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Rare drawings, documents reveal secret history of mid engine Corvette

From an acclaimed concept car John DeLorean reportedly dismissed because he wanted something “smaller and more European,” to the design that ended a feud between a pair of GM giants — but may have set the Corvette back decades — a trove of unique documents, sketches and models tells a secret history of the 60-year quest to build a mid engine Chevrolet Corvette.

The story begins in the late 1950s with legendary Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and came to fruition when the first mid engine 2020 Corvette Stingray sold for $3 million at auction in January.

Titled “The Vision Realized: 60 Years of Mid engine Corvette Design” and created by GM Design Archive & Collections, the exhibit included 19 original sketches by designers including Larry Shinoda and Tom Peters, the massive 4-Rotor rotary engine from the 1973 Aerovette engineering, a wood wind-tunnel model, even letters from Arkus-Duntov’s personal files.

“The story of the mid engine Corvette is incredibly complicated, full of fits and starts,” said Christo Datini, manager of the GM Design Archive & Collections.  Cristo Datini at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020

Cristo Datini at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020 (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

A mid engine Corvette was a dream shared by GM designers and engineers. The layout, in which the engine is behind the passenger compartment and immediately over the rear wheels, improves acceleration and handling. It’s been a mainstay at Ferrari for decades, and inspired repeated design and engineering projects at GM. None of them made it to production till now, largely because the Corvette’s original front-engine layout was so successful.

“Why would we change the Corvette?” GM chairman and CEO Richard Gerstenberg said to Arkus-Duntov before both men retired in the mid-1970s. “We sell every one we can make.”

‘Design without limit’

A generation of GM designers and engineers had already fought that attitude toward the sports car that debuted in 1953 model, and a couple more would before the midengine eighth-generation C8 Corvette Stingray debuted last year.

The exhibition included dozens of sketches, models, photos and documents.

“Our mission is to preserve the heritage of GM Design and educate our designers on GM’s prominence in the world of design,” Datini said. The archive also is working with the Detroit Institute of Arts on a massive exhibition dedicated to automotive design that opens this summer. 

The Corvette exhibition closed at the end of January, but elements of it are likely to be displayed at other events and locations, possibly including the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which provided materials for the collection.Original magazines with drawings of what Corvettes could have looked like on display at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020

Original magazines with drawings of what Corvettes could have looked like on display at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020 (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle I, Also called SERV I and XP-708, was the beginning. A running model that debuted in 1960, the car had the looks of an Indy car and a chassis that tested what a midengine layout could do. It was “a design without limit” and an “admirable tool” to help Chevy figure out “what to put in Corvette,” said Duntov, himself a former driver in the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race.

CERV I was used as a test vehicle for years. Larry Shinoda, who would go on to be known as the father of the ’63 Corvette Stingray and the Mako Shark concept car, tweaked its design repeatedly as engineers tested it with seven different power trains.

GM eventually retired CERV I, selling it to the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum for $1. When the museum failed in the 1980s, GM bought it back for “somewhat more,” Datini said.A model of the 1968 Chevrolet mid-engine Corvette Roadster that is one of many items for General Motors workers to see at the Corvette design display at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020

A model of the 1968 Chevrolet mid-engine Corvette Roadster that is one of many items for General Motors workers to see at the Corvette design display at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020 (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

Corvettes the world never saw

Shortly thereafter, Duntov heard rumors Ford was developing a Le Mans racer to challenge Ferrari and launched work on CERV II. GM decided not to race, Ford and Carroll Shelby built the GT40 that inspired “Ford vs. Ferrari,” and the CERV II was used as an engineering test bed at secret proving grounds and never seen by the public during its active lifetime. Built in 1964, CERV II had a 500-horsepower V8, 210-mph top speed and 2.8-second 0-60 mph time.

A picture of the CERV II Corvette. The sports car never went into production but it was influential in the design of the C5 production Corvette. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

“By that time, engineers and designers knew a midengine chassis was necessary” to get maximum performance from the ‘Vette, Datini said. Putting the engine behind the passenger compartment puts the car’s weight over the rear wheels to put down more power without spinning. Shifting balance from the production ‘Vette’s nose-heavy weight distribution would also improve handling.

Also in 1964, the XP-819 experimental car was being tested. Designed by Shinoda, it bore a strong resemblance to 1970 Corvettes, but Duntov hated it, calling it an “ugly duckling” at least in part because he wished his engineering team got some of the budget allotted to designing the car. It had a 327 cubic-inch V8 and pop-up headlights.

Like many concept and engineering vehicles, XP-819 was destroyed, chopped up. Years later, the pieces were found in NASCAR designer and mechanic Smokey Yunick’s garage.

Half Corvette, half Porsche

With a name GM would later recycle on a minivan, the Astro II XP-880 was never publicly identified as a Corvette, but it was one, intended for production in 1970, but never got there. It debuted at the New York auto show, featuring a nose, front fenders and Firefrost Blue paint that that foreshadowed 1970s production cars.

DeLorean, then Chevrolet general manager, asked for a rush program to create a different midengine design to match the midengine Pantera Ford was developing with Italian sports car maker De Tomaso to debut at the 1970 New York auto show. The XP-882 had a tapering body with dramatic fender flares and a louvered rear window like the Mako Shark II concept car. Like so many midengine ‘Vettes before and after, GM brass decided to stick with the tried and true front-engine layout.

Also in the 1970s GM president Ed Cole — another legendary engineer who led the development of the small block V8 and catalytic converter, among other achievements — became enamored with the Wankel rotary engine. Duntov built two midengine experimental ‘Vettes with rotary engines, glad for Cole’s support despite not sharing his enthusiasm for the engine.Sketching and notes about the Corvette, one of the many originals on display for workers to see at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020

Sketching and notes about the Corvette, one of the many originals on display for workers to see at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020 (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

The 1973 Corvette 2-Rotor XP-987GT was a smaller, European-scale sports car with a rotary engine. The body was all Corvette, but its chassis came from a Porsche 914. Italian design house Pininfarina built its body. GM displayed the 2-Rotor at auto shows in Frankfurt and Paris before the car disappeared, probably sold to a collector.

Bill Mitchell’s most beautiful car

At the same time, Duntov wanted to develop a bigger midengine Corvette. He and Cole hadn’t been on speaking terms since Duntov refused an annual bonus he thought was insultingly small. They made up, at least in part because Duntov wanted a budget to develop what would become the Corvette 4-Rotor Aerovette, an iconic, gull wing design. Duntov believed it was the most beautiful vehicle GM design chief Bill Mitchell oversaw in a career that included the ’57 Chevy Bel Air and ’66 Buick Riviera. 

Duntov recycled the XP-882’s chassis for the Aerovette, which featured silver leather interior trim.A picture of the Aerovette featuring bi-fold gulping doors in the sports car that was never made. It is one of many photographs, drawings and sketches on display on all things Corvette design inside the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020

A picture of the Aerovette featuring bi-fold gulping doors in the sports car that was never made. It is one of many photographs, drawings and sketches on display on all things Corvette design inside the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020 (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

Despite the car’s striking appearance, Duntov would come to believe his agreement to use a rotary engine was a nail in the midengine ‘Vette’s coffin.

Despite that, another midengine engineering car arrived in 1974. The XP-895 began its life with a steel body. Intrigued by the idea of lightweight materials, DeLorean asked Reynolds Aluminum to create an aluminum body. That cut the car’s weight by nearly 40%, but DeLorean pulled the plug on the project because he wanted a smaller, more European design.

That never happened, and design work on midengine ‘Vettes came to a halt for more than a decade, as GM struggled meeting the challenge of higher fuel prices.

Closing the deal

By 1986, the quest for a midengine Corvette was ready to create another giant figure, and it got one when a young designer named Tom Peters began work on the Corvette Indy concept car. Peters went on to become the chief designer of the sixth- and seventh-generation C6 and C7 Corvettes and play a key role in starting work on the 2020 C8.

With a radically short hood compared to production ‘Vettes and cutting-edge technologies including four-wheel steering, traction control and active suspension, the Indy — so named because it used a 2.65L V8 Chevy developed for Indy Car racing —  kept dreams of the midengine ‘Vette alive

The 1990 CERV III — this time the C stood for “Corporate,” not Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle — was the next step. Datini’s research convinced him it was an attempt at a production version of the Indy.

CERV III had scissors doors and was built of Kevlar, carbon fiber and aluminum. With a 650-hp twin-turbo 5.7L  V8, GM predicted a top speed of 225 mph. It debuted at the 1990 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

After that, work on the midengine Corvette went undercover for two decades. Photos of disguised prototypes at test tracks surfaced from time to time, but the car seemed to be as much myth as metal. There are whispers the Great Recession halted work on one, setting development back years.A display of Zora Arkus-Duntov known as "The Godfather of  the Corvette" at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020.

A display of Zora Arkus-Duntov known as “The Godfather of the Corvette” at the General Motors Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Friday, January, 31, 2020. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

Development of the 2020 Corvette Stingray began around eight years ago, a long time for most projects, but the blink of an eye when it’s the last chapter of a 60-year story.

Mark Phelan for Detroit Free Press


Highlights of the 2019 SEMA Show in Las Vegas

SEMA is the United Nations conference of all things aftermarket, and here’s some of the best stuff we spotted there.

1.Quintin Brothers Dodge Challenger

This 1000-hp Dodge Challenger went on a wild adventure after it arrived in Las Vegas. Vermont-based Quintin Brothers Auto & Performance had their truck and trailer stolen days before the show. Their custom Challenger was inside. Video surveillance helped track down the perp, but when Nevada state trooper Adam Whitmarsh tried to block the stolen Challenger into a parking space, the suspect rammed the Trooper’s Ford Explorer and escaped. After exiting the parking structure, the suspect smashed through a fence and drove the stolen Challenger across a nearby karting track—during a karting event. He eventually ditched the car and was later arrested. The Quintin Brothers and their Dodge Challenger arrived at the SEMA show wearing battle wounds from the wild chase.

2. Chevrolet E-10 Concept

It’s not an engine, it’s a motor. The Chevrolet E-10 concept is a 450-hp electrified C-10 pickup. Typically the only time a 1970s Chevy pickup is plugged into anything, it’s connected to a trickle charger. The E-10 has its batteries in the bed. The two electric motors seen here are called eCrate motors, a nod to the popular Chevy crate engines that can be found swapped into just about anything. GM claims the E-10 can complete a zero-to-60-mph run in about five seconds with a quarter-mile time in the high 13s. A Tesla P100D might be quicker, but it doesn’t look as cool.

3. Vibrant Performance Titanium Chair

Had Game of Thrones producers used Nissan Skylines or Toyota Supras instead of dragons as source material, this might be the Iron Throne. Vibrant Performance didn’t have to vanquish their enemies to build the thing, but they did use more than 50 pieces from their lineup of titanium exhaust products to construct what’s likely the most uncomfortable Adirondack chair on the porch. But it’s fun. Feeling exhausted? Have a seat.


4. Hyundai Veloster Grappler Concept

You’re unlikely to see a Hyundai Veloster on an off-road trail, let alone a dirt road, but this overland concept is out to change that. The Veloster Grappler concept is equipped with typical in-car camping accessories like a rear-hatch tent, solar panels, LED light bars, big all-terrain tires, and a roof basket to carry a spare. It’s still pretty low to the ground, and the tire clearance isn’t ideal for crawling, but it’s a concept. We’d pitch a tent with this thing.

5. Toyota Supra Wasabi Concept

Toyota’s Genuine Accessory Team cooked up a color for this concept that we hope will soon find its way onto a Camry. This Supra’s paint mimics wasabi paste and features white accents on the brake calipers, mirrors, stripes, and spoiler. The forged-aluminum wheels were designed at Toyota and have center caps with the original Toyota emblem. Ohlins coil-overs drop the Supra concept two inches. This was one of many Toyota Supras at the show.

6. AEV Jeep Gladiator

This Jeep Gladiator is equipped with all the proper get-dirty-quick gear. It has tough Bilstein dampers, a lifted suspension, and 37-inch tires. American Expedition Vehicles (AEV) is known for swapping big engines into off-road vehicles and then adding lift kits and other off-road accessories. They’re also responsible for the coolest parts of the Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison. This year AEV brought three green machines to show off their latest accessories.

7. 1999 Honda Civic Si Super Street Build

Was this the car that sparked the movie The Fast and the Furious in 2001? It sure looks like it. Honda brought a handful of concepts to the show in celebration of its 60th year in North America, and what better way to do it by showcasing the Civic Si Super Street magazine modified for the Civic Si Challenge in 2000. If you collected buckets of Mattel die-cast cars as a kid (or shamelessly as adults, like us), this car might look familiar.

8. Nissan Frontier Desert Runner

The current-gen Nissan Frontier might be 16 years old, but this concept proves that Nissan knows what people at SEMA want in a truck: tons of suspension, awesome off-road tires, some type of light bar, and a 600-hp 5.8-liter V-8. In the meantime, we can only hope one of these ingredients get put to use on the upcoming Frontier refresh.

9. RTR Rambler Ford Ranger Concept

The RTR Rambler Ford Ranger does everything right without going too far. Ford chose 33-inch Nitto Ridge Grappler tires with custom RTR Tech 6 wheels, because they know anything bigger than that will be unnecessary in most cases. Three LED light bars are tastefully tucked into a custom front grille to complete an almost Ranger Raptor–like appearance. A two-inch suspension lift is installed as well as heavy-duty rock sliders, which act as both a step and as extra protection against rocky terrain. It’s a simple package done well, saving the flashy stuff like wild paint for the Insta-campers.

10. 1972 Honda N600

If it looks like this 1972 Honda N600 has a motorcycle engine under the hood, it’s because it does. This oddball is powered by a Honda VFR 800-cc V-4 motorcycle engine that puts power to the rear wheels. Although the car itself predates the era of high-revving VTECs, with the bike motor installed, this is likely the only N600 with a 12,000-rpm redline. This was one of several cars Honda showcased at the SEMA show.

11. Honda Civic Si Drift Car

This is a peek under the hood of a 926-hp Honda Civic Si. The engine is turned longitudinally and transforms a front-wheel-drive coupe into a rear-wheel-drive drift-spec machine. The work was done with help from Jeanneret Racing and Olson Kustom Works.

12. Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 Prototype

We saw this Chevrolet Silverado Desert race truck back in early October, when it competed in the Laughlin Desert Classic, a 17-mile race event in Nevada near the Arizona border. It was there for “engineering development,” but we still think it’s a preview of an upcoming Silverado Z

13. Honda Rally Passport

Honda R&D in Ohio built this rally-ready Honda Passport in their spare time. It has already survived a handful of rally competitions, finishing second in its class at the Southern Ohio Forest Rally. It has had typical safety additions like a roll cage, but other than that it’s unchanged except for tires, brake pads, wheels, and skid plates. Oh, there’s also the addition of a hand-operated hydraulic brake, for epic drift action.

14. 1968 Ford Bronco

There’s been plenty of buzz lately about the upcoming Ford Bronco, which is expected to debut in early 2020. A collaboration between Jay Leno and Ford, this Bronco has a supercharged 5.2-liter V-8 from the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 and a five-speed manual transmission. The restoration maintained the simple beauty of original Bronco. The 18-inch steel wheels by Detroit Steel Wheels are a great combination of old style and modern needs. The Bronco’s Tonight Blue color would look great on a Mustang or F-150 Raptor.

15. Hyundai Veloster N Performance Concept

The Veloster N is quick, but this Veloster N Performance concept is quicker. Hyundai modified its hot hatch with carbon fiber for the front splitter, side skirts, rear diffuser, and spoiler while adding carbon fiber to each wheel’s center caps. The suspension is made up of Extreme Racing coil-overs and H&R coil springs with aluminum chassis bracing to add rigidity. Orange-accented interior bits stand out among more carbon-fiber pieces and an Alcantara dashboard.

16. SpeedKore Dodge Charger

Routed through the front fender of a 2019 Dodge Charger Pursuit is the exhaust from a 1525-hp Dodge Demon V-8. This project, put together by SpeedKore Performance Group and MagnaFlow, began as a police car. After fitting a carbon-fiber widebody kit, they turned it into something that would outrun police cars. The stock supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 was transformed into a twin-turbo engine and received an upgraded upper intake manifold designed to withstand the 26 psi of boost.

Written by: Austin Irwin, Car&Driver