The stunning 1963-67 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray still turns heads. Just imagine how much attention it drew when introduced for 1963.
Some Corvette lovers maintain this 1960s ‘Vettte is the best Corvette ever built, or the best one that ever will be built. Maybe they’re right. I found my 1965 365-horsepower Sting Ray convertible was more fun to drive than the far more sophisticated current Corvettes — it was more of a pure sports car.
The first Corvette — a 1953 model — was nearly identical to a General Motors auto show “dream car,” as concept cars were called then. It got such good showgoer reception GM decided to build it. It arrived in late 1953 with Polo White paint and a bright Sportsman Red interior.
The first ‘Vette had the name of a fast World War II war ship. It had a sleek, rounded body, a trendy exquisite-looking wraparound windshield and “jet-pod” taillights. It was designed under the direction of legendary GM styling chief Harley Earl and looked totally unlike any Chevy ever built.
While costly at $3,513, it had clip-in plastic side curtains instead of roll-up windows, no outside door handles, a clumsy manual cloth top, small trunk and fairly average six-cylinder performance because Chevy had no V-8.
The Corvette’s fiberglass body seemed peculiar in a world of steel-body cars. The only transmission was a marginal two-speed automatic, when other sports cars had manual gearboxes. Chevy modified the engine with such items as triple carburetors to produce 150 horsepower, and no Chevy manual transmission could handle the power.
Chevrolet, which had never built a sports car, didn’t seem to quite know what it was doing. The Corvette wasn’t a bad car — it just lacked the comfort and features people expected in an American sports car.
The 1955 Corvette, which had the same styling as the 1953 model, got Chevy’s legendary hot V-8 and could be had with a standard three-speed manual gearbox. But the word was slow in getting out about those improvements, and the Corvette was starting to look rather old. So 1955 production was dismal, at merely 674 units. In fact, GM likely would have dropped the ‘Vette if rival Ford hadn’t introduced its successful 1955 Thunderbird two-seater.
The slick, more comfortable “T-Bird” featured roll-up windows, outside door handles, snug power top, removable hardtop and other items Americans expected in a $2,944 specialty sporty domestic car.
Ford knew the sports car market was limited, so it called the new Thunderbird a “personal luxury” auto to make to appeal to a wider audience. It far outsold the 1955 Corvette, which angered GM — and Chevy.
It was lucky for GM talented expatriate Russian auto engineer and sports car racer Zora Arkus-Duntov was put in charge of the 1956 Corvette. He soon began making this second-generation ‘Vette more desirable.
The revised car got a gorgeous body and features comfort-minded Americans expected, such as roll-up windows, push-button outside door handles and a lift-off hardtop. By then, most were accustomed to a fiberglass-body Corvette. Sales jumped to 3,467 cars.
Chevy called the 1956 Corvette “America’s only true sports car,” which was correct. The T-Bird was a softer two-seater–an upper-middle-class sporty car for your wife or girlfriend. It was turned into an even softer four-seater for 1958.
By 1962, under the guidance of the savvy Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette had become a fast, profitable, race-winning model that helped give Chevy a sporty image. Sale totaled 14,531 units that year.
Meanwhile, colorful new GM styling chief Bill Mitchell bought a nifty but hastily developed Corvette-powered SS (Super Sport) race car tht Arkus-Duntov had created for the famous 1957 sports car race in Sebring, Fla.
GM banned racing activities after Sebring, but Mitchell felt that the ‘Vette should have a racing heritage. He got around the ban by using his own money and that of friends to create and race a new version of the SS.
Brilliant stylist Larry Shinoda came up with a rakish fiberglass body for the SS chassis. It didn’t look like anything Chevy had ever done, but that was fine with Mitchell. A deep-sea fisherman, he initially called the topless race car the “stingray” after the colorful fish of that name.
Mitchell had Arkus-Duntov and key Chevy engineers mechanically develop the car — called the “Sting Ray Special” and “Mitchell Sting Ray.” (It never was raced as a “Corvette” or under the GM flag.) He then hired Dr. Dick Thompson (nicknamed the “flying dentist”) to race it, ostensibly as a private entry because of the GM ban.
The talented Thompson won the Sports Car Club of America’s C-Modified national championships with the car in 1959 and 1960. But it was the auto’s beauty that captured the most attention.
The elated Mitchell thus turned his race car into an auto show car and exhibited it at big shows across the country to get the public accustomed to the similar shape of the sensational new 1963 production Sting Ray.
Showgoers wre captivated by the car’s appearance, which led Chevy to keep the general body shape for the upcoming ‘Vette model.
Despite a tight budget, Arkus-Duntov made the Sting Ray unlike any other production auto for a reasonable price. The Sting Ray had a new frame and was slightly shorter than the 1962 Corvette. The two-seater shared only a few items with the rather boxy 1962 ‘Vette, such as the front suspension, four 327-cubic-inch V-8s with 250-360 horsepower and, naturally, a fiberglass body.
The new Corvette had an independent rear suspension, which was a “first” for a modern American car and a feature even the rare, much costlier Ferrari didn’t offer. The suspension replaced the old-style sold rear axle suspension and provided superior ride and handling.
Mitchell insisted the Sting Ray have retractable headlights with covers so the front end would resemble his race car’s streamlined front end, although those headlights cost a bundle to develop and manufacture. To hold down costs, Arkus-Duntov settled for big drum brakes instead of the more advanced, but costlier, disc brakes he wanted.
The new ‘Vette came as a convertible and — for the first time — as a coupe. Mitchell insisted the coupe have a unique vertically split rear window, with a divider bar, to enhance its styling. Arkus-Duntov hated the window because the bar severely hindered vision.
But the influential Mitchell got what he wanted, and the 1963 “split-window” ‘Vette coupe has become an especially prime collector’s item. Practicality prevailed, however, and the 1964 and later ‘Vette coupes got a regular one-piece rear window.
While beautiful, fast and sophisticated for the money, the 1963 Sting Ray also had wider appeal because it offered more comfort features than earlier Corvettes, including power steering, power brakes, AM/FM radio, air conditioning and even leather upholstery.
Sales of the radically new 1963 model soared to 21,513 cars.
While its appearance scarcely changed, the Sting Ray was continually refined until discontinued when the 1968 Corvette arrived. The Sting Ray had a wide variety of horsepower ratings and options — and finally got disc brakes in 1965 to handle the power of larger, more powerful V-8s — the first big one being a 396-cubic-inch “Turbo Jet” engine with 425 horsepower, introduced for 1965.
Most folks with a steady job and average income could buy a 1963-67 Sting Ray. List prices remained about the same as they had for the 1963 coupe and convertible, with the 1967 coupe costing $4,353 and the convertible list priced at $4,141.
Other world-class sports cars cost considerably more to buy — and maintain. And none were as readily available as a Sting Ray, which could be bought and routinely serviced at any of Chevrolet’s many dealerships.
Dan Jedlicka has been writing about the automotive industry for more than 40 years. To read more of his vintage and new reviews and car-related articles, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.