Long an interested outsider but seldom a joiner, Detroit last week moved into the mainstream of international sports car manufacture with the introduction of the spectacular new Grand Touring car illustrated on these pages. It is the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette, and its design and swift performance are such that it deserves to be ranked at once in the same league as the very best of the European Grand Touring cars—Britain's Aston Martin and Jaguar XK-E, Germany's Mercedes 300 SL and Italy's touring Ferraris and Maseratis.
As a Grand Touring car should, the Corvette provides fast, surefooted, luxurious travel for two. In addition, it promises to be an exceptional road-racing car. While admitting that it is imprudent to make flat predictions about racing, Chevrolet Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, the man responsible for the Corvette's manners, says he will be surprised if the car does not defeat all rival GT machines except racers thinly disguised as GTs.
Until now the Corvette has been a development of the original, rather nondescript auto that began life as a General Motors show car in 1953. It was at first neither brisk nor nimble. Then Chevy began to pump sports car life into it. These infusions may be traced to Duntov, a former racing driver, who alone among thousands of industry engineers represents a direct link with the European road-racing tradition.
In his own words, Duntov "muscled into" the Corvette project and preached performance. He was warmly encouraged by Chevy boss Ed Cole. The sermon took, and the result is public record. By 1957 the Corvette was chasing from American circuits the then current Jaguar production-racing cars. Soon it was outpacing the gull-wing Mercedes 300 SL. The 1962 model from time to time defeated the race-bred $12,950 Ferrari 250-GT Berlinetta.
Now here is the first Corvette to be conceived and executed as a GT sports car, and an uncommon value it is, considering its performance. The most expensive model will probably sell for less than $6,000. It has a new all-independent suspension system, the secret of its admirable handling qualities. A 327-cubic-inch V-8 provides the necessary power, and new low-drag, fiber-glass coachwork permits the car to slip through the air more cleanly than its blocky forebears.
While independent front suspension is universal, independent rear-wheel arrangements are rare in America; besides the Corvette, only the Tempest and the Corvair have them. The reasons for the independent layout are several. At any road speed, engine torque—the twisting movement transmitted via the propeller shaft—tends to lift one rear wheel and depress the other. Ride stability and acceleration potential are thereby impaired. With the differential housing bolted rigidly to the frame, as on the new Corvette, that penalty is nullified. Moreover, when there is independent suspension, road shocks taken by one wheel are not sent along to its opposite number. If the suspension geometry is correct, a better ride and greater cornering power result. The Corvette system, finally, reduces the amount of weight not supported by the springs. The less such weight, the less bouncing up and down there is from road jolts.
Duntov has designed into the Corvette a novel three-link rear suspension closely following the one on his experimental single-seater, the CERV-1 (SI, Jan. 23, 1961), but using a transverse leaf spring rather than a pair of coils to save precious space. At each rear wheel the axle half shaft serves as one of the three suspension links and, with a lower link, controls vertical wheel movement; a trailing arm link transmits driving and braking forces to the frame. The spring is merely for cushioning and has no effect on wheel attitudes. Placing 52% of the weight on the rear wheels—unusual in a front-engined car—contributes to the car's superior handling and braking qualities.
As for power, customers will have four options, ranging from 250 hp for the basic carbureted V-8 to 360 for the most powerful fuel-injection model—the one that will propel racing Corvettes. The same alternatives were offered in 1962, but now the fuel-injection engine has been improved. Chances are that the nonracing citizen who chooses the 360 can expect a top speed of 140 mph. Heaven knows where he'll be able to use that kind of speed lawfully, but his acceleration possibilities and passing power will be sensational. Duntov says he has himself achieved 160 mph with optimum gear ratios and plenty of test track. There is an extra-heavy-duty Corvette (a euphemism for competition-ready) that needs only a roll bar to be a racer. Three-and four-speed hand-shift gearboxes are available in all engine ranges; automatic transmission is offered only for the least powerful two.
Coachwork choices include a new arresting fastback model with a huge divided rear window. The customary soft-top and removable hardtop alternatives are also available. Doors on the fastback are cut up into the roof to permit easy passenger entry, and headlights are inverted, in normal use, for aerodynamic efficiency. The flick of a switch turns them outward for nighttime use. The now familiar console separates two very comfortable bucket seats, and among the gauges on the driver's hooded instrument panel are a 160-mph speedometer and a tachometer.
The new Corvette resembles a widely traveled GM experimental styling car called the Sting Ray (that also is the name of the 1963 Corvette). But few who saw the first Sting Ray knew that the experimental body enclosed a famous Chevy racing chassis. It was none other than the Corvette SS practice car, the "mule," with which Juan Manuel Fangio, world champion driver, briefly lifted American hearts one hot, sunny day in 1957 by speeding to a new lap record at Sebring, Fla. Soon afterward Detroit abandoned overt racing; the SS was shelved and with it, conceivably, a victory that year in the biggest sports car race of them all, the Le Mans 24 Hours, for which Chevy would have been ready. (Although Ford and Chrysler have withdrawn from the industry's nonracing pact, General Motors at this moment still adheres to it.)
For Zora Duntov, who designed the SS, the retirement of the car must have been intensely galling—but he is a philosophic man, and soon he was likening himself to a roly-poly that always bounces upright no matter how often it is toppled over. He is up again with a high-performance car.
Of Russian stock, Duntov was born in Belgium in 1909 and raised in Russia. At 17 he was taken to Berlin, where he was grounded in mechanical engineering at Charlottenburg's Institute. (MIT is our Charlottenburg.) He worked as an engineering designer in Germany, Belgium and France and for recreation went road racing. Two heavy prewar crashes damaged his back, and for several years he was never without pain.
As Hitler's war swept Europe, Duntov made his way to the U.S. He returned later to race four times at Le Mans. His first Le Mans, in 1952, rewarded him with a spectacular accident. Barreling along in a British Allard on the Mulsanne straight toward the sharp right-hand turn at its end, he discovered that he had no brakes. "For a second," he says, "I thought it was only a nightmare; I would wake up and find that everything was O.K." It was no nightmare. Duntov recalled that the car burst through the track's perimeter fence and rolled a mile right into the town of Mulsanne before coming to rest. The accident did not shake his nerve a whit. In succeeding years he twice won the 1,100-cc. class at Le Mans in German Porsches—no small feat.
While test-driving a Corvette in 1955, Duntov reinjured his much abused back—broke it, in fact. Although three vertebrae are now fused together, the old pain is gone, and Duntov, a silver-haired 52 today, is a marvel of energy and good humor.
Needless to say, Chevy is fortunate to have a creative engineer who is also his own test pilot; the world counts few of that breed. And it is obvious that Duntov's racing experience has given him a profound distaste for cars that handle badly. It is his own neck—or more precisely, back—that he risks when he test-drives.
Two weeks ago, Duntov pitched one of the 1963s into a full-blooded, four-wheel racing drift on a sweeping proving-ground bend, at something over 100 mph, and went on to perform other agile maneuvers. Taking the wheel myself, I was delighted by the car's sudden acceleration, riding-on-rails stability on the straights and astonishing leechlike adhesion not only in smoothly paved turns but also on broken-up asphalt.
"Some drivers," Duntov says, "have had a habit of slamming the Corvette into turns. With the new car, slamming will go out. It will be more forgiving than ever to those who make mistakes, but the brutal driving we have seen will no longer be necessary."