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Bill Tower’s Amazingly Advanced 1956 SR-2 Corvette: Decades Ahead of Its Time!

© Hot Rod Network Staff

By K. Scott Teeters, HOT ROD

There were exciting things were underway inside of Chevrolet in 1956. The Corvette received its first body refresh, there was an optional dual-quad, 225-horsepower 265 engine (RPO 469, $172.20) and a Special High-Lift Camshaft option (RPO 449, $188.30) that bumped the power of the dual-quad 265 to 240 horsepower, plus fuel injection was in the works.

Corvettes set records at Daytona Beach and took a class win at the 12 Hours at Sebring; memorialized with the now classic "Real McCoy" print ad. Things were looking up for Corvette.

Meanwhile, an unlikely series of events happened in Corvette creator, Harley Earl's house; that could have become the Z06 of its day. Earl's son Jerry bought a Ferrari with the intention of going racing. When Harley learned of his son's plans, he hit the roof! "No son of mine is going out there with an Eye-talian car!" he allegedly bellowed. As GM's VP of the Art and Color Division, Earl could do anything he wanted, so he charged top designer, Bob Cumberford, with the task of designing a race car for Jerry. The completed car was called "SR-2."

Cumberford and his team took the all-new 1956 Corvette body and extended and lowered the nose, created a vented hood, short twin wind screens, side air scoops on the doors and a low vertical stabilizer fin on the trunk lid. Decked out with Halibrand knock-off wheels and metallic blue paint, the SR-2 was a great-looking Corvette. Jerry picked up his customized, basically stock Corvette on May 24, 1956, and raced the car at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, through the summer months. The car was a hit, thanks to its unique looks, but at 2,900 pounds, it was heavy and quickly ate up its brakes. The SR-2 was not competitive.

Earl's successor, Bill Mitchell, was two years away from taking over as VP of Design had enough clout to order an SR-2 built for him. The Jerry Earl SR-2 was more of a styling study, Mitchell directed his SR-2 to be an all-out lightweight racer.

The body was so thin that the fiberglass matting can be seen at certain angles. While the nose of Mitchell's SR-2 was similar to Earl's car, Mitchell's SR-2 had a tall vertical stabilizer fin that was integrated into the driver's headrest. Hidden inside the headrest were a rollbar and a racing fuel filler cap for the 48-gallon fuel tank. The side scoops were ducted through the rear of the door and doorjamb, directly to the rear brakes. Yes, functional external rear brake scoops, just like a modern Z06. The interior had lightweight fiberglass racing bucket seats with racing seatbelts; a full instrument cluster; a custom-designed teakwood steering wheel with a column-mounted 8,000-rpm tachometer; stainless steel gas, brake and clutch pedals; lightweight door panels with tuck 'n' roll door panels and a single door-close strap.

Under the hood of Mitchell's SR-2 is a tricked-out, Smokey Yunick-built, fuelie 283 small-block Chevy engine. Keep in mind that the SBC had just come out. Advanced parts included Packard Electric solid-core stainless steel high-tension ignition wires and a higher-voltage ignition coil. The generator was mounted on the left side to give the tension-side of the belt better grip on the water pump pulley. Inside the engine was the Special High-Lift (Duntov) Cam. Most unique was the fiberglass ram-air box that connected to the driver-side inner fenderwell and was ducted to the front grille opening. The engine dynoed to 310 horsepower, a lot for 1956.

The suspension was straight out of the RPO Racer Kit parts catalog and included heavier front springs, five-leaf rear springs, larger 13/16-inch front sway bar, larger diameter 1-3/8-inch stiffer shocks, quick-ratio 16.3:1 steering and rear torque rods (traction bars). The rear axle was the new Multi-Disc Limited-Slip Positraction unit. Brakes were aluminum-finned drums with cast-in steel liners and Bendix Cerametalix brake shoes.

© Hot Rod Network Staff

What's most amazing about Mitchell's 2,200-pound SR-2 is that it was built by fabricators at Chevrolet that were not race car builders, but were damn good builders. Later, they built Duntov's Corvette SS. But the SR-2 met the same fate as the Corvette SS; the 1957 AMA Racing Ban. In December 1956, Mitchell campaigned the car in the Nassau 70-mile Governor's Trophy Race finishing 10th overall. In February 1957, Mitchell took his SR-2 to the Daytona Beach Speed Week, outfitted with an enclosed canopy, full Moon disc wheel covers and semi-enclosed rear wheels, a red and white stripped rear fin and Zoomy headers! Buck Baker drove the SR-2 to a Modified Class win with an average standing-mile speed of 93.047 mph, and was first in the Flying Mile at 152.866 mph. Then in March 1957, Mitchell's SR-2 competed at the 12 Hours of Sebring, coming in 16th place overall.

After the AMA Ban, the SR-2 was sold and bought, and was eventually owned by Don Yenko's private plane pilot, Cookie Knuth, who didn't do much with the car. In 1980, Chevrolet development engineer Bill Tower bought the car from Knuth and set it aside, as he was very busy working for Chevrolet. After some consideration, since the SR-2 was only missing a few parts, Tower chose to simply put it back together.

Tower had an interesting encounter with retired Bill Mitchell in a meeting that was supposed to last 15 minutes that turned into 3 hours. The first thing Mitchell said was, "You got my damn car and I want it back! That one got away from me. I got in a lot of trouble with those cars." The two men benched raced about all kinds of things, with Mitchell telling Tower that he'd help him get a set of fiberglass buckets for the SR-2. When the two parted, Mitchell said, "You take care of that car and don't wreck it! That car is very special to me!"

Tower's SR-2 is driveable, but he hasn't taken it out on the streets take after a near T-bone incident. Now he only drives the SR-2 after it has been transported to special events. In 1982, Tower was invited to bring the SR-2 to the Daytona 500 to the Chevrolet tent along with the new IROC Camaros. Bill Mitchell and Bill France, Sr. were there as well. After "a few," Mitchell and France wanted to take the SR-2 out for a few laps, to which Tower said, "Like hell you will!" At the 1986 Indy 500, Tower and Pace Car driver General Chuck Yeager took a few laps in the SR-2. Later in 1986, Tower was invited to display the SR-2 at a special Chevrolet event on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Chevrolet luminaries such as Clare MacKichan, Vince Piggins, Bill Mitchell and other GM executives were there along with Linda Vaughn and singer Neil Diamond.

Since then, Tower doesn't show the car very often and it is mostly seen via visits to his private museum. In 2016, retired VP of Global Design Ed Wellburn visited Tower and was totally blown away with the SR-2. He couldn't get over how many key design elements on the C7 were also on the SR-2. Tower says, "Of all of my cars, the SR-2 is most special to me. Look at everything that's in the car. And it was built in 1956!"


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Autos News: Bill Tower’s Amazingly Advanced 1956 SR-2 Corvette: Decades Ahead of Its Time!
Bill Tower’s Amazingly Advanced 1956 SR-2 Corvette: Decades Ahead of Its Time!
Autos News
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