25 October 2016

These are the most valuable Corvettes of all

Automakers frequently recycle model names, lending the panache of a past success to a newer, and probably less special, car. In the history of the Chevrolet Corvette, the ZR1 comes quickly to mind, as does Z06.

No nameplate, however, has the history of Grand Sport, a designation used just four times (so far) in Corvette history. Younger enthusiasts may dwell upon the ’96 C4 Grand Sport, the 2010 C6 and the new 2017 Grand Sport, all more valuable than standard production Corvettes. But none are more valuable than the cars that gave the Grand Sport name its aura, the five Grand Sport Corvettes built in 1962.

The impetus was, of course, the engineer and racer Zora Arkus-Duntov and his aspirations for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1963.

The purpose-built Grand Sports each had a unique lightweight twin-tube frame, paper-thin fiberglass bodywork, an aluminum “birdcage” structure to protect the driver and Girling disc brakes. Power came from an aluminum 377-cid V-8 topped by a quartet of 58mm Weber carburetors.

The Grand Sports are five of the most exciting, fabled, competition cars ever built, designed and built for international competition. Their design is instantly recognizable. Bedecked with scoops and vents, their visual features achieve functional goals with grace and creativity rarely seen on racing cars. They are aggressive, functional, balanced and sleek all at once.

But before the program could make its mark in competition, disaster struck: In line with GM’s policy against factory-supported racing, company executives put an end to the project. Undaunted, Duntov snuck three of the Grand Sports out the back door. They finished 3, 4 and 6 at the Nassau’s Governor’s Cup in ’63, behind A.J. Foyt’s Scarab and the Ferrari 250P of Pedro Rodriguez.

Two Grand Sports, chassis No. 001 and No. 002, were converted to low-windscreen roadsters in anticipation of Daytona and Sebring in ’64. Then the 14th Floor of GM headquarters spoke again, this time decisively. Their edict: Support, even for privateer racers, would not be allowed. The 002 car was later sold to Roger Penske.

Grand Sport No. 002 made a headline appearance at RM’s Scottsdale, Ariz., auction in 2009. One of the two roadsters had been repowered by Penske with a 427 big block and driven by George Wintersteen in the 1966 USRRC series. Left alone by two subsequent owners, it was restored by Jim Jaeger, using techniques that emphasized preservation of the car’s as-raced authenticity.

At Arizona in 2009 it was the headline car of the week, wearing its original bodywork and powered by a 427 as it had been raced. The Goodyear Blue Streaks were old and hard as rocks. I had the chance to drive – not ride in – it. “Hairy” doesn’t begin to describe the experience on the streets around the Arizona Biltmore, a lopsided wrestling match between aged slicks and the bountiful torque of that big block Chevy.

All five of the Grand Sports, the most valuable Corvettes, survive in private collections. Number 002 reached $4.9 million on the block in Arizona but no deal was reached. It sold later. Today, it occupies a proud place in Dr. Fred Simeone’s passionate collection in Philadelphia.

Jerry Burton, in his biography of Zora Arkus-Duntov, put it this way, “The Grand Sport may not have earned Duntov any political gold stars on the 14th Floor, but what he did achieve constituted an indelible contribution to Corvette’s racing pedigree.”

Buyers of new Grand Sports share the aura, but shouldn’t expect similar accolades.

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