I met Bill Tower at his Corvette Racing Seminar at the 2016 12 Hours of Sebring event. Tower started working for Chevrolet as a Corvette development engineer late in 1963, and today lives in Plant City, Florida. What sets Tower apart from the legions of Chevrolet engineers was his participation in Vince Piggins’ Chevy backdoor racing program. Tower regularly worked with Piggins, Zora Arkus-Duntov, Frank Winchell, Smokey Yunick, Roger Penske, Mark Donohue and Jim Hall, and within the various disciplines of road racing, drag racing, and stock car racing. In the late 1960s, Tower owned and drove the American Bandstand 392 Hemi-powered Top Fuel dragster.
Behind Tower’s house is his personal museum with four gems of the Corvette world: ’63 Grand Sport Coupe #005, ’56 SR-2 Corvette racer, Betty Skelton’s Daytona Beach ’56 Corvette speed record holder, and a development ’67 L88 Corvette coupe with special features. Tower also has Bobby Allison’s ’73 427 Coca-Cola Chevelle and Dale Earnhardt’s ’87 “Pass in the Grass” Monte Carlo.
In one corner of his museum are two ZL1 engines that were used in Jim Hall’s Chaparral cars. In another corner on engine stands are a mid-’50’s fuelie, an aluminum 377 with four upright Webers and a cast-iron small-block with cross-ram Webers. The walls are festooned with photos and posters, and Tower has numerous glass cases with fascinating memorabilia from his long career. The building is not large, but I easily spent six hours with Bill, carefully looking at his impressive collection.
As a teenager, Tower had an after school job at Dempsey Chevrolet; a time when fuelie Chevys were a problem for most Chevy dealers. Tower got a schematic and studied the new induction system on his own. He figured out that the problem wasn’t with the fuelie, but with the points, condenser and distributor’s hard plastic cam that would wear out. Quickly, the high school whiz kid was the go-to guy for fixing fuelie Chevys at Dempsey Chevrolet. Mr. Dempsey was so impressed that he offered to sponsor Tower to go to General Motors Institute (GMI) for automotive engineering. Tower felt the call to duty and enlisted in the Navy, but would take Mr. Dempsey up on his offer three years later.
He went into the Navy SEAL program (Tower was already a certified diver), went to Naval War College, and was assigned to the USS Nautilus nuclear submarine. All the while, he was taking correspondence courses from GMI. Later, Tower was assigned to the sub tender USS Tidewater. In his off hours, he took advantage of the ship’s machine shop and built the 392 Chrysler engine that would later be used in his Top Fuel dragster. The captain thought it was pretty neat.
Upon his discharge from the Navy, Tower went to GMI where 12-hour days were the norm. GMI had a work program with 3-4 hours of classes, with the rest of the day on automotive projects. Students were matched to their areas of interest and since Tower’s in-terest was racing, he was guided into the Chevrolet Performance Group. Less than a year later, Chevrolet Performance Director Vince Piggins asked him to join the group. Piggins told Tower, “We’ve reviewed your work and would like to have you in our family. It’s not easy work!”
Tower’s first assignment was on the 302 small-block with Smokey Yunick’s cross-ram manifold. Yunick taught him that the air that flows under the car is as important as the air flowing over the car. Later, he was assigned to the big-block 396 program. Tower explained, “That darn engine had a lot of problems: overheating, broken rod bolts, valvespring breakage. It didn’t like to rev too high and it made too much torque; it would tear itself apart!”
Tower’s next assignment was Frank Winchell’s backdoor racing engineering Chaparral project. A lot of Tower’s time was spent building 377 aluminum and iron engines to be used in Chaparrals and Grand Sports. Tower explained, “What impressed me most about (Jim) Hall was how he worked his suspensions with his aerodynamics. Hall started out with spoilers and quickly went into wings when everyone else was saying it wouldn’t work. Because of the demands of road racing, they developed variable rate springs and shock setups to more accurately control jounce and rebound. My favorite Hall car was the Chaparral 2J, the “Sucker” car. Man, that was really neat with those snowmobile engines that sucked the car to the ground. But it was too complicated and gave Hall too much of an advantage, so the rule-makers banned the car. Ford out-spent us like crazy, but we always delivered parts that kept them on their toes. I liked my time with Hall the best.”
Another of Tower’s assignments was working on the Trans-Am Camaros with Roger Penske and Mark Donohue. Tower explained, “Mark was a pleasure to work with. He had seat-of-the-pants knowing as a driver and the technical know-how of an engineer. He could just ‘see’ solutions to problems and was very methodical. In 1972, I helped with the Penske team when they had their first Indy 500 win. That was really something. It was just a shame what happened to Mark in that accident in Austria.” After the Chaparral program closed, Tower was assigned to help with the 1985 IROC racing Camaros. Suspension master Banjo Matthews set up all the cars and Tower built the engines to spec. The IROC series pitted drivers from different styles of racing in equally prepared cars that provided very exciting racing.
In 1986, the Monte Carlo was chosen for Chevy NASCAR teams. The cars were production-based but were not aerodynamic. Tower and the team improved aerodynamics with raked-back windshields, narrowed front ends and small stability rails added to the right and left sides of the roof. The biggest improvement was the bubble-back rear window that was sold as the 1986-’87 Monte Carlo Aerocoupe. The track version was good for an additional 6 mph and helped Dale Earnhardt win the championship in 1986 and 1987. Tower used a lot of tricks he learned from Hall; it was like finding free horsepower.
When the LS-series engines came out, Tower did some cylinder head work and built some engines for the new C5-R Corvettes. He still does some consulting work and got into safety design work. Tower helped improve the ergonomics of the paddle-shifters for the ’06 Corvette automatics so that the driver wouldn’t accidentally downshift while turning the wheel. One of the last Corvette projects Tower worked on was the flat-top, flat-bottom steering wheel that was first used on the ’16 Corvette. Depending on how the wheel was tilted, the top could block the view of the head-up display for some drivers. The flat bottom helped some drivers with ingress and egress.
From the perspective of the enthusiast, Tower had a dream job, and in many ways it was. But, to paraphrase the old expression, “When opportunity knocks, it’s usually wearing work clothes.” Tower told me several times, “It was fun, but it was a lot of hard work and long hours. And I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
Next month we will take a detailed look at Bill Tower’s favorite: the 1956 SR-2 Racer. Vette
Photography by K. Scott Teeters