Almost a half-century ago, a small team of engineers at GM created, in complete secrecy, a car that is arguably considered to be one of the greatest American sportscars ever built. Yet, it was never even considered for production due to callow bureaucracy and the ignorance of upper management. This is the story of the original Corvette Grand Sport.
In the early 1960’s, the Corvette was widely accepted as one of the best domestically produced sportscars in the country. Its main competitor from the 1950’s, Ford’s Thunderbird, had been transformed from a small, slick two-seater into a bloated land yacht that was more suitable for cruising a straight stretch of highway than wrestling the tight corkscrew at Laguna Seca. Studebaker had unleashed Ray Loewy’s Avanti onto the market in 1962, however it was underpowered and only available with an automatic transmission, which can only be described as automotive heresy.
In 1962, Corvettes equipped with the 327 fuelie were reportedly belching out 360hp and could cover the quarter-mile in just over 14 seconds. However, the car still had several flaws that needed revision in order for it to be a serious competitor. They were weighing in at over 3100 pounds, which was (and is) a bit fat for a true sportscar. In addition, the suspension and chassis were more suited for smooth rides rather than conquering tight hairpins at high speed. Duntov’s team understood these shortcomings and worked to correct them with their new Stingray project, loosely based on the Mako Shark concept. However, their task at hand would soon grow much more challenging than they had anticipated.
Meanwhile, legendary Le Mans victor/engineer Carroll Shelby had worked out a deal with AC and Ford to create his original Cobra. By shoe-horning a small-block Ford motor into a lightweight, British chassis(a tactic originally used by pioneers of the So-Cal sportscar scene in the 1950’s), he created a true sportscar that could rival the best in the business. This very scenario unfolded at the 1962 Riverside Grand Prix where multiple Corvettes were dusted by Cobras, which caused Duntov’s team to completely re-evaluate their entire racing effort and start again from scratch.
Duntov refused to simply sit back and let his team be defeated. He conspired with Bunkie Knudsen, GM’s head of Chevrolet at the time, about creating a purpose-built racing Corvette to challenge the best GT competitors in the world. However, GM corporate policy still dignified a ban on direct involvement in racing activity by major automotive corporations, which was regulated by the Automobile Manufacturers Association in 1957 (presumably due to the 1955 Le Mans Disaster). Duntov’s plan was to produce approximately 125 lightweight Corvettes in order to meet the FIA’s homologation requirements required for endurance racing during this time. The cars themselves would be sold to amateur racing teams in order to act as a loophole through the AMA’s motorsports ban. Duntov and his team had the resources, the engineers, and the funding to create such a car. The plan was in order, the hard part was keeping it a secret from the top executives.
Duntov’s team knew that their Stingray needed to be completely rebuilt from the ground up in order to be competitive with the new breed of sportscars that were rapidly evolving across the globe during this period. With a basic Stingray as a blank canvas, the engineers were put through their paces to develop a faster, lighter car that could annihilate any and all competition that dare challenge the Corvette name. The traditional chassis was scrapped in favor of a new tubular, space-frame unit that provided increased rigidity during hard cornering. The entire suspension system was reworked with lighter components, larger disc brakes were added with vented rotors for added stopping power, and a larger fuel tank was added and fitted closer to the cockpit. The bodywork was, like all Corvettes, made from lightweight fiberglass. However, virtually every panel was replaced with thinner units to shed every pound possible from the finished product. Ultra-wide, NASCAR tires from Goodyear were added that reportedly gave the Grand Sport a death-claw lateral grip of 1.1g. All of this engineering allowed for the lightweight Grand Sport to out-handle, out-accelerate, and out-brake virtually anything in its way. For horsepower, new 377 C.I. V8 was developed for the Grand Sport project. Figures ranged from 480-550hp, which combined with a sub-2000lb curb weight allowed for a power-to-weight ratio that was virtually unheard of for any car produced by a major manufacturer at the time.
In December of 1962, Duntov himself tested Grand Sport #001 at Sebring, posting lap times that rivaled the track record at the time. Additional work was needed, but the project was immediately deemed a success by the team. In late 1963, three Grand Sports were entered in the annual Nassau Speed Week for the Tourist Trophy (unsurprisingly, a number of GM engineers reportedly decided to vacation during the Bahamas during that winter). The Grand Sports didn’t win the event, but respectively finished 4th and 8th overall and completely vanquished every Cobra present at the series.
The Grand Sport team was proud, however their enthusiasm was short-lived. Word of the secret project travelled throughout the company and eventually reached the GM executives. Duntov was ordered to pull the plug on the entire operation in favor of the AMA agreement with only five cars completed at the time. Alas, the Grand Sport project was finished before it even got a chance to stretch its legs. The cars weren’t, but one can only imagine what the Grand Sport team would have been capable of had they slipped the noose. Ford (in conjunction with Shelby) went on to win Le Mans in 1966 and 1967 respectively with their GT40 program, which is considered to be one of the pinnacle achievements of American racing efforts on a global scale. Had GM not acted so cowardly in the early 1960’s, this accomplishment might have been the result of a bow-tie instead of a blue oval.