When Motor Trend published spy photographs of a test mule that looks to be a mid-engine Corvette, it opened the latest chapter in a saga that has been in the making for decades—literally.
Industry rumors of a mid-engine Corvette have swirled since the ’60s, fueled, at least originally, by the Vette’s godfather himself, Zora Arkus-Duntov. For as long as he was involved with the Corvette program, Duntov strove to make the Corvette worthy of competing with the best sports cars in the world. That’s why he pushed to get a V-8 engine in the car for 1955, why he so often butted heads with design chief Bill Mitchell over styling features that he felt were unnecessary—notably the 1963 split rear window—and why he wanted to improve the Vette’s handling by locating the engine’s mass behind the driver.
Duntov was a gifted engineer, but he was also a shrewd marketer. Unlike so many future automotive products that are developed in total secrecy, prototype and concept mid-motor Vettes popped up regularly, especially during the 1970s, keeping the topic top-of-mind with the public. Car magazine editors fed the rumor mill by frequently putting those cars, or drawings of imagined prototypes, on their covers. We’ve rounded up some of the highlight mid-engine Vette models here for a historical perspective on the current mule’s roots.
GM recently trademarked the name “Zora” for use on a future automobile. If the mid-engine Vette did finally see production, naming it for the engineer who so badly wanted this drivetrain layout for his sports car would be the perfect homage.
1959-’60 CERV I: Ground Zero for all mid-engine Corvette development was this single-seat Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle Duntov developed between 1959 and 1960. Its 283ci, 350hp fuel-injected V-8 was mounted aft of the cockpit in the car’s chrome-moly tube frame, which also was fitted with an independent rear suspension—which paved the way for the C2’s IRS. CERV I was no show car; Duntov vigorously drove it whenever he could, including doing exhibition laps at the 1960 U.S. Grand Prix.
1963-’64 CERV II: Duntov followed CERV I with this lightweight, AWD engineering marvel that he hoped would challenge Ford’s GT40 program. CERV II featured a 377ci fuel-injected small-block that put out around 500 hp and sent the car from 0 to 60 in under 3 seconds and to a top speed in excess of 200 mph. But Chevy pulled the plug on all racing efforts before Duntov could realize his racing dream team. CERV II was later fitted with an alloy 427-inch ZL1 engine and used to test tires; it was in this trim that Motor Trend tested the car for its Nov. ’70 issue.
1967-’68 Astro II: Originally code-named XP-880, this concept hung a L36 427 motor ahead of a Pontiac (!) transaxle and rolled on a steel frame with off-the-shelf Camaro and Corvette suspension components. The car was dressed up for auto show duty and dubbed Astro II before it debuted at the New York auto show in 1968.
1969 XP-882: Chevrolet surprised everyone—especially Ford and American Motors—when Duntov’s XP-882 mid-engine Corvette concept stole the thunder away from the DeTomaso Pantera and AMX/3 at the 1970 New York auto show. The car had been under development for about a year, but when Duntov learned that cross-town rivals had mid-motor cars slated for the NY show, he gussied up the prototype for display. Two XP-882s were built and the design came oh so close to production—with a big-block engine, no less—before GM brass was sidetracked with the idea of putting rotary engines in the Vette (see below).
1973 XP-892: Twenty years after spearheading the development of the small-block V-8, Ed Cole wanted to close out his career at GM by engineering another big shift in powerplants for Chevrolet. He put his efforts behind the Wankel rotary, figuring the compact, powerful engine could be used in a number of vehicle platforms, including the Corvette. Multiple rotary-powered Vette prototypes were built, including XP-892. It was small for a Corvette, about the size of a Ferrari Dino, with a body designed by Pininfarina and powered by a transverse-mounted two-rotor Wankel mated to an automatic transaxle.
1973 Four-Rotor Corvette: While the two-rotor XP-892 was under development, Duntov took one of the XP-882 concept chassis, which had become a developmental mule, and (reluctantly, as he wasn’t a fan of the rotary) commissioned a four-rotor powerplant for the car. It was essentially two two-rotor motors hooked together, and capable of producing upwards of 370 hp. Bill Mitchell’s designers sculpted a gorgeous body for the car, but it, like the two-rotor concept, was stillborn when Cole gave up on his rotary dream in the mid ’70s.
1973 XP-895/Reynolds Aluminum Car: John DeLorean had Mitchell’s designers draft a new body for the remaining XP-882 concept, and the result was the XP-895, a design that looked something like the two-rotor XP-892 but with a muscular, flared body enveloping a four-rotor engine. Trouble was, the steel prototype wound up weighing more than the current Vette. DeLorean then turned to Reynolds Aluminum to see if it could do better. Reynolds duplicated the XP-895’s design in alloy, shaving more than 400 pounds off the car and powering it with a Chevy 454 V-8. But the cost of assembling the car in aluminum prohibited the concept from going any further.
1976 Aerovette: Duntov’s Four-Rotor concept didn’t die; it was reborn a few years later as the Aerovette. Now powered by a 400-inch small-block, the Aerovette hit the show circuit, while back in Detroit it proved popular enough with GM brass that development progressed on a production version. (Our lead photo for this story shows the Aerovette’s final body shape rendered in clay.) In fact, this could have been the C4, except Dave McLellan, who replaced Duntov at the top of the Corvette team when Duntov retired, gave the go-ahead instead to a more conventional front-engine/rear-drive design.
“1991” LT-5: This isn’t a concept per se, but wishful thinking on the media’s part. In 1987 word was leaking about a super Corvette on the way, with an LT-5 V-8 that would feature alloy construction, four valves per cylinder, and dual overhead cams, and produce enough horsepower to propel the car to 60 mph in under 4 seconds. Some of those details—of what would be the ZR-1—Motor Trend got right in its Oct. 1987 issue. What it missed was the drivetrain layout. The magazine predicted the engine would be “installed amidships in the east-west position.”