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The Day the Corvette Grand Sports Stomped the Cobras

The Grand Sport Story: Zora Arkus-Duntov and his team built five unique Corvettes in 1962 that terrorized the Ford Cobras

Walt Thurn Jun 22, 2016 0 Comment(s)
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The 1962-’63 Corvette Grand Sport is the most valuable and sought after collector Corvette that GM ever produced. Only five were built, and all five now reside with private collectors. The Grand Sport saga began in the summer of 1962 when Carroll Shelby introduced a new Ford-powered sports car called the Cobra. This 260-cid V-8–powered sports car was 1,000 pounds lighter than the soon to be released Sting Ray.

Zora Arkus-Duntov knew the 3,150-pound Corvette would be no match for Ford’s new sports car. To meet this threat he decided to build a “lightweight” Corvette. To avoid GM’s 1957 signed AMA (Automobile Manufacturers Association) corporate racing ban agreement, Zora decided to build and sell 125 “lightweight” Corvettes as production cars. The first step was to get them certified by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) so they could race at Le Mans. With this approval in hand he would be able to sell the completed cars to “privateers.” He believed that this approach would enable him to comply with GM’s corporate racing ban. Bunkie Knudsen, General Manager of Chevrolet, approved Zora’s proposal. He and his engineers began building the “lightweight” Sting Ray. It was fitted with a light fiberglass body, tube frame and a tubular suspension employing Girling disc brakes. The interior was stark, but included straps to pull the plastic side windows up and down. Duntov said, “It was a quick and dirty sledgehammer project that we put together in a couple of months. There were so many compromises and constraints that we made something of which I am not particularly proud.”

GM’s Chairman Frederic Donner squashed Zora’s production plan when he heard about the secret Corvette, he told Zora, “no racing.” Five lightweight Corvettes called “Grand Sport,” were under construction when Zora was notified of Donner’s order. In spite of this setback, Zora completed the five cars. Chassis #003 and #004 were loaned to two “privateers.” Chicago Chevy dealer Dick Doane received #003 and Grady Davis from Gulf Oil Corporation got #004. The cars competed in SCCA’s modified division so they were outclassed and compiled a poor finishing record. Dr. Dick Thompson, “the Flying Dentist,” did claim an overall victory at Watkins Glen driving #004. The new Ford was unbeatable in professional and amateur racing. Corvettes were humiliated at every race they ran against the Cobra. This was having a negative impact on Corvette’s sports car status. Bunkie Knudsen told Zora to find a way to “stick it to the Cobras!”

Zora followed Bunkie’s order by loaning three Grand Sports to racer John Mecom, a 21-year-old Texas oil tycoon. Mecom agreed to let Zora update and care for the cars. Grand Sports #003 and #004 were returned to Chevrolet from Dick Doane in Chicago and Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh. They were refurbished with larger wheels, tires and fender flares to cover the larger tires. Each of the three Corvettes were fitted with a special all-aluminum 377-cid (6.2 liter) V-8 engine. Each one had a 4.000-inch bore and 3.750-inch stroke that powered the updated “lightweights.” The engine produced 485 hp at 6,000 rpm and 435 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It was fed by four Weber 58 DCOE carburetors, which gave the 2,000-pound Corvette startling performance. Chassis #005 was completed with the same improved specs and all three were painted in Light Cadillac Metallic Blue.

The finished cars were shipped to Mecom in Texas and then sent to Nassau, Bahamas. Each year Nassau held a Speed Weeks event at the airport. Carroll Shelby was very surprised when the Grand Sports arrived at the Nassau docks and immediately began complaining. To compound Shelby’s concern, the Grand Sport drivers included Roger Penske, Jim Hall, Dr. Dick Thompson, Augie Pabst and John Cannon. In addition, many Corvette engineers “took vacation” to watch over their charges. The Grand Sports were almost 10 seconds a lap quicker and whipped the Cobras much to Shelby’s dismay and Bunkie’s delight. Duntov commented later, “even though we designed the Grand Sports quickly and they lacked proper development, Nassau proved they were more than equal not only to the Cobras but the Ferrari GTOs.”

After the big success in Nassau, Zora set his sights on Daytona. He ordered the two remaining coupes, #001 and #002, cut down into roadsters to improve their aerodynamics. But again, it was not meant to be, five weeks after Nassau, GM closed all the remaining loopholes and Zora’s racing activities were stopped. The two remaining Grand Sports #001 and #002 sat at the Milford Proving Grounds until Roger Penske purchased #001 and George Wintersteen purchased #002 in 1966. They raced them briefly and then sold them to amateur racers. Zora’s dream of winning an overall victory at Le Mans in a car of his design was never fulfilled.

Usually one of the first questions a Grand Sport enthusiast might ask is “where are they now?” We are happy to report that all five Grand Sports are safely housed in private collections around the United States. The record for the longest owned Grand Sport goes to Bill Tower in Plant City, Florida. Bill purchased Grand Sport #005 in December 1978 from Dave Irwin who lived in Painted Post, New York. Irwin purchased this car from Penske/Wintersteen and housed it in his private collection. That was until a flash flood roared through his home and sucked his vintage Ferraris and a Gullwing Mercedes out of the garage and into the raging torrent of water. His “lightweight” Corvette floated on all four tires around the garage until it became lodged between a wall and a large refrigerator and was saved. None of his other cars were ever found. Here is a list of the Grand Sports current owners:

• Grand Sport #001 - Harry Yeaggy, Cincinnati, Ohio. It was purchased for $4.2 million in 2002 from Rob Walton.
• Grand Sport #002 - Simeone Foundation Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was purchased from Jim Jeager in 2009 for between $4 and $5 million.
• Grand Sport #003 - Larry Bowman, Woodside, California. He purchased it from Tom Armstrong in 2004. Sale price unknown
• Grand Sport #004 - Collier Foundation, Naples, Florida. Purchased from Bruce Ziegler in 1990. Sale price unknown
• Grand Sport #005 - Bill Tower, Plant City, Florida. Purchased from Dave Irwin in December 1978. Sale price unknown

It has been over 50 years since the Grand Sports thumped the Cobras at the Nassau Speed Weeks. Today, they have a true cult following among Corvette racing enthusiasts and it doesn’t appear to be diminishing. Huge credit goes to Zora Arkus-Duntov and his team for ignoring GM’s racing ban and building a true Cobra killer: the Corvette Grand Sport! The introduction of the 2017 Corvette Grand Sport Stingray celebrates this amazing Corvette legacy.

1 1963 Corvette Grand Sport 2/26

Grand Sport #004 is owned by the Collier Foundation in Naples, Florida. It was the first Grand Sport to see competition. It raced at a Marlboro, Maryland, event on April 7, 1963, and was driven by Dr. Dick Thompson, the “flying dentist.”

2 Zora Arkus Duntov 3/26

Zora Arkus-Duntov, seen here at the 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans, was a brilliant engineer and a passionate racer. He devoted a lot of his energy to find workarounds to GM’s no-racing ban. Zora thought the Grand Sport was the perfect tool to beat the Cobras.

3 Three Grand Sport Corvettes 4/26

Three Grand Sports (#003, #004 and #005) were shipped to Nassau in late November 1963 to compete in the Nassau Tourist Trophy race. No other GT car could match their pace, including the Cobras and Ferrari GTOs. It was a big surprise victory for Corvette.

4 Grand Sport Corvette 5/26

In 1966, Roger Penske purchased Grand Sport #001 that had been converted into a roadster. The Penske team installed a 427-cid engine into the lightweight and had difficulty keeping the front wheels on the ground. At the 1966 12 Hours of Sebring, the roadster, with Dr. Dick Thompson driving, hit a Morgan and ran off the course, bending the frame and puncturing the oil pan after 65 laps.

5 Grand Sport Corvette 6/26

Harry Yeaggy displayed #001 at the 2006 Corvettes at Carlisle Grand Sport reunion event. Harry purchased this Corvette in 2002, and still owns it.

6 Grand Sport Corvette 002 7/26

George Wintersteen purchased Grand Sport #002 from GM in 1966 and raced it in the USRRC (United States Road Racing Championship) series. It was hopelessly outclassed and was only raced for one season.

7 1963 Grand Sport Corvette 8/26

Jim Jeager purchased #002 in the early ’90s and decided to remove the original, unrestored body and use it to build a clone. When it was completed he installed the clone body on the original chassis. When the Simeone Foundation Museum purchased it in 2009 the original body was reinstalled. The museum owns both bodies.

8 1963 Chevrolet Grand Sport Corvette 9/26

Grand Sport #003 was driven by A. J. Floyt at the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring and was painted in these colors. It was vintage raced extensively and is now owned by Larry Bowman.

9 Chevrolet Grand Sport Corvette Laguna Seca Racetrack 10/26

The Collier Foundation frequently races #004 at the Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca in California. This is the only Grand Sport that is still exercised on the racetrack. Here, driver John Morton is testing the old warrior at the Roebling Road Raceway circuit in Georgia.

10 All Aluminum 377 Cid Engines 11/26

The Collier Foundation was able to secure one of the few remaining all-aluminum 377-cid engines that powered the Nassau Grand Sports. It is now on permanent display at the impressive museum.

11 Grand Sport Corvette Vin Number 12/26

Each Grand Sport was fitted with a VIN number that is located on the driver-side doorframe.

12 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Speedometer 13/26

It is difficult to imagine that the broad nose on the Grand Sport would enable it to reach 200 mph. But each original car was fitted with a 200-mph speedometer.

13 1963 Corvette Grand Sport Aluminum Door Handles 14/26

Lightweight aluminum door handles were recessed into the body to reduce turbulence. Zora and his team looked for ounces when they put the Sting Ray on a 1,000-pound diet.

14 1963 Corvette Grand Sport Interior 15/26

Each Grand Sport was fitted with unique doors. The windows in the coupes were Lexan and operated with a Velcro strap. A small knob opened the door and an indentation on the panel served as an inside handle. The door was extremely light.

15 1963 Corvette Grand Sport Rear Compartment 16/26

The rear compartment was filled with a 36-gallon fuel tank with a large filler tube located on the right rear of the roof.

16 1963 Corvette Grand Sport Disconnect Refueling Nozzles 17/26

No dry-break quick disconnect refueling nozzles were used to refuel race cars in 1963, just a basic on/off fuel cap.

17 1963 Corvette Grand Sport Differential Cooler 18/26

The three Grand Sports that competed at Nassau experienced numerous differential failures due to overheating. The “on vacation” GM engineers solved the problem by installing this differential cooler on the rear deck with a scoop. It worked!

18 Corvette Grand Sport Spare Tire 19/26

Unlike the standard Sting Ray coupe, each Grand Sport was fitted with a trunk to hold the spare tire (required by the FIA) and battery.

19 1963 Corvette Grand Sport Left Rear Framerail 20/26

With the spare tire removed, the Corvette’s VIN number is stenciled onto the end of the left rear framerail. Notice that there is no frame behind the rear axle.

20 1963 Corvette Grand Sport Dash 21/26

Riding in the Grand Sport was a special treat for this author. As expected, the ride was firm and the lightweight body groans and creeks, but the throttle response is instant. Losing 1,000 pounds makes this Corvette a real performer.

21 Corvette Grand Sport Paint Scheme 22/26

Bill Tower is the longest-tenured current owner of a Grand Sport. The paint scheme on #005 is the same as it appeared at the 1965 12 Hour of Sebring race. It was driven by Wintersteen/Goetz/Diehl and finished Fourteenth overall and Second in class. Roger Penske won the 1965 Nassau Tourist Trophy race with this Corvette.

22 Grand Sport Corvette 377 Cid Engine 23/26

Tower’s Grand Sport is fitted with an all-aluminum 377-cid, fitted with 58mm Weber carburetors that are similar to the ones used at Nassau in 1963. This was the same setup that was fitted to the Wintersteen car in 1965.

23 Corvette Grand Sport Emblem 24/26

Each Grand Sport is fitted with these unique name badges, as shown on the rear deck of Bill Tower’s #005.

24 Laguna Seca Racetrack 1963 Corvette Grand Sport 25/26

This photo was taken at the Monterey Historic Races in Laguna Seca back in the late ’70s. The Grand Sports then were selling for about $150,000 and everyone thought that was “rarified air.” (Photo by Brian Brennan)

25 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Front Side View 26/26

Again, late ’70s and the Monterey Historic Races and shown here is chassis #003 at rest in the pits. The car is now owned by Larry Bowman. It was driven by A. J. Foyt at the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring and it also raced at Nassau in November/December 1963. (Photo by Brian Brennan)

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