Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Push Backwards: The Chevrolet Corvette's Long Path to Mid-Engine Production (Part 1)

Photo Credit: Chevrolet


On April 11th of 2019, the sports car world was mesmerized by a sight roaming the roads of New York City. A camouflaged version of the upcoming 2020 Corvette teased what would be one of the boldest iterations of the sports car seen the vehicle’s nearly 67-year history.

For 2020, the Chevrolet Corvette will operate with an engine mounted behind the driver and passenger for the first time. The Corvette’s retention of a front engine had been viewed as a personality trait for the American performance machine Opening new possibilities in aerodynamics and handling, the notion of a Corvette using this powertrain layout has actually been debated for decades. As the new car debuts on July 18th of 2019, the moment marks the conclusion of a historic battle within General Motors and Chevrolet dating back to the early days of the Corvette taking place with many forms.

The first seeds of a mid-engined Chevrolet Corvette were planted in 1960 through the creation of a racing/research car. The CERV I or Chevrolet Experimental Research Vehicle I was a single-seat race car that was fashioned by a team led by a man renowned as the father of the Corvette Zora Arkus-Duntov. Duntov spearheaded the Chevrolet sports car’s evolution from its initial presence as a charming eclectic yet underpowered roadster to a true performance vehicle by drawing on his hot rodding passion and than-modern engineering. At the time of the CERV I, Zora Arkus-Duntov saw the potential of a rear mid-engined vehicle and would spend a great amount of his energy convincing General Motors top executives in the prospect for the Corvette.



Photo Credit: Chevrolet


Envisioned as a hill climbing competitor, the CERV I was shaped as a lightweight open wheel machine utilized chassis components previously used in the construction of the 1957 Corvette SS race car and was propelled through a fuel-injected, all-aluminum V-8 engine. Resembling an Indy Car or Formula 1 racer, the CERV I recorded a lap speed of 167 miles per hour around the Daytona International Speedway and was also modified to achieve an average speed of 206 miles per hour. Duntov himself was behind the wheel of the CERV I in the latter run obtained in 1964 at General Motors’ high speed test track in Milford, Michigan. Intended as a one-off race car concept, the CERV I’s rear suspension design would prove helpful with the engineering of the second-generation Corvette.

Although the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray would retain a front ahead of its passenger compartment, sketches existed of a rear-engined prior to the introduction of the second-generation version of the American sports car. The CERV I as well as the potential seen early on with the unconventional rear-engined Corvair allowed the minds of engineers and designers to conceive radical alternatives. At the same time the Corvette Sting Ray was on showroom floors, the CERV II competition race car concept was developed as continuation of the CERV I. Propelled through a 377 cubic-inch eight-cylinder engine, the Chevrolet research vehicle reached a top speed of 200 miles per hour and could accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in an estimated 2.8 seconds. The CERV II was created as an open-cockpit vehicle but a closed-cockpit version of the concept car was also sketched. While the car was not involved in competitive events, the CERV II’s lightweight aluminum chassis would be adapted by Jim Hall’s Chaparral Cars for sports car racing.


Photo Credit: Chevrolet



In 1964, a rear-engined XP-819 concept car was created as a one-off test mule. Wearing a stunning design created by legendary Larry Shinoda (the visionary behind the Mako Shark show car, Ford Mustang Boss 302 and also an influencer in the Jeep Grand Cherokee), the XP-819 handled poorly due to its considerable rear weight bias. Intended to be destroyed (a practice auto companies commonly use after concept cars outlive their usefulness), the XP-819 was saved when NASCAR and auto racing mechanical wizard Smokey Yunick requested the vehicle as part of an effort to creating his own rear-engined Indy Car. The chassis of the car has survived to this day.

Through the 1960s, the rear mid-engined sports car was becoming a more tempting layout. This was particularly the case when corporate rival Ford developed the Ferrari-fighting GT40 that would succeed conquer Le Mans through the latter part of the decade. At Chevrolet, there were strong possibilities that the third-generation Corvette was going to be a rear mid-engined vehicle with full-scale mock-ups actually assembled by Zora Arkus-Duntov and the engineering team. Duntov was highly motivated in the push towards the idea but ultimately Chevrolet executives chose a vehicle based on Bill Mitchell’s Mako Shark concept.


Freehand sketch based on mock-up images of a proposed mid-engined Corvette. Drawn by Chris Nagy 



In 1968, Chevrolet instead introduced a C3 Corvette using Mako Shark II styling that again planted the engine ahead of the driver. A major stumbling block with new drivetrain layout at the time was the expense of retooling. The third-generation version of the Corvette would ultimately establish a cornerstone as seeing the American sports car as a more affordable alternative to other exotic, high-performance machines that also translated to greater profitability with unit sales. The C3 body style would be the most produced version of the Corvette. It’s also a possibility that the poor publicity generated by the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair might have contributed to resistance of a production-based rear mid-engined Corvette.

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