We live in an age of imitation, where the line between genuine and duplication has become badly blurred. In the Corvette hobby, some sellers will freely admit they've altered a car's provenance to increase value. A more desirable engine, a hotter color, and a slew of value-adding options can make the most mundane Corvette an attractive commodity in the marketplace.
There are a few exceptions to the rule, and this replica of a '63 Grand Sport is one of them. Patterned after the No. 5 GS owned by Bill Tower, this reproduction incorporates details taken directly from the original.
The history behind the Grand Sport reveals a fascinating yet frustrating time within the Corvette engineering department. As the '50s wound down, the Corvette continued to evolve into a legitimate sports car. Chevrolet engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov had almost single-handedly saved the Corvette from extinction in 1955 when sales were at their lowest. His determination to exceed 150 mph on the sand at Daytona during the 1956 Speedweeks brought more-powerful engines, heavy-duty suspensions, and manual transmissions, all of which helped legitimize the Corvette in the eyes of the sports-car fraternity.
What stymied Duntov in his quest to maximize the Corvette's racing potential was the car's weight. While he could overcome some of that with horsepower, doing so only overloaded the brakes, which were at best barely adequate for street use.
Seeing this, Duntov began a crash program to develop a purpose-built Corvette racer that could compete with lighter cars such as the new Shelby Cobra. Duntov envisioned a Vette with a lightweight frame and body panels, four-wheel disc brakes, and a highly tuned V-8 engine. The plan called for total production of 125 cars to meet the necessary homologation requirements, and all would be sold to private racing teams to skirt GM's ban on racing.
Five prototypes were built. All were constructed of aluminum birdcage frames and made extensive use of lightweight components, including magnesium wheels and super-thin fiberglass front and rear body clips. The engines displaced 377 cubic inches. While the brakes continued to be a problem, initial testing indicated the Grand Sports would be more than competitive on the track.
The only way the Grand Sports could lose was if GM management pulled the plug on the project, which they did in January 1963. All GM divisions were banned from any form of competitive racing, as well as from designing or engineering any racing cars or components.
Duntov covertly sent out some of the cars to be raced by privateers, then returned to the factory for further development. Believing the GM ban would not last long, he continued to refine the five cars. Dressed to look like a privately entered production Corvette, Grand Sport No. 4 captured a win at the SCCA Nationals at Watkins Glen in August 1963. The car came back to Chevrolet two months later. The lessons learned from racing were reflected in modifications that included slots and vents in the body panels to improve brake cooling. Larger, 9.5-inch wheels and bigger tires were also installed. The most significant improvement, however, was a new engine that utilized four 58mm Weber carbs mounted on a unique cross-ram intake and produced in excess of 485 hp.
Later that year, a contingent of Grand Sports and "vacationing" Corvette engineers converged on Nassau for the December Speed Week events. The three Vettes-Nos. 3, 4, and 5-pounded the Cobras, finishing Third, Fourth, and Sixth.
As Duntov was modifying Nos. 1 and 2 for Daytona by removing their tops, GM management got wind of what was going on and again clamped down on the Grand Sport program. The cars were ordered destroyed but were instead spirited out by Chevrolet insiders and sold to private racing teams. While the Grand Sports continued to make irregular appearances at racing events, the lack of factory support soon rendered them obsolete and noncompetitive.
That didn't end the Grand Sport story, however, or diminish the car's legend. Many Corvette lovers were fascinated with the engineering and the history of these powerful race cars. One of those fans was Gary Hunt, of Naples, Florida. While he couldn't buy an original, Gary, who builds and restores collector cars and hot rods, was more than capable of creating a replica.
"The project got started when I was in the hospital having open-heart surgery," Gary says, "and a good friend of mine called to tell me that Grand Sport No. 5 was in Naples at a friend's shop for some work." As soon as he got out of the hospital, Gary went to look at the car. "I got to sit in it, take extensive pictures and measurements, and that's what started it all."
Now inspired to build a replica, Gary began looking for a donor car. Within six months he found a Milano Maroon '65 coupe behind a gas station in Marco Island, Florida. "The car was smashed all the way up to the doors," Gary says. "The frame was bent, and the entire back end was missing. The engine had been yanked to go in an El Camino.
"I tried to buy it, but the owner kept turning me down," Gary says. Finally, he asked what it would take to buy the car. Incredibly, the owner said, "a torch set." That and $500 bought the Corvette. Gary towed it out on August 11, 1985 and took it to his shop.
Gary went to Bloomington Gold in 1986 to look at the No. 4 GS and get as many pictures and measurements as he could. Not much had been written about the Grand Sports at that time, but there was one book, Karl Ludvigsen's Star Spangled Sportscar, he was able to use for reference. "It had a lot of pictures that just drove me wild," Gary laughs.
Gary spent considerable time measuring the original tube-frame chassis. His intention was to build an identical replica, right down to the big front crossmember. "I ordered the tubing and began bending it to the patterns I had drawn based on my measurements," Gary says. "I got the real critical measurements from Grand Sport No. 5, and a lot of the other measurements are from the factory."
Gary fabricated the front control arms to duplicate the originals. "I drilled holes in the rear trailing arms, like [on] the original Grand Sports to reduce weight," he says. The steering box is stock but refinished in silver and safety-wired to make it look aluminum.
The appearance of some components required a degree of creative trickery, but Gary tried to come as close to original as possible. "I didn't have big bucks to go out and buy a lot of the hardware," Gary says, "much of which wasn't around anyway, so I had to do it myself." For example, he drilled the holes and then counted the chain links (there are five) to hold the side pipes in place. "I kept the battery up front and modified the master cylinder to clear the Webers like [on] the original Grand Sports. I had to change the location of the fuse box over to the right side and rework the main harness so it would route the same."
For power, Gary chose to go the practical (and more affordable) route. "The 327 engine came out of an old Chris Craft boat," he says. "I didn't want to make the engine radical because I wanted to drive the car." Gary took the engine to Lamont Johnson for a cleanup bore, a mild camshaft, and some valve and port work. "I couldn't swing the cost of a set of Webers," Gary adds. "Besides, the car wouldn't be as streetable with the finicky Webers."
The gearing is a set of 2.72:1 cogs that came out of a '69 Vette. "That was the rear that was in the car when I got it," Gary says, "and I never changed it." While at Bloomington, Gary also noticed that Grand Sport No. 4 had an aluminum radiator. He was able to find a similar aftermarket piece from Modine, which he paired with a Fiero electric fan.
Gary planned on fabricating his own body panels until he learned that Mid America was doing replica pieces. "So, instead of me trying to make the body panels myself, I was able to get the correct front and rear panels, roof, and 'Sebring-style' hood," he says. Gary did retain the doors from the '65 donor, in which he installed Plexiglas windows. The back window is also Plexiglas.
To recreate the Grand Sport's 36-gallon fuel tank, Gary made a pattern from cardboard, then had a friend construct a replica tank out of aluminum. "I never measured it to see if it will actually hold 36 gallons," Gary says.
He had the replica shot in '87 IROC Blue lacquer. "We tried to match it up to the original Grand Sports," Gary says, "but it came out a little bit lighter. We made a mistake, but it seems everyone liked our color better."
One of the real treasures on the car is an original Mecom Racing Team decal. Also on the replica's flanks are decals from Firestone, Perfect Circle, Wynn's Friction Proofing, and Esso. Gary fabricated the Grand Sport emblems from fiberglass himself. Why did he choose the number 5 for the car's "meatball"? "Because there were five original Grand Sports," Gary tells us, "so I put the number five on the car in tribute."
Gary's GS isn't a "snapshot in time," like most race-car restorations, nor does it precisely mirror any of the five originals. "I didn't really go out to copy the appearance of any one Grand Sport." he says. "[But] believe it or not, a lot of people thought it was one of the originals. I just built it to make me happy."
Gary's desire to duplicate as faithfully as possible is reflected in the interior. "I wanted to copy the seats, the material, the color, the way the Plexiglas windows go up and down on the straps, and even the little covers that go over the inside door-release knobs." The seats themselves are from a Porsche 914, cut down to resemble real Grand Sport units. Gary found the correct seat upholstery, bought a sewing machine, and did the work himself. "I also did the carpeting, based on pictures of the originals showing how they were cut and bound," he says. The door panels duplicate the appearance of the originals when the cars were first built in late 1962.
Gary pulled the '65-vintage instrument panel and installed a '63 gauge cluster instead. "Roger Scott converted a standard '63 speedometer to the 200-mph version used in the Grand Sports," he says. Fortunately for Gary, the '65 donor car had a teak wheel and telescoping column when he purchased it. "Today, those two options are worth a fortune-a lot more than the $500 I paid for the entire car!"
Being creative was part of the fun in building the car, even when it came to the "small stuff." Take the door handles. "I was driving past an old wrecked Chevy truck on the side of the road," says Gary. "[It] had the right door handles, so I pulled over and asked the owner if he wanted to sell some parts off the truck. He looked at me like I was crazy and told me there was nothing left. I said I liked the door handles, so he sold them to me for $5." Gary then sprayed the handles Argent Silver to resemble the original pieces.
To duplicate the Grand Sport's five-spoke Halibrands, Gary took a mold from an original and then made a fiberglass center-spoke section. "I took aluminum wheels, painted the centers black, and threaded in the fiberglass center sections," he says. "The three-ear knock-off spinner held the fiberglass cover in place. The spinners are correct and are safety wired to the spokes. The emergency cable, which looked a lot like the original Grand Sport assembly, is from an old MG."
Gary finished the car on June 25, 1988, and drove it 16 miles that day. "I did add more parts after that, like the rear oil cooler," he muses. "I also bolted an old Stewart-Warner fuel pump at the tank like the original Grand Sports. Anytime I found something to make the car look more authentic, I installed it."
At one time or another Gary ran into all the original Grand Sport owners. All commented that they really liked the car. "Each year as I was building the replica," Gary says, "I took it to the NCRS Winter Regional Meet at Cypress Gardens to show it as a 'work in progress.' I even ran into Jerry Hannah. He owned Grand Sport No. 1, and I learned a lot about the cars from him."
After 14 years of driving the replica, Gary sold it in 2002 to an enthusiast in Fort Myers. "I knew I was going to live to regret selling it," Gary says, "but it just sat in the garage. I had to build a house and raise a family, and I was ready to move on to other projects. But you know, I have all the plans and patterns, and I can always build another one. I probably only had about $3,500 in it because I built everything myself."
The second owner didn't have the Grand Sport replica long. Collector Rick Treworgy, from Punta Gorda, Florida, purchased it at the annual Turkey Rod Run in Daytona Beach that same year. Like all of the cars in Rick's collection, the faux GS is ready to drive anywhere. And that's exactly what Gary wanted when he created his Grand Sport replica two decades ago.