If you think it looks radical today, imagine the impact nearly 45 years ago. But the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport actually was one of the most fascinating racing successes that never was. How’s that?
If you think it looks radical today, imagine the impact nearly 45 years ago.
But the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport actually was one of the most fascinating racing successes that never was.
Officially, the five single-purpose competition machines didn’t exist and all General Motors’ divisions were supposedly adhering to a ban on racing originally agreed to by all North American manufacturers back in 1957.
Behind closed doors, however, it was another matter.
GM, Ford and Chrysler conducted various “skunk works” operations that funneled money and engineering expertise to various private racing enterprises. For example, in the early 1960s, retired driver and budding entrepreneur Carroll Shelby received Ford’s help in creating his British-bodied Cobra roadster. Not only was its V8 engine supplied by the manufacturer, but Ford’s technical assistance was brought to bear on the track versions of the car. The result was a predictable number of victories for Shelby’s snakes that heralded Ford’s official return to racing in early 1962.
Senior executives at General Motors, however, refused to rise to this challenge and the no-racing edict remained in effect. But quietly and out of sight of the corporate biggies, work on a Cobra killer had begun.
The Grand Sport was the cornerstone of a grand plan to embarrass Ford and prove that the Corvette was really the epitome of raceproven performance.
Unlike the Cobra, the ’Vette was a well-established production sports car that had, since its 1953 beginning, developed a dedicated following. Braced by chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov’s development, the fiberglass two-seater had evolved from a glass-jawed dilettante to a muscular power puncher. It was also the one car that directly benefitted from various racing activities, covert and otherwise. A number of competition-geared prototypes were constantly in evidence around GM’s proving grounds and would also appear at various sporting events, often piloted by Arkus-Duntov himself.
In mid-1962, the first of what would become five special Corvettes, labeled the Grand Sport, began to take shape. Loosely based on the new-for-1963 Sting Ray coupe, each featured a tubular aluminum chassis, extra-thin fiberglass body panels and plexiglass windows. The Grand Sport’s engine bay contained an all-aluminum fuel-injected V8 that had been increased to 377 cubic-inches from the original 327 cubes. The motor also had a unique set of hemispherical combustion chambers that helped it make 485 horsepower, 115 more than a stock 360-horse “fuelie” powerplant, but more than 100 short of the 600-horse goal Arkus-Duntov had desired.
To assist engine cooling and to clear the extra-tall fuel-injection system, the Grand Sport’s raised hood included a series of finned louvers. There were also air vents cut into the sides of the body to cool the disc brakes. Extended wheel arches were build to accommodate the fat racing rubber.
Each Grand Sport weighed around 1,900 pounds, 1,000 pounds less than a stock Sting Ray but about the same as a race-prepared Cobra.
Arkus-Duntov’s vision called for 125 of these brutes plus 1,000 tamer street versions that would sell for $10,000 apiece.
The more pragmatic Chevy boss Bunkie Knudsen, fearing the Grand Sport would attract unwanted corporate attention, scaled back the project to 25 pure race cars.
Ultimately, neither he nor Arkus-Duntov would get their wish. In February, 1963, after the Daytona 500 NASCAR stock-car race, General Motors announced it would strictly enforce the previously agreed-to racing ban. All existing Grand Sports were ordered destroyed.
Arkus-Duntov, however, was having none of it. Somehow, the five pure white (at the time) modified Corvettes with stock 360-horse fuel-injected engines were loaned to private teams. Not only that, Arkus-Duntov helped create the Z06 racing package (no options and a 36-gallon racing fuel tank) for stock Sting Ray coupes.
In December, 1963, three of the Cadillac Blue Grand Sports arrived in the Bahamas for the Nassau Speed Weeks race series. Coincidently, a number of Chevy technical types also happened to be “vacationing” in the area and helped prep the reinstalled race engines for battle. When the dust cleared, the Grand Sport’s poor aerodynamics and lack of sufficient preparation prevented outright victory, but they did place well. More importantly, the cars finished ahead of the Cobras. Arkus-Duntov had proven his point.
After Nassau, the cars were shipped back to their Michigan home for reworking and upgrading prior to the beginning of the 1964 race calendar. Two had their roofs removed and were given an extralow windscreen to reduce drag.
Unfortunately, the pressure on Knudsen from GM’s executive suite to cease all racing-related activities once and for all was unrelenting. Arkus-Duntov was forced to sell the three coupes (plus a spare chassis) before the season even began. Two years later, team owner (and former champion Corvette driver) Roger Penske purchased the remaining two roadsters which Arkus-Duntov had kept safely hidden from the GM brass.
With proper support and development, the phantom Grand Sport could have been a tremendous success both on and off the track. As it was, the car-that-never-was proved that the Corvette and Zora Arkus-Duntov had what it took to race to the top of its class.