I met Tower at a Denny’s outside of Lakeland, Florida, a meeting arranged by a friend in Michigan in order to pick up Corvette images of the recent Amelia Island Concours. I had no idea who Tower was or his legacy within the automotive world. At that time, he was just a guy sitting at a table stirring his coffee and waiting for me to arrive. I introduced myself, ordered a coffee, and began looking at the photos he had brought. I selected a few, and as the conversation slowed, I asked the lynch pin question that was to fire up a friendship of now 20 years. . .
“So, do you own any cars,” I asked.
Bill’s reaction to the question was quizzical only because of its naivety. It turns out Tower has not only some of the most valuable and historically significant Chevys of all time — like Zora’s SR2, Earnhardt’s “Pass in the Grass” Chevy, and Roger Penske’s Grand Sport Corvette — but has worked for Chevrolet Engineering for more than 50 years. To this day, Tower still does projects for Chevrolet, McLaren, and others. Sharp as a tack, Tower belies his age and is quick with wit, or rebuttal of your poorly constructed questions. As I have learned when dealing with Tower, don’t be stupid. – Cam Benty
Florida Is Just Far Enough
Some of Tower’s no nonsense nature may have come from his years working with fellow Floridian and legendary race engine builder Smokey Yunick, the two working on many racing projects for Tower’s boss and Chevy Race Engineer Vince Piggins (the same guy that invented the Z/28). In the golden age of GM racing (1960-1972), these three “characters” were at the heart of every race win or new performance product to come from Michigan.
But while Tower was a full-time Chevy engineer, much of the time he lived in Florida. According to Piggins, that was just far enough away from HQ to allow him to get things done. Case in point was tackling the problem encountered with Chevrolet’s new big-block 425-hp high-performance engine, which, in their first year of production (1965), had serious issues with rod bolt breakage. Try as they might, Chevy struggled to find a cure.
Tower discovered the solution near his central Florida shop. Tower tested the current factory rod bolts and determined they were in no way race ready. Having had significant aircraft engineering experience, he headed down to his local airport and searched the fastener bins in the Lycoming Aircraft engine rebuild shop. It was not long until he found a bolt that was about the right size, requiring only a slight shortening to match the configuration he needed for the Chevy engine. Handcrafting a set for one test engine, he sent them up to Detroit where they were dynoed and found to be the perfect solution. Shortly thereafter, GM bought and modified Lycoming bolts for their race engines produced at the Tonawanda, New York, engine plant before mass-producing new bolts based on Tower’s specifications.
A Man of Much History
From the high bank at Daytona, Tower was able to wring out the “pass in the grass” Monte Carlo reaching speeds of 187 mph. The car has been documented as the car Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove on the apron at Charlotte Motor Raceway, passing Bill Elliott to win the race. Currently it wears the Wrangler colors, the car having been raced by five different Junior Johnson teams — verified by Junior himself and the Banjo Mathews chassis number.
Bill Tower is a racer, a war hero (Navy Seal), space shuttle engineer, and an amazingly astute craftsman. The number two man at Chevrolet for Vince Piggin’s lauded engineering team, Tower was an early adopter of multi-tasking while working for Chevrolet development. As noted, Tower split time between Detroit and Florida, his Tampa facility becoming a “skunkworks” for projects that would have been stalled in the Michigan-based corporate environment.
Sound like big talk? Take a look at some of his accomplishments during the last 50 years:
Development of original Rally Wheel design to aid in brake cooling. The new wheels replaced the solid wheel covers used on early Corvettes. These wheels allowed the air to flow through the wheel to reduce heat.
Change-over of Corvette to four-wheel disc brakes as standard equipment. Until they were offered as standard equipment in 1965, the Corvette used drum brakes. For repetitive stopping conditions found in racing and performance driving, disc brakes were far superior. It was Tower who was instrumental in making discs standard issue.
Top Fuel Driver for Dick Clark American Bandstand-sponsored dragster. While under contract for Chevrolet, Tower raced a Chrysler Hemi-powered Top Fueler in the 1960s, giving Don Garlits fits in match race competition in his home state of Florida. He was one of the first Chrysler Hemi racers — much to the chagrin of his Chevy engineer pals. (Editor Note: I personally called Dick Clark Productions in 2005 [Clark passed away in 2012] and reconnected the two long lost friends. – CB)
First four-bolt main small-block Chevrolet. It was Tower who pressed for four-bolt main blocks to make these popular engines compatible with racing applications. The four-bolt main design made a dramatic change in small-block racing durability.
Replaced engine “top end” in original McLaren engine used in first Mako Shark. The original Mako Shark predated the change to the C3 Corvette in 1968. The original powertrain was altered by Tower and used in the concept vehicle.
Helped Chevrolet repair windshield on one millionth Corvette damaged in Corvette Museum sinkhole. When the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, incurred a sinkhole that swallowed seven collector Corvettes, Tower helped museum personnel correctly repair the 1992 Corvette to original condition.
Development work on Holley Carburetion for L88 program. In 1968, Tower and Piggins worked on refining the 427c.i. L88 engine. At that time, Harold Sullivan from Holley delivered one of the first true high-performance, big cube carburetors, Tower working closely with Sullivan to maximize its horsepower potential.
Corrected High HP Big Block Rod Bolt issues in 1966 (single-handled). As noted earlier, Tower repaired rod bolt issues that plagued the first year high-performance 396c.i. engines.
Engine & Aero development work for Pratt Miller Corvette C5R & C6R. With an eye for aero smarter than a wind tunnel, Tower modified both models during test sessions held in Sebring, Florida — improving lap speed. This work was completed by adjusting nose angle and other features on site.
Engineered cooling system repairs on original 1990’s ZR1 for Corvette Chief Dave McClelland. Was hired by Chevrolet engineering to correct cooling system issues on first run of prototype Corvette featuring 32-valve high-performance models.
Tuned a number of celebrity-owned racecars for competition, including Steve McQueen’s Lola T70 MKIIIB. A highly regarded talent not only for his tuning abilities, but his skills behind the wheel, Tower was McQueen’s go-to guy when he wanted the car right for racing.
Orchestrated reunion of all five Grand Sport Race cars at 2003 Amelia Island Concours. In what may be the last time all five of the original 1963 Grand Sport Corvettes got together, all five were present, an event orchestrated by Bill Tower.
The Man, The Myth
Tower’s contributions to Corvette development should make him instantly recognizable, but he’s not one for the spotlight. Instead, he’d like to work away in his shop and build powerful engines for fast race teams that appreciate the best. He won’t work for back-of-the-pack racers — well known to guys like Joe Gibbs, Tony Stewart, Kenny Schrader, Rick Hendrick, and a few others where the drivers can utilize his talents. His specialty has become building restrictor-plate engines — putting many top names in NASCAR on the pole.
Tower still works to develop many late model racing products and was heavily involved in the development of the first fuel injection systems used in NASCAR. As an outside contractor for McLaren, he did much of the early testing in his Tampa test facility.
In addition, he not only worked with the Pratt & Miller Corvette race team to develop better aero (see above), but also handled the wheel as a shakedown driver to refine the C5 and C6 Corvettes with his friend Ron Fellows. His driving skills may be one of his most overlooked abilities, remember this guy drove Top Fuel dragsters in the ’60s and even stepped in for Tim Richmond in 1988, when the famed racer qualified but became too ill to race. Tower reluctantly stepped in and finished sixth for his friend.
You just can’t make this stuff up . . .
In addition to Tower’s amazing engineering developments, he has an incredible collection of historically significant Corvettes and racecars, all purchased before they were so highly valuable. While Tower is aware of their value, it is not the price of these cars that make them valuable to him — and a topic he will not discuss. None are for sale.
Highlighting his personal collection include:
- #5 1963 Grand Sport Corvette racecar driven by Roger Penske and Jim Hall
- 1956 Corvette SR2 — red, race car — the most valuable of the SR2s built.
- Proving Ground development 1967 Corvette L88 coupe — green
- Betty Skelton ’56 Corvette race car
- Dale Earnhardt Wrangler/Goodwrench “Pass in the Grass” Monte Carlo
- Bobby Allison’s 1973 427c.i. Chevelle
- Tim Richmond’s last ‘Cup Car — setup to retake closed course speed record in 2017 driven by Kenny Schrader
In essence, only part of Tower’s legacy can be recanted here; the rest of the details are either too top secret reveal or simply forgotten over time. A review of his shop is like a walk through time, each artifact carrying a story that can be verified by credible sources. Case in point: Tower was cleaning up an old engine in his shop, something he bought long ago from Smokey Yunick back in the 1960s. He was aware it was an early 283c.i. engine, but not of the engines true significance.
While visiting from Michigan, former General Manager of Chevrolet Division Jim Perkins spotted the engine and asked Tower if he knew what he had. Perkins informed Tower he had the very first 283c.i. engine ever made, serial #2. The first casting (#1) was flawed to the point it was unable to be used. That made Tower’s engine the first 283c.i. small-block Chevy to ever run. It now sits in his engine room with Can Am Big Blocks and Chaparral racecar engines. Oh, and mounted to the main beam in his shop, every Chevy racing intake manifold since 1957, in chronological order.
Yep . . . you can’t make this stuff up.