The birth and evolution of the C2 Corvette occurred amid the successes that General Motors was experiencing at the height of the C1. By the early sixties, as Chevrolet introduced the last of the first-generation Corvettes, there was no doubt – at least among the design team behind the first-generation model – that a second-generation Corvette was imminent.
After all, the 1962 Corvette had shown a 40 percent increase in sales from the previous model year. Better still, the 1962 C1 Corvette – which had more horsepower, better handling, and was physically more appealing than any of its predecessors – had demonstrated to the automotive manufacturing community that their consumers were looking for a quality, performance backed sports car – and that they’d pay a premium to get it.
Still, Corvette’s long term success was not certain. While there was no doubt that the first-generation Corvette was the hottest American sports car on the road in the 1950’s, it was still not quite on par with some of Europe’s best automobiles, especially on the international racing stage. Engine performance and horsepower were certainly no issue – the last few years of the C1 had certainly eliminated any concerns in that arena, but the chassis needed some serious work if it was going to contend with the likes of Porsche and Ferrari.
While Zora Arkus-Duntov, who had been largely responsible for helping the Corvette evolve past its infancy, was certain that the Corvette would continue to evolve into something even greater than its current form, he often found himself defending the Corvette against critics who did not see its potential – especially during the solid axle years.
Given all of this – the certainty that Corvette was gaining additional ground with car enthusiasts year over year, and knowing that the current Corvette had evolved about as far as it could go, Duntov knew that the next Corvette would have to be capable of silencing those critics who questioned whether the Corvette would ever contend with the world’s best.
Naturally, designing and developing a successor to the C1 Corvette would not be without its challenges. Even so, it would be the result of these very challenges that would drive designers Bill Mitchell and Zora Arkus-Duntov to create a template from which the second generation Corvette could, and would evolve.
They would do so on the racetrack first, where Corvette had already been banned from being an active participant because of governing automotive laws of the time, but also where Duntov knew the Corvette would have to find its greatest success if it were ever going to be taken seriously as a sports car.
As is common in Corvette’s history, there were obstacles from the very beginning that would have to be overcome before the second-generation ‘Vette could evolve into the car it was meant to become. To start, the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (AMA) had put a ban in place that prevented automotive manufacturers from building commercially available cars that could/would compete in racing competition.
While a race-ready production Corvette had once been readily available to consumers when it was ordered (and therefore equipped) with the right options, the AMA’s ban (which had gone into effect in 1957) prevented Chevrolet from soliciting these options to prospective consumers. While GM couldn’t officially sanction the production of a race-ready Corvette, it could – and did – continue to offer the options to build one – if the person ordering the car knew which combination of options to order.
Fortunately, there were those within the Corvette’s engineering and development team that were only too happy to help – if unofficially – to promote the advancement of the Corvette as a race car. Zora Arkus-Duntov, who had already been involved with the continued performance enhancements of the C1 since 1955, had ensured that anyone who was interested in building a race-ready Corvette knew the correct options to select. (This was an endeavor he would continue to engage in – unofficially of course – throughout the entire production run of the C1 Corvette.)
Further, working with Bill Mitchell (one of Corvette’s lead designers), the pair began development of a high performance variant of the Corvette that had been intended solely for the racetrack. By late 1957, the team had developed the Corvette Super Sport, a concept vehicle whose single intent was to run fast and strong at the racetrack.
The Corvette SS had a unique profile that was completely separate from the production model Corvette. The body of the Super Sport Corvette featured a lightweight, magnesium alloy body with a “flying football” headrest that tapered to the rear of the vehicle.
While the elegantly sculpted lines of this new Corvette were not intentionally developed as anything other than a performance alternative to the 1957 roadster, the SS design definitely included styling cues that would readily lend themselves to the next generation Corvette. A wide toothy grille and sleek body lines trailing back to the car’s boat-tail rear end defined an entirely new look for the Corvette – and would be representative not only of the future C2 Corvette, but also the conceptual centerpiece of the “Mach 5” race car (as seen in the 1960’s Japanese animated series “Speed Racer.”)
While the 1957 Corvette SS was successfully track-tested at Sebring by Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio, the actual race car proved to be problematic, plagued with a number of mechanical issues which impaired its ability to meet the competitive demands for which it was designed. However, before Duntov and Bill Mitchell could set out to correct these issues, the automotive industry’s voluntary racing ban was put into effect, bringing the SS project to an almost immediate end. Fortunately, the car managed to escape permanent demise thanks to the efforts of Bill Mitchell, whose vision and sheer determination would soon give the SS a new life, though it would never formally be used as a race car again.
At the same time, the Q-Corvette, also initiated in 1957, envisioned a smaller, more advanced Corvette as a coupe-only model that was initially intended to begin regular production in 1960. Designed in part by Larry Shinoda, it boasted a rear transaxle, independent rear suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes, with the rear brakes mounted inboard.
The exterior styling of the Q-Corvette was developed by Bob McLean, who was also responsible for the original Motorama Corvette’s layout. The design featured peaked fenders, a long nose, and a short, bobbed tail. The Q-Corvette was originally envisioned to be the first of a full line of large rear-transmission cars with which the Corvette would share major components. The idea was that re-locating the transmission to the rear of the car would help balance the front to rear weight distribution of the vehicle, which would provide much better handling. Duntov’s ultimate goal was to develop a mid engine design, but the Q-Corvette was as close as he could get to that goal in the 1950’s.
Ultimately, all of these ideas would be abandoned as the passenger-car line concept was deemed too radical, which ultimately caused the Q-Corvette to suffer the same fate. Since there would be no high-volume production cars from which to borrow components, the Q-Corvette (which would have had a far more limited production run) would have been prohibitively expensive to manufacture. Even with the AMA ban in place and the Corvette SS and Q-Corvette projects abandoned by General Motors, Mitchell still felt compelled to move forward with the development of the Sebring SS Corvette. Using his own money and without the blessing of General Motors, Mitchell decided to transform the test mule into the race car that both he and Duntov felt it was meant to become.
Even more remarkable, Mitchell planned on campaigning his new design under a completely unique banner. Using the ill-fated Q-Corvette concept vehicle as a template, Mitchell adapted lines from this earlier design into his Super Sport’s exterior, creating an entirely new open body layout. Larry Shinoda also contributed to the car’s sleek, new appearance, and helped Mitchell give birth to what would quickly come to be known as the Stingray Special.
Mitchell’s development of the Stingray Special occurred at the “Studio X” special projects area at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. While it did retain some of the lines of the original SS design, the Stingray had somewhat more rigid lines, more linear styling, and included a pronounced crease line that wrapped around the entire car. It also featured exaggerated wheel flares on all four fenders above the wheel openings. Lastly, it now showcased side-pipes that protruded from just behind the front wheels, ran along the side of the body and ended just ahead of the rear wheels.
For his part, Zora Arkus-Duntov was focused on ensuring that the Stingray would be a successful racer, and he would accomplish this by improving the chassis and mechanical components, just as he had done with the C1 Roadster a half decade before. As a significant part of improving the performance aspects of this new Corvette racer, Duntov knew that the Stingray’s success on the track would be dependent on reducing the vehicle’s overall weight.
Further, developing and installing the right drive train would be vital. So, for the Stingray, Duntov selected a fuel-injected 283-cubic inch V-8 engine which produced 315 horsepower at 6,200 rpm. The 283-cubic inch V-8 also showcased a “Duntov” crankshaft that, while very durable, also aided in weight reduction within the engine. It was rumored that this Stingray could hit 60 miles per hour from a standing start in just 4 seconds.
Word quickly spread of the new Corvette’s performance potential, and this attracted some of the top names in racing to find out first hand what the new Stingray was truly capable of. Dr. Dick Thompson, one the SCCA’s (the Sports Car Club of America’s) top Corvette contenders, stopped by to visit Mitchell’s design studio, took one look at the amazing new race car, and immediately announced that he wanted to drive the car in all C-modified events for that season. Although this class was almost exclusively reserved for Europe’s elite automotive manufacturers, Thompson shocked everyone, including Bill Mitchell, by out-running and outperforming the competition. Thompson regularly took the Stingray Special to victory lane and went on to win the Corvette’s only championship season in 1960.
Although Mitchell and Duntov succeeded in developing a true race-car variant of the Corvette, this car’s time on the track would ultimately be short-lived. Because Mitchell had more-or-less developed this car on his own, and because Chevrolet was an active participant in the AMA‘s racing ban, there was no source of sponsorship to support any sort of racing team. Mitchell did sponsor his own team for a short period of time, the financial burden proved too great and the Stingray Special’s racing career was over almost before it had really started.
Still, even as that chapter of the Stingray drew to a close, Mitchell modified it and exhibited the car as an experimental show car which he boasted was “built to test handling ease and performance.” Even though the Stingray Special had started its life as a racer, Mitchell saw an opportunity to develop it into something far greater. Like Duntov before him, Mitchell knew that the evolution of the Corvette would occur as much on the racetrack as it did on the open road.
In that way, creating the Stingray Special had actually helped Mitchell to develop a second generation Corvette prototype from which development of a production model could occur. Ironically, the Stingray Special would never carry either the Chevrolet or the Corvette designations, although it would be identified and labeled a Corvette on its subsequent tour as a show car. The car – which had been reworked to show quality – was debuted at the Chicago Auto Show on February 18, 1961, and the response it received was overwhelmingly positive. During its tour, the car made quite an impression on the public, and there was considerable speculation that the Stingray Special was actually being shown as a preview.