Instead of collecting dust, GM’s 1959 Corvette XP-87 design concept went racing

The mid-year Corvette is one of the prettiest Corvettes out there, and its timeless design can be traced to a race car conceived in the shadows of the GM design department. The 1959 Corvette Stingray XP-87 is a gorgeous one-off that spends its time these days on manicured lawns and museums, but long before its extended retirement meandering the links of California and Florida, XP-87 was a bonafide race car. It was commissioned by Bill Mitchell and assembled by a GM team in secret.

The underpinnings of the XP-87 were not created from scratch. Rather, the design concept relied on the Corvette SS, a rushed racer built over a five-month span in 1957.

Due to lack of time, the original Corvette SS team that went on to race the 12 Hours of Sebring and SCCA events around the U.S. couldn’t develop a revolutionary design of its own, The chassis design was based on the 300SL from Mercedes-Benz, and the finished piece included technology that seemed quite foreign for a U.S. performance car. Namely, the De Dion rear suspension.

As the Corvette SS racing effort trailed off, the two cars were relegated to storage at GM. Mitchell now had the basis for a race car, he just needed to put a body on it. In true Bill Mitchell form, he wanted this effort to capture and highlight his team’s design prowess. The XP designation “XP” was inspired by the Experimental Pursuit term used by the military when developing fighter jets.

1959 Corvette Stingray XP-87
1959 Corvette Stingray XP-87 Kyle Smith
1959 Corvette Stingray XP-87
Matt Lewis

1959 Corvette Stingray XP-87
1959 Corvette Stingray XP-87 Kyle Smith

The XP-87 supposedly took shape after hours, in the basement, away from GM’s top brass. By late 1959 it was ready to see daylight and the racetrack. Powered by a 283-cubic-inch V-8, the styling-exercise/race-car combination achieved 155 mph on its first outing with Dick Thompson behind the wheel. Immediately after the race, the design was tweaked as the roadster lacked the downforce to keep the nose planted at speed over 140 mph. The changes must have worked; in 1960 the car captured its first and only class championship. Mitchell elected to retire the car, which meant an easier day-to-day life for the XP-87.

Once the car left the shadows, it had the top brass’ attention. GM big-wigs pictured the car as a perfect show piece to drum up excitement over the new 1963 model. After the show circuit, the Corvette Stingray XP-87 became Bill Mitchell’s personal car for some time, racking up miles (along with a few upgrades and modifications). Disc brakes replaced the tired racing drums, a 327 that surely had better street manners replaced the high-strung 283, and a passenger seat was added.

2009 Corvette Stingray Concept
2009 Corvette Stringray Concept

In more recent history, the XP-87 inspired a concept Stingray in 2009, celebrating 50 years of this racer’s influence on the Corvette brand.

Now the car lives within the GM Heritage Collection and is displayed at events and shows throughout the U.S., including a trip to the Hagerty home office in Traverse City, Michigan, for the month of September. In person, the XP-87 is long and low, almost intimidatingly wide. The seats are narrow and the interior lacking any thought of comfort, hinting at its racing roots. Picturing the silver missile is sort of difficult; something so clean and artistic is hard to imagine tearing up a race track 60 years ago. 

If you are headed north, be sure to drop by and see this gorgeous car in our lobby, or view the multitude of other vehicles that are featured on a rotating monthly basis.

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