Written by on July 5, 2016
The 1962-’63 Corvette Grand Sport is the most valuable and sought after collector Corvette that GM ever produced. Only five were built, and all five now reside with private collectors. The Grand Sport saga began in the summer of 1962 when Carroll Shelby introduced a new Ford-powered sports car called the Cobra. This 260-cid V-8powered sports car was 1,000 pounds lighter than the soon to be released Sting Ray.
Zora Arkus-Duntov knew the 3,150-pound Corvette would be no match for Ford’s new sports car. To meet this threat he decided to build a “lightweight” Corvette. To avoid GM’s 1957 signed AMA (Automobile Manufacturers Association) corporate racing ban agreement, Zora decided to build and sell 125 “lightweight” Corvettes as production cars. The first step was to get them certified by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) so they could race at Le Mans. With this approval in hand he would be able to sell the completed cars to “privateers.” He believed that this approach would enable him to comply with GM’s corporate racing ban. Bunkie Knudsen, General Manager of Chevrolet, approved Zora’s proposal. He and his engineers began building the “lightweight” Sting Ray. It was fitted with a light fiberglass body, tube frame and a tubular suspension employing Girling disc brakes. The interior was stark, but included straps to pull the plastic side windows up and down. Duntov said, “It was a quick and dirty sledgehammer project that we put together in a couple of months. There were so many compromises and constraints that we made something of which I am not particularly proud.”
GM’s Chairman Frederic Donner squashed Zora’s production plan when he heard about the secret Corvette, he told Zora, “no racing.” Five lightweight Corvettes called “Grand Sport,” were under construction when Zora was notified of Donner’s order. In spite of this setback, Zora completed the five cars. Chassis #003 and #004 were loaned to two “privateers.” Chicago Chevy dealer Dick Doane received #003 and Grady Davis from Gulf Oil Corporation got #004. The cars competed in SCCA’s modified division so they were outclassed and compiled a poor finishing record. Dr. Dick Thompson, “the Flying Dentist,” did claim an overall victory at Watkins Glen driving #004. The new Ford was unbeatable in professional and amateur racing. Corvettes were humiliated at every race they ran against the Cobra. This was having a negative impact on Corvette’s sports car status. Bunkie Knudsen told Zora to find a way to “stick it to the Cobras!”
Zora followed Bunkie’s order by loaning three Grand Sports to racer John Mecom, a 21-year-old Texas oil tycoon. Mecom agreed to let Zora update and care for the cars. Grand Sports #003 and #004 were returned to Chevrolet from Dick Doane in Chicago and Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh. They were refurbished with larger wheels, tires and fender flares to cover the larger tires. Each of the three Corvettes were fitted with a special all-aluminum 377-cid (6.2 liter) V-8 engine. Each one had a 4.000-inch bore and 3.750-inch stroke that powered the updated “lightweights.” The engine produced 485 hp at 6,000 rpm and 435 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It was fed by four Weber 58 DCOE carburetors, which gave the 2,000-pound Corvette startling performance. Chassis #005 was completed with the same improved specs and all three were painted in Light Cadillac Metallic Blue.
The finished cars were shipped to Mecom in Texas and then sent to Nassau, Bahamas. Each year Nassau held a Speed Weeks event at the airport. Carroll Shelby was very surprised when the Grand Sports arrived at the Nassau docks and immediately began complaining. To compound Shelby’s concern, the Grand Sport drivers included Roger Penske, Jim Hall, Dr. Dick Thompson, Augie Pabst and John Cannon. In addition, many Corvette engineers “took vacation” to watch over their charges. The Grand Sports were almost 10 seconds a lap quicker and whipped the Cobras much to Shelby’s dismay and Bunkie’s delight. Duntov commented later, “even though we designed the Grand Sports quickly and they lacked proper development, Nassau proved they were more than equal not only to the Cobras but the Ferrari GTOs.”
After the big success in Nassau, Zora set his sights on Daytona. He ordered the two remaining coupes, #001 and #002, cut down into roadsters to improve their aerodynamics. But again, it was not meant to be, five weeks after Nassau, GM closed all the remaining loopholes and Zora’s racing activities were stopped. The two remaining Grand Sports #001 and #002 sat at the Milford Proving Grounds until Roger Penske purchased #001 and George Wintersteen purchased #002 in 1966. They raced them briefly and then sold them to amateur racers. Zora’s dream of winning an overall victory at Le Mans in a car of his design was never fulfilled.
Usually one of the first questions a Grand Sport enthusiast might ask is “where are they now?” We are happy to report that all five Grand Sports are safely housed in private collections around the United States. The record for the longest owned Grand Sport goes to Bill Tower in Plant City, Florida. Bill purchased Grand Sport #005 in December 1978 from Dave Irwin who lived in Painted Post, New York. Irwin purchased this car from Penske/Wintersteen and housed it in his private collection. That was until a flash flood roared through his home and sucked his vintage Ferraris and a Gullwing Mercedes out of the garage and into the raging torrent of water. His “lightweight” Corvette floated on all four tires around the garage until it became lodged between a wall and a large refrigerator and was saved. None of his other cars were ever found. Here is a list of the Grand Sports current owners:
Grand Sport #001 – Harry Yeaggy, Cincinnati, Ohio. It was purchased for $4.2 million in 2002 from Rob Walton.
Grand Sport #002 – Simeone Foundation Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was purchased from Jim Jeager in 2009 for between $4 and $5 million.
Grand Sport #003 – Larry Bowman, Woodside, California. He purchased it from Tom Armstrong in 2004. Sale price unknown
Grand Sport #004 – Collier Foundation, Naples, Florida. Purchased from Bruce Ziegler in 1990. Sale price unknown
Grand Sport #005 – Bill Tower, Plant City, Florida. Purchased from Dave Irwin in December 1978. Sale price unknown
It has been over 50 years since the Grand Sports thumped the Cobras at the Nassau Speed Weeks. Today, they have a true cult following among Corvette racing enthusiasts and it doesn’t appear to be diminishing. Huge credit goes to Zora Arkus-Duntov and his team for ignoring GM’s racing ban and building a true Cobra killer: the Corvette Grand Sport! The introduction of the 2017 Corvette Grand Sport Stingray celebrates this amazing Corvette legacy.