For many Corvette enthusiasts, the 1963 split-window model is the pinnacle of vintage ‘Vettes. It’s one of the most easily recognizable and widely appreciated members of the Corvette family; whether you’re a devoted aficionado or simply a casual admirer, chances are you understand the notability of the split-window.
From a hardcore collector’s standpoint, it may not be as desirable as, say, one of the five original Grand Sports or an original L88 ’69, but nonetheless, it tends to top the Corvette-lover’s list of dream cars. And as with any historically relevant classic car, there’s some amount of backstory that’s always worth noting. The ’63 split-window is, of course, no exception.In our opinion, some of the coolest things about the American metal of days past are the unique circumstances and behind-the-scenes drama that lead to their inceptions. Unlike many of the high-powered, high-number performance cars of today, the beauty of classic automobiles isn’t in the facts and figures but instead in the historical and romantic value.
Below, we take a brief glimpse into the rich background of (arguably) one of the most beautiful cars ever made.
1. The Story Behind The Split-WindowIf you know anything about the ’63 Corvette coupe, you’re likely aware that its incredible value stems from the fact that it was the only year with the split rear window. That being the case, you’ve probably wondered at some point why the split-window design was used on the ’63 coupe at all (other than the fact that it looks magnificent). The answer? William L. “Bill” Mitchell.Mitchell was as important a figure to the Corvette as Zora Arkus-Duntov himself. He was an absolute die-hard who truly lived and breathed America’s sportscar. Much of the inspiration and creative vision he had for the Corvette was derived from a combination of European influence and (more notably) his fascination with biomimicry. Mitchell specifically had an interest with marine life: the stingray, mako shark, and manta ray – each was culminated from the aquatic predator theme that Mitchell originated.Of course, the C2’s debut was the first opportunity for Mitchell to deliver his vision for the Corvette to the public. His design language for the ’63 was directly consistent with its Stingray name.
The fenders swoop to a gentle peak at all four corners, reminiscent of how a stingray’s fins wave through the water; subtle cues on the body hint to the car’s aquatic inspiration, such as the vents on the front fenders and B-pillars which create lines similar to a stingray’s tail; and (most obviously) the signature “spine” that dissects the body from bumper to bumper, resembling that of the fish and really solidifying the biomimicry theme.
The split in the rear window is present to help carry this spine-like stripe down the Corvette’s body. When looking at post-’63 C2s, it’s immediately evident that the window-split really ties the Stingray look together. On ’64 and later models, the “spine” is lost and, consequently, a bit of the character that Mitchell worked into the car disappeared.
This begs the question – why, exactly, was such a timeless, iconic design ditched after only one model-year? Well, despite the unearthly beauty that we see in it today, the split-window design in the ’63 Corvette was not too well received.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to own, drive, or even sit in a split-window Corvette, you’ll know firsthand that visibility becomes an immediate problem. This was one of the primary concerns of executives, engineers, and enthusiasts alike when the split-window was introduced.
The split itself sits dead in the middle of the driver’s line of sight when looking in the rear-view mirror. As a result, the car’s debut was accompanied by a barrage of complaints due to drivers not having a clue what’s behind them when backing up – let alone driving down the road.Of course, Mitchell and his design team were well aware of this issue during the car’s concept stages. In the end, however, he won the boardroom standoff against the GM bean-counters and got his way with the first year of the C2.
During its production, however, another concern presented itself – manufacturing thousands upon thousands of cars with split rear windows proved to be a much larger headache than piecing together cars with a simpler, single-window design. Labor and complexity was essentially doubled in that area of the car, as two separate windows meant two sets of screws and weather-stripping, two panes of glass, and twice the install-labor time.
After a year of production with the design of the ’63, Mitchell’s determination to see his vision in effect was superseded by executive authority and the split-window was no more.
2. Bill Mitchell Versus Zora DuntovThe conflict of style versus efficiency was not the only instance of head-butting between Mitchell and GM cheese; there was another contender for Corvette-greatness by the name of Zora Arkus-Duntov.
Mitchell had taken the position of styling chief in December 1958. To reiterate, he was a hot-headed, stubborn character with a very acute sense for his own tastes – he knew exactly what he wanted out of the Corvette, and was bound and determined to get his way.
On the other side of the developmental coin sat the legendary Duntov, director of high-performance vehicles as of 1957. At the time of Mitchell’s rise to head designer, Duntov had already built a stellar reputation for himself in the five years he had been with GM.
Both Mitchell and Duntov were at the helm of the development efforts for the second-generation Corvette. While both aspired for the C2 to take the Corvette to a whole new level, there was a great deal of conflict between the two as to how that would be accomplished.
Most of the head-butting resulted from the typical engineer-designer struggle: form-versus-function. Mitchell so badly wanted the Corvette to fit the stylistic profile he had dreamt up, whereas Duntov was concerned with making the Corvette’s performance unbeatable.Many heated disputes were had between the two titans, with no shortage of red-faced screaming matches and name-calling from both parties. But, despite Duntov’s opposition to Mitchell borrowing themes from his earlier concepts – as well as functionality complaints due to Mitchell’s flavorful design – Mitchell’s seniority enabled him to have its way (for the first year, at least).
3. E Pluribus Unum
Such is the motto of the United States of America – “Out of many, one”.
There’s an old saying, “Icons reflect their time.” Between its liberating and uncompromising attitude, relative attainability, and the feelings of ego and power that it evokes, the Corvette has always mimicked the American spirit.With the C2 of the early ’60s – especially the 1963 model – it mimicked the melting pot theme of the U.S. during the Golden Era. During its inception, the C2 resulted from an unlikely trifecta of disparate cultural backgrounds – a Belgian engineer, a Japanese designer, and an American head-stylist.
Obviously, the Belgian and American duo are the already well-known Duntov and Mitchell. Though not as often mentioned, the third party – highly-skilled Japanese-American designer Larry Shinoda – played an equal role by penning the split-window’s design. Of course, the vision for the ’63 Corvette originated entirely from Mitchell; his creative aspirations are what guided his team to ultimately produce the incredible design. But, it was Shinoda’s artistic talents that made Mitchell’s concept a reality.
All three – Mitchell, Duntov, and Shinoda – contributed in equal parts to the 1963 Corvette, much as the many cultures and characters of the United States contribute to its greatness. In this respect, the Corvette has always been a four-wheeled representation of the American spirit.
Final WordTo put things in the perspective of today’s times, General Motors was the “Apple Inc.” of its day; the undisputed king of innovation during the late-’40s through late-‘60s. That being so, the split-window Corvette was the “iPhone” of General Motors – everything GM could muster was thrown into the C2 Corvette, making it the metaphorical cherry on top of its innovation sundae.
On the surface, the split-window may seem to be just another handsome, high-dollar classic, but a quick look at its background reveals the incredible amount of passion and patriotism that went into it. The title of “America’s sportscar” is unquestionably something that the Corvette well deserves.