#0042 - Chevrolet Corvette Roadster, 1961
Photographed: York Heritage Trust Concours d'Elegance, 2007. Owner: not recorded
Ducktails: The well known stingray tail appeared in 1961, attached to a Corvette that, in the remainder, was mostly unchanged from 1960. We're clearly looking toward 1963, but the ducktail trail has at least four major sign posts.
Perhaps the earliest emergence of the ducktail was in 1957 on an experimental clay mock-up for a Corvette sports coupe designed around what were known as code 'Q' performance components; these included in-board brakes and a rear transaxle. Designed by Larry Shinoda, the 'Q' car formed the basic shape for what would eventually become the 1963 coupe. Of course, changes on the actual production car for 1958 were of minor cosmetics, (notably quad headlamps and chrome), rather than an outright shift in the Corvette's aesthetic.
But in 1958, GM gave the public a long look at the ducktail by rolling out the XP-700 show car, a semi-futuristic take on the production roadster. This car carried a prominent, somewhat frustratingly awkward nose, more delicate chrome trim, and the ducktail with its horizontal panel crease.
The following year, 1959, Bill Mitchell went racing in his Stingray roadster—designated XP-87—which became the most famous prognosticator of eventual production styling by virtue of its vast exposure, and by the fact that the other examples mentioned here shared a brief existence.
Most importantly, GM also had a Corvette roadster study completed by February of 1959 that not only featured the ducktail, but carried the horizontal panel crease around the entire car. In archive photographs, this exercise looks like a mash of mid-60s Stingray and mid-50s roadster, with a measure of Corvair thrown in; it appears a bit blunt, clearly less elegant than either the production '61 roadster, or the '63 Stingray.
So it was fortunate that GM would revert to Shinoda's code 'Q' exercise when drafting the 1963 Stingray, shoveling in a lot of the aggressive attitude found on Bill Mitchell's roadster. But, in 1959 they'd at least settled on the idea that the ducktail could work on the existing car; it didn't upset any of the proportions, yet, it provided an additional 20% of luggage space. The 1960 production year went along with hardly any changes, but 1961 accommodated the ducktail, a critical production shift toward the iconic Stingray of 1963.
Minor Morphology: Apart from the tail, a number of cosmetic changes identify the 1961 year. Most notably, the quad headlamps are rimmed by body-matched shrouds. '61 is the only year for this feature, as the '62 reverted to chrome shrouds as all other previous models had carried. Also, 1961 does away with the chrome toothed grille that was standard since the 1952 prototype, replacing it with an unassuming mesh plate.
Corvette badging changed on the nose and on the flank. For 1961, the name 'Corvette' is spelled on the nose in chrome; this and the crossed-flags emblem replace the big chrome ringed medallion of '59-'60. On the flank, the red and blue badge is new. The cockpit is almost entirely unchanged, except for the presence of sun visors on the windscreen. Notable about our example here is the Jewel Blue interior, which according to some sources was only available as an interior color in 1961.
Technical: All 1961 Corvettes are powered by a 283 cubic inch V-8, but this capacity was available in five configurations. Basic power for your 3,934 dollars (up $62), is a 230 brake horsepower motor, peaking at 4,800 rpm. Sharing the base motor's 9.5:1 compression ratio but upping the output is a version with 245 bhp at 5,000 rpm. Next up is a 270 bhp version that adds a second four-barrel carburetor; it keeps the same compression ratio, but peak power is now developed at 6,000 rpm, which sounds more like a proper sports car.
The next step up is fuel injection, with two higher compression motors running at 11.0:1. The first of the fuelies is a somewhat tame 275 bhp version, with peak power at a torquey 5,200 rpm. The top of the line, however, is the 315 bhp fuelie, with peak power at a heady 6,200 rpm.
From the bottom to the top, a basic 230 bhp Corvette can get to 60 miles per hour in a reported 8.3 seconds, while the 315 bhp fuelie can get there in 6 seconds flat. Maximum speed for the latter is estimated at 140 miles per hour. Curb weight is 2,905 pounds, which is a slight increase, but there are other changes in favor of the performance enthusiast. The copper radiator is replaced by an aluminum unit weighing half as much. The optional 4-speed manual transmission is now encased in aluminum. Direct-flow exhaust can be swapped for no charge. And of course a limited-slip differential (Positraction) is optional.
Economics: So let's say you outfit your new 1961 with a few goodies—the 315 bhp fuel-injected motor, 4-speed gearbox, limited-slip differential, brake and suspension package, and a nice hardtop. The cost increase of those items is $1,286, or almost exactly one-third the cost of the base Corvette, a substantial leap. (The hardtop, however, could be had for nothing if it was the only top you brought home.)
But, mind that these aforementioned options are just for the enthusiast. Add comfort to that list and it would cost you around 500 dollars more—a heater for $102, a radio for $138, whitewall tyres for $32, power windows for $59, and a power top for $161. At least the most pleasing option, two-tone paint, cost only an additional $16, but that's enough to top the $500 mark. Total charge for a pizza with everything: $5,728.
Transitional Thoughts: Opinions are mixed over the transition year Corvettes. For my part, I really like the 1961, but dislike the 1962. My rationale is that the 1961 is still a pretty Vette, something of the great post-War industrial American era. There's chrome and curves, and a complete indulgence in style. But in 1962, style was laid aside. Effectively, this is because the chrome era had come to and end, and so the '62 was an understated effort. There's no chrome around the cove, the mesh grille is blacked-out, and the three vent strakes are replaced by a row of uniform teeth. Oh, but there are tragedies: A large metal strip is fitted to the rockers along the entire length of the wheelbase—something that, today, looks as if it were pulled from the mid-80s Pontiac parts bin—and (gasp) two-tone paint is not available.
The '62 Corvette is the same basic form as the '61, but it is a prognosticator of radical change, whereas the '61 is still firmly planted in that age of chrome—endless post-War happiness and optimism. The best thing about 1962 is the bored out 327 cubic inch V-8; this, and production figures that, for the first time, brought home a profit. If anything, the 1962 demonstrates General Motor's readiness for the Stingray, the dynamic coupe Larry Shinoda penned back in 1957 that had been kicking around on show cars and design studies ever since.
But the final word on 1961: It's hard to find a sweeter, better engineered classic Corvette.
Collectible Automobile, June 1992, 1958-62 Chevrolet Corvette: At Risk of Extinction, by James M. Flammang
Webcars Corvette: Year by Year offers a nice history of every Corvette model year.
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