Dave MacDonald: Corvette Racer… Corvette Man… Family Man
You can catch Part 1 of this story HERE.
Being hired by Shelby made the MacDonald’s life almost as fast as the cars he drove. In the 17 months between the beginning of ‘63 through to the ‘64 Indy race, MacDonald raced in 44 events. The ‘64 Indy crash was the first time the 500 had ever been stopped because of an accident. The media at the time, would regularly make big headlines over any auto racing mishap, and were all over the crash. While Indy officials quickly concluded that there was no driver error, the race was hotly debated for decades.
“After Indy, I was hurting so, I needed to change my life, so I moved a few miles away, but stayed close to my in-laws. From Indy on, I didn’t follow racing. My interest in racing was basically ONE RACE DRIVER.” It wouldn’t be until the early ‘90s when Corvette fans started recovering and restoring old Corvette race cars that MacDonald’s all too short racing career began to get attention. “It is so gratifying and nice to meet people that raced with Dave and hear how much they admired him, not only for his skill as a driver, but for being a really nice guy.” Today Sherry MacDonald is retired and as busy as ever with volunteer projects and her large family. Continue reading
The next time you see a mid-year Sting Ray or Shark Corvette, think of Larry Shinoda.
He was born “Lawrence Kiyoshi Shinoda” but the automotive and Corvette world knew him as Larry Shinoda – Corvette designer and all-around carguy! Growing up in Southern California, Larry was steeped in the car culture and like many SoCal young men, was into the burgeoning sport of drag racing. In addition to his Corvette accomplishments, Larry also participated in an won his class at the very first NHRA national event in Great Bend, Kansas in 1955.
Larry was only 25-years old when after not completing his studies at Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles, he landed his first job with Ford in 1955. A year later, he briefly went to work at Studebaker/Packard, then went to General Motors late in 1956. Larry not only had an impressive portfolio, he had an intuitive sense of styling. If didn’t take long before his talent caught the keen eye of GM’s Bill Mitchell. But it wasn’t just Larry’s skill at wielding a pen and airbrush that helped acquaint him with Mitchell – it was drag racing.
The story goes that one day Shinoda and Mitchell had a chance encounter at a traffic light. Since both men had what Mitchell called, “gasoline in their veins,” neither man needed much goading to initiate a little stoplight grand prix. The light turned green and Larry put a whoop’n Bill, which may have been one of his best career moves. Mitchell drafted Shinoda into his special forces of car design, headquartered deep inside GM’s guarded facilities in a place called, “Studio X.” (sounds like a ‘50s sci-fi b-grade movie, doesn’t it”?) Continue reading
Where the Corvette Got Its Mojo From!
Corvettes are all about passion and that passion shows up in two powerful ways – visually and from performance. The two are so intrinsically connected that they seem one and the same, but a closer examination reveals that is not the case. Of course, the first thing one notices about the Corvette is its looks. The car’s appearance is totally unique, even though it did borrow a little here and there from other designs. But at the end of the day, the completed design only looks like a Corvette.
But looks will only get you so far. What completes the Corvette addiction is the visceral experience of driving one. To “get” the Corvette, you must drive the car. And if the driving experience was now much different from a mushy sedan, what’s the point? No, if the Corvette didn’t deliver responsive performance with gobs of sensory input for the driver, the car surely would have gone quietly into the night, fading into automotive obscurity, along with a long list of once interesting cars.
So who was responsible for infusing the Corvette with it’s Mojo? Zora Arkus-Duntov. Zora was, without a doubt, the ultimate automotive corporate misfit to ever work in Detroit. By the time he saw the very first Corvette at the 1953 Motorama, he was 44 years old, a seasoned mechanical engineer, race car driver and builder. he was quoted as saying, “When I saw the Corvette at the Motorama, I thought it was the most beautiful car I’d ever seen.” And Duntov appreciated beauty. Just look at his stunning blond beauty wife and former Bluebell Girls dancer, Elfie Duntov. yes, Zora new a good-looking dame when he saw one and one look at the Corvette and he knew where he wanted to be – in the engineering department of Chevrolet, working on the Corvette. Continue reading
It was Harley Earl that decided that General Motors needed to make a sports car.
Harley Earl is arguably the greatest designer in American automobile history. And not just because of the Corvette. Some of Earl’s classic designs include the Buick Y-Job, the 1928 LaSalle Phantom, the Firebird Series, the Cadillac Cyclone, and others. He was also credited for inventing concepts that are today, simply taken for granted. From the website, www.CarOfTheCentury.com, here’s a list of 13 concepts that Harley Earl invented:
1. Founder of the Automobile Design Profession in America
2. Inventor of the Concept car, also know as the Dream Car
3. The introduction of the Annual Styling Model Change
4. The Father of Modern Design Change in Mass production
5. The Dean of America’s Auto Design Protégés
6. The Motorama Show (where the Corvette had it’s first outing)
7. First to introduce the concept of clad modeling to Detroit
8. The Father of the Corvette
9. Opened “Harley Earl Corporation” outside of General Motors in 1945
10. Father of the Modern Car & Creator of America’s Small Car Trend
11. Harley Earl was a Giant “Advocate of Women’s Rights in the Auto Industry”
12. Invented the “Graphic Engineering” profession
13. First to introduce “Color Revolution” to Detroit’s auto world
I’m sure that the above list of 13 accomplishments should be considered a “starter list.” For fans of the olden days of automobile design, this site is a delight… http://www.carofthecentury.com Without a doubt, Harley Earl cast an enormous shadow upon General Motors.
A close second was Earl’s successor, Bill Mitchell. When Mitchell resigned in 1977, GM’s top management decided that NEVER AGAIN would “Design” have as much power as Mitchell and Earl wielded. When Mitchell left, the “focus group” model took over. Continue reading
Dick Smothers – The 200-MPH Comedian
(Check out the fun videos at the bottom of this post!)
How many comedians can claim that they drove a 427 Corvette over 200-MPH at Le Mans? Probably none, except for Dick Smothers. If you are a baby boomer and were watching TV in the ‘60s, hardly a week went by when you didn’t see Tom and Dick Smothers on the tube. In the early ‘60s with the advent of 33-1/3 LP records (long-play vinyl records with five or six tracks on each side) nearly all comedians had comedy records. Some people (myself included) had collections of comedy albums that were fun to play at parties.
But the Smothers Brothers were a little different. While the comedy team format was common (Hope & Crosby, Burns & Allen, Martin & Lewis, Burns & Carlin (George), what made The Smothers Brothers different was that they were also folk singers, aka ‘Folkies.” Tom played guitar, Dick played a full-size bass, and they were dressed in matching suits with skinny ties. And when they weren’t jabbing at one another and just sang, that were quite nice and covered the standard folkie songs of the day. Their 1962 album “The Two Sides of the Smothers brothers” featured sweet songs, such as “Stella’s Got a New Dress Today” (see below video) on one side and comedy bits including as “I Fell In A Vat of Chocolate.” (see below video)
But it was their late ‘60s TV show, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” that polarized them to mainstream Americans because of their jabs and pokes at President Nixon and the Vietnam War. Their comedy program is available on NetFlix and in retrospect, compared to modern comics, such as Jon Steward and Bill Maher, Tommy and Dicky were VERY tame.
Chuck Jordan – the last of the old guard GM designers.
When car designer Chuck Jordan passed on December 9, 2010, it was the end of an era in automotive design. Jordan started working for GM in 1949 as a junior engineer and retired in 1992. During that time, he worked with all of the greats of GM design; Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, Ed Cole, Zora Arkus-Duntov, Larry Shinoda, and more.
Jordan’s nickname was “the Chrome Cobra.” He was steeped in a time of very strong personalities. Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell had strong personalities with flash-like tempers – quick to anger, quick to let it go. When Mitchell retired in ‘77, his replacement, Irv Rybicki, was specifically chosen because upper management said, “No more strong opinionated design chiefs!” They were glad to see old Bill go. Irv was an excellent designer, but to Jordan, Rybicki seemed to play it safe too much. The automotive press noticed too and began to wonder what happened to GM’s sense of style.
But Jordan got his shot in ‘86 when Rybicki retired and was promoted to vice president of design, serving from ‘86 to ‘92. Below is a brief slide show of some of the cars Jordan styled, designed, and managed through the development process. Design styling is one thing and designing for mass production is another. Some designs translate into production better than others. What’s obvious is that over his 40-plus year career as a car designer, he consistently followed the advanced trends of the day. Chuck loved design so much that after he retired, he taught design at ??? He could have stayed home and enjoyed his many Ferrari sports cars. But Jordan loved the high school art design in Southern California. Continue reading
One of the Unsung Heros of Corvettes & High Performance Chevrolets
Within the machinations of a big corporation, to get things done, it’s good to have an angel. Zora Arkus-Duntov had several angels. We’ve talked about Duntov’s relationship with Chevrolet honcho Ed Cole. But one angel that doesn’t get much attention was Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen.
Semon’s father was former GM president, William S. Knudsen. While this was helpful for the younger Kneudsen’s career, things weren’t handed to Bunkie – he had to work for what he accomplished. Like many teenage boys of his generation, Semon was interested in mechanical things. When he asked for a car, his Dad gave him one… in pieces for the young man to out back together. During his college years, Summer break meant a stint working at GM… on the assembly line. Upon graduation, Knudsen got a job at Pontiac in 1939 and quickly rose up through the management ranks. By 1956 he was the general manager at Pontiac.
The main job of every general manager is to increase sales. Like Chevrolet, Pontiac had a stogy public image. Bunkie assembled a team to jazz up the line and brought in Pete Estes from Oldsmobile, and John Z. DeLorean from Packard to create high performance version of his best -selling Pontiacs. Thus began the era of the “Wide Track Pontiac.” (Remember the ‘60s jingle, “Break away, to a wide track’n, Pon-tee-ack…”?) Within a few years, Pontiacs were a force to be contended with in NASCAR racing. Bunkie’s makeover of Pontiac put the division in third place in the industry and his reward was a promotion to head of the Chevrolet Division in 1961. Continue reading
Ron Fellows – From Carts to Corvettes!
Good guys shine and Ron Fellows has become one of the most popular race car drivers of our time. Ron’s a great example of starting our small – kart racing small, in fact. Kart racing lead to Formula Ford 1600 and Formula Ford 2000 cars. But this was strictly entry level racing that only last as long as there’s money in your pocket. After the cash ran dry, Ron took a nine year break from racing. But when you have gasoline in your veins, the itch to race never goes away. Fellows was back on the track, launching his professional driving career in the 1986 Player’s GM Challenge, racing a showroom stock Camaro.
Trans-Am racing followed and by ‘89 Ron was one of the most successful drivers in Trans-Am history, winning 19 of 95 starts. When the C5-R Corvette Racing Team was being assembled in ‘98, Fellows was one of “the” drivers to hire. When looking back on a successful long term career, it often appears easy, but this was far from the case. It was a long, hard battle for the Corvette Racing Team from ‘98 to the 2001 GTS Le Mans win. But even after you win the big prize, the next race can be just as hard. In racing, there are no laurels to rest upon. Fellows went on to win Le Mans again in ‘02 and ‘04, as well as GTS Champion in ‘02, and was co-champion in ‘03 and ‘04 with Johnny O’Connell. In ‘05 Ron was runner-up in the GT1 championship and was the ALMS Most Popular Driver in ‘04, ‘05, ‘06, ‘and ‘07.
To celebrate Ron’s success, Chevrolet released the hugely popular 2007 Ron Fellows Z06 Special Edition Z06. Only 399 units were built, 300 for the US market, 33 for the Canadian market, and the remaining 66 cars for other world markets. This would be the first in a series of very popular special edition C6 Corvettes.
And on the heels of the ‘07 Special Edition Z06, Corvette Racing sponsor, PRS Guitars (Paul Reed Smith), produced a limited edition, $4,700 Z06 Corvette branded electric guitar based on their PRS Corvette Standard 22 model guitar. Continue reading
“Kick the hell out of the status quo!” – Ed Cole
Ed Cole was one of what I call, “The Four Fathers of the Corvette.” The first Father of the Corvette was Harley Earl, the designer and creator of the Corvette. Earl was the “Idea Guy.” Ed Cole was the “Go-to” guy. Ed was already the chief of engineering of Chevrolet in ‘53 and was working on what would become the Small-Block Chevy engine. He was also the man that hired Zora Arkus-Duntov. The third Father of the Corvette was Zora Arkus-Duntov. Were it not for his at times, unbridled passion and insistence that Corvettes were successful at the race track, the car wouldn’t have survived the ‘60s. And the fourth Father of the Corvette was Bill Mitchell. His Sting Ray and Mako Shark II designs forever defined the Corvette “look.”
While Cole was one of the top engineers of his day, he did not start out wanting to be in the car business. When he first started attending Grand Rapids Community College as a lad, he wanted to become a lawyer! But a part-time job in an auto parts supply store hooked him into cars. He enrolled in General Motors Institute and got his engineering degree and a job at GM. Cole and Harry Barr co-headed a team to design and develop the revolutionary 1949 Cadillac V8 engine. It was the Cadillac engine project that set Cole up to be the lead man on the Chevrolet small-block engine project. Just stop and reflect on what an enormous contribution to Chevrolets and racing the all-time classic Small-Block Chevy engine is.
I called Ed Cole the “go-to” guy because of his relationship with Duntov. Zora was quite an anomaly inside of General Motors. The prevailing attitude towards Duntov and Cole was likely, “You hired him, he’s yours!” It turned out that Cole was Duntov’s corporate angel and he always had Ed’s ear.
The book, “Zora Arkus-Duntov – The Legend Behind Corvette” by Jerry Burton is filled with wonderful stories about Cole and Duntov. One amusing story happened in early 1956 just after Cole and Duntov took a modified ‘56 Chevy Belair to Pike’s Peek and broke several records. After the event, while the guys were celebrating over drinks, Zora told Ed, “We should show the world that the Corvette is no longer an underdog. Let’s show how fast the car will really go.” Cole asked, “How fast is that?” To which Duntov just pulled a number out of the air and said, “Oh… maybe… 150 miles per hour.” Cole was interested, but reminded Zora that his main responsibility was the development of the fuel-injected engine. Zora took Cole’s interest as a go-ahead and started working on body modifications that would eventually lead to the speed record run on the sands of Daytona Beach with John Fitch, Betty Skelton, and himself driving modified ‘56 Corvettes. Duntov was a loose cannon, and he was Ed Cole’s loose cannon.
After Cole was made general manager of Chevrolet in ‘56, he embarked on an over-the-top project called the “Q-Chevrolets.” Cole was fascinated with the idea of using a transaxle on all Chevrolet cars (Corvette included) by 1960, with a marketing angle of Continue reading
A Birthday Salute to One of the First Corvette Hot Shoe Drivers, John Fitch
Racing and Corvettes are completely inseparable. John Fitch was already a hot shoe when Zora Arkus-Duntov hired him to drive one of the three specially prepared ‘56 265-CID Corvettes for a speed record run on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida in January 1956. Were it not for those exciting early racing experiences, the tone and attitude of the Corvette would have been closer to a passenger car rather than a scrapper race car. And John Fitch was part of the first wave of Corvette drivers.
After serving in WW II as a fighter pilot, Fitch got his degree in engineering and went to postwar Europe to race sports cars. Fitch was one of the first American engineer/drivers that set the template for future engineer/drivers, such as Mark Donohue and others. A thorough understanding of how things mechanically function has proven to be an incalculable asset to a successful racing enterprise.
Before driving for Chevrolet, Fitch won the very first SCCA national championship and was the only American to drive for the Mercedes-Benz factory team. In 1957 Fitch was hired by Chevrolet to prepare and manage a team of stock and semi-modified Corvettes for competition. That same year, Duntov literally put Fitch’s feet to the fire driving the obscenely hot (temperature wise) SS Corvette.
Besides racing Corvettes, John won the 1951 Argentine Grand Prix, the 1955 Mille Miglia production class, and John competed at Le Mans six times, finishing as high as 3rd place. He was the first general manager at Lime Rock Park race track, developed the yellow “Fitch Barriers” crash barrels, and started the first advanced driving school. Being an innovator must have been in Fitch’s DNA, as his ancestor, also named John Fitch, was a clock maker, silversmith, and built the first functioning steamboat in 1787. Continue reading
Corvette Timeline Tales: August 2004 – Motor Trend Magazine Splashes the Beautiful 2004 Commemorative Edition Corvette
A Corvette Beauty and a Beast
It seems that in the last few years, the Corvette market is so hungry for cool new special editions that Chevrolet launches their latest special Vettes sooner and sooner. But it wasn’t long ago when that wasn’t the standard. Car companies traditionally previewed their new cars to the press in the Summer so that by the time Fall came around, the magazines would hit the news stands just before the new cars arrive in dealer’s showrooms. That allowed for some salivation time for fans.
When the September issue of Motor Trend arrived in early August ‘03, Corvette fans had a tasty treat! Could MT have made a bigger splash for the new 2004 Commemorative Edition Corvette? Yes, but no much more so. The driver’s side front fender was cropped slightly to better fill the cover and the Saleen S7 and Mosler MT900S got postage stamp-sized pictures in the lower left. For Corvette fans, this was a “gotta have and save issue.” I sure did!
The three-page spread spelled it all out. The ‘04 Commemorative Edition was a salute to the back-to-back class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A “Le Mans win” is like nothing else in the world of sports car racing. Someone once remarked, “You can win Daytona and only a few will remember. Win at Le Mans, and everyone remembers!” The Commemorative Edition was an option on all three Corvette models; the Coupe, Convertible, and the Z06. The package consisted of unique paint and stripes, special emblems, and embroidery on the seat backs. Price for the coupe and convertible option was $3,700 and $4,335 for the Z06.
Why $635 extra for the Z06, you wonder? Since the Z06 was the performance version of the C5, packing the 405-horsepower LS6 engine, Corvette planners thought it was only right to help the Z06 along a little by replaced the 31.3-pound stock fiberglass hood with a 20.5-pound carbon fiber hood. Was a 10.6-pound weight saving worth $635? Well… when you consider that the Z06 package put the C5 closer to a race car in terms of suspension enhancements, plus an extra 55-horsepower over the base LS1 engine… ah it depended on how deep you pocket were. The Z06 option was already $7,850 over the base coupe, plus the $4,335 for the Commemorative Edition option. So a buyer was looking at a $12,185 OVER the price of a base ‘04 Coupe for the Commemorative Edition Z06.
And in an almost typical Chevrolet understated way, the only visual difference on the Z06’s carbon fiber hood was the space between the red and white stripe where the carbon fiber is covered in clear. Yes, subtle, but there it was for Corvette lovers to hunt for. Today, carbon fiber is its own “look” and typically flaunted. Continue reading
This could have been the beginning of a grand adventure for Corvette racing!
This is how we tend to think of the ’63 Grand Sport Corvette, with its aggressive fender flares, scoops, vents, and fat racing wheels and tires. Initial production was supposed to be 100, but Duntov envisioned at least 1,000 Grand Sports!
For those of us who are fans of the early days of the Corvette, the name, “Zora Arkus-Duntov” casts a very long shadow. GM’s chief of styling, Bill Mitchell once referred to Zora as, “Just a lowly engineer on a low-volume production Chevy.” While that may well have been correct, thanks to friends in very high places inside Chevrolet, Duntov got away with some astonishing things. And the Grand Sport wasn’t the first or last bodacious stunt he pulled.
There wasn’t much under the thin fiberglass body. The car had magnesium Hallibrand knock-off wheels, an aluminum bell housing, transmission case, and rear differential, plus a 36-gallon fuel tank. Note how the side pipes came off the stock cast iron exhaust manifolds. FIA rules mandated that the cars carry a spare tire. (GM photo from the book “Corvette Grand Sport” by Lowell C. Paddock)
For this adventure, Duntov’s GM “angel” was Simon “Bunkie” Knudsen. While Bunkie personally never raced cars, he did work on the GM assembly line as a college student in the ‘40s and was passionate about race cars. While general manager at Pontiac from 1956 to 1961, Knudsen was responsible for Continue reading
Dave MacDonald – “The Master of Oversteer”
“I think Dave had more raw talent probably than any race driver I ever saw.” – Carroll Shelby
The original Grand Sport Corvette is considered by many to be the ultimate “could have been” Corvette. Well, when it comes to drivers that raced and loved Corvettes, El Monte, California race car driver, Dave MacDonald is arguably the greatest “could have been” Corvette race car driver. That’s not just my opinion – that’s what I learned from researching Dave MacDonald’s racing career, from his contemporaries. Many drivers and team owners from Dave’s day are on record stating that had Dave’s life not been cut short at the ‘64 Indy 500, he would have likely been one of the greats. MacDonald’s shining star was about to go super nova!
While I was familiar with Dave MacDonald from books in my Corvette library, it wasn’t until I started researching Dave’s background while working on a story for VETTE Magazine that I learned what a terrific guy he was. If you look in your Corvette books that have chapters covering the early ‘60s road racing scene, look for the “00” Corvette with the tail hanging out. That’s Dave “The Master of Oversteer” MacDonald. Continue reading
Corvette Timeline Tales: July 1978 – Chevrolet Studio III Chief, Jerry Palmer Sketches Out the Next Generation C4 Corvette
It all begins with a sketch!
When the all-new 1984 Corvette first came out, the press and the public went wild. Perhaps it was because of the C3 platform’s 15-year production run – actually, a 20 year run, if you count the basic frame, drive train, and suspension. So, I guess you could say that the Corvette fans were a little hungry for a new Vette. And the rave reviews weren’t just baseless praise. Corvette fans backed up their praise with CASH, as 51,547 ‘84 Corvettes were sold the first year of C4 production, up from 25,407 from 1982. But if you follow the used Corvette market, early C4 Corvettes are at the bottom of the barrel! That’s bad news if you spent a lot on one when it was new. But if you’re looking for a starter Corvette, it’s an inexpensive way to get into the hobby. But, when the ’84 Vette arrived, it was red hot!
The design process has to start somewhere and that “somewhere” is a humble sketch. Car guys are always doodling and I’m certain that designer Jerry Palmer probably had a few preliminary loose sketches of what he thought the next Corvette should look like. Continue reading
Corvette Timeline Tales: July 14, 1985 – NBC Premiers Two-Hour Pilot for Steven Cannell’s New Series, “Stingray”
Sometimes the “car as the star” just isn’t enough.
The NBC series “Stingray” only ran for two seasons and stared Nick Mancuso in the lead roll of “Ray.” No last name, just “Ray.” He’s kind of a Robin Hood, gritty urban “Pay it Forward” mystery man. Ray drives an awesome-looking black ‘65 Corvette Sting Ray Coupe with knockoff wheels, is an expert driver, martial arts master, a speed reader with a photographic memory, master computer hacker with very fast fingers, Vietnam Vet, possibly CIA, AND doesn’t charge for his problem solving services. Just a loose IOU, collectible by Ray… some time… some day in the future… maybe.
Who DOESN’T want to be this guy?
In the ‘80s TV producer and writer, Steven J. Cannell was on a roll with hugely successful programs including “The Rockford Files,” “The Greatest American Hero,” “The A-Team,” “Wiseguy,” Continue reading