It looks as if the parties in a lawsuit about the Briggs Cunningham Le Mans Corvette race car will be taking another lap around the track after a judge’s ruling this week.
The battle has already been going on for nine months after a 1960 Corvette commissioned by Briggs Cunningham for the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans race turned up during a promotion at last year’s Corvettes at Carlisle.
U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones III ruled Wednesday against Kevin J. Mackay, a New York repair shop owner who had wanted a lawsuit dismissed from a man saying the Corvette had been stolen from his father in the 1970s. Mackay had argued that the family of Dan Mathis Jr. did not try hard enough to find the car after it was stolen in 1975 or 1976 and then had waited too long to file the suit claiming they still owned the racer.
The car is considered a significant find in the Corvette world because it has been identified as Corvette No. 1 amid three such cars raced by the Cunningham team in 1960.
The other two Corvette racers from 1960 have already been restored and are estimated to be worth at least a million dollars each. But the No.1 Corvette, which was driven by Briggs Cunningham himself, had been missing for nearly 30 years.
It resurfaced in 2012 when Pamela Carr of Florida sold it for $75,000 to Lance Miller, co-owner of Carlisle Events in Carlisle, Pa. Miller promptly sold the car for the same price to renowned Corvette restorer Mackay. However, Mathis. came forward at Carlisle, holding a title to the car issued in Florida on Aug. 17, 2012, and claiming that the Corvette had been stolen from his father in the 1970s.
The car had been stored in a warehouse along with other items collected by Carr’s husband, retired Florida judge Richard Carr, who died in 2010. It was shown at a private event at Corvettes at Carlisle last August, but a planned public unveiling there was canceled by Miller at the last minute.
Mackay’s efforts to find the Corvette racers dates back to the early 1990s when he hired a private investigator to search for them. He was able to get the VINs and actually found car No. 3 and restored it for Lance Miller’s father, Chip, whose efforts to find and restore car No. 3 were turned into a movie called The Quest. Chip passed away in 2004, but his dying wish was for Mackay to get car No. 1 if it ever surfaced.
Miller, co-owner of Carlisle Productions,and Carlisle Borough and its police department were originally defendants in Mathis’ suit but have since been released as defendants.
Judge Jones blamed the current court battle over the “convoluted thoroughfare” the car had traveled over the past 50 years. Jones says the car somehow wound up in a Tampa, Fla., body shop without an engine or transmission, and Mathis’ father, Dan Mathis Sr., who worked at that shop, bought it for $700 in 1974 and made it into a drag racer. Jones says no one knew about the car’s history at that point. The car was subsequently stolen from the Mathis’ driveway sometime in 1975 or 1976, and Mathis Jr., about 9 years old at the time, says he remembers his parents reporting the theft to the authorities.
The judge ruled against Mackay’s argument that Mathis had waited too long to file suit claiming his ownership of the car. While the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania is two years, Jones said that the clock had not started ticking when the car was stolen because Mathis Jr. did not own it at the time of the theft and was too young then to file a lawsuit.
In the ensuing years, Mathis Jr. forgot about the car and only renewed his interest in it after an antique car enthusiast told him about the Miller/Mackay purchase in August 2012.
Jones says the statute of limitations only started running when Mathis found out about the car’s location a month before he filed his lawsuit.
“While our call is not easy…we cannot but conclude that Mathis acted reasonably,” Jones ruled in refusing Mackay’s dismissal plea.
Therefore, he added, “the saga of the purloined Briggs Cunningham racer continues.”
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