. . .Saving the Sting Ray

Jeff Glenn looks at an in-house, off-the-clock effort to preserve one of the America's most significant car-history treasures.

Photos courtesy GM Design.

It's a form that speaks the universal language of the sports car. The strong horizontal design and blistering fenders have delighted car designers and fans for decades.

Even before it was officially badged as one, everybody knew Bill Mitchell's '59 Sting Ray racer represented the future. From its penchant for speed to its lean and sophisticated design theme, the Sting Ray set forth the direction Mitchell wanted to take not only with Corvette, but with GM designs in general. It's no exaggeration to call the Sting Ray one of the two or three most important designs in Detroit's postwar history.

When Bill Mitchell bought the remains of the Corvette SS mule and had Larry Shinoda adapt the style of the cancelled "Q-Corvette" program to rebody it, Corvette boss Zora Duntov wasn't excited-his rival/colleague from GM Design was about to embark on a privateer effort, which meant little development and even smaller chances of racetrack success. Without the overt blessing of GM, the racing Sting Ray also could carry no GM or Corvette badging. Still, winning races or polishing GM's apple was never the main intention: By turning the moribund "Q" theme into a racecar, Bill Mitchell bought himself a fistful of credibility with his designers and turned the public on to his fresh new direction years earlier than GM's product cycle allowed.

On track for five races in '59, the car wore red paint and spent most of its time teething with Dr. Dick Thompson behind the wheel. (John Fitch filled in when Thompson had a temporary altercation with his racing license.) At Meadowdale the Sting Ray flipped, and it was rebodied a second time with thinner skins to save weight. The car ran seven more races in '60 (not counting Nassau) wearing silver livery, and Thompson took the SCCA C-Mod title on points. The Sting Ray proved quick on the straights, but its Achilles heel was braking-just as it had been on the SS. Despite trying a variety of master cylinders and changing to discs at the end of the season, the heavy Sting Ray never quite stopped the way Mitchell and Thompson wanted.

Rarely does a titlewinning racer moonlight as a concept car in retirement, but that's what happened with this one. In late '60 Mitchell convinced GM to turn his personal pet into a factory-blessed demonstrator. Back at the GM Design shops a full-width windscreen, passenger seat, and Corvette badges were added. After a brief spin on the show circuit paving the way for the similarly themed '63 road car, Mitchell drove the Sting Ray on the street for several more years with numerous engine configurations, hood designs, and sidepipe variations.

After Mitchell stopped driving the car personally, it continued making sporadic appearances at shows and GM facilities, including a starring on-track role when Chevrolet was the honored marque of the '82 Monterey Historics. Most of the time, however, the Sting Ray lived at the GM Design Center.

Dale Jacobson, Concept Car Coordinator at GM's American engineering arm, has personally taken care of many Design treasures for years, the Sting Ray included. "Whatever engine Duntov had available went into this car. [Before the '05 restoration], I did the last engine swap on this car in '82, after a person from the Tech Center was supposed to take it around to Shipping and Receiving. It had a solid-lifter engine in it, and he just panicked, lost control, and over-revved it. He put the Number Five and Number Seven pistons right through the block. From then on it's been my responsibility to take the Sting Ray wherever it needs to go."

Despite Jacobson's care, time eventually took its toll on the former racecar, especially its extra-thin glass bodywork. The rear deck was most affected, where the car had been pushed into countless auto-show venues against the force of its locked rear axle. As the resin slowly deformed and deteriorated the deck stretched, cracked, and became wavy. Underneath the skin, all of the rubber parts started to rot out as well.

Knowing that the 45-year-old Sting Ray's increasing fragility was matched only by its landmark significance, Ed Welburn-GM's new VP of Global Design, meaning Mitchell's direct corporate descendant-spearheaded an effort to restore the old treasure to full glory. Welburn joined GM during the Mitchell era as an associate in the Advanced Design Studios. "I absolutely love that car; I get energized every time I see it. It really says a lot about the period. I feel that it's one of the crown jewels of GM Design." Welburn started thinking about the project more than a year ago and wanted to have a comprehensive plan in place before any work began. "I wanted to be faithful to the vehicle," he says, "but I didn't want to create this thing that was so precious that you'd want to keep it in a Plexiglas case."

The physical restoration started in August of 2004 and ran through February. A team of 15 people, with about five key players including Jacobson, performed the work. All were members of the UAW, and the labor was performed off the clock. Some would stay late or work on the Sting Ray while other Design jobs were setting up or drying. Virtually all of the work was done in-house, with the exception of the master-cylinder rebuild and the bending of new stainless-steel sidepipes.

Aesthetically, the concept was returned to the showcar configuration in which it debuted at the Chicago salon of '61, meaning long hood grills, a full windscreen, and two seats. The disc brakes from the end of the '60 season remained, along with as much of the original patina as the team felt was prudent. The preservation of the original seats was a particular goal of Welburn's: " Dr. Dick Thompson, John Fitch, Bill Mitchell, and others sat in that seat. I've got a picture in my office of Mitchell driving it and [Battista] Pininfarina in the passenger's seat."

Mechanically, the Sting Ray was freshened up with a minimum of invasion wherever possible. The chassis proved remarkably sound; its steel tubes needed only to be stripped and repainted. With no plans to return the car to the racetrack, the group eschewed magnafluxing the axles and uprights and focused largely on just renewing the standard wear parts. "We replaced things like balljoints and steering arms. All the suspension components were intact, but we decided we'd better replaced those too. Any bearing that was readily accessible we replaced as a matter of course."

Several more complex systems also needed to be resurrected, but original-style equipment was used whenever possible. New wires were run in the original configuration and fit with period-style connectors; the final wrapping was all done in period-correct cloth electrical tape. Period pieces were also used in the braking system wherever possible.

Other areas received more modern tweaks in subtle ways. To protect the hood from continuing heat damage, the exhaust headers were (invisibly) ceramic-coated on the inside and traditionally powder-coated outside.

During the Sting Ray's first life, everything from a 283 to a 427 lived in the engine compartment over time, often sporting go-fast rarities such as experimental aluminum heads or cross-ram carburetion. For ease of maintenance and durability, a production iron-head 350 retrofit with Rochester mechanical injection was tapped for the sound and motivation of the restored car.

Clearly, the body guys got the short end of the stick on this job. It would've been much easier to create an entirely new skin from scratch, but that would have defeated the whole purpose of preserving the Sting Ray as part of history. About 80% of the restoration, by Jacobson's estimate, was spent coaxing the original, super-thin (.06-inch) bodywork back into perfect order.

Measures were taken to strengthen the deck area and other problem spots at the same time. Primarily, this involved removing the original balsa-wood supports, covering them with a thin hat-section of aluminum, and then carefully glassing them back into place. When you open the finished deck of the car today, you see the same supports in the same configuration as before-now they're just an eighth of an inch wider and much stronger. Up front, the originally handformed aluminum panels that make up the inner wheelwells and engine compartment were expertly straightened and cleaned. After uncounted hours of handwork, the reconditioned body was smoothed out with laser-like precision, covered with period-correct silver-sparkle acrylic lacquer, and given a flawless clearcoat.

The restored Sting Ray was unveiled inside GM's company auditorium on March 4th to a group including Design and Pre-Production Operation employees, Richard Shoemaker of the UAW, and Guy Briggs, General Motors' VP for manufacturing and North American labor relations. The unveiling was also Welburn's acknowledgement of how personally the entire Design staff took the project and his way of thanking everyone involved. Jacobson was clearly delighted: "People were [always] pointing out cracks and asking hushed questions before. Now the car is outstanding. It's a pleasure [to take it out] now-we're back to 'ooohs' and 'aahhhs' again."

"Our most pressing mission is looking ahead, but in order to do that, we need to look at our history; not dwell on it, but understand and appreciate it," Welburn adds. "It doesn't matter what generation you are. Our youngest designers are as excited about the car as anyone." As he talks you can hear the emotion in Welburn's voice. Thanks to the efforts of people who feel the same way about the Sting Ray that he does, this important historical artifact should be around long enough for the rest of us to understand and appreciate it, too.