c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
The champions of the Chevrolet Corvette have included Bill Mitchell and Ed Welburn — Mitchell of the Sting Ray and Welburn of the Stingray, the difference in the rendering of the model names reflecting the different eras in which they worked.
Mitchell, who died in 1988, was a showman, a flamboyant ringmaster given to wearing silver riding leathers when piloting his motorcycles. As vice president for styling at General Motors for 19 years, he influenced the designs of millions of automobiles.
Welburn’s personality is quite the opposite, the sort of executive often called classy and no more likely to wear a silver leather outfit than a Carmen Miranda stack-of-bananas hat. Welburn has been the head of global design at GM since 2003, influencing cars built all over the world.
Mitchell oversaw the design of the best-known Sting Ray, the much admired Corvette redesign that was introduced for 1963, as well as an earlier racecar called the Stingray. Welburn is the man who resurrected the name for 2014, the seventh-generation Corvette arriving this fall.
That first Sting Ray almost never happened. As the ’50s progressed, Chevy executives considered dumping their sports car in favor of a personal coupe like Ford’s successful Thunderbird. Happily, that never happened, and the second-generation Corvette — now nicknamed the C2 — was a giant step forward from the original car.
Zora Arkus-Duntov, the engineer whose impassioned appeal had saved the Corvette from the chopping block, and his boss, Ed Cole, compromised with the financial executives to give the C2 modern features like an independent rear suspension. They had wanted still more, but at least Corvettes could now go head-to-head with Ferraris on a racetrack and win.
What really stole hearts, though, was the singular design of the ’63 models.
In 1957, Peter Brock was a 20-year-old designer at GM’s Research B studio in the bowels of the corporation’s design center in Warren, Mich. Mitchell strode into the studio with photos from the Turin Motor Show of aero-slick speed-record-style cars, many of them smooth, almost liquid, forms that drew from Alfa Romeo’s Disco Volante — or flying saucer — design. Mitchell challenged the studio’s young designers to work from that reference point, and Brock’s shape was the winner.
One little problem arose. Development of the Corvette was hampered by a ban on racing, instigated by the Automobile Manufacturers Association, which took its toll on performance programs.
The Corvette program had to go sub rosa, but Mitchell had a plan. Before the AMA ban, GM had developed the Corvette SS, a racecar with world-beating potential. Now the SS was redundant, but there was a spare chassis. Mitchell bought it and had an open sports car body built that was essentially the Brock design with the top lopped off.
The car was built in what Brock calls “a secret studio, hidden behind a tool armory called the Hammer Room.” Dr. Dick Thompson, a dentist, would drive it to the Sports Car Club of America’s C/Modified championship in 1960. Mitchell didn’t dare put the names Chevrolet or Corvette on the car; a deep-sea fisherman, he named it Stingray.
Or Sting Ray. (Today it is known as the Mitchell Racer or by its GM designation, XP-87.) Both spellings have been used on the production cars, and Welburn brought it back for 2014 as one word to honor Mitchell.
The Chevrolet and Corvette names finally appeared on the racecar in 1961, at Riverside Raceway in Southern California, after the C2 ’Vette had been approved for production and its designers, Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine, put finishing touches on the 1963 Sting Ray.
“At long last America has a formidable weapon to challenge Europe’s fastest grand touring cars on their home ground,” Car and Driver magazine said when it tested the Sting Ray.
Chevrolet offered the car in two body styles, a convertible and a coupe with a spine dividing the back window. Duntov’s developments included a modern suspension at both ends, and it was offered with as much as 360 V-8 horsepower and a four-speed transmission.
For 1964, the coupe’s split rear window — a feature that annoyed Duntov — went away and horsepower began to rise. Over the C2’s five model years, it was offered with 327-cubic-inch V-8s from 250 to 375 horsepower; big-block V-8s were built in 396- or 427-cubic inch configurations, with horsepower ratings from 390 to 435. Then there was the 430-horsepower L88, a special performance option purposely rated very conservatively. Four-wheel disc brakes were added for 1965.
In its first year, a Sting Ray convertible cost $4,037, the coupe $1 more. Option prices included $80.70 for leather seats and $59.50 to get power windows; the fuel-injected V-8 added $430.40. The top option was the ZO6 Special Performance Equipment (as in racing) package at $1,818.
In its road test of the 300-horepower Corvette coupe, Car and Driver reached 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, with a top speed estimated at 118 mph. In 1967, the magazine ran the numbers on a 435-horsepower big-block coupe and got to 60 in 4.7 seconds, putting the top speed at 142 mph and declaring the car to be “among the best engineered sports cars made anywhere.”
It was a tough act to follow, but Chevrolet was back in 1968 with the C3, which carried over much of the mechanical side of the C2, although with an all-new body. Still fiberglass, it was shaped after the Mako Shark II show car.
Testing this new generation Corvette, Car and Driver was direct: “It’s lusty, it stimulates all of the base emotion lurking deep in modern man.”
It called that third-generation car “the Barbarella of the carmaker’s art.”
While the C2 was a landmark Corvette, the C3 was less of a forward move. But it wasn’t the fault of the car, which arrived as a good-looking machine, long and low, now with the option of liftoff roof panels. The problem was new safety and emissions rules that were emasculating all performance cars.
The C3’s engine lineup peaked at 435 horsepower in 1968 (although the underrated L88 was still an option), but within a few years compression ratios dropped, catalytic converters were added and unleaded fuel was required, all conspiring to shrink horsepower. By 1976, Corvettes had an embarrassing 180 horsepower; an option raised it to 210. Chevy dropped the Stingray badge after 1976, which was appropriate as the Corvette by then was less a stingray than a trout — still good-looking but hardly threatening.
That was then, this is now, and the job of Ed Welburn and the Corvette’s chief engineer, Tadge Juechter, was to resurrect the Stingray. Peter Brock, whose design for the 1963 model ignited the love affair with Sting Rays, is among those who are impressed. He says the 2014 Corvette is what Zora Arkus-Duntov was aiming for with the C2. It just took 50 years to get here.