Not too long ago, I was at the Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance, and I was up close and personal with something I never thought I would be fortunate enough to see in person… the Harley Earl Corvette. To be honest, before that day in Boca, I never really knew the details of Harley J. Earl’s one-of-a-kind 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible (aka Shop Order 10323). That is to say… I knew it existed, but that’s about it. So, after my encounter with the Harley Earl Corvette, I decided to do some research and put together a quick post on this awesome, awesome car.
The Harley Earl Corvette most recently made headlines for its sale for $1.5 million at the Mecum Auto Auction in Chicago in October 2013. However, prior to 1981, when a gentleman named Joe Clark bought the car, its completely unique provenance was forgotten. That is until Mr. Clark found a hand-written number code inside of a door panel during a restoration and resurrected the car’s history. Amazingly, Joe Clark had found the Harley Earl Corvette.
After that, it’s kinda bounced around on the fringes of automotive consciousness for a few decades, appearing on the auction block two other times over the past three years. In 2009 the Harley Earl Corvette failed to garner a high enough bid to sell at the Bloomington Gold auction (max bid of $985,000). A few months later it sold at the Mecum Spring auction for $925,000.
When you think about it, that’s all a bit sad. That a one-off Corvette given to a man who is widely considered the second most important person in the history of the American automotive industry (behind Henry Ford) bounces from collector to collector without being given a second thought (or even remembered) is a shame. Hell, at the 2014 Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance, the Harley Earl Corvette was just another rare car among many, not garnering the attention it richly deserves. For me, at least, the Harley Earl Corvette is among the most important Chevrolet Corvettes ever built. At least, it’s definitely in the top five. Here’s why…
First off, Harley Earl was General Motors first design chief. He started with GM in 1928 and worked for thirty years until his retirement in 1958. Over those three decades, Earl essentially revolutionized automotive design. In addition to developing the ground-breaking innovations of clay modeling and the concept car, Earl was responsible for the huge, iconic fins from the 1950s, curved windshields, two-tone paint and pillar-less hardtops.
Harley Earl’s greatest achievement came in January 1953, at the New York Motorama, when Chevrolet Debuted the 1953 Corvette. Earl’s design for an American sportscar to compete with the post-war high-performance offerings from Ferrari, Mercedes and Jaguar was so popular that the Corvette went into production a mere six-months later.
So, it’s pretty easy to understand why five-years after his retirement, Chevy decided to give Earl a completely unique Corvette as a thank you. The Harley Earl Corvette was more than just a 1963 Corvette Convertible with special paint… So much more. Tapping into a bit of Earl’s ability to look forward into the future of motoring, Chevrolet Custom Shop Order 10323 took a bit from the current, a bit from the future and a bit from thin air to create the Harley Earl Corvette.
The serial number on the Harley Earl Corvette clearly states it is a 1963, complete with a 327 cubic-inch, 300 horse V8 engine, four-speed manual transmission and air conditioning. But, it contains a lot of components that would eventually find themselves on the 1965 Corvettes. For example, the four-wheel disc brakes, interior controls, bits of exterior trim and the hood all come from a 1965 ‘Vette. While they were busy developing the 1965, I guess the design folks at Chevrolet decided to toss a few pieces onto Earl’s car.
The truly cool parts of the Harley Earl Corvette are the crazy custom things that never made it onto a production car, staring with that zany, side-pipe exhaust. Coming out of each bank of the 327 V8, straight from the headers, are four chrome pipes that merge into a side-pipe. Rumor has it, only four Corvettes were ever fitted with that exhaust. The other three are the Mako Shark, the 1964 Chicago Auto Show Corvette and the 1964 Bunkie Knudsen Corvette.
Inside the 1963-ish Harley Earl Corvette, GM’s designers with completely batty. The unique cast-brass emblems, custom leather seats and door panels are nice, but it’s the car’s instrumentation that are truly off the wall.
On the driver side rest the usual and customary set of gauges… speedometer, tachometer, gas gauge, etc. However, on the passenger side, the glove box was removed in favor of another set of less common gauges. An accelerometer, oil temperature gauge, vacuum pressure gauge and matching inside & outside temperature gauges provided ample info for an interested passenger. The center dash clock was even replaced with an altimeter. It’s like the Harley Earl Corvette was an early mechanical iPhone app.
One the performance front, since the Harley Earl Corvette was powered by a 300 horse, 360 pound-feet, 327 cubic-inch V8 with a carter four-barrel carburetor mated to a four-speed manual transmission, acceleration was pretty much on par with the other L75 engine-equipped ’63s. That means 0 to 60 mph runs of 6.2 seconds, quarter-mile times of 14.7 seconds and a top speed of 128 mph. Not too shabby. Although, the 360 horse L84 engine would have been much more fun.
I don’t know about you, but to me, the 1963 Harley Earl Chevrolet Corvette Convertible is up there among my favorite cars. Somehow, it’s able to be thoroughly Corvette, drivable and beautiful, while bringing the over-the-top features that Earl’s concept cars were so known for.
Harley Earl sold this car a few years after driving it as a parade car for 1965 Daytona 500, but he lived in Palm Beach when he received his Corvette. It seems fitting that I saw this car in Boca Raton, Florida. Hopefully, the Harley Earl Corvette won’t fade back into obscurity after its recent $1.5 million sale. As a member of the Corvette Hall of Fame, it deserves to be held up as an example of the innovation, performance and all-around awesomeness of the Chevrolet Corvette.
For more info on the Harley Earl Corvette, check out the specs below. NEXTPAGE>>