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Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray

Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray

By Jack Nerad

Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray The first 10 years of Corvette history were years of struggle, experimentation and difficulty. Customer acceptance didn't come easy to the Corvette, and the design of a sports car didn't come easy to Chevrolet engineers.

But by the 1962 model year, all the trials and tribulations had vanished. The Corvette had found a profitable place in the General Motors lineup. Erstwhile challengers like the Nash-Healey and two-seat Ford Thunderbird had disappeared, and the Corvette had found its place among the elite of the world's sports cars.

And the best was yet to come.

Through the 1962 model year, the Corvette had earned its reputation through sheer power. Though the car handled far better than the sedans of the era, it was a far cry from the best of the European sports cars in terms of suspension sophistication. In fact, with the exception of the Corvette's fuel injection, sophisticated technology was absent from Chevrolet's sports car.

That would change, however, with the 1963 model year. The Corvette was given a second name, Sting Ray, and the chassis and body were new from the asphalt up. The changes gave the Corvette a level of sophistication the equal of any European sports machine.

Instead of the old X-braced frame, the new chassis, with a wheelbase of 98 inches compared to the previous 102 inches, had five cross members. The front suspension used unequal-length upper and lower arms with coil springs over tubular shocks. That was certainly modern in its approach, but it was nothing compared to the radical change made to the rear suspension. Out went the solid "live" axle of the previous edition Corvette, and in came an ingenious independent rear suspension that stepped the car up several notches in technology.

To get the benefits of independent suspension without bearing huge cost penalties, Corvette engineers, led by Zora Arkus-Duntov, mounted the differential to the frame and ran half-shafts to each wheel using universal joints at each end. Control arms extending from the case to the hub carriers and aft-mounted radius rods located the wheels, while tubular shock absorbers took care of damping. The cleverest part of the design was the use of a leaf spring fitted transversely from the differential and extending to each wheel. Not only was the design reasonably inexpensive to produce, it was also light and reduced the Corvette's unsprung weight considerably.

In tandem with the shorter wheelbase, the new independent suspension made the Corvette much more maneuverable and helped immensely in getting the Corvette's substantial power to the road. Maneuverability was further aided by the stiffer frame, which flexed much less than the previous version.

Improvements were also made to the Corvette's brakes, but they weren't the quantum leap that the chassis underwent. Instead of shifting to discs, the Corvette retained its huge 11-inch drum brakes, but the linings were widened for additional stopping power. Finned aluminum drums were offered optionally for those involved in "heavy-duty" (read, racing) situations.

Big brakes were necessary because there was little doubt the new Sting Ray was fast. The engine options were carryover, but since the 327 cubic inch version of the V-8 had been introduced just the year before, they were state-of-the-art American style. Four versions of the stout 327 were offered, three fitted with carburetors and the fourth with fuel injection. In base trim the Corvette delivered 250 horsepower, but step-ups could net 300, 340 or even 360 horsepower, the latter with fuel injection.

Most buyers opted for the milder carbureted versions, which were certainly potent enough. Not only was the fuel injection option expensive at $430 (yes, you read that right), it also came with solid valve lifters, which involved frequent adjustments.

In most instances when racing is involved in a vehicle's development it centers on mechanicals, not the body design, but in the Sting Ray's case it was just the opposite. The chassis and running gear of the Corvette were the result of the conventional corporate r&d process, but the Sting Ray body came straight from the race track.

William Mitchell, who had inherited the GM styling reins from Harley Earl, maintained a special "skunkworks" to tinker with various unofficial and semi-official projects. One of these was a sports racing car, built on a discarded Corvette prototype chassis.

With a body designed by Larry Shinoda, this "one-off " race car, dubbed the Sting Ray Special, won a Sports Car Club of America championship in 1960 with Dr. Richard Thompson behind the wheel. Oddly enough, the open car's body wasn't a particularly good shape for the track, because at speed it created front-end lift that made it a handful to steer. Nonetheless, the Sting Ray Special was the obvious inspiration for the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray.

Mitchell called in some of the top talent from GM styling to make the transition from racing car to street car, and their handiwork captured the essence of the racer without copying it line-for-line. But arguably the most important change for the 1963 model year was the addition of a coupe to the Corvette model range.

And the1963 coupe has become legendary, if for but one facet of its design - the split rear window. It is said that the first renderings showed a one-piece rear window, but then Mitchell suggested a "spine" down the middle, picking up the understated bulge that ran down the center of the lengthy hood and a narrower crease that shot through the center of the roofline. Others suggest that an inability to mold the rear glass into the radical curves of the one-piece backlight might have played a part in necessitating the split-window styling.

In any case, the split window was a distinctive element that got immediate notice both pro and con. Those with an aesthetic sense liked the distinctiveness, but a number of car critics whined about rear visibility. Their whining was so insistent that Chevrolet shifted to a conventional one-piece rear window for the 1964 model year.

Teaming with the split window treatment was a semi-boattail, fastback rear end, which was complemented by a front end that featured hidden headlamps. Elongated bulges marking each fender gave the design a muscular feel, while aluminum rocker panels tied the 1963 model to the 1962. With the doors cut deeply into the roofline, the Sting Ray looked a modern as a space capsule. The accompanying convertible model, which could be equipped with a factory-built hardtop, was somewhat less distinctive but still extremely handsome.

Corvette sales, already strong in 1962, went through the roof. More than 21,000 rolled off the St. Louis, Missouri, assembly lines in 1963.

Before the bodystyle was revised significantly for the 1968 model year, another important addition was introduced - the "big block" V-8. In 1965, the "396" cubic inch engine was added to the Sting Ray option sheet. (Actually the engine displaced more than 400 cubic inches, but 396 had a better ring to it.) Before the big block vanished it would eventually balloon to 427 and then 454 cubic inches, bringing with it romping-stomping loads of horsepower and torque.

No matter the engine, however, the Corvette Sting Ray of the era had few equals on road or track, and no equals at the price. It was truly America's sports car.
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