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.