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Corvette History — Chevrolet’s Corvette SS Could Have Been a Contender
It was the classic story of a promising car that didn’t really have a chance to prove itself. And from there was born one of the most important legends in Corvette history.
The Corvette SS originated in 1956 as the pet project of General Motors styling director Harley Earl, who wanted Chevrolet to compete against the big names in international endurance racing. Earl’s initial idea was to design a racy body, lay it on a Jaguar D-Type chassis and swap the Jag’s six for a Chevy V8.
But that notion wouldn’t sit well with Corvette engineering guru Zora Arkus-Duntov, a die-hard racing fan. When he heard about the plan, he pushed for an all-new chassis design that would incorporate ambitious engineering concepts. Duntov’s arguments won out, if only for the reason that the main structure of the D-Type was a monocoque configuration and therefore had no separate frame on which to lay any type of body.
To save time, Duntov purchased a Mercedes-Benz 300SL frame and from that drew much of the inspiration – if not textual design cues – for the Corvette SS’s structure. To that platform, he added a race-tuned Chevy 283-cid V8, a de Dion rear axle and an experimental braking system.
The car’s rushed debut was the 12 Hours of Sebring in early 1957. Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss had originally agreed to race the car in the race, but development delays plagued the car, giving superstar drivers doubts. Those apprehensions proved to be true – substitutes John Fitch and Piero Taruffi faced off against a number of gremlins early in the event and were sent off after just 23 laps.
The SS nevertheless showed great promise when it was performing well, and the team was eager to test the car at Le Mans that year. Unfortunately, the Automobile Manufacturers Association enacted its infamous race ban before the June event, relegating the Corvette SS to a test bed and show car.
But the story does not end there. In 1958, Earl’s successor, Bill Mitchell, purchased the spare Corvette SS chassis. He then worked with his staff to design a new body, and he campaigned for the car himself – “privately”, to avoid the AMA ban. Mitchell’s racer was instrumental in introducing one of the most beloved shapes in all Corvettes, the 1963-67 Stingray design.
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