Monday, February 8, 2010

Gulf One 1963 Z06 Corvette, Part 1

Mecum Performance Auctions made big news at their January, 2009 Kissimmee, FL event when the 1963 Gulf One Z06 Corvette sold for a record price of $1.05 million. There was a great deal of promotional work in the months prior to the sale, involving extensive research, writing, and photography. Noted Z06 expert Eric Gill contributed his expertise, writing the forward for a book I wrote about the car’s history, “Gulf One 1963 Z06 Corvette”, published by Mecum as part of the marketing campaign. That book has since become somewhat of a collector’s item and is difficult to find. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that its contents have been the source, shall we say, of several subsequent articles both in print and on the web, so I have decided to publish the original text here at Musclecar Classics.

Gulf One 1963 Z06 Corvette
Part 1: The Origins of the Z06 Concept

In the present era of exploding advances in automotive technology and design, it is easy to lose sight of just how far the Chevrolet Corvette has journeyed from its timid origins as a tentatively-conceived, mild-mannered boulevard cruiser. Tracing its beginnings and early development at the hands of founding patrons Ed Cole and Zora Arkus-Duntov, several developments stand out as important points in the marque’s progress. Its very introduction in 1953 reflected the post-war European influence on the American market; Duntov’s single-minded insistence on the car’s survival resulted in early improvements to styling, power and handling that established its identity in the public mind. By the early Sixties the Corvette was a perennial champion in American sports car racing, a fan favorite at Le Mans thanks to the efforts of Briggs Cunningham, and the star of its own television show. Yet with all that success and international fame the arrival of the 1963 Sting Ray took the motoring community almost completely by surprise.

With styling based on the Bill Mitchell show car, the Sting Ray’s organic lines were inspired by the graceful contours of its waterborne namesake, but the look was All-American and almost avant-garde to the contemporary eye, instantly making every other car look dated if not downright obsolete. But it was not just its radically aggressive appearance that set it apart, for the new car’s performance was also astounding, even in comparison to the previous year’s model in full factory race trim.

From the Corvette’s coming of age in 1956 as a true performance-oriented, V-8-powered sports car through 1962, Chief Engineer Duntov had introduced a wealth of racing-inspired performance options to the equipment list, including a Sebring-proven RPO brake and steering package incorporating sintered brake linings, finned drums, internal cooling fans and scoops, performance suspension and a quick steering adapter. Four versions of the 327 were available, the most powerful generating 360 bhp thanks to its Rochester fuel injection and solid-lifter cam, and racers could choose a larger fuel tank to extend the time between pit stops. Aluminum-cased manual transmissions, Positraction and free-flowing exhaust were also available, all perfectly suited to competition.

Duntov saw the coming of the 1963 Sting Ray as an opportunity to assemble these various bits and pieces into one balanced package that would take advantage of the new stiffer platform and another Corvette innovation, its independent rear suspension. The result was the superb Z06 coupe, the first factory-built, race-ready Corvette in the marque’s history, embodying the most dramatic improvements in production Corvette performance to that time. The car’s technical developments were of a caliber akin to advancements normally found only in wartime. After years spent chafing under GM’s racing ban, which was newly exacerbated by Ralph Nader’s nascent threat and Ford’s free-wheeling Total Performance campaign, Corvette racers saw the new Z06 as heralding a long awaited corporate return to unfettered competition.

Among those so impressed was Gulf Oil Executive Vice President Grady Davis. An oilman by profession and a fierce competitor by nature, the Texas-born Davis had forged a highly successful career and a reputation for daring business decisions. Davis had demonstrated to the Gulf Board of Directors the value of real-world competition as a product development tool, fielding a team of Gulf-sponsored Corvettes beginning at Sebring in 1961. In the new 1963 Z06 he saw the raw material for advancing that cause, behind which lay the enlightened self-interest that always fuels such ventures. The Harmarville research facility then under Davis’ command had, in 1937, provided financing and technical support for Harry Miller’s last great racing project, the Gulf-Miller Indianapolis racers, the premise for which was to build the Gulf brand and develop its products. It was for the same reasons that Davis had begun racing the Corvettes, and now Harmarville would serve as headquarters for another Gulf racing effort, this time centered on two of the revolutionary new Z06 Sting Rays.

Bloomington Gold photos by Walter Thurn

Kissimmee, FL Auction
January 22-24, 2009

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