A Craigslist catch that got away

Have you ever looked at a Craigslist car ad and thought, “I wonder if I should take a chance?”

Here’s one that was posted on Craigslist in the Tampa Bay area of Florida about five years ago:

“SERIAL # X53L on documented 1953 pre-production Corvette Frame. We believe this to be a 1953 Pontiac prototype that was to assume the name Longoria? Info received todate indicates that ZAGATO designed and PINNAFARINA constructed the body for GM in late 52.”

The typos and misspelling might have been a clue that the person who wrote the ad did not know much about the car being offered.

“Might anyone have knowledge of some former FISHER BODY executive that could assist in further identifying this automobile?” the ad concluded.

This basket case could have been yours for perhaps $700. To no one’s surprise, it didn’t sell. Here’s what that wreck actually was: arguably, the most sought-after Corvette ever built. Today it is very likely worth several million dollars. It is the storied No. 1 Cunningham Corvette.

Instead of a “documented 1953 pre-production Corvette Frame” this car is a 1960 model that was among three turned into racecars by the sportsman Briggs Cunningham. He raced them at the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year; the cars, marked 1, 2 and 3, took turns leading the race and delighting fans with their thunderous V-8 engines. No. 1 and No. 2 did not finish, but No. 3 did, winning its class and a permanent place in Corvette lore.

It might have been appropriate for the cars to be preserved in a museum collection after the race, but Cunningham turned them back into street-legal cars and they were sold through a Chevy dealer, according to one of the 1960 team’s drivers. After that, the cars disappeared for a number of years.

No. 3 was found in 1993, according to Kevin Mackay, owner of Corvette Repair in Valley Stream, N.Y., whose shop was hired to restore the car for the Miller family. No. 2 turned up in an Irwindale, Calif., junkyard in 1980; it was acquired by Bruce Meyer in 2000, a collector and Petersen Automotive Museum board member. But No. 1 proved elusive until a few years ago.

A yearslong tug of war over ownership ensued. To make a very long, tortuous story short: The Corvette — now positively identified as the No. 1 Cunningham Corvette — is owned by a partnership comprising Kevin Mackay; Domenico Idoni, an enthusiast; and Gino Burelli, an Indiana car dealer and collector.

Under the terms of a 2015 legal agreement, Burelli will commission Mackay to bring the car back to its original glory. Mackay earned acclaim for his restoration of Miller’s No. 3 Corvette.

The restoration, estimates Bryan Shook, a lawyer who specializes in legal matters involving vintage cars, could take a year and cost more than $500,000. (As of this writing, the car is in Indiana, in Burelli’s possession, awaiting the full payment agreed upon in the legal settlement, Shook said.)

Shook, who helped Mackay through the legal dealings, said he expects that Burelli will sell the car. “He’s shopping it,” Shook said. And a price of $3 million to $7 million — “possibly more” — is not unlikely, Shook added.

The exact story of where the first Cunningham Corvette was for the half-century it was missing may never be fully known. According to court documents, it appears that at some point it was intended for use as a drag racer. Its blue-on-white racing livery was replaced by gaudy purple paint, poorly applied. And key components, including the original engine, disappeared.

But Mackay said he has rare spare parts, as well as molds for special racing modifications done to the body (from his restoration of the Miller Corvette), to finish the job to a very high standard.

When it goes up for sale, don’t expect to see it on Craigslist. You missed your chance.

UPDATE July 14, 2016: Based on information subsequently provided by Kevin Mackay, this article has been revised to reflect the following changes: The order in which the No. 2 and No. 3 cars were found, originally from an interview with a Corvette team driver from 1960, has been reversed. In addition, this revision clarifies that Corvette Repair restored the No. 3 car for the Miller family and that the car is owned by a partnership in which Mackay has a share interest.