The storied history of the Corvette dates back more than half a century. In that time, we’ve seen no shortage of special models, be it for rarity, beauty, performance or all of the above. But among the various notable milestones along the way, all seem to pale in comparison to the original Grand Sport.
Corvette models like the Z06 and the ZR1 are undoubtedly worth celebrating for the engineering and passion that brought them into existence, but the GS is something different – a purpose-built race car, designed and produced at a time when such endeavors were strictly verboten for automakers.
A model whose total number of examples produced can be counted on one hand, with looks that would inspire more than its fair share of notebook doodles and performance so uncompromised it could take Carroll Shelby’s legendary Cobra to task out on the race track. Yes, the original Grand Sport is a special car indeed, and the story behind its birth is as unique as the car itself.
Duntov’s Race Car
In 1957, the Automobile Manufacturers Association placed a ban on direct manufacturer participation in motorsports efforts in reaction to the tragic accident at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, where a high speed crash of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR would claim the lives of 83 spectators at the event. But Zora Arkus-Duntov, the chief architect behind the Corvette’s evolution from a stylish runabout to a world class sports car wanted to offer a purpose-built road racer that could go toe-to-toe with Caroll Shelby’s formidable new Cobra at race tracks around the world.
Developed in secret in 1962, the plan was to build enough of these race cars to homologate the Grand Sport for use in various race classes and sell these chassis directly to privateer teams rather than running them as a factory-backed effort. Unlike the Z06, this was not an effort to build a track-capable road car. Instead, the Grand Sport was designed from the ground up to be used in motorsport. And Duntov knew that if the Corvette was going to be competitive with the Cobra on the world stage of motorsport, it was going to need some serious high performance firepower.
As such, its thin fiberglass body was hand-laid, steel components – including the inner body structure – were replaced with lightweight aluminum bits, and additional crossmembers were added to the framework to bolster rigidity, resulting in a frame that was both lighter and stiffer than the production Corvette’s.
Initially known as “The Lightweight” internally, overall weight was down nearly half a ton from the standard car. It also sported cast-magnesium wheels rather than the road car’s steel rollers, and disc brakes were fitted at all four corners. Its power plant was special, too: A new, all-aluminum 377 cubic-inch small block V8 with four Weber side-draft carburetors and a cross-ram intake, good for a healthy 550 horsepower at 6,400 RPM.
Duntov’s plan was to build 125 examples of the Grand Sport, which would make the car eligible for FIA GT production class racing, and the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans would serve as the Grand Sport’s European debut. As development continued, things were looking promising – the cars were undoubtedly fast. Even while still fine-tuning the car, the Grand Sport proved so capable it ran within striking distance of a track record at Sebring, a revelation that made its way back to GM Chairman Frederic Donner, who promptly issued a company-wide edict that effectively ended all GM-backed motorsport efforts, including the Grand Sport project.
While Duntov wasn’t able to produce the 125 cars he’d initially planned to build, five examples of the Grand Sport did manage to make their way into the hands of privateer teams, who put legendary drivers like Roger Penske, A.J. Foyt, and Jim Hall at the helm. GM engineers associated with the project were also commonly known to take “vacations” during notable events in the subsequent race season, like the 1963 Nassau Speed Week in the Bahamas.
Two Grand Sports were entered in that event, and when both cars were forced to drop out of the Tourist Trophy Race with overheated differentials, a GM engineer just happened to be on-hand with a pair of differential coolers that he had brought along with him on vacation. He graciously loaned the parts to the privateer teams, and those Grand Sports would go on to beat the Shelby Cobras in the Governor’s Cup and Nassau Trophy races, the Corvettes finishing third and fourth behind a pair of prototype racers.
While the Grand Sport had proven it was a capable competitor with Shelby’s new Cobra, the fact that Duntov could not produce the required number of examples to homologate the Grand Sport for a production class meant that the five cars would have to be entered into prototype classes, where they would compete with full-blown race chassis vehicles like the Chaparral and “Birdcage” Maserati. While the Grand Sport was highly capable as a production-based race car, prototype race car design takes a substantially different approach, and the Corvettes were simply forced into the wrong class for their design and thus uncompetitive within it.
Amazingly, all five of the original Grand Sport Corvettes survived their racing careers and are still around today. Three of the cars are coupes while the other two are roadsters, and each is valued well into seven-figure territory. In 2008, chassis #002, one of the two roadsters, came up for bid at RM Auctions in Phoenix, Arizona, with both RM and Keith Martin, publisher of Corvette Market Magazine, declaring it to be the most important Corvette offered for sale in history. Bidding reached nearly $5 million before stalling out short of the undisclosed reserve amount.
While it would take more than three decades, the Grand Sport moniker would eventually make a return with the fourth generation Corvette in 1996 as a limited production model to mark the end of C4 production.
A total of 1,000 C4 Corvette Grand Sports were produced – 810 as coupes and 190 as convertibles – all with the 330 horsepower LT4 V8 motor, and all coated in Admiral Blue paint with a white racing stripe down the middle and a pair of red hash marks on the driver’s side front fender.
Fourteen years would pass before the Grand Sport name would show up again, this time attached to a sixth-generation Corvette. No longer a limited production model, the Grand Sport was now a high performance treatment that replaced the Z51 package in the Corvette performance hierarchy.
Chevrolet brought the package back into the fold again this year as a 2017 model, essentially taking the Z06’s chassis, suspension, and braking components and merging them with the Stingray’s drive train in what is arguably the most track-capable Corvette on sale today.
We recently had a stint behind the wheel of this new Grand Sport, and we’re happy to report that, while it’s not a purpose-built race car like the original, it’s certainly a worthy entry to carry the name, and perhaps the most deserving of the GS designation since those five examples built in 1962.