The 1963 Corvette Split Window Coupe (SWC) has become an icon, and one of the most expensive and sought-after of all classic Corvettes. But that wasn’t always the case.
The second-generation (C2) Corvette was a huge leap over the first-generation both in terms of performance (with four-wheel independent suspension) and comfort (with convenience options like air conditioning and a new fixed roof body style). While the styling was daring and holds up well even half a century later, the split rear window was the most controversial part when it first came out.
By now, we probably all know the broad strokes of the story: Bill Mitchell, obsessed with marine design, insisted on the split rear window in order to allow the central “spine” to flow unbroken all the way from the roof to the rear deck. Zora Arkus-Duntov reportedly hated the split rear window, as it impeded rear visibility, which was critical to road racers.
True to his word, Duntov insisted that track-ready 1963 Grand Sport model (of which only five out of a planned 125 were made) sported a single unbroken rear window, technically making them the only 1963 Corvettes sold without the split window.
Duntov was apparently not alone in his dislike for the split rear window. The automotive press blasted the split rear window, and customers supposedly weren’t too fond of it either. The end result: The split rear window ended up being a one-year-only styling feature. 1964 and later Corvettes would have a single-piece rear window.
This is where we leave the realm of fact and enter the world of urban legends. It doesn’t take much research to find stories of people taking a saw to their 63 Corvette to remove the center pillar of the rear windows. Other accounts even allege that some Chevy dealerships were replacing the split rear window with single panes of glass for dissatisfied customers. So How much of this is actually true?
Let’s start with parts of the story we can verify. Did the automotive press really gin up hatred for the split rear window? Car and Driver didn’t mention the split rear window at all in their April 1963 road test. In their October 1962 preview, C&D noted that “The deep twin windows give a good rear view.” Mmmkay, not what I was expecting.
However, Road and Track, in their review, did have this to say: “Our only complaint about the interior was in the coupe, where all we could see in the rear view mirror was that silly bar splitting the rear window down the middle.” Motor Trend was perhaps the harshest, saying that “The rear window on the coupe is designed more for looks than practicality, and any decent view to the rear will have to be through an exterior side-view mirror.” They further mentioned in a photo caption that the split rear window “definitely hampers vision.” So on the whole, the negative press coverage portion of this story is true.
Next, is it even possible to remove the center pillar from a 1963 SWC Corvette? Of course, given enough time and money, anything is possible, but in 1963 this would have been a daunting task. Peterson Publishing detailed the process in a 1963 Custom Corvettes magazine article that I’ve sprinkled throughout the remainder of post, and it is not for the weakhearted. For starters, there isn’t a single connected piece of glass lurking under that center pillar – each pane on the SWC is a separate piece of glass. This article yada-yadas over a lot of key details, including sourcing a plexiglass single-piece rear window, as well as fabricating new window moldings using leftover bits and pieces of the old moldings.
Obviously, after 1964 this process would have been much easier – all you needed to do was source a replacement window and trim for a newer model Corvette. My guess is that most of the SWC “unsplitting” took place after 1964 using this process, and not the 1963 Custom Corvettes magazine process.
So we know for sure that at least one 1963 Corvette was modified – the photo car in the Peterson piece (which also sports the six tail light modification, which has its own interesting history. Clearly the owner was not averse to taking a saw to their car). We can also glean that there was at least enough general interest in the topic for Peterson to even produce the article in the first place.
Perhaps the most suspect part of this legend is the oft-repeated (but never cited) claim that dealers performed this modification on behalf of their customers. Prior to 1964, what exactly would said dealer have replaced the rear window with? Car dealers are in the business of selling cars, not performing extensive customization and fabrication – most are not set up to even do this kind of work. And after 1964, a far easier (and cheaper) option for all involved parties would have been to simply trade the 1963 Corvette in on a 1964 or newer model.
What evidence remains today that people were taking sawzalls to their ’63 Vettes? Let’s just say I spent multiple hours going down that Google rabbit hole so that you don’t have to. Bottom line is that I could find no pictures of surviving 1963 Corvettes with the split window removed. This is not surprising due to the rapidly rising values of these cars – any examples that were previously cut would have long since been restored back to their original condition.
As you would expect, Corvette forums are rife with speculation and third-hand anecdotes. One former owner of a 1963 Corvette did confess to performing this surgery in the late 1960s to give his car the updated look of the newer models. I suspect this is when (and the reason why) most of these modifications would have taken place: By the late ’60s, 1963 Corvettes would have been abundant and relatively cheap, and replacement 64-67 rear windows were readily available. The split window would have looked “old” compared to the newer models’ single-piece rear window. The general consensus in the forums is that the number of 1963 Corvettes that were modified like this ranges from low 10s to perhaps several hundred, an estimate that I concur with.
Period correct modifications typically don’t have a huge impact on the value of classic cars, and in some cases (like a badge from the original selling dealer) it can actually enhance the provenance of an original, unrestored vehicle. Somehow I don’t think that would be the case for a 1963 Corvette with its defining characteristic removed. While I for one would find a 1963 Corvette with a yellowing plexiglass backlite and cobbled-together window trim far more interesting than yet another over-restored split-window coupe, the marketplace reality of these cars means that any such examples have long since been restored back to their original configuration.