In 1963, Chevrolet built five of the most hard-core Corvettes ever assembled-the Grand Sports. All five of these legendary racecars have survived the years and are possibly the most valuable Corvettes in existence. In 1996, as a tribute to the legacy of the Grand Sport racers, Chevrolet produced a limited edition of 1,000 Grand Sport Corvettes. The "new" Grand Sports featured the 330hp LT4 engine with a six-speed transmission, and were available as both a coupe and a roadster. They were offered in only one color, Admiral Blue, with a wide, white center stripe flanked by a thin white stripe on each side, and two red "hash marks" on the left front fender. Two interior colors were offered-black or red-with the words "Grand Sport" embroidered in the headrest portion of the seats. The '96 Grand Sport featured the same aluminum five-spoke wheels used on '95 ZR-1's, but finished in an ominous black. Numerous detail differences set the '96 Grand Sports out as something unique, while still providing the same comfort and sophistication offered by the regular production C4s.
In September 1996, Grand Sport #300, a coupe, was purchased for a young U.S. Navy man stationed in the San Diego area by his uncle, who paid cash for it. The Vette featured every option available except for the "low tire pressure warning" system. On a dark night in December of 1996, while traveling a two-lane road on the outskirts of San Diego at around 100 mph, the 19-year-old lost control of his Vette, and veered off the road into a stand of eucalyptus trees. The wild ride ended when the car slammed backwards into one final tree. Unfortunately, the driver suffered fatal injuries when loose stereo gear in the rear struck him in the head, breaking his neck. This sounds like the end for GS #300 as well, but here is where its story really begins.
In the weeks following the crash, word of the fate of Grand Sport #300 reached long-time Corvette enthusiast Ron Austin. The GS was uninsured and had received severe damage, the majority of which was caused by trees shearing away body parts, and by the rear-end collision. Though the body was destroyed, every system in the Vette had, surprisingly, survived the wreck. In fact, the devastated Corvette was still idling when the first rescuers arrived at the scene of the crash. Ron is a three-time past president of a San Diego-area Corvette club, and has owned a long string of Corvettes over the years. He'd modified every one of them, to varying extents and to suit his tastes. For some time, he'd been looking for an LT1 drivetrain to drop into his wife's '63. But when Ron noted the condition of the GS's components, ideas started forming in his head, ideas for a one-of-a-kind car that would be "a blend of old and new, and would bear the marque of Grand Sport with all reverence due the name." Ron soon bought the wreckage, completely dismantled the car, and inventoried all the pieces he had.
After locating a trashed out '63 roadster "tub," Ron removed its entire firewall and what was left of the floor section. He chose this tub because the steel part of it, the only section he really needed, was in pretty good shape. The '96 firewall and floors, which had been surgically removed from the GS, were trimmed and grafted into the mid-year tub. The C-4's interior width was four inches wider than the mid-year, creating the need for a great deal of narrowing, reshaping, and custom fitting pieces throughout the entire project.
Ron then began working to make the '96 dash fit within the mid-year's windshield contour. The dash was four inches too wide and about six inches to deep for the old roadster cockpit. Shaving two inches off each side required relocating the headlight/ASR switch to the console (underneath the armrest) and the fuse block to where the passenger-side airbag was originally located. Austin's ultimate goal was to be able to re-install as many components into their original positions as possible. This was a personal thing, as well as making it easier for him to perform any necessary future repairs with the aid of factory '96 shop manuals.
Next, Ron focused his attention on the frame. With the help of Ronny Wilson, he trimmed away all the cross supports from a mid-year frame. Then they reshaped the inside portions of the rails to straight vertical, instead of the original downward/inward wedge shape. This was required to pick up clearance for the 4-inch-wider '96 cockpit floor.
The wheelbase of a '96 Corvette is 96 inches, while a mid-year measures 98 inches. Because he wanted to maintain as many stock components as possible, and didn't want to lengthen the driveshaft, Austin set the entire 1996 powertrain back approximately two inches to retain the 63's stock wheelbase. Since Ron was using the '96 floor, he used the stock shifter hole in the tunnel, which dictated where his motor mounts and rearend would be. Sounds simple, right? Far from it!
With the wheelbase determined, Ron proceeded to graft in the entire '96 front suspension, including the front crossmember, steering, and brakes, onto the mid-year frame. Then, after positioning the C4 rear suspension and brackets to the frame, he began the initial fitting of the body. Things like the front end, doors, hood, and the lid over the convertible top's storage compartment, as well as the '96 radiator, were carefully fitted in place. With the initial fitting done, Ron took the entire car-what there was of it at that point-apart again and finish welded the modified frame.
Then he began fitting and installing all of the Grand Sport's system components; stuff like the brake lines, fuel lines, and Selective Real Time Damping. Ron had to fabricate a gas tank containing an internal fuel pump, pick-up, float, and sending unit, and the vapor recovery system. Since he wanted to keep the Vette "stock," he put all of the late-model smog gear into it, right down to the "cats." This car is 100 percent smog-legal as a 1996 vehicle, and when it was inspected at a California State Smog Referee station, it passed with flying colors!
Since he was a little concerned about frame flex, Ron added a set of factory C4 roadster cross braces. Surprisingly, that installation was relatively easy. Because of the 4-inch difference in cockpit width, there was no space for the '96 emergency brake handle. Instead, Ron fabricated a '63-style E-brake cable pivot on the C4 dash cross brace, and uses a small foot-brake system under the dash.
With the chassis work done, the many body modifications began. Ron replaced the rear floor and storage compartments with the C4's pieces, which were designed to accommodate the late braking and suspension components, as well as the Grand Sport's Bose stereo equipment. The engine compartment also required significant alterations to fit the late model A/C and cooling systems, and Ron completely reworked the internal portion of the cowl to accommodate the windshield wiper system, which utilizes the '96 wiper motor.
The next task was the wiring. Typical of today's computerized cars, the collection of Grand Sport wiring harnesses looked like a giant snake pit. Nonetheless, Ron dove in and unwrapped each, removing any unneeded systems (like the rear window defroster). Feeling particularly creative, he reworked the C4 rear hatch release into an electric hood release for the mid-year. He also fabricated the underbody wiring harness to include such things as a "radio ground plane" under the rear deck and left rear fender, the '96 power antenna, and much more.
The hood began as a '67 427-style piece, but had to be completely reworked. First, Austin sectioned the scoop and moved it forward about 10 inches in order to clear the alternator. The inner structure was also revised to provide clearance for the A/C components and radiator fill tank. The hinges had to be relocated forward to allow for radiator and air cleaner clearance when the hood is open. Ron also built one of the '96 under-hood lights into the underside. Both inner fenders were given access panels, to allow access to some of the many new components.
In keeping with the Grand Sport theme, Ron installed a repro '63 GS nose and headlight system, with pieces from Timeless Replicas in Texas. He also fabricated a functional air dam to get air into the lower portion of the '96 radiator and A/C condenser. He flared the fenders to fit the '96 GS wheels, which are wearing 315/35ZR17 tires on all four corners, and then widened the rear quarters a couple of inches at the bottom of each side so the GS exhaust tips could be used. The car also has a built-in receiver-type trailer hitch concealed behind the drop-down license plate.
The mid-year/C4 hybrid is painted in the '96 GS color scheme, with the solitary exception of the thin white stripes, which Ron made red, as they were on the original Grand Sports. It also has a black convertible top using C4-type material. The car has all the '96 factory electronics systems, including a full factory security system (with a few added twists), six-way power seats, and even the '96 power/heated mirrors. Ron transferred every piece from the Grand Sport that was applicable to the '63, and everything works!
Due to the extensive body and chassis modifications Ron made, he had to have the car inspected by the California Highway Patrol before it could be registered. After wading through tons of paperwork, the CHP assigned Ron's creation the full, 17-digit '96 Grand Sport VIN number, which means that GS#300 is still alive and well, although in an extremely different form. GM has even recognized Ron's car in a recent recall for '96 LT4 rocker arms!
Ron, with the support and understanding of his wife Donna, spent three years building this car in his garage, not allowing anyone but family and a few close friends to see the Vette before it was completed. "I didn't want anybody to have to visualize what it would be like, just in case it didn't come out the way I intended," Ron said. But the project turned out exactly as he had planned after all. Ron now has an completely "factory stock" '63/'96 Grand Sport that he and his wife have found to be extremely fun, comfortable, and economical to drive anywhere, having put over 1,200 miles on the clock since the car's unveiling this last June. And the Vette has been warmly accepted for what it is by GS owners, old and new alike. As far as Ron is concerned, the license plate says it all: "GS96N63".