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A Tale of the Shark and the Rat: The Chevrolet Corvette Stingray (C3)

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A Tale of the Shark and the Rat: The Chevrolet Corvette Stingray (C3)

Written by Aaron Severson

Monday, 01 October 2007 13:58

When the original Chevrolet Corvette was introduced in 1953, it was a somewhat Pyrrhic effort to create something approximating a Jaguar XK120 using a fiberglass body and a lot of off-the-shelf Chevy parts. It had neither scorching performance nor roll-up side windows, and it sold poorly. It was nearly canceled in 1955 before salvation arrived in the form of Chevy's new V8 engine, which gave its performance a much-needed shot in the arm. The Corvette also acquired a new chief engineer, a bright and mercurial Russian immigrant named Zora Arkus-Duntov, who did his level best to make it into a genuine sports car.

In 1958, legendary styling chief Harley Earl retired, and his longtime deputy, Bill Mitchell, took over GM's styling department. Mitchell was a car guy, fond of sporting iron and motorcycles. He loved the Corvette, although his vision for what it should be was sharply removed from Duntov's notions of serious performance. The battle of wills between these two men in the normally stratified and reactionary corporate culture of General Motors would produce many clashes before both Duntov and Mitchell retired in the 1970s, but it also produced the classic Sting Ray and the fearsome third-generation Corvette, known to its fans as simply "C3" -- a car of immodest looks and immodest performance. This car:


Although its styling changed significantly, all Corvettes through 1962 used evolutionary versions of the original chassis, itself derived from the standard Chevrolet sedan. In 1963, that platform was replaced by the spectacular new Corvette Sting Ray (known as "C2" to fans). Not only did the Sting Ray have sexy looks, it had an advanced new chassis with a new fully independent rear suspension, which was still such a novelty in the U.S. in those days that Chevrolet felt the need to run magazine ads explaining how it worked. The Sting Ray was a fast car, but it was also one of the few American cars of its era with handling and braking matching its scorching straight-line performance. By modern standards, it was a bit slapdash, particularly in structural integrity, but it was a formidable rival for any of its contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic.

The design of the Sting Ray had been the source of many clashes between Mitchell and Arkus-Duntov. Duntov was contemptuous of the car's nonfunctional styling gimmicks and its poor aerodynamics -- it had low drag, but an alarming amount of high-speed lift. Duntov was only an engineer, however, while Mitchell was a vice president of one of GM's most powerful departments. Although Mitchell never enjoyed the almost unquestionable clout of his predecessor, who had had the patronage of GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan, GM's senior management was well aware that Mitchell's work was responsible for a great deal of GM's market domination. In a clash between Duntov and Mitchell, the victor was inevitable.


Duntov wanted the Sting Ray's replacement, which originally was slated to appear for the 1967 model year, to be smaller, leaner, and more aerodynamic, ideally with a rear- or mid-mounted engine. Mitchell, for his part, loved to make cars look aerodynamic, but he wasn't terribly concerned if they actually were or not. Like Harley Earl before him, Mitchell was a believer in the formula of longer-lower-wider, and he felt sports cars should have long hoods. He was no fan of the rear-engine layout that Duntov wanted, which he thought would be ugly. Mitchell envisioned the third-generation Corvette more like the XP-755 show car, known as Mako Shark.

Bill Mitchell developed this show car (code-named XP-755 and later named "Shark" after Mitchell caught a shark during a fishing trip) in early 1961, foreshadowing the styling of the 1963 Corvette. Mitchell used the Shark as his personal car for a time; Chevrolet general manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen also ordered a copy for his own use. In 1965, it was renamed "Mako Shark I" when Chevrolet unveiled the Mako Shark II show car, which foreshadowed the 1968 Corvette C3. (Photo © 2008 Jim Greenfield; used by permission)

Contemporary automotive journalists sneered at the many gimmicks of the Mako Shark and its successor, the 1965 Mako Shark II, both of which were the work of stylist Larry Shinoda, designer of the Sting Ray. Duntov didn't care much for it, either, but public reaction was favorable, and in short order, it was approved as the basis of the third-generation Corvette.

As for Duntov's desired mechanical changes, GM senior management had no stomach for an expensive revamp of the Sting Ray platform. With Corvette sales on the upswing, there seemed to be no reason to mess with success. As a result, it was determined that the new Corvette would carry over most of the Sting Ray's mechanicals, including the chassis, suspension, transmissions, and engines.

The photo car is a 1969 Corvette Stingray with the big-block 427 engine. Theoretically, it might have any of the six engine options, although it's probably the milder L36, with a single Quadrajet carburetor and hydraulic lifters, which was the most common big block. It cost $221.20 extra.


From 1957 through mid-1965, all Corvettes had used variations of Chevrolet's small-block V8. Introduced in 1955, the Chevy small block was a compact, inexpensive, relatively lightweight engine, with nearly infinite hop-up potential. It was officially called the Turbofire V8, but because of its modest size and great potential, it eventually became known as the "Mouse motor."

In the mid-fifties, Chevrolet also developed a separate line of physically larger ("big block") engines that could be expanded to greater displacement than the Turbofire. Commonly known as the W engine, the big block was originally intended as a truck engine, but in 1958, it found its way into the passenger car line, as well. Its initial displacement was 348 cubic inches (5.7 L), later stretched to 409 (6.7 L) and immortalized in song by the Beach Boys. A second-generation version of this engine, the Turbojet, was introduced for 1965, becoming optional on full-size Chevrolets. The big-block Turbojet was larger, heavier, and meaner than the Mouse, so it inevitably became known as the Rat motor.

Originally, Chevrolet had no plans to offer the Turbojet in the Corvette, but the 1964 introduction of Pontiac's Tempest GTO, with its optional 389 cu. in. (6.4 L) engine, upset the applecart. Duntov was loathe to jam the heavy big-block engine into the Sting Ray, where it would compromise weight distribution, but he could not allow the Corvette to lose its supremacy as GM's #1 performance car. He finally accepted that there was no choice, and the Rat became an option on the Sting Ray midway through the 1965 model year.

In its initial form, the big engine displaced 396 cubic inches (6.5 L) and made 425 gross horsepower (317 kW), a huge bump over the 375-hp (279-kW) fuel-injected small block that had previously been the Corvette's top engine option. The "fuelie" was a better fit for the Sting Ray than the 396, which was about 150 pounds (68 kg) heavier, but the big Rat was both more powerful and cheaper to buy. The initial L78 big-block engine cost $292.70, compared to a whopping $538 for the L84 fuelie. In short order, the Rat overshadowed the Mouse, leading to the elimination of its most highly tuned variations.

The big block returned for 1966, now bored out to 427 cubic inches (7.0 L), but the high-strung fuel-injected engine was gone; fuel injection would not return to the Corvette until 1982.



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