Uncovering the History of the Iconic 1963 Harley Earl Corvette Convertible: a Design Masterpiece from the Golden Age of American Muscle Cars
During the ‘golden age’ of American muscle cars, Harley Earl designed this classic 1963 Custom Corvette Convertible, an iconic vehicle boasting innovative design and updated performance. This article dives into the history and unique features of this remarkable 1963 Harley Earl Corvette Convertible exploring why it has become such a cherished classic.
Harley J. Earl, the Vice President of Design at GM
Shop Order 10323, the 1963 General Motors styling car, is famously attributed to Harley J. Earl, the Vice President of Design at GM. In his 30-year tenure at the company, spanning from 1928 to 1958, Earl earned himself the esteemed title of being one of the world’s most influential automotive stylists.
His many innovations – the 1927 LaSalle redesign, the Buick Y-Job and LeSabre, the game-changing Motorama dream cars, the ’50s hallmark big fins, wrap-around windshields, pillarless hardtops, and two-tone paint – are just some of the testaments to his brilliance and lasting influence.
He is often viewed as the second most influential individual in the history of the American automobile industry. Commonly credited for introducing aesthetics and vibrant colors to the industry, he is famously recognized as the father of the Corvette. During the Motorama tours in the 1950s, his designs captivated the public, thus elevating the iconic car’s presence across America and the world.
Harley Earl Retires
Upon reaching the then-mandated retirement age of 65, Earl retired in 1958 as Vice President of GM, though he continued to serve as a consultant.
To recognize his achievements, GM presented him with a personalized Corvette Sting Ray in 1963; it was reminiscent of the Corvette show car designed for the Chicago Auto Show that year. This 1963 Sting Ray Corvette was sent straight from GM styling to the driveway of his Palm Beach, Florida, home.
Earl used the car as a personal driver for two years, often seen driving it around his Florida home. In 1965, he was the Grand Marshal of the Daytona 500, driving the car for a parade lap in his honor.
The trophy for the winner of the Daytona 500 remains “The Harley J. Earl Trophy” to this day.
After suffering a stroke in 1969, Earl sadly passed away on April 10, 1969, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
In 1986, he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and recognized by the Detroit Free Press as the third most influential Michigan artist of the 20th century, after Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.
Earl Sells his 63 Corvette
Harley Earl parted with the one-of-a-kind Corvette, selling it to a veteran from Maryland. The veteran’s voyage in the car was featured in a local newspaper.
Unfortunately, the car vanished afterward but was eventually recovered at a bankruptcy auction in 1973.
The 63 Vette Surfaces Again and is Sold
At a bankruptcy sale, a group of amateur racers acquired an unidentified Corvette for just $1,500 with the intention of using it as a drag car. But upon closer inspection, they began to suspect the car was something special and so kept it in its original state for the next seven years. When the car was showcased at the famous Corvettes at Carlisle event in 1980, it stirred a great deal of curiosity, particularly in middle school teacher and Corvette enthusiast Joe Cark.
This car had a 1964 serial number but came equipped with a variety of 1965 components as well as several non-production Corvette pieces, such as the peculiar side-exit exhausts located behind the front wheel wells. The interior had also been changed, outfitted with instruments on the glovebox panel, metal footwell plates, and bespoke leather seats and door panels. The owners of the car had a photograph of a special 1963 Chicago Auto Show Sting Ray featuring a seemingly similar exhaust system, though they were not able to definitively say if it was the same car or not.
Clark’s father had worked for GM must have stirred something inside of Joe, for he was unable to push aside the Corvette he had seen at Carlisle. Too many signs pointed to the fact that this was no amateur customization, and Joe was confident that this car had been created as a GM factory special.
After being unable to find contact information for the owners of the car at Corvettes at Carlisle, Joe had no means to inspect the vehicle further. Fortunately, his luck changed at the 1981 Cypress Gardens NCRS, where he randomly encountered enthusiast Ken Heckert, who introduced him to the owners. Upon approval, the owner allowed Clark and a team of his advisors to inspect the car once more, to which they unanimously concluded that it was built by General Motors. After a month of negotiations, Joe was finally able to purchase the car in 1981.
Joe Clark Studies the 1963 Harley Earl Corvette
Upon buying the car, Joe Clark and his partner Bob Gold were unaware of its rare heritage. However, due to their collective status as Corvette connoisseurs, they soon came to realize they had purchased something much more special than a typical custom car.
The car posed numerous perplexities, some beguiling, some worrying. Its headers penetrated into the space of the battery that was now relocated behind the passenger seat. Ornamental brass emblems and other embellishments, including the console trim, were plentifully incorporated. It was endowed with factory air conditioning and a four-speed manual transmission, and even though its engineering model was a 1963, its chrome trimmings, outside badges, inside knobs, and four-wheel disc brakes were all from 1965. Its paint codes signaled its initial Red-on-Red color palette, but its bespoke Blue leather interior and Metallic Blue hue were debatable.
One night while Joe was taking apart the car with Ken Heckert, he noticed a hand-written number inscribed inside a door trim panel: S.O. 10323. With this clue and a number of hints he received from people responding to advertisements in Corvette magazines, Joe decided to reach out to the factory in his search for the truth about the mystery Corvette.
Accompanied by restoration specialist Bob Gold, Clark paid a visit to the GM Design Staff. This yielded a critical result: confirmation that the car was, in fact, the one specially crafted for Harley Earl.
This vehicle started as a four-speed Red convertible equipped with fuel injection and could have been a test car or one used by a pool. Documented as Shop Order 10323, it was mentioned that the specific glovebox-mounted instruments had initially been planned for the car featured at the Chicago Auto Show but were ultimately incorporated into the Harley Earl car instead. GM Design Team made significant contributions to not only authenticating the vehicle’s past but to the precision of its renovation as well.
The two models were quite similar, displaying the Shinoda-crafted side pipes from the Shark concept car. Each model was appointed with a Medium Blue custom leather interior and White seat trim, as well as stainless steel door and footwell inserts and carpeting. A 327/300 hp engine replaced the fuel-injected small block, giving the cars more power for Florida’s climate and the added amenity of air conditioning.
The design team of GM played an integral role in not just the construction of the car’s story but also in the process of its revival. A newly replicated original S.O. number plate, “General Motors Styling” front fender badges, and accurate replicas of the original interior trim were all provided by GM to ensure that the Blue exterior with White trim replicated the historical data accurately.
Features of Harley J. Earl Corvette Sting Ray
- The personal car of GM designer Harley J. Earl Custom-built Sting Ray given to Harley J. Earl as a gift from GM
- (Shop Order) S.O. 10323
- 1 of 4 Corvettes ever built with this custom side exhaust
- 327/300 HP engine
- Knock-off wheels
- 4-speed manual transmission
- Air conditioning
- Metallic blue, custom Blue leather seats with white trim
- Stainless steel door and foot well inserts with plush carpeting
- Unique one-of-a-kind instrumentation (1965-67 flat design)
- Special unique gauges including altimeter, accelerometer, inside/outside temp, and vacuum pressure
- 1965-style 4-wheel disc brakes and dual-circuit power brakes
- A mainstay of the Bloomington Gold Special Collection, the Harley J. Earl Corvette is a one-of-a-kind factory special with a singular historic pedigree
- Inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame and invited to the special collection more than any other Corvette
Where is Earl’s 1963 Corvette Sting Ray now?
At Mecum’s 2010 Spring Classic in Indianapolis, Terry Michaelis of Proteam Corvette submitted the triumphant bid of $925,000 to acquire the highly-sought-after 1963 Corvette convertible that had belonged to Earl after he left his position at General Motors.
In 2011 it was inducted into the Bloomington Gold Great Hall and since has been invited more times than any other car to the Bloomington Gold Special Collection.
Again it crossed the auction block in October 2013, and it sold for $1.5 Million.
In 2019 two Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray Styling Cars, a 1963 convertible and 1964 coupe known respectively as the Harley J. Earl and Bill Mitchell Corvettes, were offered together as one lot at the 2019 Mecum Kissimmee Auction. They did not sell on the blog, but the bid went to $1,700,000.
The 1963 Corvette Convertible Harley Earl Styling Vehicle S.O. 10323 was featured in the 2022 Bloomington Gold Collect by the current owner, the Rare Wheels Collection, Windermere, FL.
Coverage in the November 2011 issue of Vette Vues Magazine of the 1963 Harley Earl Corvette induction into the Bloomington Gold Great Hall.
Unable to resist tampering with their new toy, GM stylists produced a show-car version of the 1963 convertible for display at the Chicago Auto Show with external exhaust and functional hood grilles. The car was finished in blue with a white stripe and special finned aluminum wheels. While Zora Arkus Duntov was known as the Godfather of the Corvette, the man responsible for conceiving the concept and design was Harley Earl, chief of GM Styling until retiring in 1958. GM honored Earl with this personalized 1963 Corvette Sting Ray five years after his retirement. The car was fitted with several components planned for 1965 production. The interior was modified with instruments installed in the glove box panel, metal foot well grids, and custom leather seats and door panels.
Stylists believed the coupe body was the only one needed. Great Hall inductee, Joe Pike, felt that the convertible would assert its traditional role in the Corvette picture. The market proved Pike correct. By the end of 1963 production, about 10,000 of each body style had been sold. After disappearing into obscurity, the car was discovered by Corvette enthusiast Joe Clark. The son of a retired GM executive, Clark purchased the car and confirmed it as the one built for Mr. Earl.
The Harley Earl Corvette is arguably one of the most visually attractive Corvettes built and continues to be admired by Corvette and automotive enthusiasts.
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