Sting Like A Bee


Story By David Wallens • Photos By Tom Suddard

It was specifically built for racing and features a competition-tuned, six-cylinder, air-cooled engine in the back–and, no, it’s not a Porsche. Meet the 1966 Yenko Stinger, the first fortified, competition-tuned car built by Don Yenko, the Pennsylvania Chevrolet dealer who’d eventually become a darling of the muscle car world.

Like a certain Texan with a penchant for wearing bib overalls and a cowboy hat, Yenko was simply trying to build a better mousetrap. His quarry? SCCA Production-category competition. His raw piece of clay? The Chevrolet Corvair. His impetus? Thanks to the Shelby GT350, the Corvettes that he had been campaigning in SCCA B Production were no longer competitive.

Yenko wasn’t heading into totally unchartered waters. Soon after the Corvair’s debut, John Fitch–the championship driver, World War II fighter pilot and highway safety advocate–released the Fitch Sprint. Fitch’s creation added more power, better handling and a few European dashes of flavor to the Corvair’s basic package, and Yenko was one of the first dealers to offer the Fitch Sprint. He figured that with the right modifications, the Corvair could be a road race contender, too.

Homologation Special

Yenko couldn’t just tweak some cars and go racing. As per the day’s SCCA regulations, he had to become a homologated manufacturer and produce a minimum number of modified cars: 100 units. The SCCA approved his plan in November of 1965, but added that Yenko needed to meet the production minimum by the start of the upcoming racing season–which was coming up.

Yenko quickly ordered a hundred Corvairs via Chevrolet’s Central Office Production Order system. The COPO system, as originally intended, offered dealers and fleets a way to order nonstandard cars in bulk–like, say, base model sedans fitted with the heavy-duty options required for police or taxi service.

Yenko used the COPO system to quickly acquire a hundred Corvair Corsa coupes, each fitted with the standard four-carburetor engine combined with a four-speed transmission, sport suspension, quick steering ratio and Positraction differential. Half of the cars received a 3.55:1 final drive, while the others had a 3.89:1. They all wore the same color: Ermine white.

Along with the homologation requirements, Yenko had to overcome another hurdle: The Corvair came from the factory with a rear seat, and in the SCCA’s eyes, sports cars didn’t have back seats. The simple fix came from the Shelby playbook: remove the rear seat.

In addition to tossing the back seat, Yenko also replaced the deck lid with a fiberglass piece and added landau panels that reconfigured the side rear windows. Triple blue stripes ran from stem to stern, while the original badges were removed and replaced.

He upgraded the running gear by adding exhaust headers, free-flowing mufflers, reworked carburetors and a seven-quart oil pan. Horsepower was bumped from the stock 140 to 160. The brake system received a Cadillac dual-circuit master cylinder because Chevrolet had yet to adopt that feature.

Yenko had his new car, which he dubbed the Yenko Stinger. That was just the starting point, however, as those Stage I Stingers were joined by higher-performance Stage II models. The 190-horsepower Stage II package added things like a lightweight flywheel, high-compression cylinder heads, a racing camshaft and stiffer valve springs.

Stinger production commenced on December 13, 1965. As noted in a press release issued by Donna Mae Mims–the brand’s PR director as well as an accomplished racer herself–two crews would work a total of 16 hours per day to complete production by the end of the year.

The SCCA made their New Years inspection and returned their verdict on January 6, 1966: The Yenko Stinger qualified as a homologated production car and was approved for competition. There was a caveat, however: The SCCA placed the Stinger in the D Production class, where it would have to face the dominating Triumph TR4.

Yenko answered with two more packages, the 220-horsepower Stage III and 240-horsepower Stage IV. Aimed at those headed to the track, these options coaxed out their extra power thanks to further increases in the compression ratio. According to the day’s literature, the Stage III cars still had their road-going equipment, but the Stage IV cars were stripped and fully prepared for competition.

Only about a dozen Stage III and half a dozen Stage IV cars were built, but thanks to the SCCA rules, any Corvair wearing a Yenko ID tag could become a legal D Production race car.

Once he had his track weapons ready, Yenko placed Jerry Thompson in one to show what the cars could achieve. That first year he won a Division Championship while finishing fifth in the season-ending American Road Race of Champions. The following year, he scored that elusive national championship.

Car 54, Where Are You?

According to the Yenko Stinger Archives (copo.com), Stinger No. 54 was built to Stage II specs and originally purchased by Janet Phelps of Pittsburgh. Mark Gillespie, a former Yenko employee and author of a book about the dealership’s creations, remembers this particular Corvair: “I drove that car many times when I worked at Yenko from ’66–’72. It belonged to friends of Don and we used it as a demo from time to time.”

By the time Jeff Guzzetta found the car, however, several years had passed and it was an absolute mess–all original, but in need of a total restoration. The floors were completely rusted through, the interior needed replacement, and the engine was ready for a rebuild. Guzzetta restored the car to nearly original specs, although this Stinger now wears 15-inch wheels instead of the original 13s.

Soon after, Stinger No. 54 got a rather famous new owner: Jay Leno. As Leno admits, he prefers buying rough cars in need of restoration, but with only about 70 original Stingers known to still exist, they don’t come up for sale every day, so a concession had to be made. He says he’s still happy with the purchase, though, and observes that the Corvair is one of General Motor’s best designs. The Stinger represents the best of the breed while remaining a fun, useful classic–one that played an important part in the American motorsports scene.

Postscript

Those original 100 Stingers weren’t the only ones made. A year later Yenko ordered 25 more Corvairs for conversion, choosing 1967 Monzas since the Corsa had been discontinued. Only 14 cars from that order were delivered and converted, with one more Stinger built in 1969. Today, Hagerty says that a perfect 1966 Stinger is worth close to $70,000.

Don Yenko would go on to gain fame by turning out higher-performance versions of Camaros, Chevelles, Novas and even Vegas. As with the Stinger, he produced some of these packages by gaming the COPO system. The 1967–’69 Yenko Camaros, for example, featured the Corvette’s aluminum-block, 427-cubic-inch V8.

Yenko’s dealership closed in 1982, while Don himself perished along with three passengers on March 5, 1987, in Charleston, West Virginia, while landing his Cessna 210M. According to the NTSB report, the plane bounced upon touchdown before crashing into a dirt bank and falling into a ravine. Yenko was 59.

Behind The Wheel: Yenko Stinger

Driving a Corvair, even in Yenko-modified form like this one, is not like driving a Porsche, but it’s not like driving a Chevy, either. The Corvair blends together elements from each brand while stirring in a few new ingredients.

The look, aroma and tactile feel all recall the traditional ‘60s Chevy. And while the Corvair’s engine has more in common with Porsche’s flat-six plant, when you fire it up the Yenko sounds like a V8 Camaro.

The long, curved shifter resembles something from a gasser. The wood-rimmed steering wheel feels rather cheap, though. It’s not something you’d expect to see in a serious sports car.

Once under way, the experience starts to take shape. The long shifter has a Porsche-like flavor to it, while the engine just pulls and pulls.

Head into the corners, and the Stinger acquits itself quite nicely. Chevrolet created the base Corvair to take on the day’s more mundane small cars, but the Stinger’s chassis feels like something tuned in Zuffenhausen–the handling is crisp, the car feels light on its feet, and the steering is communicative.

Sadly, the Stinger’s brake feel is rock-hard, since there is no booster present, and this particular example has been fitted with a Detroit Locker that clunks and rattles, marring an otherwise quite pleasurable driving experience.

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GTXVette
GTXVette Dork
1/5/18 6:26 p.m.

Be Still My Pounding Heart !!!!!!    Oh God a wave of Memories from my Early years 69-71,   Wallens did you ever ride the back way from Virginia Highlands over to Emory, Great roads.  'Cause you said Automod.

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