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 0 Comment(s)
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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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