Aug 4, 2021
Of all Corvettes, the split-window Corvette of 1963 ranks as one of history’s all-time favorites. The 1963 model marked the beginning of the second generation of the sports car’s history and was the first time a Corvette would be offered in coupe form. After getting off to a lackluster start in 1953 with an inline six-cylinder engine making 150 hp, the Corvette was not initially considered a serious performance car; poor quality control from its hastily built fiberglass body only further removed it from contention.
Fortunately, a 44-year-old engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov had witnessed the Corvette’s introduction at Detroit’s 1953 Motorama show and convinced Chevrolet to hire him. By the time Chevrolet began designing the second-generation Corvette, Duntov had been elevated to head of high-performance vehicles at Chevrolet.
Well before the split-window Corvette’s arrival in 1963, Duntov had ushered true performance into the first-generation Corvette and Chevy’s other performers with the small-block Chevy V-8, high-lift camshafts, fuel injection, four-wheel disc brakes, and some critically acclaimed performances at Pikes Peak and Daytona.
Nevertheless, Duntov still faced an uphill battle; his dream of a mid-engine sports car with superior weight distribution and improved forward visibility would have to wait until the present day. This vision would sometimes place him in conflict with the styling and manufacturing needs at Chevrolet, but despite this, Duntov was a tireless cheerleader, and the 1963 split-window Corvette Sting Ray coupe was a significant mile marker in the Corvette’s historical arc.
In the postwar auto industry boom of the 1950s, General Motors was a worldwide powerhouse of design and engineering; while Duntov represented the cream of the crop in engineering circles and reported to Chevrolet’s then chief engineer, Ed Cole, it was styling guru Bill Mitchell, Chevrolet’s chief designer, who was responsible for the 1963 split-window Corvette’s silhouette. After being promoted from chief engineer to general manager in 1956, Cole envisioned a vehicle lineup of front-engine rear-transaxle cars called Q-Chevrolet, and Mitchell was tasked with envisioning a Corvette with independent rear suspension (IRS) called Q-Corvette.
By virtue of an internal design competition at Chevrolet, it fell to a young designer in the Chevrolet stable named Peter Brock to stylize the first-ever Corvette coupe, dubbed the XP-84, under auspices of the Q-Corvette effort. While several designers worked simultaneously on different ideations, it was Brock’s work that would eventually inform the split-window coupe’s overall form from Mitchell’s styling brief.
While Chevrolet’s Q-Chevrolet engineering program trundled along, a shakeup in the GM boardroom in 1957 replaced GM chairman Frederic Donner with Harlow Curtice, and just before the XP-84 could be presented to GM’s board of directors for production approval, the Q-Chevrolet effort was shelved for cost reasons, and that included the XP-84 coupe concept, as well as a convertible concept called XP-96.
The stillborn Q-Corvette may have been dead, but it had already passed through the hands of another young designer during its development, a Japanese-American stylist by the name of Larry Shinoda (who would later gain recognition at Ford by designing the 1969 Boss 302 Mustang). Using the alternate XP-96 convertible concept as its basis, Shinoda massaged the design for the Corvette SS, a short-lived engineering project headed by Duntov that was designed to take Chevrolet racing at LeMans. With Duntov at the engineering helm, the Corvette SS of 1957 held promise, but once again, corporate politics intervened and it was canceled; after a lackluster performance at Sebring in 1957 the LeMans issue seemed settled and the Corvette SS was dead. GM had just become a signatory to the American Manufacturer’s Association (AMA) ban on factory racing, fairly putting the Corvette SS on ice.
By now, Chevrolet’s Bill Mitchell was emotionally invested in the Corvette SS, and he moved to buy the concept’s assets for his private use, including its highly developed chassis. Duntov wanted no part of that plan and resisted Mitchell’s effort, but to no avail. Mitchell loved the Corvette SS and wanted it raced, even though GM forbade it to have any badging or call-outs that would associate it with GM or Chevrolet. Shinoda had designed a new shape for Duntov’s Corvette SS chassis, calling it Stingray (although some historians state it was called Sting Ray with two words). By 1959, the Stingray racer was finished and was ready to race with Dr. Dick Thompson at the wheel; the Stingray racer performed well as a privateer and eventually garnered an SCCA national championship in 1960. When GM further insisted that Mitchell stop funding the Stingray racing effort, he decided to convert the roadster into a personal-use street car.
Meanwhile, Duntov continued to work on his dreams of a mid-engine layout Corvette, launching the single-seat CERV I concept. That was followed by a full-size rear mid-engine production mockup that made use of the Corvair’s upcoming air-cooled flat-six and IRS, but by 1959 the second-generation of Corvette needed a firm footing in tested V-8 technology, and the XP-720 concept (pictured above) was that tool. The engineering mandate would be for a front-engine, short-/long-arm front suspension, and an independent rear suspension layout incorporating a lightweight monoleaf design. Mitchell’s Stingray race car would provide the visual inspiration, with Brock and Shinoda’s design elements wrapping the chassis’ formidable mechanical prowess with a tight, predatory shape.
At the center of the 1963 Corvette coupe’s legacy, however, is the car’s split-window back glass design. Mitchell’s styling vocabulary and his influence within the Chevrolet styling studio was partly an outgrowth of his curiosity with marine life; sea creatures like the stingray and mako shark had long influenced Mitchell’s work, and many anatomical features like gills, wings, tails, and spines would surface in his work. For the 1963 split-window Corvette, the folded crease of the tumblehome represented a spine-like design element that divided the back glass into two halves, allowing this spine element to run uninterrupted from the roof to the rear deck.
How Mitchell expressed this design cue to Shinoda isn’t known exactly, but one story infers that the split-window idea was actually “found” by GM styling exec David Holls at the 1959 Michigan State Fair. A rare German 1937 Adler Trumpf Rennlimousine was spotted, and its owner was asked to bring the car to the GM Tech Center for photography (see the entire car in the gallery). While the car bore zero resemblance to the second-generation Corvette, its rear greenhouse and split rear back glass seemed to be just what Mitchell had been envisioning for the Corvette. While the Corvette’s design was clearly inspired by marine life themes, it was the split-window motif that allowed the “spine” theme to come to full fruition.
Ironically, while the engineering, performance, and styling of the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray was well-received by the public, the split-window back glass was not. The center pillar blocked outward visibility to the rear and quickly became a safety concern. In many instances, owners would remove the two bisected panes and replace them with a single window. Chevy dealerships would even replace the split windows with a single backglass—a cardinal sin in today’s Corvette collector environment. After a single year of production, the split rear-window design was shelved for a single back glass in 1964, and the split-window Corvette of 1963 became one of the most notorious (and beloved!) asterisks in automotive history.