Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell were arguably two of the greatest designers in automotive history. While Earl created the Corvette, it was Mitchell who penned the car’s iconic look. When Mitchell was hired in 1935 by Earl, he was a natural for the burgeoning automotive-design world. His concepts matched his personality: brash, flamboyant, and sharp. By the time the Corvette hit the road in ’53, Mitchell already knew he would inherit Earl’s position as VP of Design upon Earl’s retirement in 1958. When Mitchell was promoted, he had a bold plan to start his era.
Mitchell loved hot cars and racing, so his idea was to go racing—and try out some thoughts he had for the Corvette in the process. Mitchell had been impressed with Duntov’s ’57 Corvette SS racer, and he knew there was a spare mule chassis in storage. He approached Ed Cole, the new general manager of Chevrolet, who offered to sell him the mule for $500. The only stipulations were that Mitchell had to keep the car off of GM property, not decorate it with anything indicating Chevrolet’s involvement, and sell it back to the company when he was finished with it.
Mitchell admired the styling of the ’57 Q-Corvette done by Bob Veryzer, Peter Brock, and Chuck Pohlmann. Larry Shinoda was brought in to adapt the Q-Corvette’s styling onto the mule chassis in a roadster configuration. Under Mitchell’s direction, Shinoda worked out the Sting Ray, a true masterpiece. A one-off body was laid up in 0.125-inch thick fiberglass and adapted to the chassis. Painted Ferrari red, the car was a futuristic beauty, but Duntov wasn’t happy. He knew that his chassis hadn’t been fully developed and saw only failure in the enterprise.
The Sting Ray’s racing career lasted two years. Dr. Dick Thompson was the driver, and by the end of most races, he had no brakes at all! The car even flipped once at Meadowdale. The team ran five races in 1959, and along the way, Mitchell learned that racing was a lot harder than he had thought. For the ’60 season the car was given a new lightweight body made with 0.060-inch fiberglass, a silver paintjob, and various other improvements. In the seven races entered, the team racked up enough points to win the C/Modified Championship, at which point Mitchell sold the car back to Chevy.
The Sting Ray was given the full show-car treatment and made its official debut at Chicago’s McCormick Place in February ’61. The press had suspected that the car might foreshadow the look of the next Corvette, and now it was official. But show cars can become yesterday’s news after the production versions come out. As the ’60s wore on, the Sting Ray was treated to all sorts of engines and improvements. Disc brakes were finally added, and at one point the car even received a big-block 427 with four Weber carbs. Mitchell sometimes used the car as his daily driver. The Sting Ray was even a movie star once, costarring with Elvis Presley in the 1967 movie Clambake. It was never anything but a race car, however, designed by Duntov to compete at Le Mans. The body, aerodynamically flawed as it was, was designed for speed. With the 300-horsepower fuelie, the Sting Ray had a power-to-weight ratio of just over 7:1. Mitchell claimed it could do 0-60 in 4 seconds and that, with 2.80 gears, it could hit 180 mph. The car was loud and bloody fast.
But by the early 2000s, the old warhorse was beginning to show its age. Ed Welburn, the head of GM Design, launched a program to restore the Sting Ray before it was too late. Beginning in August 2004, a team of about 15 GM specialists worked “off the clock” on the car. The plan was to return the Sting Ray to its 1961 Chicago-debut configuration. The bulk of the work went into the body. The thin fiberglass proved to be very challenging, prompting lead restorer Dale Jacobson to state that it would have been easier to simply make a new shell. Only parts that couldn’t be restored were replaced, so the finished car remains mostly original.
On March 4, 2005, the refurbished Sting Ray was presented to a group of Design and Preproduction Operation employees. Looking as if it had been formed from a solid block of titanium, the car was greeted with gasps and applause. Bill Mitchell–designed cars are classics, and to many, the Sting Ray is his best work.