Ownership questions surround Corvette reportedly fielded in 1960 Le Mans race


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The debate over who owns the famous No. 1 Cunningham Corvette has heated up and any potential resolution could be much more than a lap away.

A Florida businessman, Dan Mathis Jr., filed both a stolen-vehicle report and a lawsuit against Carlisle Events co-owner Lance Miller and others, claiming that he is the rightful owner of the famous car.

Mr. Miller filed a countersuit in Cumberland County Court in Central Pennsylvania. Both suits were filed last month.

Mr. Miller's late father, Chip Miller, was a collector of Chevrolet Corvettes who, according to a New York Times account, "spent much of his later life searching for a Corvette fielded by Briggs Cunningham -- the driver, automotive manufacturer, yachtsman and race-team privateer" -- at the 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans, France, in June 1960.

Cunningham fielded three Corvettes in that race -- the No. 2. car was hunted down in a junk yard 15 years ago, while the No. 3. car had already been found and restored by Chip Miller. The No. 1 car -- the one that Cunningham actually co-drove in the 55-car race -- disappeared shortly after the 1960 race, and is the one that had eluded its would-be restorers.

The elder Miller, who died in 2004, was unsuccessful in his search for the No. 1 car, but this June, his son was put in contact with someone who was "cleaning out a warehouse full of junk that he had inherited from his late father" and found a stripped-down Corvette.

The serial number on the Corvette matched the one that the Millers had been searching for. Mr. Miller says he acquired the car from the owner and put it on display at his annual Corvette collectors show in Carlisle, Pa., in late August.

After that show, according to Mr. Miller, Carlisle Police and Pennsylvania State Police officers recently arrived at the fairgrounds demanding to search for the vehicle based on the stolen-automobile report.

Mr. Mathis' claims appear to have been boosted when New York Times contributing journalist Jerry Garrett posted on his own website what appears to be the official title for the car.

The title has Mr. Mathis' name and Tampa address on it and lists the date of issue as Aug. 17, 2012.

But Mr. Miller has contended that he purchased the vehicle in July and re-sold it two days later. He has declined to reveal the name of the new owner.

"I will respect that wish until the buyer agrees to be named or I am ordered to do so by a court of competent jurisdiction," Mr. Miller wrote in an email published on Mr. Garrett's site.

A former special correspondent for The Associated Press and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Mr. Garrett first broke the story about the competing lawsuits between Mr. Mathis and Carlisle Events, a classic-car exhibition company.

The company heavily promoted the car at a well-attended Corvette event last month.

However, as the event was going on, Mr. Mathis was trying to retrieve the vehicle and asked for help from local authorities.

Carlisle police did not respond to inquiries about the cases.

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said earlier this month that he was aware that there are competing civil cases in the matter.

"We are not actively investigating this matter as we believe it properly belongs in civil court," Mr. Freed said in an email.

Mr. Mathis contends the car belonged to his late father, Dan Mathis Sr., who raced the car in central Florida for a time in the mid-1970s, until it was stolen.

Carlisle Events announced in July that it had found the Briggs Cunningham's Le Mans Corvette race car, touted by many car enthusiasts and experts as the most important find in car-collector history.

It was the last of the three Cunningham cars to be located, and the announcement of the find had national automotive magazines and blogs buzzing.

"The wild allegations by Mr. Mathis presented by [Mr. Garrett] as fact, are wholly untrue," Mr. Miller wrote in an email posted on Mr. Garrett's blog.

Mr. Mathis, however, has a different viewpoint: "Miller and [his associate] Kevin Mackay were previously contacted by sources inquiring about the true ownership of the car, inquiring about the title for the car, and inquiring about the previous transactions involving the car," Mr. Mathis said.

"They were also informed that there was an owner of record in Florida," he said. "After learning this new information, Lance and Kevin opted not to take the reasonable and prudent route to legitimize this famous car. Instead they took the route of deception and theft."

Mr. Miller countered that there was plenty of due diligence involved in the process of obtaining the car.

"Prior to my purchase, a 50-state stolen vehicle search was conducted by a third-party investigator, which did not come back with any evidence that the car had been reported stolen," Mr. Miller said.

"The car had already been sold by me when the allegations of theft were made by Mathis."

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