Unfinished Business: Design Legend Pete Brock on Bringing His C2 Corvette Vision Back as an EV
Pete Brock wrote the source code for the C2 Corvette’s design. Over 60 years later, he’s bringing his original concept to life as a “hyperclassic” EV.
Not many people can claim to have changed car design forever with their first attempt. Pete Brock is potentially one who can, though. Back in the 1950s, when he was just 19, he was hired by GM as its youngest designer ever and promptly penned a sketch that would go on to become the second-generation Corvette, the iconic C2 Sting Ray.
Brock's place, then, is written in the stars. But despite a career spanning over half a century that also included designing the Shelby Daytona Coupe, he's always had this itch. It’s not that design legend Larry Shinoda gets credit for the C2’s final look. It’s that Brock’s forever thought the production Sting Ray was always too busy, too full of, in his words, “little geegaws, or scoops, or vents, or whatever.” And now at the age of 86, he’s finally going to do something about it.
It’s just that what he’s going to do isn’t what you’d expect. To bring his original vision of the C2 Corvette to life, Brock’s partnering with a tiny concern of electric anarchists based in Ireland called AVA Electrifi who’ve been busy EV-swapping classics. Those kinds of projects are a dime a dozen these days—all hundreds of thousands of dollars, all mostly for the same kind of clientele. But along with Brock (and Ian Callum), they're trying to build a brand new, limited-production retro electric vehicle they're dubbing a “hyperclassic” that ought to go like hell and look like the purest distillation of the Sting Ray’s enchanting design. Can they? Let's see.
The Design That Saved the Corvette
Brock began work at General Motors in 1955, then just 19 years old and still a student in design school. He entered an environment ruled by two titans of the car industry—Harley Earl, the man who basically invented modern automotive design, not to mention the wasteful tradition of model year updates to entice new customers; and Bill Mitchell, the autocratic, frequently irascible successor to Earl, and under whose imprimatur The General would ride high on a wave of crisp, fresh design in the 1960s.
“I went in primarily as an advanced concept designer,” says Brock over a crackly phone line. “Normally, guys like me would never have met much with Bill Mitchell, because he was working on production cars, and we were working on more advanced stuff. However, the Corvette program had been canceled [in the late '50s], and Mitchell decided to put his career on the line and go against GM management to try and get it resurrected. That meant that he couldn’t work on it upstairs, in the production design studios, so he had to bring it down to us.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but back in the late 1950s, America just didn’t do sports cars. Some would aver that remained the case through the '60s and into the modern age, but when Brock met Mitchell, U.S. car design was reaching an apogee of excess that was utterly at odds with lightweight, focused, sleek sports cars. Cadillacs with gaudy fins and chrome trim that probably, when you added it all up, weighed more than an entire Lotus 7. Body panels measured in hectares. Bench seats that could seat an entire family, with elbow room to spare.
Even the original Corvette, just torpedoed below the waterline as we enter this story, was barely a sports car. The later versions, with the 195-horsepower, 4.3-liter small block V8, were sporty in styling but hardly in dynamics. A contemporary Jaguar XK, or Aston Martin DB would have run rings around one, let alone a Ferrari or Maserati. GM was also nervous of making cars that overtly chased performance—the gentlemen’s agreement between Detroit’s Big Three that followed the 1955 Le Mans tragedy was less about ensuring a level playing field and more about avoiding Congressional investigation should a similar disaster occur on U.S. soil. Tacit help was given to certain racing teams, of course, but the more sporty Corvettes that were built, the more they would be raced, and the more chance there was of a headline photograph of some fiery Corvette wreck plowing into a bunch of innocent spectators. Hence the senior management torpedo, among other cost concerns.
Beyond that, the Corvette was also embroiled in a turf war, a power struggle between Mitchell and famed senior GM engineer Zora Arkus Duntov. Duntov, working on the proposals for the so-called "Q-Corvette" had even proposed that the ever-plastic ‘Vette could be switched to an all-steel construction. The Q-car would have been radical in other ways, too. Unlike Mitchell’s concepts, it would have been engineered first—potentially with a rear-mounted transaxle transmission, inboard brakes, and more—and then designed after. Mitchell, though, had other ideas...
“We had no idea Mitchell was going to come down and talk to us about it,” says Brock. “Even when he did come in and told us about his plans for keeping the Corvette going, we were all looking at each other, not quite able to believe our ears, that he was going to go against the senior management. We assumed that there would be some competition between us and other studios, but no—it was all down to us.”
Brock’s sketch of a low, sleek, disco-volante shape that would become the Corvette Sting Ray concept car featured design elements that would become signatures of Mitchell’s 1960s GM designs. Straight, sharp lines. Delicate curves where they were needed. A lack of needless ornamentation.
“Bill Mitchell is the guy that designed the Corvette,” says Brock, rather humbly. “I simply interpreted his ideas to his satisfaction.” According to Brock, Mitchell had returned to Detroit from a visit to the Turin motor show of 1957, abuzz with ideas. “Several concept streamliners had been shown over there by Stanguellini, by Farina, and especially by Alfa Romeo. All those cars had a crisp beltline around them, with a little aerodynamic shape over each tire. It was a highly lauded design, so Bill knew that he was on safe ground, that it would be accepted.”
Mitchell brought back a tranche of photographs from Turin—Eastman Kodak’s share price must have skipped a little when he did—and, according to Brock, laid them out on a table in the studio and explained that this was how the new Corvette was going to look.
“He just said: ‘There’s the beltline, there’s the shapes over the wheels, and you guys take it from here. It’s up to you to see what you can do with it.’ And it turned out that he selected my work,” says Brock. Actually, he selected Brock’s first and second work—Mitchell picked Brock’s first attempt as the winner from the studio, but then made everyone go back and take another crack at it, to see if any improvements could be found. On that second round, Brock’s work was picked again, and the Sting Ray was born.
It wouldn’t be born straight away, though. That sketch would, in 1959, become the XP-87 Sting Ray concept car (although, colloquially within GM, it was usually just called "Mitchell’s Racer" and was actually based on the chassis of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL). It would win the SCCA national championship in 1960, before GM’s bean-counters pressured Mitchell to withdraw it from competition before it fell foul of the "gentlemen’s agreement." Perhaps it’s as well he did so—Brock reckons that at speeds above 140 mph, the Sting Ray’s shape would cause aerodynamic lift, taking the front wheels off the ground. Corvette engineers shimmed up the rear suspension, giving the car a more aero-friendly "high-rake" appearance decades before Adrian Newey tried such a thing with a Red Bull.
It was another three years before that Sting Ray concept would become the road-going "C2" Corvette. First, the Q-Corvette program had to rise and fall, taken down by reluctance to embrace the concept of sharing components across an entirely re-invented Chevrolet lineup. Its design would be massaged by Larry Shinoda (who would also design the Mako Shark concept, the C3 Corvette, and the Boss Mustang following a defection across town to Ford) and underneath, it was engineered by Arkus-Duntov. If he couldn't make it mid-engined, at least he could make it his.
Brock? Brock was gone by then, and frankly didn’t quite care for the finished design that he left behind.
"When I did that car originally, Mitchell came back and changed a few bits and pieces on it," he says. "He had a habit of putting things on the cars that were… well, Larry Shinoda later called them ‘surface entertainment.’ They were little geegaws, or scoops, or vents, or whatever. They weren’t functional. They were little indentations on the surface that were supposed to indicate that there is some kind of device that was supposed to be workable, but they weren’t. They were fakes. And so when I go back to the design, I will of course be removing those superfluous elements, and going more back towards my original design, the one I did for Mitchell, the one that he directed.”
Go back? Oh yes, Brock has been tempted out of retirement to return to the XP-87 design and to give it electric power. Lots of electric power. As much as 2,000 hp, depending on how the final production specification pans out. Not by General Motors, but by AVA Electrifi.
Enter the Hyperclassic?
Walking into AVA’s offices, you would not think it a place where electric rockets inspired by the golden era of American car design are about to be made. We’re in the bucolic surroundings of the Powerscourt House and Gardens, a 13th-century castle turned country estate located in the stunning hilly landscape of Wicklow, just south of Dublin, Ireland. On the edge of the village of Enniskerry, the house and its surrounding land was once the subject of a brutally murderous feud between the O’Toole and Wingfield families. So yes, Detroit this is not.
Facing south across the perfectly manicured gardens and adjacent helipad is also the office of AVA's Norman Crowley. Crowley is the central-casting vision of a dot-com millionaire. Trim, fit, with a careless growth of stubble, he meets me in a black t-shirt and shorts for a chat about his particular vision for the electric motoring future. Crowley made his money in tech and gaming and is now plowing that wealth into AVA Electrifi and Crowley Carbon, a company that helps other businesses sort out their carbon footprint. He’s a car nut of long and true standing. His dad owned the farm next to that once tilled by Henry Ford’s family in County Cork and was instrumental in getting a statue of an original Model T erected in the nearby village of Ballinascarthy. Crowley tells me that when Bill Ford Jr. came for the original unveiling, the scion of the Ford empire slipped the leashes of his handlers, and was found hours later, sipping tea and swapping tall car tales with Crowley in the family kitchen.
AVA’s mission is to create an electric future for enjoyable motoring, and to the consternation of some, it’s begun by chopping up classics and inserting electric motors and batteries where once were combustion engines. Crowley’s first electric conversion was a Ferrari 308 GTB, which in fairness was a wreck with a blown engine when he got his hands on it. More recently, he’s been working on the almost-inevitable electric Land Rover Defender conversions, and one-offs such as a converted Jaguar XK120 with an accompanying "ICE vault" to preserve the engine, gearbox, and other fossil-fuel ancillaries for the sake of history.
There are many firms currently engaged in swapping out the engine and transmission of a classic car and replacing them with electric parts. You can get everything from an original Mini to a Datsun 240Z to a Rolls-Royce Phantom with electric power if you have the ready cash. Jaguar and Aston Martin are even offering factory-original electric swaps for classic E-Types and DB6s. What AVA is trying to do now, though, is different. And a lot harder. Crowley wants to make bespoke, boutique cars that hark back, in their designs, to classic originals, but which are all-new and all-electric, under the skin.
“We don’t want to be Tesla,” Crowley insists. “We want to build the world's most beautiful classics. Our business plan calls for us to make 300 cars a year by 2024. But then the plan for 2025 is to build 300 cars again, not 700, not a thousand cars, nothing like that. It isn’t about making volume, it’s about making cars.”
The final design is still under wraps, but we have a few details to go along with a single shadowy teaser. The "hyperclassic" revival of the Sting Ray should have in the region of 2,000 horsepower from a twin-motor setup, and four-wheel drive. Two-thousand horses from twin electric motors isn’t all that hard to do, at least in terms of finding enough power from electric motors, but Crowley is also promising active aerodynamics—where the vestigial chrome bumpers at the rear actually slide up the bodywork to join with the kicked-up trunk lid to form one massive rear wing for high-speed stability—and a 130-kWh battery for a decent touring range. Price? At least $2 million each, with only a handful to be built.
“What we’re learning is that climate change and beautiful half-a-million-dollar vehicles are intrinsically linked,” says Crowley. “When you see these things at a huge classic car event like Salon Privé, people will sit in the car and think. They’ll be forced to think, in a way. Not just about how much does it cost or how fast does it go. If they sit in one of our cars, they’ll think about what really makes it great. They’ll have to think, ‘Hang on, I can have something fun, and something beautiful, but it can actually save the world as well?’ And if they think that, then we’ll have won.”
The Big Bet
Crowley will have to overcome skepticism—not merely of those who think that electric conversion is tantamount to butchery, but also of his claims in general. He doesn’t want to be Ireland’s Elon, but he has picked up Musk’s habit of over-promising. In our interview, he mentioned that the special edition electric Defenders, at that point being built downstairs in the stable yard of Powerscourt, would have 200-kWh batteries, 300-odd-mile ranges, and in-hub motors for searing performance. As shown at Salon Privé, those Defenders had rather less thrilling performance and much shorter ranges. AVA, and Crowley, will have to learn that promises need to be kept, even in the Silicon Valley-tinged, live-beta-testing world of EVs.
Bringing Brock on board will help with AVA being taken seriously, of course, as will hiring Ian Callum to help productionize Brock’s designs. While AVA is a relative unknown, Brock is confident in the project. “We’re working with new technology, with guys who’ve built Formula One cars, with lightweight components," he says. "We’re going to have far, far more performance than was available on the original car. Norman has collected together an amazing bunch of people, and we’re going to come up with a car that is going to be spectacular, not just on the outside—which is my job, of course—but it’s going to be as exciting from the chassis outward.”
If the Corvette-based car works, then the next project will be an electrified version of Brock's other great design, the Cobra Daytona Coupe. That kammbacked shape has previously been recreated for road use, and so Brock and Crowley could be accused of returning to a much-tapped source for their cars.
Brock sees reviving the classics as an advantage, though. “I saw this at Salon Privé—20-something new cars were introduced, but they’re all mid-engined coupes. The average person looking at these can’t tell them apart because they all look so similar,” he says. “But we’re coming in with classic designs that are world-renowned, and we’re going to be coming back with refined versions of those designs. I think that gives us a massive advantage."
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