Catching Air: The unusual odyssey of a 1957 “airbox” Corvette

Phil Bachman’s 1957 Corvette retains its original frame, body, 283 cubic-inch, 283-horsepower V-8, 4-speed transmission, rear axle and “airbox” cold-air induction system.

It’s been quite a year for Phil Bachman. He not only celebrated his 80th birthday and his 50th year as a car dealer, but one of his prized Corvettes—a 1957 model equipped with a rare racing package—earned Gold Certification at the annual Bloomington Gold event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Receiving the prestigious Corvette award capped a 19-year odyssey in which the rare ’57 was nearly lost. In a case of perfecting timing, the car was delivered to Bachman on his birthday after a two-year restoration by Kevin Mackay and his crew at Corvette Repair, in Valley Stream, N.Y.

The Onyx Black C1 is one of only 43 “airbox” models, a nickname derived from a racing option package that featured a cold-air induction system. Mackay said about 20 Corvettes originally built this way are thought to remain. Bachman bought the Corvette from its original Southern California owner in 1993, and it joined several 1960s ’Vettes that he purchased new. Bachman and his wife, Martha, also own 40 Ferraris, most of them yellow, which they began collecting in the 1980s.

Kevin Mackay (left) and Phil Bachman with Bachman’s freshly restored 1957 Corvette at Bloomington Gold, June 2017, where the car earned Gold Certification
Walt Thurn
Kevin Mackay (left) and Phil Bachman with Bachman’s freshly restored 1957 Corvette at Bloomington Gold, June 2017, where the car earned Gold Certification.

1957: Corvette’s make-or-break year
Nineteen fifty-seven was a watershed year for the Corvette, which debuted several features that made the car more competitive with European sports cars: a 283-cubic-inch version of the small block V-8, Rochester Ramjet fuel injection, and four-speed manual transmission. In an additional attempt to boost the Corvette’s image, Chevrolet engineer and Corvette “godfather” Zora Arkus-Duntov headed development of a slew of powertrain and chassis upgrades aimed at racers.

The Corvette’s engine breathed hot underhood air, which could rob power. For racing, Duntov and his team devised a fiberglass intake plenum—the airbox—fitted to the driver’s side of the engine compartment. The airbox drew cooler air from an opening in the fender and fed it through a duct to the fuel injection system, making it a forerunner of modern air intake systems.

The airbox was part of RPO 579E. Available only with the four-speed transmission (RPO 685) and Positraction rear axle, this regular production option also included an 8,000-rpm tachometer mounted to the steering column. The radio and heater were deleted, reducing weight and eliminating the need for ignition shielding, which in turn allowed the spark plug wires to be moved away from the exhaust manifolds. Chevy said the fuel-injected 283 offered one horsepower per cubic-inch of displacement, but the unofficial figure for the airbox engine was closer to 300 hp.

The fiberglass plenum, nicknamed the “airbox,” was installed on the driver’s side. The longer tube on the passenger side routed air to the rear brakes via ducting in the rocker channel
©Bill Erdman
The fiberglass plenum, nicknamed the “airbox,” was installed on the driver’s side. The longer tube on the passenger side routed air to the rear brakes via ducting in the rocker channel.

The Heavy Duty Racing Suspension package, RPO 684, was essentially mandatory with the airbox option. Upgrades included special springs, shocks, and front stabilizer bar, plus a quick steering ratio and wider, 5.5-inch wheels with dog-dish hubcaps (RPO 276).

RPO 684 also incorporated larger finned brake drums that used metallic linings, inspiring the “big brake package” nickname. Air scoops, dubbed “elephant ears,” supplied cooling air to the front brakes. Under the hood, on the passenger side, a long tube routed air to ductwork in the rocker channel area to cool the rear brakes.

Lost and found
After purchasing his ’57 airbox Corvette, Bachman sent the body and frame to a Corvette specialist in Georgia for painting, while the engine, drivetrain, and interior were shipped to other shops. Before any of the work could be completed, however, Bachman suffered a stroke. As his family focused on his recovery, Bachman’s Corvette was forgotten.

Fifteen years later, while organizing paperwork, Bachman’s son Philip found a title for the 1957 ’Vette, but neither he nor his mother knew the car’s whereabouts. An Internet search using the car’s VIN revealed that the Georgia restoration shop had filed for a mechanic’s lien. Philip and his mother sought advice from another Corvette collector, who referred them to Mackay. When Mackay visited the Georgia shop, he learned that the shop’s owner had also suffered a stroke. Mackay managed to locate Bachman’s Corvette in the garage and showed the title to the shop owner’s son, but he refused to release the car.

To avoid a long and expensive court battle, the Bachmans ultimately agreed to pay $75,000 in back storage fees for the Corvette’s return. The other parts were also retrieved, and everything was shipped to Mackay’s shop.

“This car’s condition was amazing,” Mackay says. “It had its original frame, body panels, engine, fuel injection, and drivetrain. The airbox system was fully intact. We saw signs that it once had a roll bar, so the original owner probably raced it.”

A full restoration commenced, with a donor car supplying various trim pieces. The job was completed just in time for 2017 Bloomington Gold, where a jubilant Phil Bachman celebrated his birthday all over again.