Birth of the Chevy Corvette Sting Ray - Timeless Beauty

A story worthy of a Hollywood movie

John Pfanstiehl Oct 1, 2013 0 Comment(s)

The 2013 Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance was a Sting Ray extravaganza. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first production car to bear the moniker, GM brought out the '59 Stingray Racer prototype as well as a preproduction '14 example. Joining the celebration were a number of famous racing Rays, including the thunderous '63 Mickey Thompson car, which took top honors in the event's special Corvette Sting Ray class.

In further recognition of the model's significance, the Concours hosted a seminar titled "The Design Analysis and Origin of the Revolutionary Corvette Sting Ray," given by famed designer Peter Brock and GM Vice President of Global Design Ed Welburn at the Ritz- Carlton. For those not among the thousand- odd enthusiasts attending the seminar, details of the birth of the Sting Ray follow, and it is a story worthy of a Hollywood movie.

1959 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray 1/8

The '59 Stingray Racer was produced in secret by Bill Mitchell, in defiance of GM's no-racing directive.

The Sting Ray is Born

The story begins in the mid '50s, when a California teenager, Peter Brock, heard of an auto-design college located near Pasadena and decided to visit it. Upon arriving, young Brock was informed by the entrance officer that the prestigious school was only for design professionals with portfolios. After it was explained to him what a portfolio was, Brock went out to his car and sketched hot rods for a couple of hours. He then walked back in, showed his automotive drawings, and was admitted to the Art Center College of Design.

Fast forward a year, and Brock was running out of funds for the school. He called a senior GM designer, Chuck Jordan, who had been scouting Art Center talent months before. Jordan offered him a job at the most famous design studio in the world, GM's Styling Section in the futuristic, new GM Technical Center. At 19, Brock became its youngest-ever designer.

By fall 1957, Brock and three other junior designers were working on advanced concepts in the seldom-visited Research Studio B, located beneath the main-floor studios. GM's bombastic Vice President of Design, Bill Mitchell, assembled the group and tossed them photos he'd taken of fresh concepts and record breakers at the recent Turin Auto Show in Italy. Mitchell told them that the photos showed the direction and flavor of what he wanted, and directed them to create something new. A few months later in November, Mitchell entered Studio B again, looked at the myriad sketches on the wall, and selected Brock's fastback coupe design to point the way for the future.

1959 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Concept Sketch 02 2/8

This sketch set the styling direction for what would become the Corvette Sting Ray. It was drawn by GM's youngest designer, 20-year-old Peter Brock, on November 22, 1957. Photo courtesy the Peter Brock Collection

Racing Forward

Mitchell also wanted this new car to go racing, and to set a completely new styling direction for Corvette. But GM President Harlow Curtice was serious about the recent Automobile Manufacturers Association racing ban. Top management decreed that all employees stop work on in-house performance and race-car programs. In complete defiance of the management edict, a fearless Mitchell set up a secret and special work area for his dream project. Behind a hidden entrance inside the Tech Center, in a space called the Hammer Room, work continued on what was then called the XP87 program. Later in 1958 Mitchell brought in two talented designers: a Japanese-American former drag racer, Larry Shinoda, and a Latvia-born, Mercedes-trained mechanic, Tony Lapine. The pair was tasked with creating a fullsize clay model and refining the details of Brock's original design.

Because this was a secret program not supported by GM, Mitchell paid the expenses out of his own pocket. Brock's original fastback coupe was slated for the production-car design, but because of time constraints for the coming racing season, it was soon was modified into a lighter, less complicated (and less expensive) roadster version. For the chassis, Mitchell managed to buy one of the two experimental racing frames from the '57 Corvette SS racer, which had been built and raced at the 1957 12 Hours of Sebring.

That chassis started as a Mercedes 300SL frame but was modified for the SS by visionary Belgian-born Russian engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, who then paired it with a race-prepared Chevrolet fuelie engine. The tubular space frame and thin magnesium skin held weight to just 1,850 pounds. A coilover-shock front suspension and a de Dion rear axle with inboard-mounted aluminum drum brakes completed the chassis package.

57 SS Racer 3/8

The '57 SS racer (shown here with Duntov at the helm) was blazingly fast but was stopped in its tracks by the AMA racing ban. The mule test frame found new life under the Sting Ray racer.

The SS body was beautiful, with sensuous soft curves, single headlights, and the familiar multi-toothed grille of the first Corvettes. In spite of cooling problems created by the grille's "teeth," the car was still blazingly fast. In its first and only race at Sebring, the SS set the fastest pace, with a recorded top speed of 183 mph. Although it retired after only 23 laps with minor mechanical problems, excitement over the car high. In fact, race winner Juan Manuel Fangio tested the SS in practice and, despite his unfamiliarity with its performance capabilities, ran more than 3 seconds faster per lap than any of the other drivers. The AMA racing ban ended the career of the SS, but its extra "mule" chassis, which had been used for testing, found new life under Mitchell's XP87.

In the secret Hammer Room, later renamed Studio X, the stunning new XP87 body was mated with the SS mule chassis. Then, in 1959, this amazing one-off racer was stealthily escorted out of the GM Tech Center to see the light of day for the first time. However, it didn't go on display at GM's Motorama. Instead, the XP87, now officially known as the Stingray Racer, hit the Sports Car Club of America road-race circuit, where it was sponsored by none other than Mitchell. The car was piloted by "The Flying Dentist," Dr. Dick Thompson, who won the SCCA's National Class Championship in 1960.

Soon after, Mitchell retired the Stingray from competition and added a passenger seat so he could use it as his personal transportation. The public's response to the car-both on the track and on the streets of Detroit-was so positive, Mitchell knew there was no other design direction to consider for the upcoming second-generation Corvette.

Mickey Thompson Z06 04 4/8

The Mickey Thompson Z06 was one of many famous '63 Corvettes displayed at Amelia. Equipped with a Mark IV "Mystery" 427, the car set the fastest qualifying time at Daytona.

Behind the Scenes

In his presentation at Amelia, Brock also revealed a number of colorful incidents that occurred during the design of the '63 Sting Ray. As VP of Design, Mitchell was adamant about his desire for a split rear window on the Sting Ray coupe. It enabled the incorporation of a sharp crease down the spine of the car, which he felt was essential. As Chevrolet's chief engineer in charge of the Corvette, Duntov was equally adamant that the split window was a terrible idea because it interfered with rear vision. Several full-volume shouting matches, in which each hurled personal insults, ended with Mitchell having his way. For one model year, at least.

A less heated discussion concerned the subtle front and rear treatment of the body lines. Brock tried to convince Mitchell that the front end should dip down and the rear flare up slightly to make the form aerodynamically stable. Mitchell was unswayed, and the sharp beltline around the Sting Ray remained straight, falling off at the rear. But Mitchell's shape ended up creating lift at high speed, just as Brock had predicted. The Flying Dentist soon found this out and was black-flagged for "erratic driving." It was hardly his fault: At over 150 mph, body lift caused the tires to lose traction completely.

GM Vice President of Global Design Ed Welburn pointed out during the Amelia presentation how the idea of aerodynamics, as applied to car design, has changed since Mitchell's era. In the '50s and '60s, aero was regarded as a way to make car bodies beautiful, smooth, and curvaceous. Since then, the emphasis has shifted toward downforce as an important goal.

2014 C7 Chevrolet Corvette 5/8

Lessons Learned

In designing the '14 Stingray, one critical goal was to appeal to a broader and younger audience. The current Corvette, the C6, is a good-looking and great-performing car, but its sales have been steadily dropping, leveling off at around 10,000 units over the past few years. Like the C7, the '63 Sting Ray was a radical styling change from the previous generation, and it resulted in a considerable boost in sales. GM hopes this latest Corvette transformation will have a similar effect.

Welburn also discussed the challenges the C7 design team faced in keeping the Corvette relevant and exciting in today's market. "All its shapes and forms have more tension," he noted, comparing the new Corvette's form to that of a pumped-up athlete.

From a functionality standpoint, the '14 Stingray takes the simulated air intakes and louvers from the '63 model several steps further. Fifty years ago, such features were called "surface entertainment," but these days they route air to the transaxle coolers, reduce front-end lift, and perform other valuable tasks. The iconic Stingray emblem has returned, but the most controversial change is the new lozenge- like taillight design, which replaces the Corvette's signature round lights with a more aggressive, edgier look.

2014 C7 Chevrolet Corvette Fender Grill 6/8

Unlike the "surface entertainment" on the '63 model, all the vents and grills on the new 'ray are functional.

The '63 Sting Ray introduced much more than just dramatic styling, hideaway headlights, and a coupe model to the Corvette brand. It also featured a much stronger perimeter boxed frame with a rugged independent rear suspension. Creature comforts like air conditioning, an FM radio, and leather seats were new as well. Similarly, the '14 edition offers a 57-percent-stiffer (than the C6) hydroformed aluminum chassis on all models, a seven-speed manual transmission, and a new direct-injected V-8 that pumps out an estimated 450 horsepower. New luxury items include a user-configurable instrument panel and a snug competition-seat option for track work. Not bad for a car designed when GM was facing an uncertain future.

The revolutionary design of past Corvettes continues to guide Ed Welburn as he leads from his office in the GM Tech Center. Thanks to the passion and dedication of Welburn and the rest of the Corvette team, the latest Stingray appears poised to inspire a new generation of marque enthusiasts.

Ed Welburn And Peter Brock 7/8

GM VP of Global Design Ed Welburn and famed designer Peter Brock autographed posters of the '14 Corvette at the Sting Ray design seminar.

Life After Sting Ray

Peter Brock left GM to create the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe that won the FIA World GT Championship in 1965. Next, his Brock Racing Enterprises helped Datsun achieve success in Trans-Am. After that he aimed for the sky, literally, and built championship hang gliders. Today he continues to be involved in automotive design, writing, and photography.

Tony Lapine transferred to Opel in Germany and worked on the development of the Opel GT. Porsche recruited him, and he and rose to become head of the German carmaker's design team for 20 years. Lapine was instrumental in creating the 928, 924, and 944 models as well as many non-automotive designs.

Larry Shinoda stayed at GM, working on both Mako Shark concept cars, the Monza GT and SS, the CERVs, the Astro show cars, and the '68 Corvette. When his friend Semon "Bunkie'" Knudsen left GM to head Ford, Shinoda joined him and designed the '69 Boss Mustang. After that he designed RVs, formed his own design studio, and continued to work on specialty projects.

Bill Mitchell succeeded the iconic Harley Earl as head of GM styling in 1959. Under Mitchell, GM created many of the most beautiful cars to grace the road, including the '63 Sting Ray, the '63-'65 Buick Riviera, the '66 Olds Toronado, and the '67 Cadillac Eldorado. After 42 years at GM, he retired in 1977.

Chuck Jordan is credited with designing the streamlined Aerotrain locomotive and the beautiful '55 Chevrolet Cameo pickup. He also redesigned the '59 Cadillac Eldorado to make it less radical (which makes one wonder what the first design must have looked like). GM then sent Jordan to Germany to change Opel's stodgy image. In 1986, Jordan became only the fourth chief designer in GM's history, overseeing acclaimed designs including the Cadillac Seville STS and the Olds Aurora.

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