The 1959 Stingray
LeMans, 1955. A Mercedes factory car gets loose, leaves the track, and kills 83 spectators. That single event has probably had more of an effect on racing as we know it than any other. In fact, many international racing historians use terms like “BFC” and “AFC” to describe the periods both before and after the factory crash.
It was a big damned deal. People went ape shit over what went wrong, what could have been done differently, what needed to change, etc… And because a clear consensus couldn’t be agreed upon, the Automobile Manufacturers Association decided that the best way to protect themselves was to ban factory racing all together.
For guys like Bill Mitchell, this ban was effectively a death sentence to research and development for the American sports car. More so, keeping factory cars off the track kept the fun out of work. Bill wasn’t standing for it.
Instead, he arranged to personally buy an old Corvette SS chassis that was developed by Zora Arkus Duntov. He then set up a secret studio in the basement of a GM building that he titled, “Studio X.” In this “off the books” studio, projects like the Buick Riviera were incubated until ready for mass consumption within GM. But Bill also used the space for personal projects… And his first was a Corvette based race car.
To get help with the design of the car, Bill staged an internal design contest that was inspired by Pininfarina’s Fiat 750 land speed car. The contest was won by junior GM designers Pete Brock and Chuck Pohlman. Their design was then turned to clay by both Pohlman and famed Corvette designer Larry Shinoda.
Once the clay was cured, they molded a thin lightweight body from fiberglass, mounted it to the SS chassis, and presented it to Bill. Bill dug what he saw and called Duntov to get a small block prepped. Given the incredible light weight package, Duntov elected to go with a 315hp fuel injected 283.
Then, Bill went racing… To avoid any drama, the Corvette was billed as a private effort from Bill Mitchell and Bill Mitchell only. The car wasn’t badged with any Chevrolet or Corvette logos and instead, featured a simple “Stingray” fender badge.
Of course, the Stingray dominated at the race track. Driven by Dr. Dick Thompson, it won the 1960 SCCA championship in the C-Modified class. Nothing ever really challenged it and you’ve got to wonder how the car would have done at LeMans given this success.
In any case, here’s some historical shots of the car:
After 1960, Bill felt like he had proven his point and took the car off the race track. For shits and giggles, he added a passenger seat and started driving the car regularly on the street. And like any car guy, Bill couldn’t leave it alone. He often re-painted the car, tried different motor combinations, etc… And then, sometime around 1965 the car was used in the Elvis movie – “Clambake.”
During the period of the Elvis movie, the car featured an injected big block Chevrolet and one hell of a hood to showcase it. If you are my age, this was probably your first exposure to the secretly built 1959 Stingray. It was red, it was flashy, and by god – Elvis Presley was driving it!
Even on its own merit, the Elvis version was pretty damned gorgeous. So gorgeous, that I think it’s easy to lose sight of just how perfect the original version of the car really was. I’ve long considered the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO to be the most beautiful car ever designed, but looking at the Stingray side-by-side with the Italian… Well, I begin to question that.
After Clambake released, GM bought the car from Bill Mitchell, restored it back to it’s original configuration, and stuck it in a museum. Along the way, they had these studio shots done:
A few years back, I actually saw this car with my own eyes at the Bowling Green museum. It was sitting up high on a glossy white pedestal and had dedicated lighting shining down on the perfectly laid silver paint job. For the most part, I ignored the car as an untouchable form of sorts. Like the Ferrari GTO, it was more fairytale than automobile and why waste time on it when I had survivor Duntov touched cars to study?
Now, as I sit here, look at those studio shots, and study the historical photos I’m beginning to think there is a new leader in my clubhouse.
Oh, and happy birthday to the King. TCB.