Lead Image – Javier Douendo Design
Since the early 1960s, Chevrolet has threatened to unleash a mid-engine Corvette upon the automotive world on numerous occasions. But despite any winks and nods from Chevy officials each time the company has shown off one of these sports car concepts, nothing has ever actually come to fruition. Instead, the Corvette has stuck to the traditional front engine, rear wheel drive configuration it has had ever since the first Corvette rolled off the assembly line in the summer of 1953. But that may be about to change.
After literally generations of speculation, mounting evidence indicates that Chevrolet is in fact developing a new Corvette for production with its power plant installed in the middle of the car, and it stands to reason that this car will debut as (or alongside) the eighth generation Corvette (C8), likely as a 2019 or 2020 model.
But how did the Corvette arrive at this point? Here we’re looking back at a handful of Chevrolet concept cars which helped forge the path to the (potential) reality of a mid-engine Corvette production car in the near future.
1959 CERV I
Chevrolet staff engineer, designer, and race car driver Zora Arkus-Duntov started development on a series of experimental Chevrolet vehicles in 1959, one of which would provide some of the engineering behind the second generation 1963 Corvette Stingray.
The Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle, or CERV, was created for the specific purpose of helping to develop the Corvette’s independent suspension system. Its bones are a chromium-molybdenum steel tubular space frame while the body was molded from two layers of fiberglass which weighed a mere 80 pounds.
The CERV I was motivated by a 283 cubic inch V8 installed behind the driver, a power plant that was based on an earlier Corvette prototype with a silicon alloy block and all in, the experimental vehicle weighed just 1450 pounds.
A few years later its successor, the CERV II, debuted. Like the CERV I, the CERV II was a mid-engine, open-wheel prototype which featured styling provided by GM’s Larry Shinoda and Tom Lapine. Power came from an all-aluminum, 377-cube SOHC V8 with Hilborn injection. Though the Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle development program would lie dormant for many years after the CERV II debuted, it would not prove to be the last project for the department.
The 1964 Corvette XP-819 and 1968 Astro II XP-880
Developed in the early 1960s, the XP-819 served as the first formal design exercise that Chevrolet would embark on that positioned the Corvette’s engine somewhere other than at the nose of the car. Duntov and Corvair engineer Frank Winchell had the discussed the possibility of creating a balanced, rear-engined V8 sports car. Duntov was skeptical that it was feasible, but Winchell insisted that the use of an all-aluminum motor and larger rear wheels would offset any potential imbalance from the layout.
Larry Shinoda would again be on board to design the car, and with sketches that looked promising, a running prototype was commissioned. While Shinoda’s design proved eye-catching, Duntov’s skepticism about the balance of a rear-engine V8 sports car proved valid, as the prototype would be wrecked during wet-weather testing. Many years later the XP-819 would be restored from the parts left over from the project, and has spent some time on display in the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The dynamic issues with the XP-819 wouldn’t deter Chevrolet from pursuing the idea of repositioning the Corvette’s motor, though. A few years later the Astro I and XP-880 Astro II would surface, the latter of which would be put on display at the 1968 New York Auto Show and would serve as the first real indicator that Chevrolet was genuinely considering a mid-engine Corvette production car.
With Ford’s GT40 securing wins at Le Mans, Chevrolet knew they had to consider this design option as a possible future for the Corvette. Like the GT40, the XP-880 was powered by a big block V8. To make the idea work with the limited amount of time Chevy engineers had to work with to prep for the auto show, the motor was reverse-oriented in the chassis and hooked to a Pontiac Tempest transaxle. But like the XP-819, the actual performance of the XP-880 left much to be desired, so Chevrolet engineers went back to the drawing board to devise another strategy.
1970 XP-882 4 Rotor and 1973 XP-897 Two Rotor
Less than two years later, those efforts would bring about the XP-882, which would steal the show from the likes of the AMX/3 and De Tomaso Pantera at the 1970 New York Auto Show. Two running XP-882 prototypes were developed packing mid-engine big block V8 power and, according to reports, the car was very nearly green-lit for production. However, the project got sidetracked when GM decided to flirt with the idea of changing the Corvette’s powertrain altogether.
The company was developing its own version of the rotary engine at the time and Ed Cole, then President of General Motors, was impressed enough with the rotary engine concept to order the V8 removed from the XP-882 and replaced by a GM-developed four-rotor power plant, a result of merging two of the two-rotor units designed for the Vega into one. Aside from its radical shift in engine design, the four-rotor Corvette was a technical and stylistic powerhouse. Dubbed the Aerovette, it featured gullwing-style doors, a digital dashboard display, and no shortage of exotic flourishes inside and out.
However, in the early 70s the performance landscape was shifting rapidly, and to make the mid-engine Corvette even remotely feasible during a period of tightening emissions regulations and oil embargoes, Chevrolet would need a design that was more aligned with the current automotive climate.
In 1973 the XP-897 would fill that role. Significantly smaller than the XP-882, the XP-897 featured a Pinifarina-built body that was considered handsome enough for production, but efficiency concerns inherent to the rotary design as well as the lackluster performance of its two-rotor engine would ultimately keep it out of production.
Instead the team returned to the XP-882 concept, and after the demise of the GM Wankel engine program, they retrofitted the car with a conventional V8 and continued to hone the design. However with sales of the standard C3 Corvette holding fast despite performance being dramatically down from its high point in the late 1960s, GM had little incentive to push forward with a radical redesign of the production Corvette at the time. Like the XP-819, the XP-882 would later find a home at the National Corvette Museum.
The Corvette Indy and CERV III
Some time would pass before another mid-engine Corvette prototype would see the light of day. In 1986, notions of a potential candidate for production rose once again with the debut of the Corvette Indy concept. Said to have been powered by a twin-turbocharged V8 that sent the grunt to all four corners, the concept was a showcase of “what if” features that buyers could hope for from the C5 Corvette – an adaptive suspension system, four-wheel steering, and even an ETAK navigation system were all part of the plan.
A few years later, the Corvette Indy concept would evolve into the CERV III. Debuting at the 1990 Detroit International Auto Show, the CERV III was a fully operational engineering concept that featured a twin-turbocharged version of the 5.7-liter LT5 V8 used in the ZR1, here making a hair-raising 650 horsepower. The engine was mounted sideways in the chassis, and routed the power to all four wheels through a six speed automatic transaxle.
CERV III’s body construction was a mix of carbon fiber, Kevlar, Nomex and aluminum honeycomb, and it boasted functional versions of many of the features proposed in the Corvette Indy concept, including computer-controlled rear wheel steering and active suspension. The top speed of the CERV III was a theoretical 225 mph. However, like all the mid-engined Corvette concepts before it, any production plans that were made for the CERV III were eventually tossed aside when Chevrolet decided to stay the course with the front-engine, rear wheel drive layout that would continue with C5 and onto today.
C8 Test Mules
Both enthusiasts and the motoring press were understandably skeptical when rumors of a new mid-engined Corvette development program began to make the rounds a few years ago, not long after the debut of the much-acclaimed C7 Corvette.
However, mounting evidence suggests that this time around, the notion of new a mid-engined Corvette might be more than just an engineering and design exercise. Numerous sightings of new, heavily camouflaged mid-engined sports car prototype mules have made the rounds in recent months, showing the cars testing both out in wild and within GM’s own proving grounds.
GM remains understandably tight-lipped about the very existence of such a vehicle, let alone any potential specifications it might have. But it’s reasonable to assume that this theoretical mid-engine C8 would be designed to enhance the performance of the Corvette well beyond its current level, as competition from other models in its segment has seriously heated up in recent years, and performance-tuned versions of the sixth generation Camaro now offer capability that’s nearly on par with current Corvette models for a significantly lower price.
For now though, we’ll just have to wait and see how things pan out. In the meantime, the upcoming ZR1 should keep us busy.