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The Stingray Returns!

December 9, 2013

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water… er, dealership… Chevrolet’s iconic Corvette Stingray* is back. The seventh-generation Corvette just received Automobile Magazine’s “Automobile of the Year” award. It’s a great honor, and it affirms the car’s right to wear the hallowed “Stingray” name – not seen on a Corvette since 1976.

Given Corvette’s long-established status as America’s sports car, it’s easy to forget that the first models lacked a performance image. The 1953-54 cars featured inline six engines and two-speed automatic transmissions – not exactly scream machines. That began to change with the 1955 model year when a V-8 and a three-speed manual shift became options. Production figures climbed steadily thereafter, but the Corvette arguably didn’t come into its own until the 1963 model year when General Motors styling head Bill Mitchell shepherded the magnificent Sting Ray into production.

Mitchell’s car was a radical departure from previous Corvettes. The gentle curves of the earlier cars (readily seen on The Henry Ford’s 1955 example) were replaced with sharp edges. The toothy grille gave way to an aggressive nose with hidden headlights, and the roof transitioned into a racy fastback. The car was a smash in its day and continues to be perhaps the most desirable body style among collectors.

Bill Mitchell poses with the 1959 Corvette Stingray Special race car. (THF71553)

The 1963 Sting Ray was inspired by two of Mitchell’s personal project cars. The 1959 Stringray Special was built on the chassis of the 1957 Corvette SS race car. When American auto manufacturers officially ended their racing programs in the summer of 1957, the SS became surplus. Mitchell acquired the car, rebuilt it into a racer, and sidestepped the racing ban by sponsoring the car personally. The rebuilt Stingray Special’s unique front fenders, with bumps to accommodate the wheels, became a prominent part of the 1963 production car.

Bill Mitchell used this very mako shark as inspiration for the Mako Shark show car, which in turn inspired the brilliant 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. (THF153873)

The second inspiration was the Mako Shark concept car introduced in 1961. While fishing in Bahamas that year, Mitchell caught an actual mako shark which he mounted and displayed in his office. The shark’s streamlined body and angular snout, combined with elements from the Stingray race car, produced a show car that turned heads wherever it was displayed.

Fifty years later, some believe that the mid-1960s Sting Rays are still the Corvette’s styling peak. Clearly, the 2014 model had much to live up to if it was to carry the Stingray name. The honors from Automobile Magazine suggest that the latest Corvette is worthy indeed.

UPDATE 01/13/14: The 2014 Corvette Stingray just took top honors as "North American Car of the Year" at the North American International Auto Show. It's further proof that the car has earned its legendary name!

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

* Stingray nomenclature is a confusing business. Bill Mitchell’s 1959 race car was “Stringray” – one word. The 1963-1967 production cars were “Sting Ray” – two words. The 1968-1976 and 2014 cars reverted to “Stingray.” For what it’s worth, the fish itself is “stingray.”

race cars, racing, Racing In America

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