Something Old, Something New
A Grand Sport replica and a Shelby spend some time together
By Bob Stevens
Photography by Andy Bolig
Chevrolet was serious about racing back in the early 1960s, even though its parent, General Motors Corp., officially wanted nothing to do with professional motorsports. Because of corporate edicts banning participation in auto racing, the line divisions at GM had to resort to covert operations to support their
marques out on the racetrack.
In 1962, Chevrolet constructed five specially-built Corvette racers, and the result was the legendary 1963 Grand Sports. It was a creation good enough to be recreated more than 40 years later as seen in the beauty presented here.
The original Grand Sport project was conceived and executed in absolute secrecy. Corvette Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov had no choice but to keep the wraps on the project out at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Initial plans were to produce a large number of racers, most accounts state that 125 were to be built, but after testing on the five prototypes proved successful, the GM Board of Directors learned of the special underground project and not only killed it in its infancy, but ordered that the five prototypes be destroyed. To qualify for certain types of competition, such as FIA Grand Touring, at least 100 examples of a car had to be built, hence the relatively large production number. Duntov had submitted the Grand Sport for homologation in December of 1962, but another official GM corporate decree re-affirming its ban on all forms of factory sponsored racing was issued in January of 1963, and Duntov had to withdraw the application. The ban, initiated by the clueless Automobile Manufacturers Assn. (AMA), had been in effect since 1957. The specific GM ban applied to all of its car-making divisions and all types of formal racing, but the action in 1963 was clearly aimed at Duntov and his Grand Sport program.
ABOVE: American racing wheels sized 18×8 up front and 20×10 out back are wrapped in 245/45ZR18 and 295/45ZR20 Kumho tires, respectively. CENTER: Cobra assumes the position it was accustomed to back in the salad days of the Grand Sport, when the Corvette led the smaller, lighter Cobra into and out of the curves, and on the straightaways. BOTTOM: Quick-flip gas filler lid on both cars minimizes time spent in refueling pit stops during those 12- and 24-hour races. Wind wings deflect air off the driver and passenger, but they’re usually removed for competition.
Duntov had to move fast. He sold three of the cars, #003, #004 and #005, to independent racers, Jim Hall and Delmo Johnson. A.J. Foyt ended up driving car #003 at the 1964 Sebring race and Duntov managed to hide the first two cars assembled, #001 and #002. All five Grand Sports would appear on racetracks around the world in the ensuing years, making a name for themselves. Originally, a 377ci version of the base 327-cube V-8 with a quartet of Weber carbs was planned by Duntov. The aluminum V-8 was rated at 485 hp at 6,000 rpm. However, a variety of small- and big-block V-8 engines would power the five Grand Sports during their competition careers.
During speed week in the Bahamas in December of 1963, the three coupes, sponsored by Texan John Mecom as a private entry, finished third, fourth and sixth in Friday’s race, comfortably ahead of the Shelby Cobras. Then, in the final race on Sunday, the Governor’s Trophy event, two Grand Sport coupes finished in the fourth and eighth spots, again way ahead of the Cobras. In a few months, another crackdown by GM management caused the three coupes to be spirited away into private hands, while the two roadsters, fresh off appearances at the Daytona Speed Week in February 1964, were squirreled away at the GM Tech Center where they would remain for a couple of years before being sold to Roger Penske in 1966.
The Grand Sport program, which had the tacit approval of Chevrolet General Manager Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen, son of former GM President William “Big Bill” Knudsen, achieved considerable success for Chevrolet, even though its very existence was in violation of the AMA ban and GM corporate policy. Incidentally, these clandestine racing activities did little for the junior Knudsen’s career aspirations; he never reached the GM presidency like his father, rising only to executive vice president and then leaving GM in a huff for Ford Motor Co. when he was passed over for the president’s post, which went to another fast-rising executive, engineer Ed Cole, who helped nurture the first Corvette to life.
Engineered expressly for road racing, the Grand Sports consisted of heavily modified Sting Ray bodies mounted on a tube frame. The bodies were constructed of three-ply fiberglass panels, compared to fiveply panels with the production body; the Grand Sport bodies were so thin that at certain angles, the light would shine through. Even the beefed-up 377ci V-8 tipped the scales at 75 pounds under the stock 327ci engine. Base weight of the cars figured to just 1,960 pounds, about 1,000 pounds less than a regular production 1963 Corvette. All five of the original Grand Sports have survived and are in the hands of dedicated collectors. Here’s a capsule history of each of the five cars.
Grand Sport #001 had its debut at Sebring in December of 1962, where it ran well, almost setting a track record. It was powered by a heavily tweaked fuel-injected 327 V-8. This car was one of the two Grand Sports that were transformed from coupe to roadster by Chevrolet to reduce weight and improve aerodynamics. O.J. Hanna bought car #001 from John Mecom for $4,500 in 1966 and campaigned the car until 1970. Mecom, incidentally, has owned all five Grand Sports at one time or another over the years, the only one other than Chevrolet who can make such a claim. The car is now in the incredible collection of Harry Yeaggy, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Grand Sport #002 was born as a coupe, like all of the five original Grand Sports, but was converted to a roadster when it was about a year old in late 1963. The conversion was done at the Tech Center by GM engineers. When current owner Jim Jaeger, of Cincinnati, Ohio, had the car restored to its former glory, he chose the roadster configuration as that is how the car competed. However, Jaeger, who bought the car in 1990, desired to keep the car’s original condition, reflecting 40 years of racing, etc., so a duplicate body was made, a spare drivetrain was assembled and a replacement interior was put together so the car could be raced without endangering the originality of the real thing.
Grand Sport #003 remained a coupe its entire life. It enjoyed moderate success competing at the Nassau races and in SCCA events. Today, it’s owned by Tom Armstrong, Issaquah, Washington, and sports an award-winning restoration back to its original racing trim.
Grand Sport #004 became the property of Delmo Johnson, a Chevrolet dealer in Dallas, Texas, in a hurried transaction as Duntov had precious little time to disperse all five Grand Sports to hide them from the corporate auditors, who had issued instructions to have all five cars crushed. Johnson raced the car with co-driver Dave Morgan, who also owned Grand Sport #003 at one time. It became the first Grand Sport to win a race, finishing first at the SCCA Nationals in Watkins Glen in August of 1963 with Dr. Dick Thompson at the wheel. The fullfledged racer known as Grand Sport #004 is now owned by Miles Collier, Naples, Florida.
Grand Sport #005 was one of three Grand Sports – the trio of coupes – that competed at the Nassau Speed Week in December of 1963, easily beating Shelby Cobras and other veteran contenders. Dr. Dick Thompson, the “flying dentist,” was the premier Grand Sport driver at that event. Car #005 was entered in the Road America 500 in September of 1964 when a Chaparral being prepared by the Roger Penske team failed to make the deadline. Driven by Penske, Jim Hall and Hap Sharp, Grand Sport #005 placed third, right behind a Ferrari 250LM and a Cobra. It’s now the property of well-known collector Bill Tower, Plant City, Florida, who organized a very special reunion of all five Grand Sports at the Amelia Island Concours in March 2003. Tower is the car’s third owner and it has been in his collection since 1978.
There have long been rumors that a sixth Grand Sport was built from a special cache of leftover parts, including a spare frame and body. In an interview back in the early 1980s, just a few years after his retirement, Duntov told the author that this rumor is traced to a few spare parts that were produced in support of the five race cars, and extra parts created when repairs were made on them, or changes made, including the conversion from coupe to roadster on the first two cars. But these parts were all either used, sold to the owners of the Grand Sports, or eventually scrapped. There was no sixth Grand Sport constructed, he assured us, at least not by GM or the Tech Center crew of engineers. In fact, most of the Grand Sports were kept running and on the track during their careers by cannibalizing parts from production Corvettes. There’s even one story of a Grand Sport owner who, in a rush for replacement parts, rented a new Corvette, a regular production model, from Hertz and then drove it to the track and let his mechanic borrow the much-needed parts, removing them out in the parking lot and carrying them into the track. After the race, they were removed and installed on the rental car before it was returned to the Hertz lot.
Mike Haynes, a 50-year-old Corvette enthusiast from Valdosta, Georgia, has long been enchanted with the 1963 Corvette Grand Sports, from their unique appearances to their successes on the race course. But little did he dream that someday he would build a replica of a Grand Sport.
“I found this project on the internet,” he recalls, explaining that it was a modern-day basket case. “The body and frame were in pieces, and I had to fabricate a lot of what is on this car by my own conception of what a modern-day Grand Sport would be.” The custom-fabricated frame was constructed from four-inch outside tubes and three-inch crossover tubes. A 1995 Corvette ZR-1 coupe was raided for the front end with coilovers and also donated a rear end, which was converted to four-link with coil-overs. Steering is a BRT sprint car rack-and-pinion setup. Brakes are stock Corvette with two-piece Baer Eradispeed rotors.
Some 750 horsepower (at 5,800 rpm) is delivered by a 427-cube V- 8 working through a Richmond fivespeed tranny and a 4.10 Posi-traction rear end. The engine itself is a work of art, featuring a GM steel crank, Eagle H-beam rods, Wiesco 13.5:1 pistons, Speedpro rings, Clevite bearings, Brodix aluminum heads, Isky solid roller camshaft, Crane roller rockers, GM high-volume oil pump, gear drive timing set, vintage 1960s Moon intake supporting four chromed Weber carbs, and an MSD ignition with 6AL rev limiter and blaster coil.
Haynes, who owns and operates a transmission repair shop, did the chassis and mechanical assembly work himself, including the installation of a differential cooler (a tribute to originality as two of the 1963 Grand Sports competing in the Tourist Trophy event at the 1963 Nassau races were doing well but had to retire early because their rear axles were overheating; differential coolers were installed overnight). The custommade body, which was fabricated by hand, including the pronounced fender flares, was turned over to a professional, Landry Kelley of Kelley’s Classic Auto. The roof was lowered 1.5 inches and the hood was fabricated with twin scoops. A front spoiler was also custom made. The windshield and rear and side windows were made of non-tempered glass so they could be cut and ground to fit.
On the inside, Connolly leather was used extensively, most prominently on the seats, which were borrowed from a C5 and modified to fit the smaller interior. A custom dash was fitted with a complete set of Auto Meter carbon-fiber gauges. Finally, the rear floor was raised about 20 inches to accommodate the fuel cell.
Mike and his wife Deann enjoy driving their super-quick version of a Grand Sport, but only on nice days, or while en route to a car show, where it always entertains a huge and enthusiastic crowd. It’s won its share of first-place trophies. When it was finished a couple of years ago, the odometer was set at “0”; it now shows 600 miles, so it’s definitely used sparingly. But when it is out, it is the king, just as the real thing was more than 40 years ago.
Author’s note: The 1966 bigblock Cobra roadster shown with the featured Grand Sport replica is the real deal, an actual 427 Cobra from the shop of master race car builder Carroll Shelby. The car is a beauty, the object of a long-term restoration by its current owner, Bill Farmer, Rome, Georgia, who says the “delicate Cobra aluminum body presented numerous refinishing challenges.” It’s generally known that just pressing one’s thumb against the thin aluminum body can produce a dent! Farmer is the second owner of the car, which he bought in 1981 from the original owner, an Air Force captain and pilot who raced the car. Its 427 engine was built by Holman Moody and the car is one of only four outfitted by Shelby with a 14-quart sump oiling system with a two-stage scavenge pump. Farmer, who also owns several Jaguars, mostly E-types, thrills to driving the spunky lightweight Cobra, whose engine is good for 600-plus horses. He rarely shows it, but often competes in it at Shelby American Automobile Club (SAAC) events and other historic racing venues. “In fact, if it’s not a track event, I’m not interested in going,” he says. Apparently, showing an original Cobra is okay, but driving one is what it’s really all about!