No recounting of the Corvette’s early glory days would be complete without including the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport. Invariably on the short list of the most valuable and significant Corvettes ever built, the Grand Sport’s story is equal parts technical excellence and colorful racing lore. While those aspects have been covered in many books and articles, what they lack (and what we’ll share here as an exclusive to Vette readers) are some insider comments from a famous competitor, along with some firsthand driving experiences from the owner of Grand Sport #003.
First, though, we need to set the stage for those who might not be familiar with the origin and development of the Grand Sport. Although 125 were initially planned, only five were ever built (with unsubstantiated rumors of a sixth that was supposedly destroyed at GM in the mid-’60s, but that’s a tale for another day). Known simply as The Lightweight, the Grand Sports were created to win FIA endurance races, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, despite GM’s ban on racing. (Without elaborating on that subject, what basically hobbled its competition programs was likely a fear of possible federal antitrust action against The General’s market dominance. And the risks of racing and the attention it drew far outweighed any potential rewards.)
Evading this corporate dictum from upper management, Corvette Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov obtained some unofficial assistance from Chevrolet’s General Manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen in 1962, who provided a black-ops budget and a secret skunkworks. Duntov was a master at weaving around corporate constrictions to keep Corvette racing alive by creating high-performance chassis upgrades for private teams, while providing clandestine technical assistance. Of course, GM’s conservative execs in skinny black ties were hardly pleased by his non-conformist attitude, but Corvette performance enthusiasts remain forever in his debt.
Duntov wanted the Grand Sports to face off against the seemingly unstoppable Shelby Cobras, among other GT-class cars and racing prototypes. That actually happened for a brief, shining moment at Nassau Speed Week 1963. Three coupes were sent there to prove that Carroll Shelby’s Cobras were not invincible. Which they did—decisively. The Ferraris competing there went home embarrassed as well.
Even though the Grand Sports stomped on some unsuspecting snakes, that domination proved to be short lived, as GM yet again put the kibosh on racing, and yet again Duntov had to finagle a way to get them back on the track and into the itchy palms of privateers.
Carroll Shelby was greatly relieved by the absence of official GM sponsorship, as he once noted that due to corporate interference, Duntov “accomplished only 25 percent of what he was capable of.”
On a personal note, during my employment at Shelby American as Director of Marketing, Shelby once privately mentioned to me that if GM hadn’t pulled the plug on racing, his Cobras wouldn’t have been nearly as successful—high praise indeed for a serious rival. In an uncharacteristic moment, commenting on his much-vaunted Cobra encounter with Duntov’s design, he stated simply, “We were outgunned.”
It was an unprecedented admission from the man who made his bones on the Cobra. He not only acknowledged that the Grand Sports had more power and better brakes, but also its tube frame was far more rigid than the 289 Cobra’s bendy ladder frame. Wincing over one of few defeats in his storied racing career, Shelby added that, “The only way the Cobra could stick on the road courses was by using Goodyear’s extra-soft compound racing tires.”
Getting back to the nitty-gritty details of the Grand Sport, each of these Cobra-skinners boasted as much as 550 horses from an aluminum 377ci SBC and weighed in at 1,800 pounds or so (about a half-ton lighter than a stock Stingray coupe), thanks to thinner fiberglass body panels, handcrafted aluminum components, and a super-light tubular frame. Such a radically skewed power-to-weight ratio was a proven formula that Duntov would draw from in his later designs.
Interestingly enough, today’s C7 Stingray echoes some design aspects of the Grand Sport, not only in the hard-edged styling and tapered roofline, but also in the airflow management and emphasis on weight savings. Note the hood extractor and ducting in the rear quarters on both cars.
No surprise, then, that such a successful and influential design as the Grand Sport—and #003 in particular, which was extensively raced with #004—is undeniably the crown jewel of Larry Bowman’s substantial collection of original Cobras and Corvettes. We met up with him during a test-and-tune day at Sonoma Raceway prior to a Corvette-themed event, where he also brought out another ultra-rare racer: the V.V. Cooke ’69 L88 Corvette (which served as an interesting comparison, and we hope to feature it as well).
Piloted by Allan Barker, the L88 racer won a phenomenal string of 26 races, including the National B-Production Championships in 1971 and 1972. In 1973, the car was sold to Bill Jobe, who continued the string of wins, clinching two more SCCA B-Production Championship titles in 1973 and 1974. Getting back to the Grand Sport, Bowman acquired it from Tom Armstrong in 2004, “Who drove the s---- out of it,” he points out. “The star on the car [at the base of the windshield] is for his son who was killed in an accident.” (Not involving the Grand Sport.)
After several years of owning the Grand Sport, Bowman is blunt about his relationship with the car: “It’s kinda acrimonious, like dating a crazy supermodel,” he says with an odd, faraway stare. “You love her, then you hate her, then you love her.” Why so?
“She’ll bite you in the ass,” he explains. It’s seems confusing to him how such a powerful and legendary car could nearly ruin you, yet feel so good at the same time. When driving it hard (as he’s not timid about taking such a rare collectible to the track or even on the street to cruise-ins), he reports that the GS lifts its nose upon acceleration and suffers from bumpsteer when braking into a corner.
Not only that, “The rear end kicks out when you lift the throttle,” he adds. Then there’s an annoying flat spot in the powerband from the Webers. “It’s a real handful,” he sums up. “This car makes you really appreciate A.J. Foyt.” (Foyt shared GS driving duties with John Cannon at the 1964 Sebring 12 Hour event.)
Not everyone is quite so critical of the car’s cornering characteristics. A pro driver named Johannes (who didn’t share his last name during our outing) was a bit more generous with his praise. After watching him rip through several hot laps on the track, I asked him how it handled. “It feels good out there,” he commented, yet with the following curious qualification: “The rear wheels work independently.”
From each other or from front to rear? “Both,” Bowman interjected succinctly. To correct this unpredictable rear steering, he installing a new rear spring pack and end fittings, but to no avail. Even so, Johannes feels the GS is actually easier to handle than the later-model #80 V.V. Cooke L88 Corvette. “It needs bigger rims. I had to brace myself on the carousel.”
Looking back on their short life span, when the Grand Sports competed on prestigious road courses, manned by a litany of legendary drivers, they emphatically demonstrated the heavy-hitting capabilities of The Lightweight’s design. Its impact is undeniable and enduring, as this ultra-rare racer still resonates with today’s Corvette owners.