Born in 1958: Bill Mitchell's Sting Ray Validates a Truism

RK Motors Jul 31 2018

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Elvis Presley drove the Sting Ray race car, but Autoweek is not Elvis. We collectively anticipated a familiarization drive. We got a photo shoot and ride-along with GM’s driver instead.

Yes, this Sting Ray is a 60-year-old championship winner with a Chevy small block that was one of the first engines to surpass the hallowed 1-hp-per-cube barrier. Today it makes about the same power as a four-cylinder Honda Civic Type R. Its power-to-weight ratio is 60 percent lower than the ZR1 on our cover a few issues back, and Chevrolet happily offered that for a blast around Road Atlanta. Cars, after all, are built to be driven.

Perhaps GM decided the Sting Ray race car is too precious or the lawyers said “not happening” or the perceived benefit was not up to the perceived risk. We’re consoled only by the thought that Elvis drove the Sting Ray in the sorry 1967 film “Clambake,” mostly in front of a rolling background. We rode along through 320 impeccably plotted acres 12 miles northeast of downtown Detroit, designed by architect Eero Saarinen, hailed as a wonder of midcentury modern architecture and dubbed the “Versailles of Industry” when President Dwight Eisenhower dedicated the place in May 1956. We’re talking about the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan, where, in its heyday, the Sting Ray race car was banned from the premises.

No matter. It’s necessary we publish this story, even if we can’t share precisely what the Sting Ray feels like in the hands or under the seat. As Autoweek marks its 60th anniversary, no car better encapsulates the times, trends and sentiments that gave birth to Competition Press in 1958 on Burlingame Avenue in Detroit, not far from the Tech Center.

For our purpose, this Sting Ray is the mythical perfect car. It’s a microcosm of forces that created one of America’s first auto racing-specific publications, which morphed gradually into its only weekly car-enthusiast publication and then into the clarion of car culture in every corner. The elements are synthesized in this Miata-size, fiberglass beauty, starting with rebellion against committee-driven, market-researched corporate consensus. Or with the American hot-rodder’s willingness to co-opt whatever worked, whether it came from military aviation, the sacred engineering halls of Europe or hillbillies running ’shine in Appalachia. Or with an impeccably skilled dentist who started late and raced cars on weekends not for money or recognition, but because he loved racing cars more than just about anything else. Or the multitude who waited at mailboxes across the United States for the latest news on corporate rebellion, co-opting and racing dentists.

Sixty years later, as the world grows smaller and the 755-hp 2019 ZR1 goes like much bigger hell, even as it protects in a stronger, more foolproof cocoon, the Sting Ray race car still blends the universal truths that keep Autoweek rolling and car culture thriving.

There was no factory racing in 1958, but racing was an unstoppable force, just the same, even at the factories. A mutually established racing ban could not keep Detroit’s automakers out.

This was the start of the Bill Mitchell era at General Motors. It produced some of the most beautiful cars GM has created in 100-plus years, and it might best be understood by millennials in the context of the “Mad Men” television series.

William Leroy Mitchell actually started his career on Madison Avenue, drawing cars for the Barron Collier advertising agency. He quickly became friends with the founder’s three sons—Barron Jr., Miles and Samuel (as in the Collier Collection/Revs Institute). The Colliers founded the Automobile

Racing Club of America in 1933 and folded it into the Sports Car Club of America in 1944. Mitchell drew the dirt-spitting Auburn that was the original ARCA logo.

For our purpose, this Sting Ray is the mythical perfect car. It’s a microcosm of forces that created one of America’s first auto racing-specific publications, which morphed gradually into its only weekly car-enthusiast publication and then into the clarion of car culture in every corner.

For our purpose, this Sting Ray is the mythical perfect car. It’s a microcosm of forces that created one of America’s first auto racing-specific publications, which morphed gradually into its only weekly car-enthusiast publication and then into the clarion of car culture in every corner.

In 1958, Mitchell had just been chosen to replace the mighty Harley Earl as vice president, GM Styling (previously Art and Colour, later Design), and his reputation was well established. Loved or hated, Mitchell never went unnoticed. He was known for his humor, knock-down drag-outs with division managers, excessive drinking, pranks—he once had to be rescued 50 feet up a tree on his neighbor’s lawn, and he once stole a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park and tried to drive it into a hotel lobby—and, yes, for carnal excess. Generally the sort of things no major corporate executive could survive in 2018. Mitchell survived because GM owned the world in the late 1950s and ’60s, and Styling was as crucial as anything to GM’s success. Mitchell did everything he could to keep it that way.  

He was gearhead to the core. During his 18 years as styling director, Mitchell had 54 custom cars built within the corporation, or an average of three per year. He found some promotional or styling duty for a lot of them, but mostly he drove them. Many were Corvettes, and many were not—the Riviera-based Silver Arrows, the Pegasus (a Gen II Firebird with a Ferrari V12), a Gen II Camaro with a big-block Can Am V8, a De Tomaso Mangusta with a small block. He made a habit of buying Ferraris, Porsches and Jaguars (including the second E-Type imported to the United States) and billing them to Engineering as competitor evaluation. He also amassed one of the largest custom motorcycle collections then known, usually with custom color-matched leathers for each. 

Yet few of Mitchell’s customs proved as influential as the Sting Ray race car. Never was there a more obvious flying finger waved at the corporate racing ban.

That ban was announced in June 1957 by the American Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing Detroit automakers and suppliers, prohibiting members from participating in racing in any fashion. It can be viewed in the same light as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg sitting before congressional panels to be grilled days on end.

Sting Ray or Stingray? Sixty years later, it’s officially the former with GM and Chevrolet, but it’s not clear if that’s always been the case. PHOTO BY JACOB LEWKOW

Sting Ray or Stingray? Sixty years later, it’s officially the former with GM and Chevrolet, but it’s not clear if that’s always been the case. PHOTO BY JACOB LEWKOW

The car business was still reeling from the Pierre Levegh crash that left 83 spectators dead at Le Mans in 1955 and from high-profile spectator (not to mention driver) fatalities in the States, as well as from youth riots at race meets, including Daytona Speed Weeks. Detroit figured it was better to do something on its own than to wait for Congress or the Eisenhower Administration to do something more definitive. And still the automakers could not keep fingers out of the pie. Almost immediately, marketing wizards and engineers began devising means to surreptitiously send resources to racers. GM, for example, hired former Packard race engineer Vince Piggins and set him up in the Southern Engineering and Development Co. in Atlanta. SEDCO quietly funneled the latest speed parts and engineering innovations to stock car racers.

All that was hidden outside the org chart, of course. Within, and especially near the top, there was no racing, and that was bad news for original Corvette chieftain Zora Arkus-Duntov. In summer 1956, Duntov convinced Chevy general manager Ed Cole that Corvette needed to race with a real race car, target Le Mans. Cole announced the Corvette SS program as “a research project to study advanced engineering characteristics in the field of performance, handling, braking and other safety features.”

Duntov was Belgian by birth, an engine builder by trade and as American as apple pie when it came to his hot-rodder’s instincts. He was more than willing to grift whatever would make the Corvette SS go fast. He took its narrow-tube spaceframe almost verbatim from the Mercedes 300 SL gull wing. He fitted it with unequal length A-arms and coilovers in front, a de Dion axle, Halibrand quick-change differential and inboard aluminum drum brakes in the rear, and he squeezed in what was then GM’s most power-dense engine: a 283 Chevy with mechanical fuel injection generating 307 hp. Duntov built two SS frames and fit the development car with a Corvette-esque fiberglass body. 

It’s necessary we publish this story, even if we can’t share precisely what the Sting Ray feels like in the hands or under the seat. As Autoweek marks its 60th anniversary, no car better encapsulates the times, trends and sentiments that gave birth to Competition Press in 1958 on Burlingame Avenue in Detroit, not far from the Tech Center. PHOTO BY JACOB LEWKOW

It’s necessary we publish this story, even if we can’t share precisely what the Sting Ray feels like in the hands or under the seat. As Autoweek marks its 60th anniversary, no car better encapsulates the times, trends and sentiments that gave birth to Competition Press in 1958 on Burlingame Avenue in Detroit, not far from the Tech Center. PHOTO BY JACOB LEWKOW

He showed up at Sebring in March 1957 and persuaded Juan Manuel Fangio to do some prerace shakedown laps in the development mule. Fangio turned a faster lap than he had winning in a Ferrari 860 Monza the year before. Duntov’s car was fast in the race, too, shared by John Fitch and Piero Taruffi, but after a streaming series of brake, electrical and suspension problems, the Corvette SS completed only 23 laps. And that was it.

The AMA ban was announced before Le Mans, and GM was officially out of racing. Except for Bill Mitchell. On a couple of occasions, years later, Mitchell said that he bought the SS mule in 1958 out of the bowels of GM for $500 of his own money. However he got it, Mitchell quickly went to work.

He announced a contest to his junior designers seeking a Ghia-inspired sports car. Pete Brock and Chuck Pohlman came up with the winner, called Sting Ray (or maybe Stingray), and Mitchell hustled their creation to his secret “hammer room” under the Design Staff building. There Corvette designer Larry Shinoda supervised construction of a fiberglass roadster body for the Corvette SS race mule.

Mitchell then moved the Sting Ray outside the Tech Center and into shop space elsewhere in Warren. He entered it in a handful of races in 1959 with his own money, whenever Fitch or Dr. Dick Thompson could squeeze one in, and started to shake out the gremlins. By 1960, the Sting Ray was ready for something like a full schedule. Thompson drove it to the SCCA C-Modified national championship that season entered by team owner Bill Mitchell, winning at least five races in roughly a dozen starts.

At some point, the Sting Ray was sprayed silver from its original red. In 1961, Mitchell retired it from racing and had it retrofitted with signals, a horn and a second seat for street use, and he frequently drove it himself. For the Sting Ray’s first official connection to GM since its SS days, he sent it to a couple of auto shows as a Corvette design study. And when Chevy was developing the landmark C2 Corvette for production, Mitchell took the race car’s look wholesale for the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray roadster and coupe.


It’s said that Mitchell adored Earl, his predecessor and mentor, and he definitely bought into Earl’s fundamental tenant: longer, lower, wider. Yet Mitchell generally rejected Earl’s predilection for pointed chrome ostentation in favor of something he called “pure form.” There’s never been a better embodiment of Mitchell’s pure form than the Sting Ray race car.

Apparently the Sting Ray’s impact didn’t matter much to Jack Gordon, who’d spent his career helping GM put the “counter” in bean counter. Gordon was a buttoned-down graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy elected to succeed Harlow H. Curtice as GM president and chief operating officer about the same time Mitchell replaced Earl. He knew about Mitchell’s extracurricular shenanigans and didn’t think much of them. Gordon couldn’t legally stop Mitchell from racing the Sting Ray, but he could ban the car from the Tech Center and other GM premises—and he did until he retired in 1965.

Sting Ray or Stingray? Sixty years later, it’s officially the former with GM and Chevrolet, but it’s not clear if that’s always been the case. The name is scripted both ways on Mitchell’s race car, which now spends most of its time at the restored Mechanical Assembly garage at the Tech Center, odometer stuck at 4,999 miles.

There’s no Duntov cam here. That’s obvious from the passenger seat. At some point, maybe when Mitchell had it set up for the street, the race cam was replaced with something more drivable. The Sting Ray idles smoothly, easily, and it doesn’t take much rev to get rolling. There are still two fuel pumps from its racing days, and it still gets hot fast when it’s not really getting down the road. It sounds like a loud Chevy.

Its underbody is fully faired, but there isn’t a lot of lateral attachment for its de Dion rear axle, so it’s secured for safety with nylon web straps. At some point, too, the original SS inboard drums were replaced by Dunlop discs. The four-speed shifter is surprisingly tight, but not hard, and the clutch pedal isn’t as stiff as you’d guess.

That’s what we can share from the Sting Ray race car’s right seat. For more, we’ll have to go back to the man, though we can consider him a reliable source.

In 1952, Richard Knight Thompson was 32, a graduate of George Washington University and Georgetown dental school. He drove his MG TD from D.C. to Florida to watch the 12 Hours of Sebring. He’d witnessed and wondered for years, but at that point, Thompson hadn’t raced anything. On the way, Thompson’s companion urged him to enter his car. He did, and logging most of the seat time himself, he finished eighth.

Then he drove the MG home, but Thompson was hooked. For the next 17 years, Thompson raced weekends whenever he could, then returned to his family’s long-established dental practice to fill senators’ cavities or pull diplomats’ teeth. Clearly he had the gift, but he never felt he’d arrived until after he won his first national championship in his own Porsche 356 in 1954.

“From that point I was able to drive OPCs (other people’s cars) and not have the expense of buying and campaigning my own,” he told author Phil Allen. “It was a very satisfying milestone for me.”

That arrangement allowed Thompson to do what he enjoyed most: show up, drive a race car for a few days and then return to his practice. And he was really good at it. He won eight national championships in 17 years, driving Corvettes, Porsches, Austin-Healeys and the Yenko Stinger. He had a best finish of fourth in a handful of Le Mans starts, driving a Maserati Tipo 63 for Briggs Cunningham in 1961, and he won a rain-drenched 1,000-kilometer at Spa in 1967, Jacky Ickx as his partner in a Mirage M1-Ford, at age 47.

The Sting Ray race car? Thompson once said his approach was simple: Get as far ahead as he could early because the brakes were inevitably going away.

In 1958, Mitchell had just been chosen to replace the mighty Harley Earl as vice president, GM Styling (previously Art and Colour, later Design), and his reputation was well established.
 
In 1958, Mitchell had just been chosen to replace the mighty Harley Earl as vice president, GM Styling (previously Art and Colour, later Design), and his reputation was well established.
 
“I liked it because it was the first pure race car I’d driven, but it understeered badly and had an almost-production engine,” he said in 2007 at a sports car reunion at Virginia International Raceway, where he’d beaten Roger Penske for the C-Prod win in 1960. “It went fast because it was lightweight. It could have gone a lot faster, but nobody bothered to develop it. The brakes were terrible. They worked well when they worked, but they always wore out before a half-hour race was over.”

Thompson retired to Florida in 1994 and died there 20 years later at 94. He’d appeared dozens of times in the pages of CP/AW, and he embraced thinking that we’d expect Mitchell and CP/AW readers to intuitively understand. “Racing cars is a sport with me,” Thompson said in 1966. “The general idea is that the car and I will work as a team. I’m like a jockey. I can’t win without a great horse.”

The Sting Ray race car was a great horse. It remains a compelling snapshot of the times that brought us Autoweek. We’re still envious of Elvis, but no one wants to be the person who dinged the Sting Ray race car. Thanks for the photo shoot, GM, and thanks more deeply for finally embracing what your European counterparts understood decades prior: Heritage is also the present and the future. And thank you, recently retired design chief Ed Welburn, for working diligently to instill that understanding at America’s largest vehicle manufacturer.

Sixty years later, 2 hp per cubic inch is no longer startling in road-certified automobiles. Now we talk about variable compression and kilowatt hours in batteries and Jaguar’s ready-to-launch, full-electric I-Pace. Yet Jaguar is well into its plan to race the I-Pace and tuners are already figuring out how to squeeze a bit more go from its electric motors or a few more miles from its batteries. We still lust after the Sting Ray, and the ’19 ZR1 and the Chevy Bolt. We still take smug satisfaction in the thought that Bill Mitchell The Car Guy lasted longer and left a much deeper professional legacy than Jack Gordon The Bean Counter.

Autoweek and everything the Sting Ray race car represents are still going strong.

SOURCE: AUTOWEEK

AUTHOR: J.P. Vettraino

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