Corvette Sting Ray: Birth of an icon: 1963
As subtle as a Big Mac it may be, but the Corvette rocked and still does
Think ‘perpetual sports car’ and it’s always the Porsche 911 that seems the most comfortable fit. Hardly surprising. The thing’s been around for 45 years and, as Porsche likes to point out, its iconic profile hasn’t changed a whole lot in that time. Surely no car has stayed truer to its original design philosophy than the 911.
All right, let’s rewind to 1963. Thing is, this year is significant for another couple of reasons. First, it’s the tenth anniversary of America’s first sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette roadster. And secondly, it’s the year the Corvette undergoes a step change in design and ambition that will endure to this day. It becomes the Sting Ray.
Designed by Larry Shinoda under the direction of GM’s styling supremo Bill Mitchell, and inspired by the ‘Q Corvette’ – a stillborn concept by Peter Brock and Chuck Pohlmann – the (C2) Sting Ray is almost unrecognisable from the ’62 car it succeeds. In fact, apart from four wheels and two seats, all it shares are the steering, front suspension, 327cu V8s and the use of fibreglass as the main bodywork material.
But, oh, the styling. Sensational is far too small a word. The roadster is dramatic enough but, for the first time, it’s joined by a coupe that simply re-sets the bar and, in the opinion of this writer, is the best-looking American car ever made. At its introduction the wrap-over rear window is split by a vertical divider bar. Chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov had lobbied against this, claiming it hampered rearward visibility. But Mitchell is reported to have replied: ‘If you take that off you might as well forget the whole thing.’ Duntov wins the scrap, though, and a one-piece rear window is introduced after ’63, leaving the split-window coupe a one-year model.
The Sting Ray has a host of cool styling hooks: pop-up headlights, a beltline dip at the doors’ trailing edges, pumped flanks and haunches, slim L-shaped half-bumpers at each end, a continuation of the 1961-’62 ‘ducktail’ and a sharp full-perimeter crease line at mid-body height. A new ‘dual cockpit’ dashboard design is a new feature that remains part of the Vette design language to this day.
Final Ray prototypes were subjected to intense wind tunnel testing, resulting in the frontal area being reduced by a whole square foot. Under the skin, the big news is independent rear suspension, a first for a modern US production car, with a frame-mounted differential with U-jointed halfshafts acting on a single transverse leaf spring. Front/rear weight distribution is now 48/52 rather than the previous generation Vette’s 53/47. And the new recirculating ball steering and dual-arm, three-link ball-joint front suspension make for quicker, more accurate steering. Ride and handling are transformed, while competition options included stiffer suspension, metallic brake linings, cast-aluminium knock-off wheels and a 36.5-gallon fuel tank.
The Sting Ray quickly establishes itself as the fastest and most rewarding Vette yet. Sales take off. In 1963 they’re nearly twice the record ’62 total at about 10,000 for each body style. The car’s raw appeal is massaged by new, extra-cost creature comforts – leather upholstery, power steering, power brakes, AM/FM radio and air con.
Over the next four years, the styling is progressively cleaned up, the fake bonnet vents being early casualties of the rationalisation. Naturally there are mechanical improvements, too. The 327cu V8 delivers up to 395bhp for 1964, while ’65 brings optional four-wheel disc brakes and the Vette’s first big-block V8, the 425bhp ‘Mark IV’. This is initially sized at 396cu, then enlarged to 427 for 1966. To cope with the escalating power, Chevy introduces stiffer suspension and an extra heavy-duty clutch. With the 4.11:1 rear axle ratio, it is said that a ’66 Mark IV can hit 60mph in less than five seconds and top 140mph.
Horsepower peaks with 1967’s stupendous L88 option, an aluminium-headed 427 with a 12.5:1 compression ratio, wild cam and big, four-barrel carb, rated at no less than 560bhp. Only 20 were made and, as you might imagine, you’re unlikely to see one pull up outside your local chippie.
As subtle as a Big Mac it may be, but the Corvette rocked and still does. And just remember this. The Porsche 911 has succumbed to turbocharging, four-wheel drive and water cooling over its production lifetime. The Vette’s formula is as pure and simple today as it was when the ’53 ’Vette rolled off the assembly line in Detroit: big, normally-aspirated engine in the front, driven wheels at the back. Never been broke, never been fixed.