Bill Mitchell's (and Elvis' Too) 1959 Stingray Racer Visits Jay Leno's Garage to Hype Auction of Akerson's '58 Vette
As part of the publicity campaign to promote the upcoming Barrett-Jackson charity auction of GM CEO Dan Akerson’s personal 1958 Corvette to benefit Habitat For Humanity in Detroit, GM Design chief Ed Welburn brought that car along with three Corvettes from GM’s Heritage collection to the Big Dog Garage for an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage. I have a ton of respect for Leno and not just because we both own Lotus Elans (in Leno’s case, he owns two, one a 26R racer that he’s restomodding, mine is in pieces, in what is now my ex’s garage). He’s a knowledgeable car guy whose collection is broader and deeper than that of many car museums. Sure, he’s promoting himself, and helping GM promote itself as well, but then that doesn’t hurt when Jay wants a one-off eco supercar. Still, PR aside, Leno loves cars and it shows in which of the four Corvettes most catches his fancy. In addition to Akerson’s ’58, Welburn brought one of the first Corvettes, a 1953, a perfect ’63 split window coupe, and the 1959 Stingray race car, Leno’s apparent favorite. He refers to it as “the rarest and most valuable” Corvette there is, though it wasn’t officially a “Corvette”. Watch Leno grin as he listens to the engine roar after Welburn lets him fire it up.
Leno’s probably correct when he says that the car would fetch $10 million at auction. The car is historically significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the first use of the “Stingray” name. It has great provenance and it even has a championship racing history. More important to the car’s potential value, it has a great story.
The Stingray’s styling by Pete Brock (who would go on to design the Shelby Daytona Coupe) and Larry Shinoda (who went to Ford later and did the Boss 302 Mustang) has influenced every Corvette made from the second generation’s introduction in 1963 onward, including, from what Welburn says in the video, the upcoming C7 Vette, to be revealed next month at the NAIAS. The cars provenance includes being driven by both Corvette racing legend Dick Thompson and Elvis Presley and while GM is proud to display the car today, when it was created it was literally a basement project by GM styling head Bill Mitchell.
The Stingray started out as the Corvette SS, a tube frame racer that Zora Arkus Duntov hoped to race at LeMans. After the SS’ debut in the Sebring race in 1957, though, the Automobile Manufacturers Association banned manufacturer-sponsored racing, no doubt influenced by the carnage at LeMans in 1955, when 83 spectators were killed by flying debris after a Mercedes Benz race car left the track.
Undeterred by the official ban on racing, Mitchell arranged to buy an SS frame for $1 (one source says $500). He had a secret styling studio set up in the basement of the GM Building that was referred to as Studio X. Studio X was where Mitchell generated the ideas that would put his own personal stamp on GM styling after taking over from Harley Earl who retired in 1958. In addition to the Stingray, Studio X was the incubator for the Buick Riviera. In a 1985 interview with David Chippen, in Mitchell’s typically immodest style the Detroit styling legend described the origins of the Stingray, “I knew they had three or four chassis that Corvette Chief Engineer Zora Arkus- Duntov had built. It had a tubular frame, de Dion suspension, inboard brakes, everything! And I went down in the hammer room and designed this Corvette Stingray in clay. Nobody in the corporation knew about it… When it came time to face-lift the Corvette, I took the lines right off that car.”
A more precise history of the Stingray is given in A Century of Automotive Style by esteemed automotive writer Michael Lamm and retired GM designer Dave Holls. Junior GM designers Pete Brock and Chuck Pohlman’s sketches won an internal competition that Mitchell staged, inspired by Battista “Pinin” Farina‘s Fiat 750 Abarth speed record car that Mitchell had seen at the Turin auto show in 1957. Pohlman and Corvette designer Larry Shinoda then crafted a full size clay model from which an exceptionally thin lightweight fiberglass body was molded.
The car was assembled at the GM Design Center and weighed half a ton less than the production Corvette. Shinoda would later use the same general styling, as Mitchell said, to create the 1963 Corvette. Coincidentally, as that Pininfarina inspired Stingray went into production, Chevrolet commissioned Pininfarina himself to create the Rondine coupe on a ’63 Vette chassis for the European auto show circuit. It’s interesting to compare Brock and Shinoda’s take on Pininfarina’s original 1957 concept with the Italian master’s own.
Though Mitchell and Duntov had a contentious relationship (Duntov wanted the C2 Corvette to be an aerodynamic wedge design, and not based on the Stingray) with Zora’s help the Stingray was fitted with a 315 HP fuel injected version of Chevy’s 283 V8.
Then they went racing with it. Billed as “strictly a private effort on the part of Bill Mitchell”, the Stingray carried no Chevrolet or Corvette logos, just a “Stingray” fender badge with a stingray fish, another of the car’s inspirations. Driven mostly by dentist Dr. Dick Thompson, it won the 1960 SCCA championship for the C-Modified class.
After it retired from racing, as Mitchells personal car, he added a passenger seat and drove it on the street. As is often the case with designers’ personal cars, Mitchell would refresh the car from time to time and even if it didn’t start out as an official GM car, the company did use it as a show car, and it started sporting a Corvette logo on the front end. In the 1960s it went through a series of different paint jobs and engines, including a Chevy big block V8.
Painted red and sporting a large hood scoop (perhaps for that big block engine), it had a highly visible role in the 1967 Elvis Presley movie, Clambake, in which it was owned Presley’s character. That character is the son of a wealthy oil man who wants people to like him for who he is, not for his money, so he and a car mechanic, played by Will Hutchins, swap identities and go to Miami to race boats.
Unfortunately, Clambake was one of Elvis’ more forgettable movies so as yet nobody’s posted any video clips from the movie with Elvis at the wheel of the Stingray, but I have found some stills from the film and one of the musical numbers, Who Needs Money? has Presley and Hutchins singing a duet after the swap as Hutchins drives the Stingray and Elvis rides alongside on a Harley Davidson.
Eventually General Motors bought the Stingray racer and had it restored to how it looked when Thompson was racing it, with a period appropriate engine. GM still uses it as a show car. The automaker has displayed it recently at SEMA and on the Monterey peninsula and they’re obviously using it to hype the upcoming auction of their CEO’s ’58. When you’re Jay Leno, GM brings the Stingray to you. They did, however, graciously give me and Mike Karesh access to the Heritage Center where some of the accompanying photos were taken.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper and get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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I`m sorry but I really cant buy into Akersons love for this old vette.I doubt if he has even driven a Corvette of any vintage!