For more than 50 years, the Chevrolet Corvette has represented a curious paradox for General Motors. The product of GM’s humblest division, it has frequently been among the corporation’s most expensive cars. Designed and engineered largely outside of the normal GM system, it has often been hamstrung by corporate politics. Despite that, it remains the car that the company’s stylists most want to design, its engineers most want to develop, and its workers take the most pride in building. It is a vision of GM as it could be. This week, we look at the model that would set the standard for all future Corvette generations: the Corvette C2, the justly legendary 1963-1967 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray.
General Motors in the 1950s and early 1960s routinely dazzled America with its spectacular traveling auto shows and futuristic concept cars. Its well-funded research department explored everything from front-wheel drive to gas turbine engines. Visiting the Motorama, one could almost imagine that flying cars wearing Chevy badges were only a few years away.
Chevrolet’s production engineering seemed to be on the move, as well. Under the leadership of chief engineer (and later general manager) Ed Cole, the division got a modern, overhead-valve V8 engine in 1955, and well-heeled buyers could add the latest luxury features, including power steering, power windows, and air conditioning. By 1957, the options list had grown to include fuel injection and the sophisticated (if unreliable) triple-turbine Turboglide automatic transmission.
Although Chevrolet’s chassis engineering — body-on-frame construction and Hotchkiss drive — could have come from a prewar car, even that seemed about to change. In 1957, the corporate Engineering Staff began work on a radical new program known as project “Q,” originally slated for the 1960 model year. Project Q promised a rear-mounted transaxle (for better weight distribution), independent rear suspension, and (according to some accounts) four-wheel disc brakes, which would have made GM’s the most sophisticated sedans in the world. It would also provide the perfect opportunity to make a cutting-edge sports car out of the Corvette.
THE CHEVROLET CORVETTE
Although it was undeniably pretty, the original Corvette, introduced in 1953, was in many ways a glorified show car. It had been designed in great haste, using a lot of off-the-shelf pieces, and it was neither very practical nor particularly sporting. Despite its fiberglass body, it was heavy for a sports car and its performance was compromised by a poorly sorted suspension and compulsory automatic transmission. It had no exterior door handles or locks, clumsy side curtains instead of windows, hard-to-read instruments, and mediocre fit and finish. It was little wonder that in 1954, the Corvette’s first full year of production, Chevrolet managed to find homes for only 2,780 of the 3,640 cars built.
Despite that mediocre showing, which nearly sent the roadster to an early grave, the Corvette had already acquired a small but loyal following within GM. Its fans included formidable Styling boss Harley Earl (who had originally conceived it); Earl’s lieutenant, Bill Mitchell; and a fiery Russian-born engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov.
It was Duntov who had saved the Corvette from cancellation with an impassioned memorandum to Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole and Research and Development chief Maurice Olley. Duntov’s memo, written in December 1953, argued forcefully that canceling the Corvette would hurt Chevrolet’s reputation, particularly with young, performance-minded customers. He proposed instead that Chevy build a real performance image for the Corvette, which would earn the loyalty of enthusiasts and add luster to the rest of the line.
In 1955, the Corvette got Chevrolet’s new 265 cu. in. (4,344 cc) V8 engine and a manual transmission. The following year, it was revamped with proper door handles and locks, roll-up windows and even-more-powerful engines, with up to 240 horsepower (179 kW). After three years of Chevrolet insisting it was not a sports car, the Corvette made its first forays into real competition, earning the grudging respect of sports car purists.
Duntov did his best with the Corvette’s humble underpinnings, but its chassis and brakes, derived from rustic passenger-car hardware, were not well suited to sports-car duty. A competition handling package helped, but Duntov still had dreams of better weight distribution, an independent suspension, and disc brakes — in short, exactly what a “Q-Corvette” would offer.
BILL MITCHELL TAKES A HAND
Like his mentor, Harley Earl, GM styling director Mitchell loved sports cars. When Earl had Chevy engineers build a Corvette-based racer, the SR-2, for his son, Jerry, Mitchell ordered a second built for his own use. During his tenure as head of GM design from 1958 to 1977, he would commission a whole series of custom-built, high-powered sports cars for his own use.
Many of Mitchell’s staff were of a similar bent. In 1956, stylists Robert Cumberford and Tony Lapine (who would later design the Porsche 928) were playing with ideas for an advanced Corvette for 1958, featuring an aluminum body, a rear transaxle, and a retractable hardtop. It was rejected on cost grounds, but it made clear that GM designers were clearly as eager as Duntov to take the Corvette in a more sophisticated direction.
Naturally, the prospect of the Q-Corvette was very exciting. Mitchell made it more so when he returned to Detroit from the Turin Auto Show. He called for an informal design contest to develop the styling cues for the Q-Corvette. The winner was a young designer named Pete Brock, whose sketches Mitchell chose in October 1957. Mitchell told him it was the right direction, and instructed him to proceed. Stylist Bob McLean subsequently fashioned it into a sleek, low-slung coupe, which was built as a full-size clay model.
THE FIRST STING RAY
Unfortunately for Mitchell, Duntov, and the designers, the economic downturn of 1957 and 1958 put a damper on the Q projects. The 1958 model year was awful for Detroit, with sales of most cars down 30% or more — not a good time for a radical new design. GM management first froze and then canceled the Q-sedan project. Zora Arkus-Duntov, knowing which way the wind was blowing, admitted frankly to Chevy chief engineer Harry Barr that the Q-Corvette would be too expensive to justify on its own. It too was canceled.
Also affecting the Corvette’s fortunes was the AMA racing ban. In June 1957, the Automobile Manufacturers Association resolved that its members (which included all the major U.S. automakers) would not participate in, support, or promote racing, or advertise automotive performance in any way. Some division managers honored the ban more in the breach than in the observance, but GM senior management took it very seriously.
When the Q-Corvette was canceled, Mitchell decided he would develop it himself for a race car of his own. In December 1958, he bought the chassis of the Corvette SS — a development mule for the now-defunct Corvette competition program — from GM for a token payment of $1. He then got stylist Chuck Pohlman to convert Pete Brock’s Q-Corvette proposal into a roadster and enlisted stylists Tony Lapine, Gene Garfinkle, and Larry Shinoda to build it in a separate studio nicknamed the “Hammer Room.” Although the designers gave Mitchell’s car a GM project code — XP-96 — Pete Brock later recalled that it was built in secret, to avoid trouble with senior management for flaunting the AMA ban.
The XP-96, which Mitchell dubbed Sting Ray, was finished by early 1959. It made its racing debut in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) President’s Cup race in April, driven by dentist Dick Thompson. The Sting Ray eventually won its class (C-modified) for both 1959 and 1960, although Mitchell privately admitted it cost him a fortune.
Zora Arkus-Duntov was not very happy about Mitchell’s Sting Ray. Although he wanted to see a proper Corvette racer as much as anyone, Duntov was fighting a delicate political battle. He still had great technical ambitions: independent suspension, disc brakes, even a mid-engine layout. Mitchell’s flaunting of the rules put those ambitions at risk. Even though the Sting Ray was nominally a private venture, it didn’t look like one. It could easily have become an excuse for GM’s conservative senior management to kill the Corvette entirely or transform it into a bloated boulevardier like the Ford Thunderbird.
Duntov, however, developed his own management-baiting exercise: the CERV — Chevrolet Experimental Racing Vehicle (later changed to the more politic Chevrolet Experimental Research Vehicle). Looking uncannily like an Indy 500 racer, the CERV had its engine behind the driver, with a rear transaxle and an independent rear suspension similar to that of the aborted Q-Corvette. It had finned aluminum drum brakes, mounted inboard to reduce unsprung weight. Powered by an all-aluminum version of Chevy’s familiar V8, its research efforts included the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and 180-mph (290-km/h) laps around the Daytona speedway. The CERV was not intended for production, but its engineering would heavily influence the next-generation Corvette.
STING RAY TO XP-720
Although the original Corvette’s basic body and chassis would soldier on until 1962, Chevrolet knew it couldn’t go on forever, and GM management approved the development of an all-new Corvette for the 1963 model year.
After the Sting Ray racer was complete, Bill Mitchell assigned Larry Shinoda to develop its styling themes for the next Corvette, then code-named XP-720. The first clay mock-up was shown to GM management in October 1959. Their response was encouraging, so Mitchell ordered Shinoda to build a full-size clay model, which was approved in April 1960. Mitchell and Shinoda conceived the XP-720 only as a coupe — hearkening back to Pete Brock’s original Q-Corvette designs — but Chevrolet management requested a convertible, as well. The final production designs for both closed and open versions were approved in December 1960.
THE IRS DILEMMA
After the XP-720 was approved for production, Duntov and his Corvette engineering staff set to work developing the mechanical package. Duntov was in an awkward position, trapped between management’s reluctance to invest in small-volume car, on one side, and Bill Mitchell’s flights of fancy on the other. Mitchell ultimately had far more power than Duntov in the corporation, and the two didn’t often get along.
Still, this was Duntov’s chance. The 1963 model would be the first-ever all-new Corvette. It was the perfect opportunity to make some major technical improvements. Although Duntov wasn’t happy about the new body’s aerodynamics (it had lower drag, but a great deal of high-speed lift), the XP-720 design offered a number of advantages. It would have a shorter wheelbase than before — which would give better maneuverability — and its close-coupled proportions allowed the cabin to be moved toward the rear, for better weight distribution. Duntov’s people also developed a new ladder-type frame, which was no heavier than the old one, but significantly stiffer and stronger.
Duntov’s great hope was for an independent rear suspension. This was a major departure for American automakers in those days; GM had used swing axles for the Corvair and Pontiac Tempest with uninspiring results, but the rest of its cars relied on live axles. The earlier Corvette’s live axle, however, had been its Achilles heel. It was very heavy and because the Corvette was much lighter than an Impala, its ratio of sprung weight to unsprung weight was poor. The result was a choppier ride and unsettled high-speed handling. The biggest advantage of independent rear suspension would be mounting the heavy differential on the frame, where it would not be part of the unsprung weight. IRS would also allow camber gain — keeping the wheels upright as the body leaned — for better cornering.
The downside, as always, was cost. A live axle was simple, which made it cheap. IRS required more parts, more involved assembly, and more development. It was that much worse because the Corvette’s suspension would be unique; there would be fewer units over which to spread the development expense. It was also questionable whether the average buyer would notice it was there. Any number of sports and GT cars of the era still used live axles (Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Alfa Romeo, to name three), so having one did not automatically mark the Corvette as backwards.
Duntov insisted that independent rear suspension would increase the Corvette’s appeal, even to non-sporting drivers, by allowing a far more liveable ride along with better handling. He boldly promised that IRS would enable Chevrolet to sell 30,000 Corvettes a year, more than twice its record-setting 1962 sales. Furthermore, he noted, most of the development work had already been done for the Q-Corvette and CERV. He already had a relatively cost-effective three-link design. As in 1953, Duntov knew which buttons to push, and his proposal was approved.
THE 1963 CHEVROLET CORVETTE STING RAY
The new car, proudly badged as the Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, made its press debut in October 1962 and went on sale a few weeks later as a 1963 model. Predictably, it was a sensation. Even though its engines were carried over from the previous year, the Sting Ray had the most sophisticated engineering of any American car of its day, barring Chevrolet’s own Corvair (which adopted a very similar rear suspension two years later).
Straight-line performance remained fierce. Even with one of the milder engines and Powerglide, 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took less than eight seconds, with top speeds of around 130 mph (209 km/h). Ride and handling were also greatly improved. Some European critics wanted better steering feel, but the press reaction was very favorable.
The Corvette Sting Ray’s styling was equally spectacular, although some observed, particularly British ones, disliked its assortment of nonfunctional scoops and louvers. Almost all reviewers were critical of the split rear window. Several journalists noted that the rear-window divider was wide enough to hide a policeman behind you — hardly a desirable feature for a car of the Sting Ray’s performance potential. (It would be gone the following year.)
Customers were as impressed as most critics. The Corvette Sting Ray didn’t meet Duntov’s ambitious projections, but its 1963 sales were up nearly 50% from 1962, which itself had been a record year for the Corvette. 1964 sales were even better: 22,229.
STOPPING POWER AND CUBIC INCHES
Duntov had wanted better brakes for the Corvette Sting Ray from the beginning, but it had been hard enough to get money for the independent suspension. In 1965, the Corvette’s mediocre drum brakes were finally replaced with a set of big Delco-Moraine vented discs — far and away the best brakes available on any contemporary American car. The Corvette finally had stopping power commensurate with its acceleration.
The Corvette hadn’t lacked for horsepower since the introduction of the V8 in 1955, but even its most powerful engine was outmatched by Carroll Shelby’s new Cobra sports cars. In response, Duntov reluctantly introduced an optional big-block V8. Initially displacing 396 cu. in. (6,488 cc), it was quickly bored out to 427 cu. in. (6,996 cc), offering a staggering 425 gross horsepower (317 kW).
The big engine added 150 pounds (68 kg) to the front end, which was not beneficial to handling, but it made for scorching straight-line performance. In March 1966, Motor Trend‘s Bob McVay reached 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds with a 427 Corvette convertible, although he noted that it could be hairy, particularly in the rain; he concluded that most customers would be better off with one of the smaller engines. Even hotter big-blocks were available for 1967, but they were primarily intended for racetrack-bound customers, and sold in tiny numbers.
Critics whose eyes were not clouded with red mist still preferred the milder engines. The heavy big block taxed the Corvette’s modest tires and pointed out the structural limitations of its fiberglass construction. Reviewers not wowed by the shape and copious horsepower complained of a lack of structural integrity that resulted in squeaks, rattles, and disconcerting thumping motions, particularly with the convertible. Nevertheless, big-engine Corvettes were among the very quickest cars in the world, which was enough for many buyers.
The Corvette Sting Ray was originally slated for replacement in 1967, but delays with its successor earned it an unscheduled encore. The 1967 Corvette still sold well and many buyers found its styling — now free of some of the minor gimmicks that cluttered the early models — the most tasteful of the lot.
Sales of the 1963-1967 Corvette Sting Ray never quite reached 30,000 a year, but by the time production ended in July 1967, combined C2 Corvette production had reached 117,964. That was far better than Chevrolet had expected and a vast improvement over the mediocre numbers of the mid-1950s. The Corvette Sting Ray also earned Chevrolet a great deal of favorable publicity both in the U.S. and abroad. It had its limitations, to be sure, but so did its principal rivals, most of which were a lot more expensive.
Duntov, Mitchell, and Larry Shinoda spent much of the Corvette Sting Ray’s lifespan immersed in the contentious development of its successor, which finally bowed for 1968. Duntov still had grand ambitions for a smaller, lighter, mid-engine Corvette, but it was not to be. The C3 Corvette ended up as a mechanical carryover of the C2, with a new body that took the Sting Ray’s styling themes to the edge of Camp. It proved to be a long-lived design, lasting until 1982. Its successors, the 1984 C4, the 1997 C5, and the 2005 C6, had more advanced technology (ultimately including a transaxle like that originally planned for the Q-Corvette), but hewed closely to the 1963-1967 Corvette Sting Ray’s look and concept.
The sad thing was not that the Sting Ray’s successors followed in its footsteps, but that no other GM cars did. Its disc brakes and three-link suspension, though not cutting edge by today’s standards, could have done wonders for GM’s ordinary sedans, reviving some of the concepts from the old Q-sedan project to good effect. Naturally, that never happened, largely on cost grounds. The irony was that for all GM’s concern about cost effectiveness, Chevrolet’s engineering department was significantly over budget throughout the sixties. For all the money GM spent, the technology of its cars seemed to be standing still.
The only reason the Corvette Sting Ray ended up as sophisticated as it did was the stubborn determination of its designers, and their willingness to bend or break the corporation’s rules to get what they wanted. Remarkably, Duntov and Mitchell’s successors have largely kept that faith, carving out a surprising level of independence for the Corvette within the Chevrolet organization. Whatever you feel about the Corvette — and we must admit it’s not exactly our cup of tea — you must admire the fact that its designers and engineers have never lost sight of what it’s supposed to be, even in the face of daunting opposition from both inside and outside the company.
A few months ago, Robert Farago, [then] editor of The Truth About Cars, published an editorial suggesting that GM kill the Corvette as a sign of its renewed commitment to building good bread-and-butter cars, rather than a few expensive halo models like the ‘Vette or the Cadillac CTS-V. We understand his reasoning, but we would rather see the kind of passion and commitment evident in the Corvette extended to GM’s other products. If they could do that, then General Motors might actually stand a chance.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included John Barach, “Corvette History,” Motor Era, June 2002, www.motorera. com/ corvette/index.htm, accessed 8 May 2009; Roger Huntington, “Bred to Race,” Motor Trend January 1963, pp. 40-43, 94; Randy Leffingwell, Corvette: America’s Sports Car (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); Karl Ludvigsen, “The Corvettes in Chevy’s closet are the most interesting of all!” Motor Trend Vol. 22, No. 1 (January 1970), pp. 32-37, 96; Mike Mueller, Classic Corvette: The First Thirty Years (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 2002); Spencer Murray, “The Sting Ray Emerges” and “The Between Years: ’64 to ’67,” Corvette: An American Classic (Los Angeles, CA: Peterson Publishing Company, 1978), reprinted in Corvette Stingray Gold Portfolio 1963-1967, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1990), pp. 130-159; Ken Polsson, “Chronology of Chevrolet Corvettes,” www.islandnet. com/~kpolsson/vettehis/, accessed 9 May 2009; and Mark Theobald, “Pete Brock,” Coachbuilt, 2004, www.coachbuilt. com, accessed 8 May 2009.
Period road tests consulted for this article included “Car and Driver Road Research Report: Corvette Sting Ray,” Car and Driver April 1963, Jim Wright, “Corvette Engineering for 1965,” Motor Trend October 1964; “Jaguar XKE – Most Overrated? Corvette Sting Ray – Just a Plastic Chevy?” Road Test May 1965; Bob McVay, “Corvette 427 Road Test: It’s Got the Go-Now…You Need the Know-How!” Motor Trend March 1966; and “Corvettes: What’ll You Have? 427 cu. in. and 4-Speed, or 327 cu. in. and Automatic,” Car Life August 1966, all of which are reprinted in Corvette Stingray Gold Portfolio 1963-1967; and “1965 Corvette Sting Ray,” Road & Track December 1964, pp. 22–25; and Bob McVay, “Corvette Sting Ray Road Test,” Motor Trend September 1964, pp. 34–39.