Some history of the Bill Thomas/Doug Roe 1960 Corvair racer.

     Ed Connolly has had one of the most famous racing Corvairs ever - the well known 1960 coupe of Doug Roe. After transferring it to Warren Leveque for restoration, he sent the following to help fill in some of the car's history. I have since added a few more pieces as I've received them.

Thomas/Roe archeology I.

     February 1, 2005
Hi Warren,

Thought it would be a good idea to post my answer, so the group can add to the record. As you know, I bought the car from Doug in 1981 as a bare shell: no mechanical or suspension components whatsoever, except the original rear crossmember with aluminum mounting bushings, the 15-in. American Racing (heavy!)magnesium wheels, and the fabricated rear motor mount. Doug told me he had not raced it since 1971 or '72. An old friend of his who lived in NY State delivered the shell from Arizona to New Jersey, where it was grit blasted and cosmetically restored.

I took a job in San Francisco in 1983, and the restored shell was maneuvered into the middle of a Bekins van for the cross-country move. I kept it in the garage at my first house in Palo Alto, before renting space in a vintage-racing facility in Santa Clara. While parts were accumulated, I intensively researched and documented the fabulous history of the car, which you have and to which you are undoubtedly adding the most-renown chapter yet. For example, you have the letter from Paul Prior, who with Vince Piggins headed the GM factory racing program during the 1960's, documenting the relationship with Bill Thomas who built the car under contract with the program (it was constructed and raced by Mike Jones, who worked for Bill). Mike has had a brilliant career, was a fine host and was very kind to part with his collection of professional B&W photos of the car in West Coast sedan races. BTW, Mike in the Corvair out-qualified Jimmy Clark at a sedan race in Oregon, who was driving a factory Lotus Cortina, but the Corvair broke a piston during the race.

We should tell the group that your car started life as the one and only Bill Thomas racer, as pictured and described in How to Hotrod Corvair Engines and dozens of magazines, including Hot Rod. Much of the publicity resulted from the efforts of Betty Skelton, who was an executive on the Chevrolet account at Campbell Ewald agency, as her letter documents. The car has always been a racer since new after Bill's wife drove it in stock form for two weeks.

Doug transferred from Rochester Div. to Prior's performance program in the very early '60's, bought the car from Thomas circa 1964, and accelerated its development on his own. BTW, to my knowledge Doug prepared and raced three early Corvairs: yours, his original white 1960 also pictured in the Fisher book, and a blue off-road rally car I saw in his shop, which had a retractable fifth wheel in case of a flat. More in next email....

Ed Connolly
Wallkill, NY

Thomas/Roe archeology II.

     February 2, 2005

Even though your car must be one of the most extensively documented and publicized rides of all time, with a proven GM racing pedigree equal to those of the Chaparrals, Corvette Gran Sports and Pensky/Donohue Camaros, the local N. California vintage-racing group CSRG wanted nothing to do with Corvairs, especially yours with a snow-plow front end, flared fenders and 15X9.5-in. rear wheels (AutoWeek had a nice cartoon of the car in '69). However, Steve Earle, who organizes the Monterey Historic Races, knew the car from the old days and given the extensive documentation and photographs in my application, accepted it for the 1987 event, which featured Chevrolet.

I reached a deal with Doug: he would drive the car in the Monterey Historic Race at Laguna Seca; under his direction the Cactus Corvair Club would build it and the car would be theirs to use for a year. The shell and parts were shipped in the spring to his Pheonix shop, where the club in a tribute to Doug put the race car together at his direction on an impossible deadline for the race in August. We're talking about dozens of members, some of them 80 years old, who worked days, nights and weekends to get the car ready for the event.

Every Corvair vendor at the time contributed parts. Doug personally built the motor. Against all odds, the car made the event, after ten minutes test time on the streets around his shop. A work in progress, it had cooling problems during practice laps that prevented it from racing. But Doug was honored by his colleagues--the luminaries from GM/Chevrolet--at the post-race event at the Monterey Doubletree and gave a little speech, vowing to return.

A year after the applause, he closed his shop in Pheonix, moved to Payson in the mountains, was diagnosed with cancer, and succumbed to meningitis. Having had little warning, I retrieved the car, the heads and a few other parts with the help of Doug's son (Doug had removed, disassembled and planned to rebuild the motor). A friend arranged temporary storage outside a race shop in Mesa. When I relocated from Palo Alto to nearby Redwood City in the SF Bay Area, the car was returned to California via Horseless Carriage, where it remained in my driveway under a cloth cover, until I shipped it to you for restoration, via Horseless Carriage, when I moved to rural New York State to renovate my family homestead. Given the work needed on the house, barn, tool shed, garage and chicken coop, it was time to pass the car along. No one in CORSA can restore and improve it better than you, Warren.

Ed Connolly
Wallkill, NY

Paul Prior's Letter, early history.

     December 17, 1985
Dear Mr. Connolly,

After our phone conversation regarding your Corvair, it seems to me that the best way to describe Chevrolet's involvement (with your car), would be to construct a narrative of the car's history (as I know it), and what was happening concurrently at Chevrolet.

For several years after the AMA resolution in 1957, in which all automobile manufacturers agreed to disband and discontinue all activities related to racing, Chevrolet adhered to that resolution. There was no formal or informal assistance in that period, clandestine perhaps, but nothing with management approval.

During that period though, Chevrolet did participate in certain non-racing activities such as the Mobile Economy Run, Pure Oil Trials, etc. And it was through such activities that Chevrolet was able to maintain communication with a number of people on the "outside" involved in racing, including Bill Thomas.

Now, I shouldn't pretend to write a biography of Bill Thomas, but it should be sufficient for these purposes to say that Bill's technical expertise, contacts in the aftermarket area, managerial abilities, and discoverer of talent, were well known to Chevrolet and used whenever possible.

Then in the spring of 1960, because other manufacturers had openly resumed involvement in racing, Chevrolet management decided to re-establish an activity to maintain a liaison with racing, and whenever it might produce value to Chevrolet, engage in a development program with certain individuals. Obviously such individuals had to be recognized experts in their area.

Thus, in the spring of 1960, Vince Piggins, who had spent nearly three years in the Truck Field Service Group, and myself were established as the Economy, Safety, and Performance Group, of the Chevrolet Engineering Department.

At about this time, there was a certain amount of interest being generated for sedan racing, and Bill Thomas procured the Corvair (that you now own), believing that it had potential. It is a matter of record that he was right. Thomas's work was not inconsistent with Chevrolet's wishes, so we (Chevrolet Engineering's Economy, Safety, and Performance Group) entered into a development program with Thomas for the express purpose of improving the Corvair's performance potential and the development of H. D. parts where practical to support such performance. Chevrolet's participation consisted of financial assistance, production and experimental parts, and design and development data wherever applicable.

The reason for giving the historical background of our activity and our relationship with Bill Thomas is to establish the authenticity of Chevrolet's program with Thomas, and that such a program had the blessing of Chevrolet management without question.

As sort of an epilog to all this: Doug Roe transferred from Rochester Products Division into our Economy, Safety, and Performance group, late in the summer of 1960. It would not serve the purposes of this letter to enumerate Doug's contributions while in the group, though they were considerable. Then in 1964, our management decided our activity should be disbanded, and it was. Doug transferred to the Chevrolet activity at the Desert Proving Grounds, Mesa, Arizona. I was transferred to R and D, and Vince was preparing to back into the Truck Field Service group.

In Arizona, Doug continued his own performance activities after hours. At the same time, Bill Thomas's programs had taken other directions. So, Doug procured the Corvair from Bill Thomas, and continued the development of the car on his own.

In fact, I can remember on more than one occasion, 1965 and later that I laid a wrench or two on the Corvair when I was in Arizona on other business.

As far as I know, Doug Roe owned and sometimes competed with the Corvair up until the time you procured it from him.

Just to complete the story, the Economy, Safety, and Performance Group was re-established in the fall 1965, under the new name of Product Performance Engineering, and Vince and I were again the first "staff". Though the group has varied in size (and budget), over the years since 1965, it still exists under still another name.

I retired in December of 1980, and Vince retired in the spring of 1983

Yours, very truly
Paul G. Prior

Betty Skelton and some early publicity.

     September 17, 1985
Dear Mr. Connolly:

It has come to my attention that you are now the owner of a very famous little 1960 Corvair....congratulations!

This month I donated my original Pitts Special plane, "Little Stinker" to the Smithsonian Institution for display in the National Air and Space Museum. So I know the feeling of owning a real relic.

I was with Campbell Ewald Company in the General Motors Building in Detroit from 1956 to 1971. As an account executive on the Chevrolet account, my responsibilities for the agency inculded coordination of all high performance activities. A Vice President of the advertising agency, I also established a number of records in Chevrolets in the United States and South America.

We worked very closely with Bill Thomas in California on a number of projects, including a project on your red Corvair in 1960. It pleases me to know the car is still in existance and being well taken care of. It's a great little car of which you should be very proud.

Betty Skelton Frankman

Some Reminiscing from Mike Clements.

     February 11, 2007

My name is Mike Clements and I live in Gilbert, Arizona. The orange Corvair in your photos spent two years sitting beside my dad's house in Mesa, Arizona. My dad was Louie Clements. He was the NASCAR Championship winning crew chief and car owner for Rex White in 1960. Louie went to work for the GM Desert Proving Grounds in Jan of 66. He met Doug Roe at that time and they struck up a friendship that lasted about 20 years. Louie, Tom Mahler, Jerry Jensen, etc worked on Dougs Corvairs quite a bit.

In the early 70's Doug left GM and started Priminion Enterprises building many modified Chevy Vegas for racing as well as vendor work for GM and U-Haul. Louie worked for Doug at nights and weekends for $ per hr. He had so many hours in the orange Corvair that Doug gave it to him. After a couple of years, One of Tom's sons came to town from NY and my dad gave him the car. He was really into Corvairs at the time and none of us kids in my home had the time to complete it.

The original white 60 Corvair was turbo charged. We took it up to Clifton, Arizona for a Hill Climb once. The night before the hill climb, Doug's wife, Edith, was drinking as were everyone else, and she insisted on driving me up the hill in the race car. Luckily, someone not too drunk got the key to the race car from her first. We had a lot of fun in those days with the Corvair. Everywhere we went with it, people were surprised when it smoked off the Corvettes and Cobras. It was very light. Doug never put anything into the car that he could possibly do without.

If this finds you and you are interested, I can share many of those old racing stories with you.

Mike Clements

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Last update: 27 February 2007.