It's a legend, and it would probably still be one even if it hadn't led to the design of the '63-'67 Corvettes, the legendary Sting Rays of yore that still count as some of the most iconic and beautiful cars ever to wear the crossed flags. The first Sting Ray, the silver '59, was built as a personal race car by Bill Mitchell, then Vice President of Styling at GM, in a work area known as the "Hammer Room," a secret design studio that was concealed behind a tool room. Based in large part on the XP-96 roadster designed by Peter Brock and Chuck Pohlmann, it proved itself on the track, taking its class championship in 1960 before retiring to the show circuit and then rising, phoenix-like, in the timeless lines of the midyears.
The story of the Sting Ray, though, doesn't begin in the Hammer Room, where Mitchell assigned Larry Shinoda, Pohlmann, and others to take the weltanschauung of the clay XP-96 and turn it into his bespoke racer. Instead, it begins, as do most things from that era of the Corvette-with Zora Arkus-Duntov, and his 1957 SS test mule.
A follow up to the SR-2 racer that GM's Styling VP Harley Earl had created for his son Jerry (to keep the family scion from campaigning a Ferrari in SCCA events), the SS was intended, among other things, to supplant the quickly fabbed SR-2 with a full-bore factory racer. Originally inspired by a D-type Jaguar and a 300SL Mercedes, Duntov began by using wooden dowels to mock up a tube frame for the new car, instead of using the standard Corvette chassis. Through creative accounting, he managed to acquire the funds to build not one, but two of the SS frames. Internally, the car was referred to as the "XP-64," using an abbreviation for the phrase "Experimental Pursuit," which Earl had borrowed from the military designation for an embryonic jet fighter.
The two cars parted ways quickly. The first one received a fuel-injected 307-horse 283 and a lovingly crafted magnesium body, while the second, dubbed "the mule," had a less powerful engine and a thick fiberglass body that added 150 pounds to its weight. As the name implies, it became Duntov's beast of burden. He used it to sort out a new braking system, an ersatz ABS that, during hard cornering, allowed the driver to continue to apply pressure to the front brakes while the rear brakes maintained a steady level of pressure, reducing the likelihood of rear-brake lockup.
No doubt this played a part in the mule's exceptional performance in qualifying at Sebring that year (1957), where it earned a spot on the front row of the starting grid-a spot that, come race day, was occupied by the beautiful, blue, magnesium-bodied prima donna. Suffering from brake problems, as well as scorching heat as a result of its metal body, the SS only made 23 laps of the 12-hour race before rendering itself undriveable.
A disappointing showing for Chevrolet-notwithstanding the fact that an SR-2 won the Modified Production class-the SS's entry at Sebring was also the company's last for many years: That June, corporate officials agreed to the Automobile Manufacturers Association's (AMA) voluntary ban on racing.
For purposes of our story, the SS, with its "flying football" headrest and vaguely Jag-inspired lines, thus goes into hibernation until 1959, shortly after Bill Mitchell succeeded Harley Earl as the Vice President of Styling. Handpicked as his successor by Earl-automotive writer Randy Leffingwell makes the observation that Earl would have "styled Bill Mitchell into existence" if he hadn't already existed-Mitchell had been hired by him in 1935, and became his replacement in 1958. Well-steeped in the ways of GM, Mitchell was savvy enough to know that "styling" sounded light, fluffy, and therefore inconsequential to the GM brass who would ultimately control his effectiveness. To reinforce the importance of what he was doing, he quickly renamed his division "Design," and began by pruning some of what he perceived as Earl's intemperance, stripping chrome and louvers from the '59 Corvette.
Those weren't the only changes he'd had in mind, but they're what he was able to get at the time. Mitchell had announced a contest in 1956 between the different in-house design studios to create a new Corvette for 1960, and the winner he selected was a coupe designed by Peter Brock, which was then tagged as the XP-84. Chuck Pohlmann began work on a companion roadster at Mitchell's request, while Duntov and engineer Byron Voight hammered out the mechanicals, such as engine location and wheelbase. In the due course of time, full-scale clay models-one of the coupe, one of the 'vert-were made by chief modeler John Bird and placed side-by-side for Mitchell's inspection. For cost-of-production reasons, Mitchell picked the roadster concept, which was duly christened the XP-96.
If you know what a '60 Corvette looks like, you pretty much know what happened: Due partly to a change in chairmen at GM, the concept car didn't make the cut. Even Duntov had to admit that the comprehensive rewrite of the Corvette-which included a rear transaxle, dry-sump lubrication, and a curb weight of little over a ton (yes, just one)-was perhaps a bit ambitious.
But the successful are often tenacious. Whether Mitchell intended for the XP-96 to play the starring role in a racetrack Motorama or not, I can't say. What we do know is that Mitchell loved racing (as evidenced by his support of the SR-2), and he wanted a race car. That last conclusion reached, he ponied up the handsome sum of one dollar for the chassis of Duntov's SS test mule, and, hustling it away into the Hammer Room, set things in motion to turn the XP-96 into track-ready reality.
Undoubtedly, there was still a ban on, but Mitchell reasoned that while it prohibited GM from going racing, there was certainly nothing in it to stop him from racing, or any of his close personal friends who cared to join him. In the case of the Sting Ray, that group of friends included designers Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine, as well as engineer Dean Bedford, who served as his team manager. Bold, but still, let's not forget that the car was basically built in hiding.
The Sting Ray made its debut on the track around tax time in 1959, bright red and equipped with a modified 283, drum brakes, and the De Dion rearend that had been in the SS. While not an independent rear suspension (IRS), the axle linkage of the De Dion system bears a striking resemblance to the factory three-link that showed up on the production car in '63. For the Bondphiles among us, it also undergirded Aston Martins from 1967 to 1989, by which time the Corvette had long since gone to a much-improved five-link.
Clad in thick, 1/8-inch fiberglass, the Sting Ray weighed about the same as a production car, and had truly wretched aerodynamics that lifted up the front end at around 140 mph-disconcerting to say the least. None-theless, driver Dick Thompson, the "flying dentist" who had previously piloted both the SR-2 and SS, managed to bring it home in Fourth place at its first race, and the front end was subsequently lowered dramatically to remove some of the lift. Other changes were made as they learned on the track: Reskinned in balsa-reinforced fiberglass silk, the Sting Ray tipped the scales at a svelte 2,300 pounds, then, for the 1960 season, dropped down to an even ton after receiving another fiberglass body, this one painted silver. The brakes received constant attention throughout its racing career, Mitchell steadfastly refusing to use disc brakes because of cost. Lest that seem stingy, Mitchell funded the effort out of his own pocket, making whatever repairs were needed to keep the Sting Ray racing-even after it was rolled at Meadowdale in 1959.
Its second season was kinder than the first, and Thompson brought home the SCCA class championship in C-modified. Finishing strong, Mitchell retired the car after its winning season in 1960, and had it refurbished for the show circuit, finally adding Corvette emblems to it. After its year on display, it returned to being his personal car, getting disc brakes as well as a 427. There are photos of Mitchell driving it on public roads, complete with fedora.
As one of GM's show cars, the Sting Ray did what it was intended to do, and what production Sting Rays still do today: It created desire, which was fulfilled in GM's 1963 introduction of the newly redesigned Corvette. You know what happened after that.
The car itself now resides at the GM Heritage Center, which was covered in these pages in our Sept. '10 issue. Between March and June of 2010, however, it was lent to Atlanta's High Museum of Art as part of the facility's stunning "Allure of the Automobile" exhibit. After standing in line staring at a frighteningly large sculpture of oversized fruit that sits outside, you finally step into the elevator. It goes up, the doors open, and you find yourself face-to-face with Clark Gable's pale yellow '35 Duesenberg. The rest of the exhibit takes you past equally striking cars from Pierce Arrow, Mercedes, Porsche, Aston Martin, Bugatti, Jaguar-all the great marques-until finally you pass a Tucker and a Cadillac and find it before you. Low, silver, sleek, unmistakably Corvette.
From the low, tightly curved pair of windscreens to the downward-swooping side pipes and the aggressive, tire-covering rake of the front fenders, everything in the car speaks of the tension of restrained power. It doesn't want to be there; it wants to be back on the Phoenix test track again, running 183. One wonders if it's safe to walk in front of it.
While the Allure of the Automobile exhibit is now closed, the High produced an eponymous coffee-table book with photos and detailed information on all the exhibited cars. For more on the history of the Corvette, you can do no better than Randy Leffingwell's Corvette: The Complete Story.
Special thanks to Erik Duncan, Emily Grant, and the High (www.high.org).