The Icon

Beginning with the dramatically styled ’63 coupe and ending with enormously powerful big-block models, the Sting Ray cemented the Corvette’s place in history as one of the world’s great sports cars.

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December 19, 2012

Gorgeous styling and performance few production cars of the era could even approach propelled Chevrolet’s second-generation Corvette to superstardom. When introduced in 1963, the nearly all-new Corvette Sting Ray instantly won the hearts of the motoring press and, even more important, flew out of Chevy showrooms from coast to coast. Only nine years earlier, Chevy’s hesitant entrance into the sports-car market nearly came to an abrupt halt when more than one-third of 1954 production remained unsold at year’s end. By the conclusion of model-year 1963, however, some 21,513 of the new Corvettes were sold, an astounding 50-percent increase over 1962 sales figures.

Much of the second-generation Corvette was new. The C2’s chassis was a ladder design with fully boxed side members and five welded cross members. The four forward cross members were fully enclosed while the rear-most cross member was formed from C-channel. Compared with the C1’s chassis, with its central I-beam X-member, the new design was nearly 50 percent more torsionally rigid.

The C2’s suspension was updated with ball-jointed unequal A-arms up front and a multi-link independent setup at the rear replacing the C1’s kingpin front and leaf spring-mounted solid-axle rear. The new suspension, along with an updated steering system in place of the C1’s antiquated third-arm bearing arrangement, made the new Corvette a much better-handling sports car.

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The first-generation braking system was little changed for 1963, but in 1965 Corvette stopping power took a giant leap forward with the adoption of four-wheel disc brakes as standard. Large, four-piston Delco calipers dramatically improved braking performance, particularly in the wet and in competition.

Similarly, the C2’s engine lineup was carried over from 1962 essentially unchanged and remained that way until 1965, with the mid-year introduction of Chevy’s ultra-powerful Mark IV big-block V8. It was initially sized at 396 cubic inches and then enlarged to 427 cubic inches for 1966. By 1967, no fewer than five different versions of the 427 were offered.

On the styling front, the Sting Ray represented much more of a radical change. While the back half of the 1961-62 Corvettes foreshadowed the new generation’s rear treatment, none of the rear panels interchanged, and the front of the ’63 was all new. For the first time, a coupe body style was offered as an alternative to the convertible, and it debuted in the form of the legendary, one-year-only ’63 split window. Other new features included retracting headlights, the elimination of the trunk and the addition of door-vent windows.

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The second generation’s interior differs from its predecessor in some noteworthy ways, too. Unlike the C1’s cockpit, the C2’s is symmetrical from one side to the other, with the arch-shaped, passenger-side glovebox and dash pad mirroring the driver-side arch-shaped pad and instrument cluster.

The Sting Ray’s instant success was not a flash in the pan. Nearly half a century after its debut, the passion it engenders is not only undiminished, but in fact grows continuously stronger with the passage of time. These Corvettes remain the favorite of hardcore collectors, restorers and aftermarket tuners, as well as with casual enthusiasts who want a reasonably affordable classic they can work on themselves and actually drive with some regularity.

Second-generation Corvettes—also commonly referred to as mid-years because they were offered between the 1963 and 1967 model years—are especially suitable for people interested in using them because despite the unstoppable march of technology, they are still cars that can be driven long distances and thoroughly enjoyed every step of the way. This is the result of a capable but forgiving chassis, excellent brakes, good weather sealing, loads of power, decent ergonomics and a wide range of available optional equipment.

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Mid-years originally could be had with comfort-enhancing features previously unavailable in Corvettes, such as power steering and brakes, leather upholstery and air conditioning. Beginning in 1965, a telescopic steering column and headrest seats were also offered. On the performance side, C2s ranged from utterly docile, modest compression, mild cam, hydraulic-lifter 327-cid small blocks to ferocious street-fighting, solid-lifter, high-compression, 427 big blocks breathing through high-rise aluminum intakes, big-valve heads and massive Holley 4-barrel carburetors. And by checking off now-legendary option package designations such as Z06 or L88, buyers could have off-the-shelf race cars capable of competing anywhere from legendary road circuits like Sebring and Le Mans to the nation’s great drag strips.

While L88s, Z06s and other rare mid-years garner the most attention, the less exotically configured models usually have a higher fun-per-dollar ratio. This fact was not lost on Bill Mehrkens, the owner of our featured 1963 coupe. He’s a seasoned Corvette owner who set out to find a modestly priced ’63 split window that he could show, drive, work on and enjoy.

Two years ago, his garage was home to a heavily modified ’05 Corvette nicknamed “The Silver Devil” and an extremely original and beautifully preserved 1973 big block. But there was a problem, according to Mehrkens. “Both of these cars were ‘done,’” he recalls, “so I was looking for what was next.” As he got more involved with the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS), Mehrkens’ interest in mid-years in general, and 1963s in particular, deepened: “I thought it would be great to have a ’63—my favorite C2 with its one-year-only body style—share the garage with the ’73, my favorite C3 with its one-year-only body style.” He targeted his upcoming 50th birthday as the date by which he would try to find a suitable ’63 coupe.

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To open up a space in his garage and fatten his ’63 fund, Mehrkens decided to sell his C5. After listing it on an Internet auction site, he was worried that it wouldn’t bring enough dough—but, to his relief, it caught the attention of a guy in Florida who had just won big in Las Vegas and was looking to spend his newfound wealth on a wild ride. “I lit the tires up for one giant good-bye burnout and put it on a transporter to Florida,” Mehrkens says with a broad grin.

With cash in hand and an open spot in his garage, Mehrkens began his search for a split window. He scoured the Internet every night until his eyes got blurry. “Then, there it was,” Mehrkens recalls, “a 68,000-actual-mile Daytona Blue ’63 listed in Columbia, New Jersey, about 100 miles from my home. It was a matching-numbers 327/300, with the original trim and VIN tags, a lacquer repaint and it was owned by the seller since 1973. The price was more than I wanted to spend, but I figured it was worth a look. I called and spoke to the owner, Ed Capwell, who was in his 70s. He explained he had a hangar at his local private airport with a few old cars and his plane. He was looking to sell everything and move.”

In July 2011, Mehrkens took a trip to New Jersey armed with his NCRS 1963 judging guide, flashlight, inspection mirror and a long list of items he intended to methodically scrutinize. He had every intention of remaining completely objective and emotionally detached from the prospective purchase. “There was no reason to jump at the first ’63 I saw because I still had almost six months until my 50th birthday,” he says. At least that was the plan.

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“I saw the car appear, and from 100 yards away I knew I was going to buy it,” Mehrkens recalls. “All logic went out the window—a split window! That Daytona Blue would be perfect back home next to my Dark Blue Metallic ’73! I followed Ed over to his hangar where we had agreed I’d inspect the car. In the hangar were his plane, a 1950 VW Beetle and two old Maseratis. He patiently watched me check every number and date per my checklist. I tried to explain why this mattered, but I don’t think he really absorbed the logic that drives an NCRS nut.”

The seller then brought the car to a local service station so Mehrkens could look at it on a lift. He confirmed that it had a solid chassis and all-original body panels. At this point, all that was left was to try and agree on a price. “Over the next few days we haggled back and forth,” Mehrkens explains. “He guilted me saying the proceeds from the sale of the car would allow him to send his daughter to college. I guilted him saying, ‘That’s great, but I have two daughters I have to send to college.’ Ultimately, we struck a deal and I picked up the car. I decided to drive it all the way home. A 48-year-old car I was totally unfamiliar with, in New York City traffic in the heat of summer, the George Washington Bridge, the Cross Bronx Expressway—what could go wrong?”

Nothing did go wrong, but the drive home did deliver a few anxious moments. The split in the rear window is a signature ’63 coupe feature, but it does exact a price in terms of limited rear visibility. Mehrkens started his trip home worried about what he couldn’t see in his rearview mirror, but then became more focused on other issues: “I soon realized there really wasn’t any issue with being able to see out the back because with drum brakes, no power assist and those skinny tires, you’d better be looking forward at all times!”

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Though his new purchase was an honest, original car, it still needed a lot of love before it would be ready for the intensity of NCRS judging. The local Long Island chapter meet was a little more than a month away, making any hope of having the car prepared in time unrealistic. “It was a crazy goal,” recounts Mehrkens, “which is why I had to do it.”

His biggest problem was sourcing correctly numbered and date-coded parts in such a short time frame. “The man I bought the car from wasn’t a Corvette guy,” says Mehrkens. “When parts needed replacing, he didn’t care about part numbers and date codes, he just got whatever fit. The carburetor, alternator, starter, horns, water pump and radiator were an eclectic collection of GM and generic parts. It had finned aluminum valve covers, the wrong air-cleaner lid, the wrong exhaust, radial tires, Rallye wheels and so on.”

In between working his day job, tending to his family and getting an occasional wink of sleep, Mehrkens devoted countless hours to frantically tracking down all of the needed parts, sourcing both new-old-stock and rebuilt original items. He also removed the engine and transmission for a full restoration of the engine compartment, going through the NCRS judging guide page-by-page.

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All of the effort paid off when the car earned a Top Flight award with a score of 96.2 percent. Mehrkens is understandably proud of this achievement, but for him the journey with this ’63 split window has only just begun. His list of things to do includes restoring the chassis, which was brush-painted by a previous owner with heavy black paint that’s not factory accurate. He intends to take the car further in the NCRS judging system and to the famed Bloomington Gold Corvette show for Certification judging. He also plans to have his car included in the 1963 50th-anniversary display at Corvettes at Carlisle in 2013.

Besides the ongoing process of restoring the car to its factory configuration and, of course, driving it, Mehrkens is also devoting time and effort to tracking down its history. Unfortunately, the man he bought the car from wasn’t big on saving paperwork and, owing to the fact that he bought it all the way back in 1973, he couldn’t remember the name of the seller. He did, however, recall that the seller was an accountant living in Flemington, New Jersey, and among the service receipts he did save was one bearing the name of a “Mr. Zuegner” in Flemington.

“I Googled the name and came up with a CPA firm in Flemington,” Mehrkens says. “I called and spoke to Louis Zuegner, who confirmed he had indeed owned the car! It turned out one of his clients owned a used-car lot and he would occasionally ask him to find a car for him at auction. He bought the ’63 for $1,800 when it was painted yellow over its original Daytona Blue. Soon after he bought it, the headlights stopped working and he brought it to the local mechanic. The mechanic said, ‘You bought a Corvette? These things are nothing but trouble, you’d better sell it before more goes wrong!’ Mr. Zuegner sold it back to his used-car-lot friend for $1,500, glad to take the $300 loss to get rid of his headache.”

Mehrkens didn’t want his search to end there. Thanks to the NCRS Shipping Data Report, he learned that the car was originally delivered by Don Allen Motors in Buffalo, New York. How did it end up in New Jersey? Mr. Zuegner remembered the name of his used-car-lot friend, Jay Wright, but said he was not in business any more. Mehrkens did an Internet search for the name in West Amwell Township and got a hit. Surprisingly, Mr. Wright remembered the car and buying it back. He had originally bought it at a Bordentown, New Jersey auction. It is at this point where the ownership trail goes cold. Never one to give up easily, Mehrkens vows to complete the car’s early ownership history concurrent with his mission to return his iconic split-window Corvette to its factory-original appearance.

Also from Issue 79

  • C6 ZR1 in England
  • 2014 LT1 V8 Engine
  • Buyer’s Guide: $15K
  • 1992 Z07 Coupe
  • Supercharged 2010 Grand Sport
  • 1969 Coupe
  • Tech: C5 Diagnostics
  • Corvette Racing's Oliver Gavin
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