1959 Chevrolet Stingray Concept Car: This Beauty Is A Legend

1959 Chevrolet Stingray Concept Car and Race Car

As concept cars go, the 1959 Chevrolet Stingray boasts a remarkable story. What began as an auto styling exercise transformed into one of the most iconic concept cars ever designed. With its Corvette performance and futuristic body, the vehicle has become one of the most easily recognizable concept cars. Here, we’ll explore the history of the 1959 Chevrolet Stingray Concept Car, its inspiration for Corvette models, and its iconic concept car status.

Italian Auto Show Inspires a New Design

In the fall of 1957, GM’s Vice President of Styling, Bill Mitchell, attended a car show in Turin, Italy. During his stay, he fell under the spell of various Italian sports cars and their streamlined designs. The Alfa Romeo Disco Volante and Abarth 750 Streamliner were among the most influential designs for Mitchell. With the Corvette SS model in mind, Mitchell returned to GM with plans to restyle a second-generation Corvette with the elegant Italian style points in mind.

Soon after returning, however, the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) banned American car makers from not only supporting performance products (aka race cars) but also from the building, advertising, or selling those products. In short, the ban squashed the plan to manufacture and sell Corvettes as race cars. Nevertheless, that didn’t deter Mitchell from his design plan. 

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1959 Corvette Stingray Racer at Eyes on Design 2022 - Photo Credits Wayne Ellwood
1959 Corvette Stingray Racer at Eyes on Design 2022 – Photo Credits Wayne Ellwood
1959 Corvette Stingray Racer at Eyes on Design 2022 - Photo Credits Wayne Ellwood
1959 Corvette Stingray Racer at Eyes on Design 2022 – Photo Credits Wayne Ellwood
1959 Corvette Stingray Racer at Eyes on Design 2022 - Photo Credits Wayne Ellwood
1959 Corvette Stingray Racer at Eyes on Design 2022 – Photo Credits Wayne Ellwood

Designing in Secret

As a racing fan, Mitchell was seriously opposed to the new Automobile Manufacturers Association ban. He chose to involve a group of young designers and move them to the basement of the company’s Styling Department. There, the work could not be viewed by any of the company’s executives or anyone else unconnected with the styling project. Mitchell outlined his experience at the Turin auto show and shared images of aerodynamic shapes and streamlined racing bodies with his small design team. He gave them a goal to create the first Corvette coupe complemented by some of the styling features he admired in the Italian racers he had recently seen. 

Within a few days, the team, which included Peter Brock, Chuck Pohlman, Norm Neumann, and Gene Garfinkle, came up with various model designs. It was Brock’s design that ultimately impressed Mitchell the most. From increasingly more detailed sketches to small models and then a full-sized clay model, the 1959 Chevrolet Stingray began to take shape. As the team worked, Mitchell hoped that pressure would force the association to lift its bans, but that didn’t materialize. So, the enterprising VP decided to transform the car design into a prototype racer that he, himself, would own. Using his own funds, he could then publicly promote and test the vehicle as it would have no official connection to GM or Chevrolet.

Secret Studio X

In December of 1957, as the design was taking shape, Mitchell informed the team about his decision to move the design team to a secret studio located behind a tool room known as The Hammer Room. At about the same time, he told the team to get rid of the car’s roof and turn it into a roadster. At that point, Larry Shinoda, a noted designer, and Tony Lapine joined the development team. Mitchell completed a new secret studio called Studio X and had the car moved there. 

When Shinoda entered the studio, the vehicle’s body was based on the Q-Corvette XP-96, which was a convertible. Soon, it would take on the folded crease style that Mitchell’s designs would become famous for over the course of the next decade. Shinoda worked on a revised shape so that it could be fitted to the Corvette SS chassis. Designers crafted the original body from fiberglass as well as aluminum reinforcement and aluminum attachment hardware. The initial weight of the car weighed in at 2,154 lbs. 

A Stingray Racer Is Born

1959 Corvette Sting Ray Racer - Photo from Brochure
1959 Corvette Sting Ray Racer – Photo from Brochure

By 1959, the design team completed the work, with Mitchell, and Harley Earl as the Vice President of GM. Of course, Mitchell could not adorn the car with any markings or labeling that would link it to Chevrolet or GM. That spring, Mitchell debuted his Stingray at the Marlboro, Maryland Raceway where it earned a fourth-place finish. The following year, it won the SCCA National Sports Car Championship. 

When it debuted in Maryland on April 18th, 1959, it featured an engine with 280 horsepower. Dr. Dick Thompson drove the car in its first race where, as mentioned, it won 4th place but also a first place in its class. As the ‘59 racing season progressed, the design team remade the front and rear sections of the Stingray thinner, using 1.5mm fiberglass with balsa wood for reinforcement. While this allowed the body’s panels to flex, it also reduced the car’s weight by 75 lbs. But that was the last adjustment for the racer. Even more weight was taken off by additional small adjustments that, ultimately, removed 154 lbs of weight so that it was reduced to a weight of 2,000 lbs. 

During the racing season, designers noted that the car’s body seemed to produce too much aerodynamic lift. So, technicians slightly raised up the rear springs to contend with the issue. Their adjustments that season culminated in the SCCA Championship. 

The Racer Retires 

After winning the SCCA Championship, Mitchell felt pressured by General Motors to remove the vehicle from the racing circuit. At that point, Mitchell removed the car from racing and began the process of revamping it for public roadways. He had his designers add a 327 cubic inch V-8 engine to the vehicle as well as a passenger seat, turning it into the concept car it’s known as today. He made various other modifications to ensure that it could be legally driven on the street.

He maintained the car, driving it on weekends and displaying it with other GM concept cars. In fact, it became the company’s official show car. Later, the GM Design Studio acquired the vehicle. Today, the 1959 Stingray Concept Car is maintained by the GM Heritage Collection. It has become one of the world’s most celebrated American cars. 

What many of the car’s fans love most about it is that it actually did race and won Championships! Its stunning design also influenced other car designs, including the 1959 Corvette, and many of Mitchell’s car designs throughout the 1960s. With its powerful fuel injection and sleekly streamlined body, the Stingray has remained a legend and will likely continue to do so. 

Bill Mitchell's "Stingray" Racecar/Show car: Bill Mitchell became the GM design chief as Harley Earl's successor in 1958. He wanted to build a Corvette racecar capable of beating Europe's best, and with the availability of Zora Arkus-Duntov's defunct 1957 SS test mule chassis, Mitchell's XP-87 was underway. Mitchell's project had to be privately financed, and the powers insisted that Mitchell's design had no recognizable association with the Chevy brand or Corvette name, so the XP-87 name was dropped and changed to Stingray. Combining the 1957 SS chassis with the new fiberglass body resulted in a sleek and muscular state-of-the-art open roadster. Completed in 1959, and with the engineering help of Zora Arkus-Duntov, it was fitted with a high-compression, fuel injected 283 c.i. V-8 engine producing 315 hp and entered into SCCA C-Class competition. At the end of the 1960 season, Mitchell retired the Stingray from the competition, detuned it, added a full windshield and passenger seat, drove it on the street, and exhibited it as an experimental show car. Elvis Presley drove this car in the film "Clam Bake." – Photo Credit Bob Cook
Bill Mitchell’s “Stingray” Racecar/Show car: Bill Mitchell became the GM design chief as Harley Earl’s successor in 1958. He wanted to build a Corvette racecar capable of beating Europe’s best, and with the availability of Zora Arkus-Duntov’s defunct 1957 SS test mule chassis, Mitchell’s XP-87 was underway. Mitchell’s project had to be privately financed, and the powers insisted that Mitchell’s design had no recognizable association with the Chevy brand or Corvette name, so the XP-87 name was dropped and changed to Stingray. Combining the 1957 SS chassis with the new fiberglass body resulted in a sleek and muscular state-of-the-art open roadster. Completed in 1959, and with the engineering help of Zora Arkus-Duntov, it was fitted with a high-compression, fuel injected 283 c.i. V-8 engine producing 315 hp and entered into SCCA C-Class competition. At the end of the 1960 season, Mitchell retired the Stingray from the competition, detuned it, added a full windshield and passenger seat, drove it on the street, and exhibited it as an experimental show car. Elvis Presley drove this car in the film “Clam Bake.” – Photo Credit Bob Cook
Elvis Presley drove this car in the film "Clam Bake." – Photo Credit Bob Cook
Elvis Presley drove this car in the film “Clam Bake.” – Photo Credit Bob Cook
Bill Mitchell 1959 Corvette Sting Ray Racer at Amelia Island 2017 – Photo Credit Bob Cook
Bill Mitchell 1959 Corvette Sting Ray Racer at Amelia Island 2017 – Photo Credit Bob Cook

Bill Mitchell’s Design Legacy

Not surprisingly, Bill Mitchell has gone down in history as one of Chevrolet / GM’s most revered car designers. In fact, he is responsible for overseeing the designs of more than 72.5 million autos. Aside from the 1959 Chevrolet Stingray Concept Car, he is responsible for other iconic designs, including the 19610-1976 Corvette Stingray, the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special, the 1970-1981 Chevrolet Camaro, the 1966-67 Buick Riviera, the 1976-79 Cadillac Seville, the 1955-57 Chevrolet Bel Air, and the 1949 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. His tenure at GM came to be known as the Mitchell Era. 

During the course of his career at GM, he held the position of VP of Design for 19 years. He retired in 1977 but his designs continued to be featured by the company until well into the 1980s. His aesthetic not only had a lasting impact on GM but also on the world of car design in general. He designed vehicles with ‘shoulderless’ designs that were highly streamlined with aerodynamic looks. His designs, in many ways, mirrored the space-age aesthetic that was so apparent during those mid-century decades in which he led GM’s design teams. 

The 1959 Chevrolet Stingray can still be viewed by auto fans today. The GM Heritage Collection continues to display the vehicle. The car has been discussed on television shows and auto documentaries. Jay Leno, a notable race car enthusiast, has also discussed the car in detail. If you’re ever visiting the collection, be sure to check out the 1959 Chevrolet Stingray. You’ll also find many other notable cars in the Heritage Collection.

Some of the most famous cars in the Heritage Collection include a 1912 Cadillac, 1966 Electrovan, 1966 Corvette Make Shark, 1962 Chevrolet Bel Air, 1963 Chevrolet Nova, 1931 Cadillac V16, 1968 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, 1902 Oldsmobile Pirate Beach, 1963 Oldsmobile Jetfire, 1964 Pontiac GTO, 1945 GMC Tanker, 1963 Chevrolet K20, 1972 Chevrolet Suburban, 1964 Buick Electra 225, 1975 Buick Silver Arrow, 1955 GMC Suburban Pickup, and 1999 Cadillac Escalade. In short, the 1959 Chevrolet Stingray Concept Car is in good company, but few of the others can compete with its own unique legacy as a proven race champion. 

Where can you see the 1969 Corvette Stingray Concept Car?

The Lime Rock Historic Festival 2022 takes place over Labor Day weekend. Sunday is dedicated to the Lime Rock Concours and the Corvette is their featured car. This year, in honor of the impending 70th anniversary of the Corvette, Lime Rock will play host to a massive display of Corvette history. It will start with twelve of the most important Corvette concept cars from the GM Heritage Center, such as the rarely seen CERV-I and CERV-II research vehicles, plus the iconic Sting Ray racer and the original Mako Shark. Also featured will be several examples of mid-engined Corvette designs, including the Astro II, the Reynolds Aluminum Corvette, the Aerovette, the Corvette Indy, and the CERV III. Said GM Design Vice President Michael Simcoe, “Through now eight generations, Corvette has been a leader in design and engineering. This extensive display of Corvette history will highlight the wide variety of ideas and innovations leading up to the current mid-engine C8.”  Make sure you plan to see the Lime Rock Historic Festivals Concours ‘Sunday in the Park’ on September 1, 2022.

You might also enjoy reading about the 50th Anniversary Corvette Stingray Concept. A version of the model was first shown at the 2009 Chicago Auto Show and stars as “Sideswipe” in Transformers.

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