Stop and Stare at a Stingray
When the ’63 Corvette Stingray hit the streets, people would stop and stare as it went by. Even people who didn’t particularly like cars liked the Stingray because this was much more than just a car. It was a statement. “You’re looking at a car whose lines had never been emulated before on the American highway. It was the execution of design, the balance, the lines, and it was the right car at the right time for this emerging youth market who suddenly recognized, ‘This is something I’ve never seen before.’” Describes Paul Zazarine .
Since it’s introduction ten years earlier, the ‘Vette had become the American sports car. It even held up well to the finest European sports cars in every comparison. From performance to luxury to quality. Says Tom Jawza: “It’s the American dream car. It’s still the sports car of America and I’ve traveled to different countries and you say sports car and they say Corvette.” The ’61 and ’62 models contained a few hints of things to come. But nobody just exactly what Chevrolet had in mind for the Corvette for 1963. It was, to say the least, revolutionary. Paul Zazarine explains: “It was right for the times. The styling’s fresh. It set the auto world on fire.” Car buyers showed their fascination for the Stingray immediately. Chevrolet sold twice as many ’63 Stingrays as ’62 Corvettes. The ’63 was also the first Corvette to sell out its yearly production run. And for the first time there was a waiting list for Corvettes at the Chevy dealerships across America.
The Corvette Stingray – The Best Known American Car Worldwide
Between 1963 and 1967, the Corvette Stingray became the best known American car worldwide. And one of the best designed cars ever built. The Stingray’s basic design was the engineering platform for all Corvettes until 1984. Even more amazingly, the Stingray became the first American car to achieve classic car status.
By 1972, only five years after the last Stingray was built, the car had already begun to appreciate in value and was beginning to be sought by collectors and museum curators all over the world. It’s no wonder people who own Stingrays today feel like they’re not just car owners, they feel like keepers of a piece of automotive history. “When you start the engine and you feel the response of the pedal, it becomes special. It just does. You feel the slight vibration through the steering wheel, the appreciation. People part the way in traffic for you just to get a better look at it. It’s very special!” Says Steve Prucher .
Paul Zazarine explains: “Few people at GM have ever wielded as much power as Harley Earl. He literally invented the concept of design as a continuing marketing opportunity for auto makers. He built the GM design center himself literally.” One of Earl’s greatest passions was the Corvette. He had designed it and kept it alive through its shaky early years and was determined that it would become a great sports car. ”
Harley certainly had a hand in keeping the Corvette alive because he had a personal stake in it.” By 1956, the Vette had begun to develop into a true sports car in looks and performance with a new body and power from the new 265 cubic inch V8. Corvette’s engineering was now in the hands of a man named Zora Arkus Duntov. “Zora Arkus Duntov is a fascinating individual. He’s a tremendous engineer. When he began to be involved in the Corvette, that’s when you began to see the significant changes like the cam shafts, the racing, the ability for the car to sustain itself in a competitive environment and be a winner.” Says Paul Zazarine .
1957 was the year that Corvette took off both on the marketplace and the race track. Corvette was now a prestige car, not just for its owners but also for GM. Upon Harley Earl’s retirement in 1958, his protégé Bill Mitchell became the head of GM styling. As much as Harley Earl represented the 40s and 50s school of design, Bill Mitchell was a man of the 60s. The Stingray would be his pet project. Paul Zazarine goes on: “Mitchell was as flamboyant as Harley Earl. However, he had a totally different style. If you want to compare Earl to Mitchell, Earl liked rounded forms, Mitchell liked sharp creases.” Mitchell’s ideas were new and fresh. And the Corvette prototype cars produced in his skunk works were out of this world. “Being a car enthusiast like he was, he was able to get his hands on one of the SS Sebring Mules from 1957 and he designed a new body for that called the Stingray, put that on himself and drove it around, raced it a little bit, but what everybody didn’t realize, he was actually tipping his hand. He was showing you some of the styling cues that were going to become the ’63 Corvette.”
The Stingray – An “Ahh!” Car
When the Stingray was finally unveiled, the auto world took a deep breath. The new Corvette announced to the world that the door had officially closed on the 50s. And if this car was an indication of things to come, the 60s were going to be fantastic. Tom Jawza remembers: “This was the Ahh car. It goes by and you say ‘Ahh, I wish I had that! I wish I could take a ride in one of ‘em.’” While the motoring press struggled to find enough superlatives to describe the Stingray, car buyers all over America lined up at the Chevy dealers to place their orders for the new Vette. Before 1963, all Corvettes had been Roadsters. Now there was a coupe to go along with the convertible and it would become one of the most memorable cars ever made.
The Stingray’s body contained a number of unique details from the nose with its hidden headlights to the rear deck, which featured the car’s most distinctive element: the split rear window. Paul Zazarine describes it: “If you look at a ’63 coupe you’ll see there’s a feature line that runs from the top to the back. He thought it accentuated the fast back and Zora absolutely hated it. There were so many heated, let’s call them argument between Zora and Mitchell. The compromise was Mitchell got his way for ’63, ’64 the split window was gone and it never came back.”
However you felt about the rear window, the first time you slid into the ’63 Stingray, you were aware that this was a much different car than any previous Corvette. The interior updated the Vette’s dual cockpit design with large easy to read instruments and hand and foot controls that were in the right place for aggressive driving. Henry Atsma of Caledonia, Michigan talks about the Stingray: “It’s just a great ride. It’s one of those cars that you get on the road that’s a classic and it feels good to be in it all the time.” If it seemed like you were sitting lower than in previous Corvettes, you were. A completely new frame moved the cockpit lower and farther back. This gave the Stingray a lower center of gravity and gave the car a 49% front, 59% rear weight distribution. The Stingray’s wheel base was also shorter than the previous Vettes by 4″. All of these changes contributed to the new Vette’s excellent handling. But the most valuable player in this handling team was the all new independent rear suspension. Paul Zazarine goes on: “Zora definitely wanted to have an independent rear suspension. He knew the benefits in terms of handling, cornering, ride. The independent rear was a significant milestone for American engineering.” But, no matter what reason a person had for buying a Corvette, at the bottom of it all was performance. The car which got better every year got a lot better in 1963.
With the improved handling from the all new chassis, there was no need to upgrade the Vette’s power train. The same engines, transmissions, and rear end ratios available in 1962 were available on the Stingray. But the new car put the power to the ground a lot more effectively. The base engine was a 250 horse power 327. Three other versions were available: 300, 340, and 360 horse power . The three speed manual trans was standard. But most folks opted for the four speed. The power glide automatic transmission was also available and actually outsold the three speed. Drivers found that the Stingray delivered everything they could hope for in a performance car. Higher horse power cars would run 0 to 60 in under 6 seconds. Do the quarter mile at 14.5 at over 100 mph. And still get around 13 miles per gallon in town. All in all, the ’63 Corvette Stingray had done the impossible. It had taken the car that car lovers all over the world had called perfect and had improved upon it so much that one year old Vettes now looked almost antique. Faster, better handling, with vastly improved creature comforts: all at a base price of around $4400. So far, the 60s were turning out to be a pretty cool decade.
Don’t Mess with the Stingray
Someone must have hung a sign in Corvette’s design studio that said, “It’s working. Don’t mess with it.” Because when Chevrolet rolled out its ’64 models, very little had changed, except that darn bar was gone from its rear window. Purists were sad to see it go and the rest of the most 23,000 people who bought Corvettes that year just enjoyed being able to see out the rear window for the first time. A few minor cosmetic changes were made. But all in all, Chevy knew when to leave well enough alone. With one exception. Zora Arkus Duntov never left well enough alone. The top of the line 327 was now a no prisoners performer. Cranking out 370 horse power , this was the most powerful production small block engine ever produced by Chevrolet.
Power like this didn’t come cheap, however. The up charge for the 375 horse engine was a tidy $538. About 1/4 the cost of a ’64 Bel Air sedan. Along with the new horses, Muncie trans replaced the four speeds and the ride was improved thanks to new shocks and springs. The Vette’s cockpit continued to fit drivers like a glove. Steve Prucher brags on his Vette: “It’s surprisingly comfortable. It really is. This car sits relatively slightly higher than you’d imagine. And you do have easy exit and easy entrance. It rides well. People say, ‘Oh, that’s a plastic car’ and when they get out of my car after I give them a ride, they’re smiling, they had no idea.”
Posting 1/4 mile times of about 14 seconds flat and 0 to 60 times in just a shade over 5 seconds, the ’64 Corvette continued to be the class act among American performance machines. Even in the face of the new wave of Detroit performance machinery debuting that year: the muscle cars. Paul Zazarine explains: “When the muscle car movement began in 1964, it didn’t impact the Corvette because the Corvette had established itself. If you were a bag boy at Safeway and you saved your pennies, you could buy a GTO. You had to be the manager to buy a Corvette.” 1965 and 1966 saw the Corvette Stingray develop even further into the car that could challenge the greatest names in the automotive world. The hood was smoothed out and for the first time, the Stingray sprouted little gills on its side, which in the coming years would become a styling element as strong as the early Vettes. As a direct result of Duntov’s racing activities, the 1965 Stingray received its first all way disc brake set up, which effectively doubled the car’s already excellent stopping power. And in a never ending quest for more horse power , Chevrolet found room under Stingray’s hood for the new 425 horse power 396 cubic inch big block engine “Fuel injection had been able to push the small block up to 375 horse power but it was extremely expensive and only 771 units were built that year,” Says Paul Zazarine , “What really put the end to the fuel injection: not only was it difficult in servicing, but the introduction of the big block engine into the Corvette. For almost half the price of the fuel injection you could get a big block horse power and it would almost immediately signal fuel injection.”
The 396 lasted just one year in the Corvette. But the big block was there to stay. The mighty 427 was Chevrolet’s ultimate weapon. And when they put it in the Corvette for 1966, Chevy’s little sports car became an all world street muscle car. This power, combined with the Vette’s excellent weight distribution and independent rear suspension created a muscle car that did everything well. From racing to just plain looking good. Coming into 1967, Chevrolet couldn’t build enough Stingrays to keep up with orders. 0 to 60 in 4.8 seconds. 0 to 100 in 11.2. A top speed of over 160 mph. For a sticker price of about $6000. Any takers? In its fifth year, the Stingray had become the car every car lover dreamed of owning and it deserved every bit of this respect.
Searching for ways to improve an already just about perfect car, Chevrolet was down to things like moving the parking brake handle to a more convenient location, making the back up light a little larger, and making the gills a little smaller. Four wheel disc brakes were still standard equipment. The side mounted exhaust pipes were still available. Engine choices remained practically the same in ’67 with five available power plants. There were two 327s rated at 300 and 350 horse power . And three 427 big blocks. The four barrel engine made 390 horse power . The two high horse power engines sported three two barrel Holley carburetors. The 400 horse engine was a 10.25 to 1 compression unit. And the bad boy made 425 horse power with 11 to 1 compression. “Everybody wound them out to $7000-$8000, including me, “Admits Mike Kreeb of Tarpon Springs, Florida, “A lot of these engines had since broken or blown up. These cars are hard to find with the original component engines. Basically the horse power generator in these engines is awesome.”
The Corvette Stingray – A Fully Developed Car
But, after five years of the most advanced engineering and styling input, even Zora Arkus Duntov was ready to move on to another platform. Calling the Stingray a fully developed car, Chevrolet turned its attention to the next generation Corvette, based on a Bill Mitchell styling exercise called the Mako Shark. Paul Zazarine recalls: “When the Mako Shark was first shown in the car shows in the mid 60s it was an instant hit with those high fender lines and that low hood and the very wide body and accentuated fender lines. That signaled that this was going to be a new generation of Corvette.” The next generation Corvette would pick up where its predecessor left off and continue the tradition of excellence, innovation, and driver pleasure. It would also continue the Corvette’s tradition of getting better every years. “This car said, ‘I am totally new’ and it was. It was a little more aerodynamic, more balanced. And of course, the T tops and the sail back window was also something that was new for Corvette.”
The next generation Corvettes, from 1968 through 1982, owed a lot to the Stingray’s engineering. Thanks to the excellence of the Stingray’s original design, it used the same platform as the Stingray all the way through 1984: an amazing engineering achievement. Modern Corvettes are light years ahead of the early Vettes in engineering but the way their owners feel about them is the same that it’s always been. Jill Wells elaborates: “When you see a car and it makes your car go thump thump, you know that’s the one.” Adds Paul Zazarine : “A lot of people who buy Corvettes eventually find themselves caught up in the Corvette lifestyle. These folks are passionate about their cars and it becomes not only a car club but it becomes a social club. It becomes people who share your lifestyle and you build it around your Corvette.” Jill’s husband Sonny explains: “We were part of a group that traveled to Disney to a Corvette show there. We drove up there with eight other Corvettes and just cruising along and people notice you!” Jennifer Johnson has more to say: “Words can’t describe it! I love when I get the car for the day because you just turn the little extra key to full so it has full power and you go. And you don’t have to worry about traffic, you don’t have to worry about stopping because the car goes and it stops just like you need it to and the corners are great.”
Of all the things which happened in the amazing decade of the 60s, surely one of the most delightful was the Corvette Stingray Chevrolet built almost 120,000 Stingrays between 1963 and 1967. And if you were lucky enough to own one, you know the joy that owning and driving this car can bring. “On the weekend it’s a lot of fun. I can take it out and take it down the road. It takes you back 25 years. You only need a few minutes of it and you’re good for a week.” One Vette lover explains. For everyone else, the dream still lives on. Such is the legend of one of the greatest performance cars ever built.