1963 Grand SportThe 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.

While Chevrolet produced a number of high performance iterations of the Corvette, the original Grand Sport is a homologation special that never saw its true potential. The GS was a purpose-built light-weight race car that didn’t have a chance to compete in its designated race class due to GM’s ban against factory-backed racing efforts that would limit its production to just five examples in total. Image: Chevrolet

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.

Of the five Grand Sports built in 1962, two of them were roadsters like this one. Chassis #002 seen here went up for bid at an RM auction in Phoenix, Arizona in 2008, but bidding stalled at $4.9 million, short of the undisclosed reserve price. Images: RM Auctions

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.

Hemmings-1963-Chevrolet-Corvette-Grand-Sport-Race-Car-W63HV_CH002-700x461

While the Grand Sport looked a lot like a production Corvette, unlike performance packages like the Z06, the GS was designed from the ground up for racing duty rather than as a highly capable road car that could perform at the track. Image: Hemmings

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.

The Grand Sport received a bespoke, all-aluminum 377ci small block V8 that was fed by four Weber carbs and cranked out 550 horsepower. Image: Corvette Magazine

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.

Initial testing at Sebring showed that the Grand Sport was ready to take on the best production cars in the world. When the car nearly broke the track record, word of the feat got back to GM brass - who'd already agreed not to participate in factory-backed racing efforts years prior - and they quickly put a stop to the GS program. Images: Chevrolet

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.

As you'd expect from a race car, the interior of the Grand Sport is all business, with aggressively bolstered race seats installed to keep the occupants in place at speed. Images: RM Auctions

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.

Legacy

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.

The 1996 Corvette Grand Sport was limited to 1000 units, all of which sported this distinctive color scheme. Image: Chevrolet

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.

2011-Chevrolet-Corvette-040

The Grand Sport package returned in 2010 for the sixth generation Corvette, this time being substituted in for the Z51 package on the Corvette options sheet. Image: Chevrolet

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.

This year the Grand Sport returns to the roster for the seventh generation Corvette, and is perhaps the most earnest effort to replicate the spirit of the original car that we’ve seen to date. Image: Chevrolet

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.