Archaeology is the science of using fossils, bones and other remains to discover the history of a past human life , relics,or culture.
I feel that for the last two years I have been doing just that to discover all that can be found about the Chevrolet Division/Bill Thomas /Doug Roe 1960 500 coupe race Corvair. Both iterations of the car were major features in every automobile magazine of the era. They were also in “How to Hod Rod Corvairs” by Bill Fisher and “How to Select and Install Turbochargers” by Hugh Macinnes
In 1968 through 1972, I was SCCA road racing a Ford GT-40 replica in the A/Sports Racing class in Indiana. This is the club version of the Can Am series. This special was Corvair engined and suspended at first, then Olds turboed and then Chevy V8 powered. At the very same time Doug Roe was racing and winning with the ex Bill Thomas Corvair coupe in very modified form in A/Sport Racing in Arizona.
If you think that this a fascinating bit of DeJaVu, just wait until you read further.
When I heard about this in the 70’s, I went to the local library to Zerox some copies of the March 1969 Hot Rod spread about the Roe car. I was fascinated by the ingenuity involved at this time by an individual not unlike myself.
I went on to road race a Yenko Stinger, but that is another story.
In 1987, Jim Schardt, hired Jim Rice, Fred Bybee, and myself to take his Stinger to Monterey, California to run in the Historic Vintage Races at Laguna Seca and crew for him. This was the year when Chevrolet was the featured marque.
It was inspiring to see the Chaparals, Mclarens, Grans Sports, etc. and their famous drivers and owners, but what dropped my jaw was to see Doug Roe and the famous hugger orange Corvair. Ed Connolly ( the owner at that time),the Cactus Corvair Club, and Doug had made a heroic effort to get the car restored and on the track. They had only driven the car around the block before it went to the track. Virtually overnight they had made last minute changes to satisify the apparently bullying tech inspectors. The car always ran windowless, but they had to install a windshield and raise the car up to accomodate the mandated treaded street tires. Then it had to run in Group 7 with the windowless, slick tired, Can Am and Prototype cars. It looked like Herbie the Love Bug among the Mclarens and Cobras.
I loved it anyway. It’s run was short lived due to an oil plumbing problem.
I spent a good bit of time talking with Doug at Monterey. He was very friendly and forthcoming; I just didn’t know the right questions to ask. He did say to not get too hung up on the car’s current state of preparation; it was different every time that it was raced. He passed away a year later---at the same age that I am now.
The Monterey Classic was by invitation only. It was a great honor to be invited. The Thomas/Roe car made it because of papers submitted by Paul Prior, stating that he and Vince Piggins of the “Economy, Safety, and Performance Group” contracted with Bill Thomas (of Cheeta Fame) to race the Corvair in the small sedan groups, just after the AMA industry racing ban. You might call this a “skunk works” effort, which all of the manufacturers were doing.
Bill Thomas had a specialty shop for Corvair Speed parts, so he and Mike Jones prepared Bill’s wife’s car of only two weeks to be drag raced and road raced. This car can alway be identified by the 3 holes in each rear fender, initially scoop covered to induct intake air.
The car in naturally aspirated form, drag raced in the low 13’s in 1960 and won nearly every road race entered. Mike Jones even once beat Jimmy Clark in a factory Lotus Cortina.
When Chevrolet and Thomas were through with the car, Doug Roe bought it in January of 1964. Doug had moved from Michigan to a job as an engineer at the Arizona proving grounds. He had been winning autocrosses in his family Corvair in nearly stock form.
It was natural then to take over the Thomas car and develop it to the nth degree and run it in the western hill climbs, road races, circle tracks and autocrosses.
The modifications to this car are numerous. I will try to list a few:
- It already had an experimental quick steering gear box.
- All of the early spindles and hubs were replaced with five 5 bolt parts from Chevelles, and Greenbrier rear axles.
- Very heavy coil springs and an adjustable front anti roll bar. Double shock absorbers were added to the rear suspension.
- Extreme lightening of body and chassis parts.
- Metallic Nascar brake linings
- Fiberglass front and rear decks. The entire rear cover and tail light area was removable for service. The engine and drive train could be removed like a drawer.
Reportedly, clutches could be changed in 20 minutes.
The large air research turbo and 4 barrel carb were moved to the rear seat back area to lessen “swing weight”. (picture shows opening in rear bulkhead and current configuration.)
All of the windows were removed. The front and rear window removal allowed unrestricted air flow to the huge rear air scoop over the relocated turbo and carb.
The top and window pillars were also streamlined to aid this air flow.
Mike Rubaner did the customizing stating “ a car this fast should have the looks to go with it”. The snow plow front air dam and the large single headlights are the primary features.
The engine was prepared for durability to accept the boost received. A large front oil cooler was used as well as water injection for charge cooling and engine cooling. Intercoolers were rare at the time.
Doug used his right foot and a large industrial pressure guage instead of a waste gate.
The dash guages were of aircraft vintage---remember this was the ‘60s.
Forward to the present; I had turbocharged my Yenko Stinger YS015 in the Doug Roe manner with the relocated turbo. I had given Doug credit for this on the air filter housing. I also had built a tube framed, fiberglass bodied, Corvair supercharged, mid engined, formula car supended, early model replica and took it hill climbing. Is this too much DeJaVu?
This replica was to be the absolutely, positively, last big car project for this retiree!
Ed Connolly contacted me and asked if I would be interested in mechanically restoring the BT/DR car. Would I? He shipped it in the fall of 2003 via Horseless Carriage riding along with a Buick Grand National and several Maseratis. Before the restoration could be started, Ed’s mother died and he inherited the New York estate to care for. Would I like to purchase the car? Would I?
The car arrived as a rolling shell with a lot of “hard core” parts inside for a possible future use. The inside was also shared by many California native plants, nuts, and dead critters. This is when I first thought of the “Diggin’ Up Bones” part.
In lieu of information from the previous restorers, every part was inspected as a relic from the past.
The mechanical rolling parts were in excellent condition. There was no rust at all. The wiring was identified with 17 year old paper tags--unreadable now-- and the remote oil and fuel systems were degraded. I decided to just start over.
I just happed to have (DeJaVu) a freshened turbo engine removed from the Stinger and replaced with a 13/1 naturally aspirated engine. It wasn’t too hard to adapt it to the early model body. Linkages were a real problem though.
The safety systems have been upgraded with older looking modern FIA seats, belts, straps, nets, etc. The new roll cage, while fully currently legal, is as unobtrusive as possible. Body work damage was repaired and the paint buffed out.
The windshield is now removable. Both treaded and slick tires will be used.
Thirteen inch wheels have been made in the style of the original 15” Magnesium wheels. Doug and Bill also used wheel sizes to change gearing for different purposes.
While not intended to be a full time racer, ( I have other cars for that) the car will at least participate in a hillclimb , a vintage road race, and several Corvair/CORSA/NECC/SCCA events. Doug and Bill would want it this way.
pictures by Warren Leveque with the exception of the picture of Doug Roe at speed at Monterrey by Mike Downey and scanned image of Doug Roe from “How to Select and Install Turbochargers” by Hugh Macinnes.