For one week in the summer of 1958, the Number 1 song on the American pop charts was the tale of a one-eyed, one-horned flying creature that ate purple people and had come to Earth to get a job with a rock ’n’ roll band.
Written and performed by Sheb Wooley, “The Purple People Eater” would share its name with various enterprises, including a 1988 movie featuring Neil Patrick Harris, Ned Beatty, Shelley Winters and assorted early rock stars (including Wooley); the defensive line of the Minnesota Vikings professional football team; and three very special Chevrolet Corvette race cars.
One of those cars, the 1959 Purple People Eater MKIII Corvette, was raced on behalf of the Nickey Chevrolet dealership in Chicago by driver Jim Jeffords, and together the car and driver won the Sports Car Club of America National B-Production championship during the 1959 season.
That particular Purple People Eater Corvette will be offered in January during Barrett-Jackson’s flagship auction in Scottsdale from January 23 through 31.
In 2002, Jeffords was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame at the National Corvette Museum in recognition for “his exciting racing mark in legendary race cars and automobiles,” including the “Purple People Eater” as well as such Chevrolet-powered specials as Jerry Earl’s SR-2, the Scarab and the Maserati Birdcage.
Jeffords’ racing career began in the fall of 1955 when he drove a C-Production class Jaguar XK140 to a second-place finish in the first sports car race held on the then brand-new Road America track at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Jeffords’ early success enabled him to move up to race Corvettes, beginning in May 1956, also at Road America.
After driving for the Chevrolet Corvette Racing Team, Jeffords was invited to create a racing team for Nickey Chevrolet, which interestingly spelled its name with a backward-facing “K” in its signage. Undoubtedly a tribute to that trademark, the “K” in the MKIII emblazoned on the side of the Purple People Eater is also backward-facing.
“Jeffords was virtually unbeatable as he easily took the (SCCA National B-Production) titles in 1958 and 1959 in the Nickey Chevrolet ‘Purple People Eater’ Corvette,” the Corvette Museum said in announcing Jeffords’ place in its Hall of Fame.
Jeffords and his Purple People Eater Corvettes started 42 races during the 1958 and 1959 seasons, and won 29 of them, including back-to-back national championships and a race at Nassau Speed Week. During the 1959 season, the car never finished worse than second place in any race.
While Jeffords would go on to become a racing team manager, work on concept-vehicle projects with famed designer Brooks Stevens and serve as an executive at Road America, the Purple People Eater Corvette would be sold, repainted and raced by others until falling into obscurity until 1985, when its history was rediscovered.
But in 1974, Chip Miller and Bill Miller Jr. (who were not related) founded Carlisle Events and staged their first car show and swap meet.
It was at that swap meet that Chip Miller and car restorer Ken Heckert each paid $400 to take 50/50 ownership of a 1959 Corvette that turned out to be the famed Purple People Eater racing car, although Miller and Heckert didn’t know that when they bought the car.
The car had come out of Chevrolet’s St. Louis, Missouri, assembly plant with a white body and a black interior, a 290-horsepower fuel-injected 283-cubic-inch small-block V8 engine and a 4-speed manual gearbox, as well as a posi-traction rear end, heavy-duty brakes and suspension, and without a heater or defroster.
At Nickey, a larger fuel tank (underpinned by safety chains) was added, as were a roll bar to protect the driver and a latch to secure the hood at racing speeds. Jeffords and the crew also replaced the windshield with a smaller one.
The color purple was selected in part because of the song but also to ensure the car would stand out from other Corvettes at the track. It was reported that Jeffords liked the idea since he, like the Purple People Eater creature, reportedly had only one good eye.
The car with such a famous racing history served as a shop table for mixing paint in Heckert’s restoration facility until 1985, when Miller and Heckert decided to see if they could learn the car’s history and perhaps restore the car to whatever glory it formerly may have achieved.
The racing equipment on the car indicated motorsports history. A photograph in a Corvette history book provided another clue. They were able to track down the car’s second owner, who confirmed the details. Heckert restored the car to its 1959 season setup. World-renowned Corvette restorer Kevin Mackay and the Corvette Repair Inc. team took the body off the car for a second time in 2003 and professionally refurbished the entire rolling chassis, and freshened up the fuel injection unit, the engine compartment and drivetrain.
Since then, the Purple People Eater MKIII Corvette has been featured at various concours events as well as at the Corvette Museum and Monterey historic races.
According to the song lyrics, when the singer first saw the Purple People Eater, he “commenced to shakin’ and said ‘ooh-ee.’” That just might be the case with potential new owners in January 2016, when the Purple People Eater from the Miller Corvette Collection roars onto the block at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale auction.
For information about Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale sale, see the auction website.