It all started with a toy car. Back in 1987, Mike Bell found a little 1:64 scale model of the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport. Impressed by its racy lines, he thought to himself, “When I retire, I sure would like to build one of these cars.”
Of course, once he did retire, “Like most folks, I knew I couldn’t afford one of the five cars that Roger Penske and a few others had raced against Carroll Shelby’s Cobras,” he admits “After all, they’re basically built of ‘unobtanium’.” So Bell decided to see if he could find a replica of a ‘63 Grand Sport.
In late 2011, he moved to Cape Coral, Florida for the winter months, taking his truck, trailer, Harley, and 1996 Corvette to the warm part of the country. “In Florida, I rode my Harley and met several Harley guys,” he recalls. “One day, I was talking to one of my friends and I was telling him about a car that I would like to build or find. He told me that he knew a friend in Pennsylvania who had a ‘63 Grand Sport replica for sale.”
A Grand Idea
In April of 2012, Bell returned to Indy and called the man, hoping the car was available. “The guy told me it was still for sale, so I went to Pennsylvania and purchased it, and then brought the car back to Indiana and drove it on the street for about six months.” It was just a street ride at the time, but it had all the makings of a race car.
Rather than consisting of all replica parts, this conversion from Mid-America Industries uses a real ‘63 Sting Ray body and chassis, titled with a serial number of 30837S120399. The Grand Sport conversion was initially built in 2002 at Mid-America’s facility in Milan, Illinois.
The first owner of the car was Jim Prather. While there were two project cars leading up to this one, this third, special Corvette was to be very unusual and unique. The builders wanted the Grand Sport configuration to be closer to the real thing this time.
They were able to purchase a GM LT4 engine and six-speed transmission. Since they were using the 1996 engine and transmission, they decided to go the complete route and paint the ‘63 Grand Sport to match the more recent 1996 Grand Sport: Admiral Blue, red fender hash marks, white center racing stripes and Torch Red interior. Once it was finished, Vette Vues Magazine ran a cover feature on it in July 2002.
After acquiring it, though, Bell decided to take the car apart, completely gutting it. “I took out the stock LT4 engine and transmission and installed a full racing engine. It was a 427 cubic inch stroker, Dart block, backed by a heavy-duty T-56 six-speed transmission.” The engine has a 10.7:1 compression ratio, and runs on 93 octane.
What really sets it apart is the custom, one-of-a-kind Holley induction system, a side-draft EFI with a MSD Digital-6 Plus computer system that plugs into a Dominator V2 vehicle management system. This setup took several months to make, with a hand-welded intake plenum. Since it was the first one done by the Holley technicians, they weren’t sure how well it would work.
On the dyno, the engine ran fine, but once installed in the car the engine spit, sputtered, banged, and popped. But after some laptop tuning and nearly 300 miles of driving, the computer was able to “read” Bell’s driving style and finally took over. With the fuel management all settled in, this mill delivered 770 hp and 690 lb-ft of torque at the flywheel.
These numbers resulted in 680 hp to the rear wheels at 7,900 rpm; the motor peaks out at an ear-piercing 9,500 rpm. “It’s got all the power in the world,” Bell smiles. (Way more than the original Grand Sport had back in the early Sixties).
The chassis has the factory four-inch tube frame with a 1989 Z51 Corvette heavy-duty suspension, with the exception of a pair of Alden coil-overs up front and a VBP monoleaf spring in the rear. Bell also added a set of Z26 Warrior slotted and drilled brake rotors to halt all that horsepower.
The next item on the build sheet led Bell to send the car to a welder to have an 18-point roll cage installed, along with safety equipment that includes front and rear drive-shaft loops and a skid plate under the engine. After about a year of work, the car was now a full-blown vintage road racing car, certified to drive on the track. Yet it can also be driven on the street when the mood strikes!
“I have also taken this car to several car shows and won Best of Show a half-dozen times or so, among many other awards,” Bell said. “I’ve raced it with the SCCA on the track and done very well, beating everybody in class at Roebling Road Raceway in Savannah, Georgia.” Although it’s really not intended to be a dragster considering the gearing and the setup, on the quarter-mile he has run 11.70 seconds at 128 mph.
Bell also mentioned, “The car can also cruise down the highway with no problems whatsoever thanks to the six-speed and chosen gearing. On the street, everybody always wants to play with me, especially those guys in their turbo imports, but I don’t get into street racing. I just smile and wave, as I don’t need to prove anything. I know what’s under the hood, and what this car can do. And that’s plenty good enough for me.”
As Bell and mentioned above, the price of the real C2 Grand Sport is simply far beyond the reach of most people. Luckily, the kits like that of Mid-America’s make it possible for many people to enjoy a car they otherwise would never be able to obtain.
That being said, taking on one of these builds does require some time and patience. For those considering building one, we figured we should share a short story of one man’s build experience. The following story is told by Larry Weiner, who successfully built a Mid-America Grand Sport:
“The Corvette Grand Sport conversion from Mid-America is well-engineered, but like any car project, building one is easier said than done. While there’s a tube chassis for the Grand Sport, an original mid-year Corvette body tub is needed as well. This ended up being the first challenge, as I was determined not to cut up a complete car. I also wanted a tub with a title and VIN tag, which made it even harder to find. It took two years of searching, but I finally found a 1965 coupe tub at Bloomington Gold in 1991.”
“I then contracted with Mid America to not only build the body, but also to paint it, and then do the body drop on the chassis after I had completed building it. That phase took longer than expected, and once it was back home, there was still a lot of work to do.”
“The car need to be wired, the dash needed to be created and dozens of other tasks needed attention. Fortunately, the wiring would only be for the bare essentials—lights, gauges, and of course, the wiring for the engine (No radio, heat, air conditioning, or power windows.)”
“Yet another challenge was the intake manifold. When I had the 427 Chevrolet engine built by Racing Head Service, I specified a Weiand aluminum high-rise intake manifold. Unfortunately, it was too tall, even for the Daytona-style hood. The only thing to do was get a different intake. I ended up getting a 1970 Corvette LS5 low-rise intake, which fit under the hood perfectly.”
“In addition, the fuel pump needed a regulator to dial down the pressure. Turns out that I had purchased a racing instead of a street pump.”
“The headers also created a problem for the build. Not knowing better, I originally purchased a set of Hooker Side Headers for a 1963–1967 Corvette with a big block, only to find that these headers would not work with a tube chassis. They are designed for a stock chassis which, upon reflection, made total sense. I worked with a local shop, which made the changes based on my markings and drawings. After several changes to the headers over a period of weeks, and installing them numerous times, they finally fit.”
“So don’t expect this sort of project to be simple or fast. It requires persistence and ingenuity.”