Take a trip in the CorvetteReport.com Video Time Machine to 1957!
Many times, a bold project must have a bold leader. Zora Arkus-Duntov was one of the all-time great corporate outsider misfits. Not only was he the only executive at GM that had actually raced cars, he had raced at Le Mans! Plus, he was constantly wandering off the reservation!
After Sebring in ‘57, it was obvious that modified stock Corvettes would never be competitive against the Jaguars and Ferraris. GM’s chief designer, Harley Earl proposed building a “Corvette” based on a D-Type Jaguar with a Corvette engine and a modified body. When Zora heard about the proposal and looked into what would be needed to create such a car, red flags popped up all over the place for the wild Russian. But Earl was no fool, he was a master tactician, and may well have made such an outrageous proposal as a way of pushing Chevrolet towards building their own purpose-built Corvette racer.
Obviously, because of Duntov’s background, he was the only man to lead the project. After he put together his team of designers, draftsman, and fabricators, the chassis of a Mercedes-Benz 300SL was used as a model for how to construct a tube space frame. This was the time before the monocoque method of race car construction and since no one in the team had ever built a tube frame race car, the Mercedes-Benz frame was essential.
As you watch the above video, take note how unglamorous the facility is. Bare cinderblock walls, drafting tables, overhead fluorescent lights, and men wearing white shirts and skinny black ties. And NO computers! All calculations were done either by basic math and, or a slide rule! Those were the days, huh.
The finished car was awesome, yet stillborn. Although it was a beauty for its day, the magnesium body made the car an oven for the driver. The car had one outing at Sebring in ‘57 and that was it. The crude mule car was driven by Juan Fangio and Sterling Moss and showed extreme promise. The Corvette SS had numerous problems and didn’t finish the race, as a rear suspension strut broke causing one of the tires to rub on the body. Poor John Fitch was nearly cooked driving the car, it was so hot.
Despite the so-so performance, GM boss Ed Cole was impressed enough to approve plans to build three Corvette SS cars for an assault on Le Mans. Unfortunately, the June 1957 AMA ban on American car companies participation in racing came crashing down like a ton of bricks. The magnesium-bodied finished Corvette SS became a bubble top show car and the mule chassis eventually made its way under Bill Mitchell’s stunning Stingray racer.
Chevrolet should have told the AMA to bugger-off and kept developing the Corvette SS. Fourty-plus years later, it took the C5-R Corvette Racing team over a year of full-time work to get the C5-R sorted out for competition. Too bad Chevrolet didn’t have that long range development mentality back in 1957. – Scott
PS – Check out our Corvette SS art prints HERE.