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The Corvette Diaries: Launching the Sting Ray

In The Summer Of 1962, Chevrolet Chief Bunkie Knudsen Faced The Press, Stared Down The Four-Pass Corvette, And Dreamed Of The Big-Block V-8

Ronald Ahrens Nov 1, 2007
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Milwaukee's finest: Bill Ansted, Augie Pabst, and Bunkie, August 1962.

When Bunkie Knudsen took over as Chevrolet Division general manager in late 1961, production details were set for the Corvette Sting Ray, and it was already clear that Chevy had a winner. But there still remained the delicate matter of properly launching the car. For this task, Knudsen proved the right man: a polished operator who took pride in his presentational skills.

Inevitably, though, Knudsen would encounter problems. The biggest source of tension arose because he operated in the wake of his predecessor at Chevy-the great Ed Cole, who had swept ahead in the General Motors hierarchy. Cole now supervised all the car divisions. That made him Knudsen's boss. Knudsen had just moved up from Pontiac, so this was the first he had worked with Cole. The styles of the two differed greatly.

One of Knudsen's initial discoveries was that Cole had been using a slush fund, set up through the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency, to acquire Ford Motor Company's advance production schedules. Knudsen's father, Big Bill, had been a GM president and the decorated leader of America's war production effort during WWII, and Bunkie was bred with an aristocratic approach to automotive industry management. (Coincidentally, the month before discovering the slush fund, he had addressed the Detroit round table of the National Conference of Christians and Jews on moral duty and the decline of personal responsibility.) He put the kibosh on the under-the-table payments on Friday, January 12, 1962. The following Monday, Cole and Knudsen faced off. "[Cole] spent considerable time trying to talk me out of it, but finally said I was running the Division, and it was my decision to make," Knudsen wrote in his diary. "He said he felt he needed the information, and he was going to get it some other way. He said he couldn't see anything wrong with what we were doing."

In the next few weeks, Knudsen wondered whether coming to Chevrolet was the right move. He felt backstabbed by Cole over assorted matters. The way GM Chairman Frederic Donner and President John Gordon meddled in minor details disgusted him. He thought aloud about quitting. But how could he have realistically contemplated walking out when the fabulous Sting Ray was waiting to meet the world?

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Party on: Waldorf-Astoria party for Corvette dealers, April 1962. From left: Bunkie, unknown, Harley Earl, unknown, Dan Gurney.

The first Sting Ray launch event came in mid-April. Knudsen was already growing concerned about the tight quarters in the St. Louis plant, and he spoke with corporate vice president Bud Goodman about moving Corvette production to Willow Run. But these matters were put aside for Chevy's party for Corvette dealers. This shindig was thrown at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Knudsen, who never attended a party he disliked, called the dinner "beautiful." Honored invitees were Mr. and Mrs. Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, Dan Gurney, and Mr. and Mrs. Jim Rathman. "After dinner I welcomed the group, introduced our guests, and then we took them all to the auto show," he wrote. "This did a tremendous amount of good."

While Knudsen might have felt the need to whip up excitement among dealers, one group already frothing over the Sting Ray was the sports car racing community. (Back in January, Grady Davis, the Gulf Oil executive who campaigned Corvettes, had been to Knudsen's office and asked about making the Vette more competitive against Ferraris.) Now it was Monday morning, June 11, and Knudsen flew from Detroit to the Michigan state capital of Lansing for the annual meeting of a charity he supported. When he finally got back to the office, he found Gurney waiting. "We talked about the possibility of doing some work for Chevrolet," Knudsen wrote in his characteristically clipped style. "First suggested checking out new Corvette at proving ground in comparison with Ferrari. Told him we'd pay him for his time." And in something of an understatement, Knudsen added, "He was interested."

The next few weeks brought together a number of significant elements. In a July 18 entry that Knudsen inexplicably crossed out without affecting the legibility, he described a day-long visit to the St. Louis plant. "A big operation," he called it. Looking ahead to Sting Ray production, he had the staff review items in need of attention. His lip curled at the "poor quality" of Corvair vans and other trucks built in the plant. The '62 sports car made no better impression: "Present Corvette also was not good."

Events slowed down later in July, but by August the pace quickened. First, at the Proving Grounds, Knudsen presented the '63 Chevrolet lineup to GM management. "Everyone enjoyed the show and, of course, the new Corvette was the hit of the Chevrolet line," he wrote. Two days later, he met Grady Davis at Detroit's City Airport and took him to Engineering and Styling for a look at the Corvette. "I also told him about the plans to go to Le Mans. He is very interested." The next Monday, Mickey Thompson was in-his second visit in six weeks-and expressed his own strong interest in Le Mans. (Knudsen liked the results Thompson had produced going back to their days together at Pontiac, but regarded him as a poor businessman and organizer, always taking on too many projects, and indicated no strong intention of support.)

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Up, up, and away: Visit with U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay and two aides, August 1962. Ed Cole and Bunkie are on the left.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, August 16, the U.S. Air Force came calling-their second high-ranking delegation of the summer. This time it was Chief of Staff Curtis Lemay, along with two aides. In the early '50s, as commander of the Strategic Air Command, LeMay had made airbases available for sports car racing; in return, he received the SCCA's Wolf Barnato Award. On that day he was in Detroit for a Sting Ray ride at the Proving Grounds, later lunching with Cole, Knudsen, Goodman, and Bill Mitchell. Afterward Cole and Goodman asked "Bombs Away" LeMay how to get defense business. "LeMay said he felt with all the sentiment against GM's size they ought to be in defense work to be less vulnerable. He said he felt we would have to spend some of our own money in order to show good faith. He also said we needed an organization to do it." After his '65 promotion to group vice president, GM's defense contracts became one of Knudsen's domains. Before LeMay took off-quite literally, he flew himself around in Air Force bombers-Cole and Mitchell shocked Knudsen and Goodman by taking the general and his aides down to Styling, where they were shown the '64 models under development. Yet this was hardly the last surprise Cole had in store for Knudsen

The parade continued. At the end of that same week, Augie Pabst, brewing family scion and successful sports car racer, arrived for his look at the Sting Ray. "He was amazed," Knudsen said, noting Pabst remained in "bad shape" due to a recent accident. Always impressed with good manners and stately bearing, he lauded Pabst as "a very nice and clean young man."

After the Sting Ray had dazzled Chevrolet dealers and top GM management, the next group exposed to its power was the automotive press. On August 21, reporters gathered at the Proving Grounds for the '63 model year preview. Knudsen must have headed into this news conference with high hopes. "This entirely new Corvette is much more than another bucket seat luxury sports car," he said, before running through the impressive list of equipment and features. "The early Corvettes established a performance and luxury image that has affected automobile design around the world and inspired a whole new class and concept of personal transportation. A Corvette in the driveway has become the suburban symbol of arrival for those with sports car taste."

He concluded his remarks by saying, "The new aerocoupe will expand the line to attract greater interest in those customers desiring closed car comfort with sports car appeal." Writing later in his diary about the reaction this program produced, his sarcasm leaked onto the page: "Corvette good. When a dead group like newspaper men give a standing ovation, it must be good."

As all these episodes passed in the waning summer of 1962, Knudsen was recalling the good things at Pontiac that had been wrought for him (and for Mickey Thompson, Bobby Unser, Smokey Yunick, and others) with the 421ci engine and Tri-Power, and such pleasant recollections led him to dream of the big-block Chevy V-8. He had already reconnoitered the "fine" Tonawanda plant, and eventually the Mark IV engine would be produced there.

Before he could launch this crusade, which would forever galvanize Corvette adherents, he had to contend with a brushfire of the incendiary Cole's own setting. The first flames flickered during the final week of August, and Knudsen scratched out these lines: "Cole is manipulating again. Now wants us to build four-passenger Corvettes to get wagons away from [coachbuilders] Mitchell Bentley. By giving M-B this four-passenger Corvette body, he salves them over."

Knudsen might have sat up straight at his desk and stared at the wall before summing up, "The four-passenger Corvette he wants to build is of no use to us." But Cole could skillfully work the GM system. As will be seen in the next chapter of this series, Knudsen's declaration was far from the end of the four-passenger Corvette. And the big-block V-8 he wanted was far from being a sure bet.


Semon Knudsen Collection
Detroit, MI



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