Automotive history is filled with a series of “what-ifs,” and few of these “what-ifs” are as intriguing to Corvette racing fans as the 1957 Corvette SS program.
In the early days before the Corvette was an American icon, and at the time even in danger of being discontinued by GM management, one obvious tactic to shore up the Corvette’s sports car image and spur sales was to institute a racing program. Thus was born the short-lived Corvette SS project, with the initial goal of winning at Sebring. Led by the gifted Zora Arkus-Duntov, a team of engineers created this ultra-lightweight (1850 lbs) and powerful (307 bhp) racecar.
Success at Sebring for this stunning racer was unfortunately not in the cards. Although the SS was extremely fast for its day (top recorded speed of 183 mph), a series of mechanical problems forced it to retire after 23 laps in the Sebring 12-Hour race. Shortly thereafter, the ban on factory-sponsored racing efforts by the Detroit manufacturers spelled the end of the SS project
It was a classic story of a promising car that didn’t have a chance to really prove itself. And from it was born one of the more significant legends of Corvette history.
The Corvette SS began in 1956 as a pet project of General Motors’ styling director Harley Earl, who wanted Chevrolet to take on the big names in international endurance racing. Earl’s initial idea was to design a racy body, drop it onto a Jaguar D-Type chassis, and swap the Jag’s six for a Chevy V8.
But that notion wouldn’t do for Corvette engineering guru, diehard racing fan Zora Arkus-Duntov. When he heard of the plan, he pushed for an all-new chassis design that would incorporate ambitious engineering concepts. Duntov’s arguments won out, if for no other reason than the fact that the D-Type’s main structure was a monocoque configuration and therefore had no separate frame to drop any sort of body onto.
To save time, Duntov purchased a Mercedes-Benz 300SL frame and from that drew much of the inspiration — if not verbatim design elements — for the Corvette SS’s structure. To this platform, he added a race-prepared 283-cid Chevy V8, a de Dion rear axle, and an experimental braking system.
The car’s hasty debut was the 12 Hours of Sebring, in early 1957. Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss had initially agreed to pilot the car in the race, but development delays plagued the car, giving the superstar drivers second thoughts. These misgivings proved well founded. Replacements John Fitch and Piero Taruffi battled a number of gremlins from the very beginning of the event, and were forced out after just 23 laps.
The SS nonetheless showed considerable promise when it was running well, and the team looked forward to trying the car at Le Mans that year. Unfortunately, the Automobile Manufacturers Association enacted its infamous racing ban before the June event, relegating the Corvette SS to being a testbed and show car.
But the story doesn’t end there. In 1958, Earl’s successor, Bill Mitchell, bought the spare Corvette SS chassis. He then collaborated with his staff to design a new body for it, and he campaigned the car himself — “privately,” so as to dodge the AMA ban. Mitchell’s racer was significant for introducing one of the most beloved of all Corvettes shapes, the 1963-67 Stingray design.