The all-aluminum, hemispherical combustion chamber layout also featured overhead valves, helping raise performance and improve cooling of the tried-and-true powerplant. A racer at heart, Duntov tried to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in both 1947 and 1948, but was unsuccessful in his Talbot-Lago racer. Duntov later joined the Allard Motor Company, where he would be responsible for getting their vehicles ready for Le Mans duty. This role ultimately saw Zora race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1952 and 1953 behind the wheel of an Allard. He’d later take back-to-back class wins at the race in 1954 and 1955 behind the wheel of a Porsche 550 RS Spyder. There was no getting Duntov away from the pursuit of performance.

After seeing the Corvette Concept, Duntov reached out to Maurice Olley, director of research and development at GM for a job. Duntov ultimately joined General Motors on May 1, 1953 as an assistant staff engineer for engine development. This was a natural fit given Zora’s background in motorsport and hot-rodding. He was not initially placed on the Corvette program, but in time would come to be known as the father of the sports car thanks to that background in tinkering.

The 1954 model year saw GM move production of the Corvette out of Michigan, retrofitting a facility in St Louis, Missouri specifically for the task of building the sports car. The car remained largely unchanged, though customers did have a few more exterior hues to choose from, including Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and Black. An increased production figure of 3640 cars might suggest a sophomore success for the Corvette, but a large number of those cars went unsold from new. GM had initially planned to sell some 10,000 units for 1954. Sports car buyers just weren’t taken by the Corvette in its original form, an issue exacerbated in February of 1954.

Down the street in Dearborn, Ford had cooked up a sporty two-seater of their own, known as the Thunderbird. While decidedly not a traditional take on the segment like the new Chevy, the Thunderbird was hugely successful. It was equally as stylish as the Vette, though cheaper, roomier, and much more practical. More importantly, the Thunderbird came powered by a 292-cubic-inch V-8 engine, and proved more potent than the Vette in performance tests. The fast Ford struck a chord with buyers in a way that the six-cylinder Corvette did not: FoMoCo received 3500 orders for the car in the first 10 days after its October 1954 sales debut.

That same October, things began to rumble back at Chevrolet. In late 1953, Duntov had penned a letter to Olley titled “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders, and Chevrolet.” Within the now-famous memo, Duntov made his case for some additional factory development centered around the Corvette. More specifically, he argued that adding the upcoming small-block V-8 engine to the order book could capture some of the hot-rodding and performance-loving crowd dominated by Ford. Not ready to give up on the Corvette experiment quite yet, GM greenlit a program involving Duntov to investigate putting a hot small block V-8 into the Corvette for 1955. The company assigned one of their unsold 1954 models to the engineering department on October 28, 1954 to begin developing performance parts for the car. That car was given the title EX87 at the time. Three-time Indy winner Mauri Rose was working for GM during this period, and was responsible for getting one Smokey Yunick involved with the secret project. The stock Corvette was shipped to Yunick’s shop in Daytona Beach, Florida before the end of 1954, at which point Smokey and the crew yanked the Blue Flame out to make room for the new 265 cubic-inch V-8. The team also tossed the Powerglide transmission in the trash before installing a close-ratio three speed manual. EX87 became the first Corvette to receive a small-block engine, a combination that still defines the sports car to this day.

Upon completion, Yunick shipped the car back up to Michigan where it was assigned as a test mule for Duntov himself. Duntov bestowed the car with the updated EX87/5951 moniker, denoting its role as a development prototype. This is the very car that Zora would use to shape his early views on the Corvette, evaluating engine, suspension, and aerodynamic balance. Suspension adjustments were required immediately after the engine conversion, with Zora revising the front and rear attachment points, as well as the tuning setup. Exhaust fumes brought on by the standard outlets were another annoyance, which Zora revised by dumping the pipes straight through the rear bumper. While customers would get a chance to purchase the V-8-powered Corvette for the 1955 model year, that particular revision wouldn’t make it to market until 1956. Customers didn’t seem to mind, as only a handful of inline-six-powered Corvettes were sold in 1955. In reality, GM only sold 700 Corvettes in 1955 overall, making it the second lowest year of production to date. The V-8 would become the sole powertrain moving forward however, cementing Zora’s approach to the American sports car.

Before 1955 came to a close, Zora would help put General Motors back in the minds of motorsports fans. Ed Cole had tasked Duntov with piloting a modified version of the upcoming 1956 Chevrolet at the then NASCAR-sanctioned Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Powered by the “Power Pack” 265 V-8 being developed for 1956 models (Corvette included), Zora pushed the big sedan up the hill in just 17 minutes and 24.04 seconds. Chevrolet and their hot shoe of an engineer had broken the previous record by over two minutes. Following that success, Duntov’s aspirations for the V-8 Corvette grew. The engineer had his sights set on Daytona Beach’s Flying Mile event for 1956, convincing Cole that a V-8-powered Corvette could hit 150 mph in the event if properly sorted. EX87/5951 was assigned to the project, with assistant chief engineer Jim Premo tasked with installing a high-speed NASCAR aero kit on the car. The large headrest tail fin, chopped roadster windscreen, and fiberglass passenger seat cover are the most distinctive parts of the prototype to this day. Other high-speed adjustments included a flat underfloor, a reworked exhaust setup, a higher flow fuel pump, and a reworked suspension package with additional brake cooling ducts. The car also picked up a set of Firestone racing rubber, which came wrapped around reinforced racing wheels.

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Initial tests with a single-carburetor variant of the 265 V-8 proved the car was unable to reach the 150-mph threshold, topping out at 141 mph. Zora’s own estimates stated that as much as 295 hp would be required to push the Corvette over the finish line, which was beyond the 240-hp “Power Pack” quad-carb engine configuration coming for 1956. Duntov worked with GM dyno engineer John Camden to beef up the 265, including a bore-and-stroke job out to 307 cubic inches and a set of ported heads. Zora would also design a radical new camshaft for the V-8, which featured a lower lift but a significantly longer duration. The famous “Duntov Cam” was easier on the valves than the outgoing unit, which allowed the engine to rev to 6500 rpm.

After undergoing testing at the Milford Proving Grounds in late 1955, both EX87 and an early 1956 Corvette, #6901, were shipped to Arizona for final top-speed testing. After playing with different rear axle setups, Zora and crew got EX87 to hit a top speed of 163 mph by late December. Satisfied with the results, Zora had all of the speed hardware removed from EX-87 and installed on #6901, which featured the updated bodywork of the new road car arriving for 1956. The 307-powered rocket would ultimately go on to set a NASCAR-verified two-way average of 150.533 mph with Zora at the wheel. The father of the Corvette ensured that it became the first American vehicle to break the 150 mph barrier, on the back of EX87s development work. A quick trip to Sebring for an evaluation of the track during their time in Florida also led GM to commit to a full-blown racing effort at the track the following March. The Corvette would become a fixture in global motorsports in the years to come, regardless of the level of official factory support from General Motors. You can thank Zora for opening that door.

smoke beach 56
RacingOne//Getty Images
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The history of EX87 gets a little murky at this point, as GM record-keeping wasn’t at its best in the late 1950s. This is the history of EX87 to our best understanding, with support from the current owner’s records, the National Corvette Museum, previous auction listings, and the corresponding documentation, as well as reporting from Vette Magazine, Vette Vue Magazine, and MotorTrend Classic. The story goes as follows: after the high-speed success, the hot engine was pulled from #6901 and shipped back to Yunick. The engine’s bellhousing would be marked “record run,” and would be put in a crate in the back of Smokey’s shops for the coming decades. It’s thought that the prototype bodywork was transferred to a 1955 chassis, #VL55S001399, following #6901’s conversion. Regardless, we do know that the car was ultimately donated to NASCAR following the festivities, and would have three more private owners before coming into the hands of the Bible Broadcasting Network.

Following Yunick’s death in 2001, Steve Tate would discover and acquire the record-setting 307 V-8 from the estate. Tate would then acquire the car from the BBN on the recommendation of a friend, complete with log books verifying its history as a development mule. Tate immediately began the restoration process, but an untimely tornado disrupted progress in May of 2003, with the entire shop ultimately being destroyed. The Corvette was largely spared however, although its signature gold valve covers were blown away in the fray (a better fate than the one bestowed upon my Corvette when it met a tornado). The car now sits completed in the same configuration as it did when Zora utilized it for testing ahead of the Speedweeks festivities.

united states february 29 daytona beach speed week 1956 one of the trio of chevrolet factory prepared 1956 corvettes and driven by betty skelton, john fitch, and chevrolet engineer zora arkus duntov this one crosses the timing line on its southbound run as the flagman drops the checkers photo by ray brockthe enthusiast network via getty imagesgetty images
The Enthusiast Network//Getty Images
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#EX87/5951 was acquired by Ken Lingenfelter and the Lingenfelter Collection back in 2009. If you know Corvettes, you know there is perhaps no better person to steward the car for the time being. Lingenfelter Performance Engineering is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023, with much of that history tied to the Corvette nameplate. If horsepower is your type of thing, few people can build a better Corvette powertrain. Lingenfelter himself has owned over 65 Corvettes over the years, but maintains that #EX87/5951 sits in a class of one. The car is currently on loan to the National Corvette Museum, which was kind enough to free the car from its enclosure for the photography you see here.

Being around a car of this magnitude is not something I’ve grown accustomed to, even in this career. I am a Corvette fan through and through, and have no quarrels about making that known. To feel the first high-performance Corvette rumble to life deep in my chest is not something I will ever forget. The bark from that 5.0-liter stroker is unlike the more civilized road cars of the era, draped in all of the motorsport theater one could hope for. The presence of the very first Duntov Cam is impossible to ignore, crashing and loping its way around idle. It’s sensory overload in every respect. Ask any five-year-old to describe a race car to you, and EX87 is about as close to that imagined machine as you’re gonna get. It’s something truly special.

united states february 28 daytona beach speed week 1956 one of three nearly identical looking chevrolet corvettes that raced the sand this one featured the additional streamlining of zora arkus duntov's car the other two were driven by john fitch and betty skelton duntov reached over 147 mph, the fastest of the trio photo by wally parksthe enthusiast network via getty imagesgetty images
The Enthusiast Network
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The heart of EX87, and its role in shaping the Corvette as we know it is immediately apparent. I was lucky enough to borrow one of the curator’s 1958 Corvette for a jaunt around the Museum following our shoot with EX87. He’s owned the car for more than four decades, going as far as to tell his parents it was the only thing that would ensure his return home from Vietnam. It’s not a restored example, nor is it the most original one on the block. The stock engine is sitting on a stand awaiting a rebuild, while a later C2’s 327 V-8 fills that void for the time being. (Vietnam was still in swing when that 265 originally came out, for what it’s worth.) Despite that “flaw,” I’d wager the car was more inline with Zora’s dreams for the V-8-powered C1 than anything factory. It has an attitude without being a full-blown muscle car experience. It’s a car that you want to interact with, speed becoming irrelevant at the end of the day. It simply makes you want to point west and drive.

It’s interesting. It’s not like adding the V-8 made the car more practical, or more livable, nor did it get the Corvette to beat the Thunderbird in any kind of sales war. What it did was establish a formula, an enduring success, that has stuck around decade after decade. As the car faltered, GM doubled down on the Corvette, backing an immigrant hot rodder’s vision, and struck a chord with the American public.

The V-8 does surely dominate the experience of any of these early Vettes, but it’s far from their only good quality. Yes, they’re a bit cramped and ergonomically awkward. But they are unabashedly an American sports car. For that we have a Belgian-born Russian immigrant to thank. Zora and his wife Elfi’s final resting place is located inside of the National Corvette Museum itself, a nod to his unending love for the Corvette brand. I’m glad that for at least the time being, Mr. Duntov has been reunited with the prototype he used to shape Corvette into a household name the world over. If you are a Corvette fan, do yourself the honor of going and visiting with EX87 and Zora while you have the chance.

Born and raised in Metro Detroit, associate editor Lucas Bell has spent his entire life surrounded by the automotive industry. He may daily drive an aging Mustang, but his Porsche 944 and NB Miata both take up most of his free time. 

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Lingenfelter in the News - Road & Track - Duntov Mule Car