by Bill Vance
Until the Dodge Viper appeared, the Chevrolet Corvette was North America’s only genuine, home-grown sports car. It originated as a concept car in GM’s January 1953 Motorama show, and was so enthusiastically received that GM decided to put it into production. The production target date was June, 1953, a schedule so tight it didn’t allow time to develop metal stamping dies. Chevrolet thus made the two-seater roadster’s body out of glass-reinforced plastic, generically known as fibreglass.
Although it was planned to switch to steel later, fibreglass quickly became a Corvette trademark and the bodies have been made of that material ever since.
The Corvette’s running gear was based on Chevrolet sedan components. The wheelbase was shortened 229 mm (9.0 in.) to 2,591 mm (102 in.), and the engine was set back 178 mm (7.0 in.) and lowered 76 mm (3.0 in.). This gave better weight distribution and a centre of gravity only 457 mm (18 in.) above the ground. It was powered by a modified version of the Chevy “Blue Flame” overhead valve 3.8 litre (235 cu in.) inline six. Three side-draft carburetors and a high-lift camshaft raised horsepower from 115 to 150.
Although inspired by such British cars as the Jaguar XK120, those early Corvettes were more sporty cars than sports cars. They came, for example, with only a two-speed automatic transmission. This soon changed. Under the guidance of Corvette engineer, later chief engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov, who would become the “Father of the Corvette,” this American sports car quickly became worthy of the title.
The remarkable 1955 overhead valve Chevy (“small-block”) V-8 was installed in the Corvette, and by 1956 a genuine four-speed manual transmission was available. Optional fuel injection appeared in 1957, and displacement was raised to 4.6 litres (283 cu in.).
Chevrolet began working on competition versions of the Corvette. These were the mid-engined CERV 1 (for Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle; read racing car!), the Corvette SR and SS series, and the Corvette Sting Ray.
The Sting Ray racer was the most significant of these for our story. Under the aegis of GM’s chief stylist, Bill Mitchell, it grew out of a stillborn project known as the Q-Corvette, a mid-engined car. The 1959 Sting Ray racer closely predicted the styling of the production Sting Ray of 1963.
The 1963 Sting Ray was, except for the engine and transmission, virtually an all-new Corvette. The X-member frame was replaced by a wider, ladder-type, and the car’s over-all dimensions were reduced. The wheelbase was 102 mm (4.0 in.) shorter at 2,490 mm (98 in.), length was reduced 1.4 inches (35 mm), width was down by 20 mm (0.8 in.), and height was reduced 61 mm (2.4 in.). It was thus a trimmer, tauter sports car, although its 1,361 kg (3,000 lb) weight was approximately the same as previously.
The most advanced feature of the Sting Ray was the new independent rear suspension. Based on the CERV 1, it had double jointed half-shafts which also functioned as the upper control arms.
For space reasons the rear coil springs were replaced by a lateral multi-leaf spring. It was a piece of engineering elegance, the first modern American use of a fully articulated rear suspension system.
Corvettes had always been open cars, but for 1963 a fastback coupe was added. Its one-year-only split rear window became an instant ’63 identifier.
The styling was a distinct break from the previous rounded shape. A sharp character line now extended all the way around the car at wheel-top level. The headlamps were concealed behind electrically operated doors.
Power came from a 5.4 litre (327 cu in.) V-8, a further enlargement of the original 4.3 (265), with four horsepower ratings: 250, 300, 340 and 360. Both automatic (still a two-speed) and three- and four-speed manual transmissions were available, although the automatic was confined to the lower powered engines. Performance, particularly with the higher powered engines, was prodigious. Road & Track (10/62) reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 5.9 seconds, and a top speed of 229 km/h (142 mph) with the 360 horsepower, four-speed version.
Over its five-year history the Sting Ray remained substantially unchanged, although it did receive some styling cleanups and performance enhancements. In 1965 a big-block 6.5 litre (396 cu in.), 425 horsepower engine appeared, as did four-wheel disc brakes. This was also the last year for fuel injection, although it would return in electronic form in 1982. For 1966 the engineers bored the block out to 7.0 litres (427 cu in.), but still rated it at 425 horsepower.
The Sting Ray was a winner. It was a styling success, had outstanding performance, and by Corvette standards, sold very well. Sales of the ’63 totalled 21,513 compared with 14,531 of the ’62s, and reached its peak sales year of 27,720 in 1966.
The 1963 – ’67 Sting Ray was a major departure from the early generation Corvettes, and to many enthusiasts it was the high water mark in the Corvette’s history. It’s a desirable collectible, particularly the ’63 split-window coupe. Although the Stingray name (as one word) would return in the restyled Corvette after a hiatus of one year, to many the only “real” Sting Ray was that 1963 – ’67 model.