A mainstay of the Bloomington Gold Special Collection, this Harley J. Earl Corvette is a one-of-a-kind factory special with a singularly historic pedigree. General Motors commissioned the custom-built 1963 Sting Ray under Shop Order 10323 as a gift for the legendary GM designer, who subsequently used it as his personal car. It features the base Corvette 327 cubic-inch, 300-horsepower carbureted V8 engine, a four-speed manual transmission, and finned aluminum knock-off wheels.
Myriad special features that GM created for the car make it truly unique, including a dramatic stainless steel side-exit exhaust system and 1965-style four-wheel power disc brakes with dual hydraulic circuits. This historic Sting Ray also features metallic blue paint and custom blue leather seats with white trim, stainless-steel door and foot-well inserts, and plush carpeting. Special passenger-side instrumentation includes an altimeter, accelerometer, inside and outside air temperature gauges, and a manifold-vacuum pressure readout, while the main instruments feature the later 1965-67 Corvette’s flat design panel.
|Vehicle:||1963 327/300 4-Speed “Harley Earl” Convertible|
|Number Produced:||10,919 (all convertibles) 1 (this car)|
|Original List Price:||$4,037|
|Tune Up Cost:||$350|
|Chassis Number Location:||Cross brace under glove box|
|Engine Number Location:||On block in front of right cylinder head|
|Club Info:||National Corvette Restorers Society 6291 Day Road Cincinnati, OH 45252|
|Alternatives:||1967 Corvette 427/430 L88 1966–68 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 1965–67 Shelby Cobra 427|
This car sold for $980,500, including buyer’s premium, at Mecum’s Original Spring Classic Auction in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 22, 2010.
Since former President Bill Clinton challenged the definition of “is” in reference to his Oval Office dalliances, I figure some philosophical bemusement is also fair game in matters of Corvette investment. So here goes: How much is “one of one” worth if there are no others to compare it against? And what defines worth, anyway?
Fortunately, in this case the answer is unimpeachable. In an actual free-market economy, the worth of anything – singularly or in multiples – is defined by what someone is willing to pay on that day. And in this case, it was just shy of a million clams for Harley J. Earl’s one-of-a-kind personal Sting Ray. The buyer stepped up and paid up. That’s fair enough for me.
Even so, as a lifelong Sting Ray devotee, this particular auction made me sit up and ponder. Why? Because in recent months, some very attractive and credible former C2 race cars have failed to sell at significantly less than what was paid here. The wide monetary divide between race cars that actually made history and a car that was fundamentally a retiree’s fashion accessory made me wonder what, exactly, was the draw with Harley Earl.
Hatched as a Riverside Red Fuelie
Some particulars about the car are useful here. It rolled out of Corvette’s St. Louis, Missouri assembly plant as a fuel-injected Riverside Red fleet car—most likely for GM executive use. About that same time, GM Design was working on a concept car for the Chicago Auto Show, utilizing the same styling cues that would later be adopted on SO 10323. Once the Chicago show car was completed, Design staff similarly modified our subject car for Earl. They also replaced the brutish Fuelie motor with the milder 300-horse carbureted version and installed air conditioning to improve the car’s usefulness in Earl’s south Florida retirement home.
Since the car itself is not particularly special—unless you count an early set of disc brakes, a shoebox full of avionics, side pipes and sparkly paint special—the million-dollar question is, what’s the point? Because to me, this is a garden-variety, low-horsepower Sting Ray pimped up for GM’s ex-styling boss. It wasn’t even his design. It was just a present to him from GM. And he might not have even appreciated it all that much, as he sold it two years later to an Army veteran.
From there, it slid off the radar screen until the early 1970s, when a group of racers bought it with intentions of building a dragster. Fortunately, they stopped short of doing so when they realized the car was something special. Eventually they proffered it at Corvettes at Carlisle in 1980, where it became widely known once again.
GM Design eventually helped restore the Corvette back into the form that Earl saw when he got the car in 1963. The restoration included a new coat of Medium Blue paint, correct trim and badges. It drew a top bid of $985,000 against a $1.3 million reserve at Mecum’s Bloomington Gold Corvette Auction in St. Charles, Illinois on June 27, 2009. The car was then tucked away again before finally selling almost a year later in Indianapolis at nearly the same money, the reserve obviously lowered.
When presentation trumps substance
I’ll admit I’ve got a problem with poseurs. A million bucks for a 1967 L88, I can kind of see that – those cars were the best year of the best body design during the best period, they were built to race, and many of them did. But this GM Design gift to the retired Earl is basically a showboat, with its egregious Duesenberg side pipes and Sputnik gauges on the passenger side. Plus, Earl wasn’t the kingpin of GM Styling when the Sting Ray came out. The torch had already passed to the equally flamboyant Bill Mitchell, who was credited with leading the Sting Ray design effort. So what we have here is a Mitchell design property modified by staff for the former design chief.
Historically speaking, the Harley Earl zoot-suit Sting Ray never accomplished much of anything. The car never blazed any highly important concept trails, such as Earl’s brilliant 1953 Motorama show car or Mitchell’s original Mako Shark. Although disc brakes and flat-face instruments debuted for 1965, the external header pipes were never integrated into production, nor were the ancillary gauges. So the car was then, and remains today, a curiosity that defined GM staff’s interpretation of what their previous commander liked most – flights of fancy.
One man’s ten-spot is another guy’s million
When I think about what $980,500 can buy in other Corvettes, I have to stop and suck in a few breaths. A perfect ’57 Fuelie, a ’63 Z06, a Tri Power ’67 L71, a ’69 L88, a Corvette Challenge racer and a 1995 ZR-1 added together still don’t equal what the buyer spent on the Earl car. But to each his own. And I do concede that the “one of one” factor carries plenty of weight, and that if you had an underground shrine to Earl, the designer of all things lavish at GM in his time, this car would make your bunker complete.
Also in defense of the price paid, cars of this rarity and cost are not really cars any longer – they’re objets d’art. After all, when someone pays $100 million for Warhol’s “Eight Elvises,” how can you begrudge another for dropping a measly $980,500 on a one-of-a-kind Corvette? It wouldn’t be my first choice, but then again I’m not a buyer with that kind of coin. Understand that for some guys $1m like $10 for the rest of us. Frankly, I don’t think too much about peeling off a 10-spot for a tuna salad sandwich and iced tea when I feel like it. And in the case of Lot S116 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on a cloudy Saturday last May, perhaps the buyer didn’t either.
All of this leads me to conclude that, although the Harley J. Earl Sting Ray wasn’t designed by him, never won a race, and never presaged any critical styling elements for Corvette, the price paid was still exactly right. That’s because when there’s only one, whatever it sells for is market correct on that day. For this reason, this Sting Ray was simultaneously well bought and sold, and I hope the new owner enjoys the hell out of it