To millions of gearheads, the name “Stingray” is almost sacred. You could write a book on the history of the Corvette (and plenty of people have), dating back to the original plastic fantastic model from 1953, but to legions of fans, the Corvette didn’t truly earn its stripes until the second-generation Stingray debuted in 1963. The name has become shorthand for the the golden age of performance in America, all big block V8s, red line tires, and space-age design. The original Stingray may have had the shortest lifespan of any Corvette — just five model years — but its legacy is felt more than half a century later in the current Corvette, considered by many to be the best of the breed.
The ’53-’62 ‘Vettes had a difficult gestation period, with early cars suffering from uneven build quality (largely due to use of a new material called fiberglass) and a woefully inadequate inline six pared to a two-speed automatic transmission. The 1955 car benefited from an overhead valve V8 and standard three-speed manual, and the ’57s had the optional (and now legendary) fuel injected V8, but from ’58 to ’60, the car became weighed down with heavy chrome flourishes, and despite a significant refresh for ’61-’62, the car was beginning to show its age.
But the genesis of the Stingray began much further back as early as 1957, with the new model slated to arrive for the 1960 model year. Chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and his staff began work on the “Q-Corvette,” a smaller, lighter model with cutting-edge features like a rear-mounted transaxle (for better weight distribution), independent rear suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and a sleek coupe body penned by a 21-year-old stylist named Pete Brock, who would go on to design the Shelby Daytona Coupe. Then, the development of the Stingray split: During the the recession of 1957, GM brass killed the expensive program much to the dismay of styling director Bill Mitchell, who bought the car, and with covert help from a crew of GM engineers, turned the Q-Corvette into an SCCA racer, the 1959 Sting Ray Corvette.
While Mitchell was off winning races, Arkus-Duntov and his team had moved on to build the mid-engined CERV (Chevrolet Experimental Racing Vehicle), an engineering concept designed to showcase his innovations developed for the Q-Corvette, and make them more palatable for the men holding the purse strings. In 1961, Mitchell ordered a young designer named Larry Shinoda (who would go on to design the 1970-’73 Ford Mustang) to improve on Brock’s design for a production version, and in 1960, the next-generation Corvette was given the green light by GM.
Bill Mitchell was in the business of transforming GM’s cars into dream machines; to him, function followed form. But to Arkus-Duntov, the new Corvette needed to perform at least as well as it looked. Four-wheel discs and the rear-mounted transaxle went out the window to keep costs down, but he held firm on the independent rear suspension, and in the end Mitchell acquiesced to the expensive setup.
The Stingray would turn out to be one of the era’s best performance cars, but that didn’t matter when it debuted as a coupe and convertible in October 1962. With its hideaway headlights (the first on an American car since the ’42 DeSoto), fastback fuselage, and split rear window, it combined elements of European sports cars like the Jaguar E-Type and Ferrari 250GT, but with American space-age styling touches, especially on the interior.
The automotive press fell for the Sting Ray (introduced as two words) fast. Car and Driver said:
One glance at the new Corvette tells you that it is faster and sportier than its predecessors. And when you drive a Corvette Sting Ray, either the convertible or the fastback Sport Coupé, you find that the excitement is far more than skindeep. Hiding independent rear suspension under its sculptured tail, the Corvette is now second to no other production sports car in road-holding and is still the most powerful.
And following suit, Road and Track added:
As a purely sporting car, the new Corvette will know few peers on road or track. It has proved, in its “stone-age form,” the master of most production-line competitors; in its nice, shiny new concept it ought to be nearly unbeatable.
What’s more, the press vindicated Arkus-Duntov and his expensive IRS setup. In the same review, Road and Track declared:
In a word, the new Sting Ray sticks! Whether you slam the car through an S-bend at 85 or pop the clutch at 5000 rpm at the drag strip, the result is the same — great gripping gobs of traction.
At $4,037 (around $32,000 today), the Corvette was a bargain compared to the E-Type and Porsche 356, and could keep up with them in nearly anything. After a decade of trial-and-error, “America’s Sports Car” had become world-class, and it became the best-selling ‘Vette to date.
For 1964, Chevy shattered its year-old sales record with a mildly revised car. The distinctive split rear window was replaced by a more practical single piece of glass, and it lost its dual hood vents. Other than a slight horsepower bump — 365 versus 360 in ’63 — on performance models (standard 327 cubic inch cars made 260 horsepower), the car was otherwise unchanged.
Chevrolet had brought a mildly customized Sting Ray to the 1964 World’s Fair, where it was to be the centerpiece of GM’s auto display. But it was upstaged by Ford’s all-new ponycar, the Mustang. By 1965, with the Mustang a runaway success, American car buyers had officially gone crazy for horsepower. The Mustang was never in the same league as the ‘Vette, but the Chevy did benefit from a notable power bump. That year, it introduced the big block 396, which cranked out an impressive 425 horsepower. For ’65, the Sting Ray also came one step closer to Arkus-Duntov’s ideal and got four-wheel disc brakes, a feature generally found only on high-end sports cars for the era. To go with the added power and better brakes, the ’65 Sting Ray got big fender vents to go along with them.
As the rest of Chevy’s lineup began to gain more of a performance edge, the range-topping Sting Ray got even hotter in 1966. Both 390- and 425-horsepower big block engines became available, and base cars now made an even 300 horsepower. But the sports car world was changing fast. Lamborghini had stunned the automotive world with the mid-engined Miura, pointing to an even lower, leaner, angular future for sports cars. And the lowly muscle car was beginning to cut into the Corvette’s standing as America’s top sports car. What’s more, competitors like the Ford-powered Shelby Cobra were giving Corvettes a tough time on the race track. It was already time for a change, and Chevrolet decided that it needed to come in 1967.
But again, Arkus-Duntov dragged his heels on the new Corvette, now called Stingray (one word). It just wasn’t ready yet, so Chevy brought out a largely unchanged Sting Ray for one more year, and it became one for the ages. The 1967 model benefitted from every incremental change the Corvette team made over its five-year production run, and the range-topping L88 model, a factory-prepped drag car could crank out 560 horsepower from its high-compression 427. With just 20 produced, it’s one of the most sought after Corvettes ever built.
The third-generation Stingray debuted for 1968, and even after its extra year of development, it was plagued with a number of problems. But it was lower, sleeker, and had a sexy Ferrari-esque “Coke-bottle” shape. Despite the teething issues and a $400 price bump, the new car sold nearly 30,000 units its first year, a new Corvette sales record.
But the Stingray had the misfortune of weathering the oil crisis of the early ’70s, the bloat of the Malaise Era at the end of that decade, and a few awkward years of withering on the vine in the early ’80s. By the time it left production, it was slow, ancient, and out of style. The original Sting Ray never had that problem. It was only here for five years — each one better than the last — and went out as one of the most popular Corvettes of all-time.
After years in the wilderness, there may be a growing appreciation of the C3 Stingray, but the C2 is the darling of the collectors, and when Chevy reintroduced the nameplate for the current car, you can bet that it was channeling the sleek, red-hot car of the ’60s rather than the tired cruiser of the ’70s. The Sting Ray is a legend, and as time goes on, it will only grow in stature.