While Corvette aficionados popularly know Zora Arkus Duntov as the godfather of the Corvette, the man responsible for its conception, the man whose brainchild became America's Sports car, is in fact the great Harley Earl. Elevated by Alfred Sloan in 1928 to head the fledgling GM Art and Color Section after designing the new LaSalle, Earl became the dean of Detroit stylists, setting the standard for automobile design in America. When Earl oversaw the display of his Buick Le Sabre show car at the Watkins Glen races in 1951, his experience of the racing scene left a deep impression, and he resolved to design a new sports car for the American market. He unveiled his concept to the public in 1953 and, after a slow start, the Corvette was constantly improved until it finally cemented its performance image with the American public.
Earl had retired from GM in 1958 but stayed on as a consultant, and in 1963 the Corporation honored him with the gift of a personalized Corvette Sting Ray. It was not an entirely singular creation, however, as it closely resembled the Corvette show car custom-built for that year's Chicago Auto Show.
While Earl never held on to any one car for very long, he enjoyed the Corvette enough to keep it for two years and the pair became a regular sight around his Palm Beach, Florida home. Earl, whose name graces the trophy awarded each year to the Daytona 500 winner, drove the car on a parade lap when he was honored as the Grand Marshall at Daytona in 1965. Soon afterwards he sold it to a retired Maryland Army veteran, whose trip with the car to California and back was the subject of a local newspaper story. Its ownership trail was then temporarily lost.
The Earl Corvette resurfaced in 1973 when, its identity unknown, it was purchased for $1,500 from a bankruptcy sale by a group of amateur racers who intended to run it as a drag car. After further inspection, they decided it might be of some special significance and did nothing to the car for seven years. In 1980 they took the car to the famous Corvettes at Carlisle meet and put it up for sale. While there were no takers, it attracted a great deal of attention, and proved especially intriguing to middle school teacher and Corvette enthusiast Joe Clark.
While it bore a 1963 serial number, the car was fitted with several 1965-vintage components and a number of items that were never Corvette production pieces, such as the strange side-exit exhausts that sprouted from behind the front wheelwells. The interior had obviously been modified, with instruments installed in the glovebox panel, metal footwell plates and custom leather seats and door panels. The owners had a photo of the special 1963 Chicago Auto Show Sting Ray equipped with an apparently identical exhaust system, and while they made no claims that this was the same car, they had not ruled out the possibility.
Clark's father had been a GM executive and perhaps the knowledge and experience from that relationship touched something in Joe's consciousness, because he found himself unable to forget that puzzling Corvette he'd seen at Carlisle. There were too many details that suggested it was more than a privateer's customizing; he was convinced it was somehow a GM factory special.
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Joe had no way of inspecting the car again, as he had not gotten contact information from its owners at Carlisle, but a chance meeting at the 1981 Cypress Gardens NCRS with enthusiast Ken Heckert led to Joe's introduction to the owners, who agreed to let Clark and a small group of advisors give the car another once-over. Clark and his crew agreed that the car was indeed specially built by GM and, after a month of negotiations, the owners agreed to sell to Joe.
The car presented several mysteries, some fascinating, some disquieting. The headers intruded into the area for the battery, which had been relocated behind the passenger seat. There was extensive use of cast brass emblems and other details, including the console trim. It was equipped with factory air conditioning and a four-speed manual transmission, and while certainly a 1963 model, its chrome trim, exterior emblems, interior control knobs and four-wheel disc brakes were all 1965 parts, as was the hood. And since the codes indicated an original Red-on-Red color scheme, its custom Blue leather interior and Metallic Blue paint were problematic.
One evening while Joe was dismantling the car with Ken Heckert, he discovered a hand-written number code inside a door trim panel: S.O.10323. This code, combined with numerous clues gleaned from various people through ads placed in Corvette periodicals, convinced Joe to engage the factory in his search for answers about this mystery Corvette.
Accompanied by his partner in the project, restoration specialist Bob Gold, Clark visited the GM Design Staff, the most important result of which was that they confirmed the car as the very one custom-built as a gift to Harley Earl. It began life as a fuel-injection-equipped Red four-speed convertible that likely found service as a pool car or test mule. Designated Shop Order (S.O.) 10323, it was built after the Chicago Show car was completed. Records indicated that the special glovebox-mounted instruments were originally intended for the Chicago car but weren't ready in time, so they were installed in the Earl car. The two were otherwise almost identical: along with the distinctive plated sidepipes first seen on the Shinoda-designed Shark concept car, both featured Medium Blue custom leather interiors with White seat trim, stainless steel door and footwell inserts and plush carpeting. The original fuel-injected smallblock was replaced with a 327/300 horsepower unit, which, with the addition and air conditioning, produced a car more suited to daily use in the Florida climate.
GM Design Staff were instrumental not only in establishing the car's history; they also made important contributions to its restoration. The missing original S.O. number plate has been replaced with a correct replica, as have the “General Motors Styling” front fender badges. GM supplied the specifications enabling Al Knoch to replicate the original interior trim, and the Metallic Blue exterior with White trim also match the historical record.
A mainstay of the Bloomington Gold Special Collection, the Harley Earl Corvette is a one-of-a-kind factory special with a singularly historic pedigree, to be sure, but it is also much more: it repeats the ongoing story of how the Corvette's magic can bring together enthusiasts from across the country and across time to solve even the most inscrutable puzzles in the history of this great marque.
Hightlights and Technical Specifications
- (Shop Order) S.O. 10323
- 1 of 4 Corvettes ever built with this custom side exhaust
- 327 cubic inch, 300 horsepower engine, 1963 dated
- 4-Speed transmission
- 1965-style 4-wheel disc brakes
- 1965-style dual circuit power brakes
- Knock-off wheels
- Stainless steel side-exit exhaust
- Air conditioning
- Power windows
- Unique one-of-a-kind instrumentation with 1965-67 Corvette flat design
- Special gauges including: altimeter, accelerometer, inside and outside temperature, oil temperature and vacuum pressure
- Stainless steel footwell inserts
- Custom leather seats
- Unique one-of-a-kind door panels
- Battery relocation