Words: Peter ‘PC’ Callen
Photos: Jared Clark
It isn’t often that good things come from unlawful activities, but there are exceptions. Stop-light racing is frowned upon by the powers that be, and probably by many onlookers, but one such incident during the’50s sparked a relationship that would help shape one of America’s most loved automotive icons¦
The first Chevrolet Corvette didn’t get off to a good start, in fact the first examples didn’t start at all! Electrical equipment demands that a circuit be completed for any given device to operate in any given way, starter motors in automobiles included. In the case of a starter motor the action required is to rotate the flywheel or flex-plate so that it can, in turn, rotate the internal combustion engine under the hood and voila, you’re mobile.
However, someone at Chevrolet hadn’t done their science class homework and on June 30, 1953, when the first Corvette was to fire into life, the starter, wipers, radio, lights and anything electrical that you can think of didn’t work. While all the engineers were familiar with steel bodies, nobody had thought about the fact that fibreglass doesn’t conduct electricity! A few wires and straps were quickly installed to remedy the problem, but for a corporation the size of General Motors to miss something so basic was pretty bizarre.
That failure to start didn’t mean the world would reject the Corvette — far from it. The first run of just 300 units (all white, with red interiors) were snapped up in short order, but niggling problems with the new car were soon to rear their ugly heads.
I’ll not nit-pick too much, but the one thing we all yearn for in a car of this ilk is power, and there just wasn’t enough of it in the 1953 Corvette. The fact is, the Corvette’s early incarnations were really only a fibreglass extension of design chief Harley Earl’s styling whims, cobbled together to wow the crowds as a ‘dream car’ at GM’s Motorama exhibit at the January, 1953, New York Auto Show.
Budget sports car
The chassis/suspension package for the first Corvette was whipped off the existing 1952 Chevrolet sedan production line, as was the 3851cc (235ci) six-cylinder engine, because there wasn’t much else available. The chassis had a 2591mm wheelbase, and the passenger cubicle was shifted further back than would have been the case in a sedan body to improve weight distribution.
The engine received a larger dose of compression, a bigger camshaft and triple Carter side-draught carburettors, but that only added up to a wimpish 112kW (150hp) — hardly enough to fry your cross-plies. The underpinnings were also a little disappointing — even back then — but GM was being understandably cautious. There was little desire to throw large sums of cash into an unknown quantity. An American sports car? What were these people thinking?
When the Corvette was first offered to the public in September of 1953 it retailed for US$3498, which was expensive at that time. The Corvette also required a bit of effort to stop and lacked a ‘real’ gearbox, having been fitted with the new PowerGlide two-speed automatic.
Conversely the crowning glory, of course, was the car’s shape. The outer skin of this machine caused a sensation, and little has changed in over 50 years in that respect. In fact, those early machines are so beloved that of the initial run of 300 units, 255 can still be accounted for today! Percentage-wise I doubt many models could match that.
The reaction to that shape saw the bigwigs at GM push for a 1954 production run of 10,000 units, a bit of a jump from the previous year’s 300. However, of the 3640 actually produced about one third remained unsold at the end of the model year, because buyers were being as cautious as GM. It only got worse for the 700 units which rolled off the line in 1955. The reality was that those who actually drove the car soon came to the conclusion its performance simply didn’t match its looks.
At that point Corvette aficionados should probably have been grateful to the Ford Motor Company. The blue oval boys had a little something up their sleeve called the Thunderbird, and that vehicle was released for the 1955 model year. Here was an all-American two-door with style as well as V8 power. The Corvette crew needed to fight back and, fortunately for them, a hard-working individual by the name of Ed Cole had been slaving away over a hot easel designing a new engine, the small block Chevrolet V8. How convenient.
The new engine was a wake-up call for the world of the American car buyer. No matter which vehicle it was installed in, the small-block Chevrolet V8 sparkled — so what better body to install it in than the plastic fantastic? The infinite sadness felt by lovers of the Corvette’s shape when they contemplated its lack of mechanical prowess was finally dispelled when some real power was installed under the hood. The 1956 Corvette was offered with six (now available in two-tone) body colours and two interior colours, with roll-up windows, a raft of other options and, most importantly, V8 power.
The V8 wasn’t about to go unmodified either, even from the factory. The most popular under-hood option for 1956 was the twin four-barrel carburettor option, delivering 168kW (225hp) from the 4343cc (265ci) engine. There was also an unofficial output of 179kW on offer with a stiffer camshaft. Compare that with the 112kW of 1953, and there’s no doubt that customers would easily feel the difference. The Corvette had come of age.
It was at about this time that one Larry Shinoda entered the frame. Lawrence Kiyoshi Shinoda, a Japanese American, was in his mid-20s when the V8 Corvette saw the light of day, and he was cruising here and there in a ’55 Ford. Shinoda had a bit of a reputation around Southern California at the time for being able to make things go fast, and had won the first National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Nationals in Great Bend, Kansas, in 1955 in his hot-rodded ’24 Ford Roadster.
In 1954 he’d managed to get into a great employment position with Ford, and he moved to Detroit. At age 26 he was employed by GM’s head of design (Harley Earl), and got to work on the fabulous 1959 Chevrolet line. Then in 1958 Shinoda was assigned to partake in special styling projects, overseenby Bill Mitchell.
Mitchell was a car guy through and through, but so was Shinoda. It turns out that while still at Ford, Shinoda (rightly or wrongly and probably ironically) was driving his aforementioned ’55 Ford home from work one day when a stop-light challenge was laid down as Mitchell pulled up beside him in a red Pontiac.
Not too long after the green light came on, Shinoda got a glimpse of Mitchell’s Pontiac in the rear view mirror. That probably wasn’t the norm with stock-standard automobiles of his type, and the defeated Mitchell approached Shinoda to ask if the Ford was supercharged, which it wasn’t. It was just a well tuned, twin four-barrel carbie set-up. That conversation sparked a relationship which would see some of Chevrolet’s finest motor vehicles reach the showroom and, more importantly, the hands of enthusiastic owners.
Larry and Bill worked well together, Mitchell the styling guru and Shinoda a designer extraordinaire — and if you think that sounds like gunpowder and a flint, you’d be right. Mitchell got a race-car together and dubbed it ‘Sting Ray.’ Shinoda played his part as designer, but also as pit crew, mechanic and general dogs-body. It was that race-car which inspired the pair to start sketching a street version; the Corvette Sting Ray.
This was the first of the second generation (or C2) Corvettes, and it featured some styling cues reminiscent of earlier European machines. There was more than just a hint of a ’30s boat-tail taper out the back, and Shinoda incorporated a split rear window that smacked of an older Bugatti.
There was much more on offer besides a split rear window, though, including the likes of concealed headlights that popped up when they were switched on. Power steering also appeared on the option sheet (with an improved, tighter ratio), the wheelbase was trimmed to 2489mm and independent rear suspension came on stream.
This was also the first year the Corvette was offered as a hard-top coupe as well as the traditional convertible, making it more popular for drivers in those states where it actually rained. The completely redesigned vehicle’s popularity was growing almost exponentially, and GM ordered the assembly staff to take on a second shift at the plant in St Louis, Missouri, to keep up with demand.
The ’63 was a styling revelation. Introduced in late 1962, it was an instant hit with buyers, but that rear window took some fairly tough criticism. Some proclaimed it to be a visibility hazard, while others felt it detracted from an otherwise beautiful motor car.
Those who felt strongly enough about it actually removed it and fitted a one-piece item that closely resembled the ’64 rear window when it became available. Of course, that simply pushed up the value of unmolested cars, and there are now fewer split-window ’Vettes on offer than were actually produced.
Whatever the buyers’ feelings toward that rear window, there was a new chassis hidden underneath that was the brainchild of GM’s chief engineer, Zora Arkus Duntov, with whom Mitchell had argued over that split rear window. Despite that slight disagreement, the gelling of Mitchell, Shinoda and Duntov could not have gone more smoothly or have been more productive.
Many Corvette enthusiasts see this generation of the marque as being a defining moment in its history. With that finely chiselled nose, high (comparatively) waistline, the power (now reaching 268kW (360hp) with a fuel-injected 5359cc (327ci) mill) and the handling package on offer, the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray was simply ‘it.’
Under the skin
The new underpinnings Duntov designed for the Corvette were attached to a ladder-type chassis, as opposed the previous X-member that had been pinched from the early ’50s sedan parts bin. This allowed the passengers’ nether regions to be dropped closer to the ground for a livelier, sportier feel and lower centre of gravity. The rear suspension was also tweaked and made independent, while the transverse leaf spring that Duntov incorporated had no fewer than nine leaves.
The whole enchilada was well received, and sales topped 20,000 units — another first for that model year. Some buyers had to wait for as long as 60 days for their new Corvette, with pricing set at US$4307 for a convertible, while the controversial split-window hard-top cost US$4257. This, of course, was the bottom line for the base model. If you wanted more power you shelled out more cash, as you would have to for the Z06 race pack deal. This package, offered on the hard-top, included finned aluminium brake drums, sintered metallic brake linings, a stiffer suspension package and a 138-litre fuel tank, all of which was only available with the fuel-injected (read costly) engine. Unfortunately, few were ever produced.
Not everything went smoothly though and, like the day the first Corvette sparked into life, the opposition would again get their jollies at the expense of GM. It seems the Corvette’s roof moulds were built to less than accurate dimensions, and practically all 1963-’67 Corvettes had ill-fitting roofs. This results in a gap than can usually be seen in the door pillar, just above the door latch. Many were sent from the factory after having a dose of filler applied by spatula, but there are still many C2s that carry the ‘deformity’.
Deformed or not, the ’63 split window had, and still has, its admiring masses. Among them is South Auckland engineer Ross Fleming. Ross knew of this Corvette’s existence long before he ever got his hands on it. Waiting to do the deal his heart yearned for, he waited until the then North Shore owner, Jon Ward, would part with it. Jon had owned the car since about 1995, importing it from California. The car had been in the hands of just one owner in the United States, and with only 23,000 miles (37,014km) on the odometer it was a truly incredible find.
Genuine in every respect, including the aforementioned deformity, Ross’ Corvette features a four-barrel 327 and is wrapped in a coat of Daytona Blue. The interior is black and chrome, and that’s pretty much all you need with a layout as jazzy as this.
When you look at the dashboard it appears, at first glance, to be quite complex — almost busy — but once ensconced you soon familiarise yourself with your surroundings and, like a pair of slippers, you soon reach the desired comfort level. In my opinion, American cars, regardless of their size, have a tendency to do that — they shrink around you or, speaking like a true automotive romantic, you become embraced by them.
Ross, sensibly, carries a fire extinguisher in the rear which is easily reached from the driver’s seat; he has added a wood-rimmed steering wheel and also installed a brand new console. The console has as its centrepiece a stick shift that leads to an M20 four-speed transmission. This certainly adds to the sporting attitude of the car, and I can only imagine how the tyres of the time (still fitted when Jon bought it) stood up to the power and torque of the 327. The cross-ply tyres have long since been cast aside, except for the spare — that being a poignant reminder of the craziness which was the ’60s; big power, terrible tyres.
Something else somewhat awry in that era were the braking systems. Ross took it upon himself to improve that area, sourcing all the correct parts to fit the factory power assist components, just as if they had been ordered from Chevrolet by the original owner. He also confessed to having the desire to fit power steering in the same fashion, using only the correct parts.
Bolt-on additions like that can make life a lot more comfortable in modern traffic, while retaining the value of the automobile and making its return to ‘factory stock’ a breeze should anyone choose to do this.
All the little incidentals, such the correct screws and so on, have been installed by Ross, and the electrical devices and circuits have also been titivated to provide reliable performance. The wiper/washer ensemble, for example, underwent intense scrutiny so that it, along with everything else, functions as it should. Even the plug leads were replaced with the genuine, shielded items, the fuel tank was replaced (“I could smell petrol every time I went into the garage,” Ross said) and Corvette Parts came to the rescue every time.
Ross informed me that the coupe came from the factory with a 3.08 rear end, without the ‘posi’ centre; one of just 211 to be built this way. It would have been so much fun to have one with the original tyres, don’t you think? Especially on a rainy day; not that you get too many of them in California, or so they say. Mind you, too much abuse might see those tasty imitation knock-off wheel trims go sailing down the gutters and into oblivion, something else that would be frowned upon by the ’Vette set. However, Ross doesn’t drive that way, and the only slippery thing that’s happened to the rear end so far is the installation of a set of liners in between each leaf of the rear suspension’s transverse spring.
Correctly adjusted, with the right linings for the application, the Corvette’s drum brakes work admirably. Only continued hard stops will see fade enter the picture, and it’s not likely that Ross will press the Corvette to such levels; the machines are now firmly settled in the ‘valuable collector’ bracket, and as such they command a certain level of respect.
For me the ’63 split-window is a timeless shape, one that is always and easily recognised as a Corvette even by those who know little about the breed. A hit when new, and sought after in their mid-40s, the cars have fared well, which just goes to show that a fair dose of good old American power wrapped in a timeless shape will always appeal.
Stop-light racing has given the world something it can hang onto with pride.