A close look at older, well-kept auto royalty

The 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, with a split rear window, also drew attention.
The 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, with a split rear window, also drew attention.
Posted: March 25, 2013

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. - A concours d'elegance is the royalty of collectible car shows. It features rare, important automobiles that have been exquisitely restored and impeccably maintained.

These vehicles, whose values are often expressed in seven digits, don't just show up on the concours grounds. They appear by invitation, and are judged by experts flown in from around the country.

The Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance is one of the nation's very best - and most popular. The recent 2013 edition, which attracted 300 vehicles and 25,000 spectators, was held at the island's Ritz-Carlton. Prior to the culminating car show on the adjacent golf course - where first place went to a supercharged 1936 Duesenberg SJN, a glorious open car - the weekend festivities included a series of automotive seminars in the hotel and the Scene outside.

On the day I was there to attend the Corvette seminar, the hotel lobby and the grounds out front were jammed with people. There was old money, new money, the merely comfortable, and some 47 percenters from the Fourth Estate.

The drive up to the hotel entrance was lined with old shade, new Jaguar and Porsche displays and vintage Mercedes-Benzes. It was the sort of gauntlet that car crazies like to run. Inside, I found that lunch in the hotel restaurant was going to cost half of Uganda's GDP. Fortunately, I found a tent on the hotel grounds where I could avert starvation with a $7 hot dog.

The afternoon Corvette seminar attracted an SRO audience of more than 900 to the hotel ballroom. The event was a celebration of the legendary 1963 Corvette Sting Ray's 50th anniversary, and a natural venue in which to show the redesigned 2014 Corvette. The new 'Vette, cloaked in cloth while awaiting its unveiling, was flanked by the original 1959 Sting Ray racer, and the 1963 production Sting Ray inspired by the racer design. (The '63 Sting Ray designation was two words, while the 2014 model is only one: Stingray.)

First up was Peter Brock, whose original sketches led to the 1963 Sting Ray. Brock, a wunderkind who joined the GM design staff at age 19, told of the "shouting matches" that often erupted during the Sting Ray's development, and of the secret "Studio X" where the iconic car was styled.

GM's leadership had banned racing, Brock explained, so Bill Mitchell, the vice president for design who wanted to build the prototypical Sting Ray racer, put the design operation in an unused space he told fellow executives was a tool room.

Next up was Ed Welburn, GM's vice president for global design and a man with a subtle aesthetic and a clear mission: "I did not want to be known as the guy who screwed up the Corvette."

"I love 'em all," he said of Corvettes, "but at the end of the day my three favorites are right in this room: The '59 Sting Ray racer, the '63 Sting Ray, and the 2014."

The '63, he added, "has influenced every single Corvette that came after it." At the same time, he said the new car had to be a departure from its predecessor if the 'Vette's sagging sales were to be reversed. "It needed to appeal to a broader, younger audience. We needed to put some edge in this car."

After the show, Brock and Welburn signed the three-car posters given to the audience. I asked Welburn whether he had given autographs before.

"Oh, yeah. Corvette people are very passionate. They get me to sign their instrument panels, engine parts, all sorts of hardware.

"I have a lot of fun doing what I do. It's not easy, but I really enjoy it."

Contact Al Haas at alhaasauto@aol.com.

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