The Ugly Duckling Becomes a Warbird!
When we left off, Duntov had just scooped up speed records on the wet sands of Daytona beach in Winter of ‘56. After an excellent first serious racing effort at Sebring, Zora felt that it was time to take on Le Mans with an exotic tube frame Corvette in the prototype class.
Duntov wanted to compete with the big-league Le Mans racers. A work order was issued to build a single race car, and the ’57 SS Corvette was born. But Duntov was shrewd enough to get around the one-car limitation by passing off extra hardware as assembly mockup parts. While GM’s chief of styling, Bill Mitchell’s group worked out a ’56-inspired body, Duntov and his crew started work on a mule chassis patterned after the tube-framed Mercedes “birdcage” cars. The body of the racer was to be of lightweight magnesium, but a crude fiberglass version was built and taped together for wind-tunnel testing. The mule had no doors or rear deck, and the firewall was plywood. With such an ambitious design and only six months of development time, everything was bound to go wrong.
As rough as the mule was, it had tremendous potential. Juan Manuel Fangio drove the overweight car and matched his previous year’s practice-lap times, which were recorded in a Ferrari. The real SS Corvette looked great but the magnesium body proved to be an excellent heat conductor and turned the car into a virtual oven. Between the extreme heat and a failed rear suspension, the car dropped out after its 23rd lap. After the race, work orders were issued for three more SS cars to race at Le Mans, but the ’57 AMA ban on racing killed the project. The mule was reborn in ‘59 under Mitchell’s Stingray body, became the SCCA ’59 C/Modified champion, and is still around today.
So what happens to old GM mule cars? Ninety-nine percent of the time, they go to GM’s equivalent of the glue factory, also known as the crusher. According to Gib Hufstader, the development cars sometimes escape this fate for a time and are stored in various departments throughout GM. But ultimately, they all outlive their usefulness and end up in the crusher. Such is the life of a Corvette mule.
The Corvette SS mule was an interesting exception. Were it not for Mitchell’s desire to enjoy his new executive status with some serious inside help from Chevrolet, he never would have put dibs on the SS Corvette mule that had been in storage. Had Mitchell NOT “borrowed” the SS Corvette chassis, it most likely would have ended up in the crusher, for sure.
Sometimes, rare things were found in scrap heaps. Corvette engineer, Gib Hufstader was lucky one day when he happened upon a pile of old development hardware that was headed for the scrap yard. He was arguably the only person that would have recognized one of Duntov’s double-overhead cam small-block Chevy prototype development engines in that pile of discarded metal. Gib rescued the engine, fixed a few damaged parts, and donated the engine to a car museum.
The SS Corvette that Duntov built to race at Le Mans never raced in competition again and was turned into a show car, complete with a bubble top. As mentioned previously, the SS Corvette mule chassis became the Stingray Racer. This car is still around and was lovingly restored in ‘05. The Stingray Racer in an interesting car because it demonstrates the design sense of the day that was able to create shapes that, by themselves, look very big, but were actually quite small. The SS Corvette and the Stingray Racer are both little cars with LOTS of horsepower. Beauty and brawn – the stuff of legends.
This article was written by K. Scott Teeters, an editor for Alex Schult of www.SmokinVette.com and a freelance columnist and artist with VETTE Magazine. His monthly column, “The Illustrated Corvette Series” has been running consecutively in VETTE since 1997 and can be found on the very last page of every issue. You can find reproductions of his Corvette art at: www.IllustratedCorvetteSeries.com