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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 190 - 1959 Stingray Racer
Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell are arguably two of the greatest designers in Detroit automotive history. While Earl created the Corvette, it was Bill Mitchell that created the iconic Corvette “look.” When Mitchell was hired in ‘35 by Earl, he was a natural for the burgeoning automotive, art deco design world. His designs matched his personality; brash, flamboyant, and sharp. By the time Earl’s Corvette hit the road in ‘53, Mitchell already knew that he would inherit Earl’s position as VP of Design upon Earl’s retirement in ‘58. When Mitchell was promoted, had a bold plan to start his era.
Mitchell loved hot cars and racing, so his plan was to go racing and try out an idea he had for the Corvette. Impressed with Duntov’s ‘57 Corvette SS racer, Bill knew about the spare mule chassis and used his clout on Ed Cole, the new general manager of Chevrolet. “Get me one of those.” he told Cole. To which Cole replied, “I’ll sell it to you for $500!” The deal was that Mitchell had to sell it back to Chevrolet after he was finished with it, keep the car off the GM property, and not decorate the car with anything “Chevrolet.”
Bill admired the styling of the ‘57 Q-Corvette done by Bob Veryzer, Peter Brock,and Chuck Pohlmann. Larry Shinoda was brought into Mitchell’s project to adapt the Q-Corvette’s styling onto the mule chassis in a roadster configuration. Under Bill’s direction, Larry worked out the Sting Ray, a true masterpiece. A one-off body was laid up in .125-inch thick fiberglass and adapted to the chassis. Painted Ferrari red, the car was a futuristic beauty, but Duntov wasn’t happy. He knew that his chassis hadn’t been fully developed and saw only failure with the enterprise.
The Sting Ray’s racing career lasted two years. Dr. Dick Thompson was the driver and by the end of most races, he had NO BRAKES at all! The car even flipped once at Meadowdale. The team ran five races in ‘59 and Mitchell learned that racing was a lot harder than he first thought. For the ‘60 season the car was given a new lightweight body made with .060 fiberglass, a silver paint job, and other various improvements. In the seven races entered, the team racked up enough points to win the C/Modified Championship, at which point Mitchell sold the car back to Chevrolet.
The Sting Ray was given the full show car treatment, and made its official debut at Chicago’s McCormick Place in February ‘61. The press had suspected that the Sting Ray “might” be the look of the next Corvette, and now it was official. But show cars can become yesterday’s news after the production versions come out. As the ‘60s wore on, the Sting Ray was treated to all sorts of engines and improvements. Disc brakes were finally added, at one point a big-block 427 with four Weber carbs, and Mitchell sometimes used the car as his daily driver. The Sting Ray was even a movie star once, costarring with Elvis Presley in the 1967 movie, Clambake. The Sting Ray was never anything but a race car, designed by Duntov to compete at Le Mans. The body, aerodynamically flawed as it was, was designed for speed. With the 300-horsepower Fuelie, the car has a power-to-weight ration of just over 7:1 and Mitchell claimed that the Sting Ray could do 0-60 in 4-seconds and with 2.80 gears it could do 180-mph. The car was loud and bloody fast.
But by the early 2000s, the old war horse was beginning to show its age. Ed Welburn, the current head of GM Design launched a program to restore the Sting Ray before it was too late. Beginning in August ‘04 a team of about 15 GM specialists worked off the clock on the Sting Ray. The plan was to return the car to its ‘61 Chicago show car debut configuration. The bulk of the work went into the body. The lightweight, thin fiberglass proved to be very challenging with lead restorer Dale Jacobson stating that it would have been easier to just make a new body. Only parts that needed to be replaced were replaced. The finished car is mostly original.
On March 4, 2005 the refurbished Sting Ray was presented to a group of Design and Preproduction Operation employees. Looking as if it had been formed from a solid block of titanium, the Sting Ray was greeted to gasps and applause. Bill Mitchell-designed cars are classics and the Sting Ray is by far, his best work.
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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 9 - 1959 Corvette
1959 was a year of refinement for the Corvette and toning down from the excesses of 1958. By the end of the '50s the country was experiencing a minor recession and car sales weren't very good. It's interesting that the Corvette's sales actually increased in '59 to 9670 units from 9168 in '58. Very few cars could make that claim. The Corvette was making money, but not enough for General Motors. Since Chevrolet was in full swing on the Corvair project, the changes to the marginally profitable '59 Corvette were very minimal.
The obvious external changes on the '59 Corvette were the elimination of the louvered hood and the chrome trim on the trunk lid. More subtle was the addition of 10 slots on the hub cap to aid brake cooling. Those were the only external points of difference on the '59. The cleaner look was well received.
The interior received a storage bin under the passenger side grab bar and the door knob was moved forward for better ergonomics. A common complaint of the '58 was the almost total lack of side support from the seats. So the '59 had reshaped seats to help keep the driver's seat planted behind the wheel. The calibration of the dash instruments was improved, and the gauge lenses were now concave to eliminate glare and improve readability. For safety reasons, a T-handle reverse-lockout was added to the 4-speed shifter. Twin sun visors were also a new option.
Under the body, radius rods were added to the rear axle to partially fix the Corvette's wheel hop problem. Shock mount points were improved as well as improved nitrogen-filled shocks. Front and rear springs were stiffened to offset additional weight. New performance options included 6.70 x 15 nylon blackwall tires and a simplified off-road braking package. There also was an oversized 24-gallon fuel tank for "long trips." Fewer than 200 oversized tanks were sold between 1959 and 1962. Under the hood, the full line of 283 cubic-inch carbureted and fuel injected engines were available as they were in 1958.
New ground may not have been broken this year, but the '59 Corvette was still a very desirable sports car. Motor Trend magazine tested a '59 Corvette against a 356 Porsche and concluded that if a buyer liked the idea of having one of the world's quickest sports cars, then pick the Corvette. What more can you say? - K. Scott Teeters
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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 11 - 1959 Sting Ray Racer
In December of 1958 when Bill Mitchell was 46, he was head of GM's Styling Staff and at the top of his career. Bill had always been a car guy and had a passion for performance, but had never actually raced. With a VP's salary and inside connections, Bill had a race car built that thrilled thousands and shaped the Corvette's history.
Due to corporate politics, the 1957 Corvette SS was a fond memory. Mitchell was able to obtain one of the two SS chassis, the Mule version that had been sorted out at Sebring in 1957. The chassis would have to be privately raced and would need a new body so it wouldn't be recognized as a Chevy. Under Mitchell's direction, stylist Larry Shinoda adapted the Q-Corvette body design by Pete Brock and Bob Veryzer, to the Corvette SS chassis. Shinoda made the Q-Corvette a roadster and gave it a teardrop fairing around the rollbar, similar to the 1956 SR-1 Corvette. A short windscreen completed the roadster. When it was done, it was totally original and drop-dead gorgeous, an instant classic in the making.
Even though Bill Mitchell officially raced his Sting Ray out of his own pocket, he had ample resources from within Chevrolet. The main problem with the SS Racer's chassis was the braking system. This was due to the SS Racer's complex double-booster setup. Later in the first season, a single Hydrovac power assist system was installed. Disc brakes were ruled out due to cost.
A disc brake system was ruled out due to cost. Another problem that made racing particularly challenging was the Sting Ray's aerodynamics. Designers thought that by making the body flat on the top and rounded on the bottom, they would create an inverted airfoil, a huge air wing that would push the car down onto the track. What actually happened was just the opposite. At speed, the 2,154 -pound car would sometimes lift the front wheels off the ground. This was corrected by raising the back end, thus raking the overall stance. The car 's top speed was around 155 mph.
Using a fuel injected 283 engine similar to the SS Racer, Mitchell entered the Sting Ray in SCCA C-Class. During the two seasons, Bill had help from Zora Arkus-Duntov and Chevrolet mechanics Eddie Zalucki and Dean Bedford. Dick Thompson and John Fitch bravely handled the driving duties of the Sting Ray.
Mitchell's adventure in racing netted him the SCCA C-Modified Championship in 1960. In 1961 the car reverted to a show car to tease the public as a possible 1963 Corvette. For a time, Mitchell actually drove the car on the street! The Sting Ray Racer still is seen at events and after 38 years is still drop-dead gorgeous. - K. Scott Teeters