In No. 240 of this series we covered Corvette engineering’s last excursion into a possible mid-engine Corvette: the 1990 CERV III. The CERV III was an impressive effort and a simplified version would have made an interesting C5. Imagine a Z06 or C5-R based on the CERV III. Hmmm. The rapid advancement of the C5, C6 and C7 Z06, and the C6 ZR1 shows that Corvette engineers are world class. Will Chevrolet follow up with a Z06 version of the C8? We’ll see.
So, while we’re waiting for January 2018 and the debut of the C8, let’s take a look at Chevrolet’s first mid-engine concept Corvette: the 1960 CERV I. This was Zora Arkus-Duntov’s second Corvette child, the first being the 1957 Corvette SS. Although Duntov was responsible for engineering production Corvettes, he often used Corvettes as a cover for his own racing ambitions, and customers were the beneficiaries of his racing passion.
The seeds of the CERV I were planted after the 1957 Sebring Corvette SS experience. The magnesium-bodied car turned out to be an “oven” for driver John Fitch, as magnesium is an excellent conductor of heat. The beautiful Corvette SS so embarrassed GM’s brass that the project was quickly shut down. But Duntov would always look at situations and ask, “What lessons have we learned here?” Zora’s answer to the Corvette SS experience was, “Put the engine behind the driver.” To test that conclusion, he needed an R&D vehicle.
During Duntov’s formative years in the 1930s, almost all cutting-edge European race cars used the mid-engine design, so mid-engine was the way to go in Zora’s thinking. Work began in 1959 just as the Corvair was about to go to market, and Duntov had his eye on the Corvair’s transaxle and independent rear suspension. Had the 1957 Q-Corvette become a reality, Corvettes would have had a transaxle long before 1997.
R&D vehicles are built to test and compare configurations. Initially called the “R Car,” the CERV I was loosely built to the size standards of a 1960 Indy car. The senior engineers on the project were Zora Arkus-Duntov, Harold Krieger and Walt Zetye. Here are the basic dimensions: wheelbase, 96 inches; front and rear track, 56 inches; maximum body width, 52 inches and length, 172 inches. Since a small-block Chevy engine was too large for Indy competition, the next-best arena for comparison was the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. After this determination, the car was called The Hillclimber.
The tube frame was made from chrome-moly tubing and weighed just 125 pounds. The front suspension was the basic setup used on the 1957 Corvette SS and used stamped-steel A-arms, coil springs, shocks and a stabilizer bar. The rear suspension was an independent multilink type with variable-rate springs and double-acting shocks. The steering was recirculation ball-type with a quick 12:1-ratio steering box and a final ratio of 13.5:1. Drum brakes were used on the front and rear, 11x2.5-inch on the front and 11x2-inch on the back. All of the brake drums were finned aluminum with Delco-Moraine sintered iron linings. The front brakes were mounted behind the wheels and the rear brakes were inboard-mounted.
Taking more lessons from the Corvette SS, the rear differential was a modified version of a Halibrand quick-change unit with gearing available from 2.63:1 to 4.80:1. Wheels were cast magnesium alloy measuring 15x5.5 and shod with Firestone racing tires. Wheels of 15-, 16-, 17- and 18-inch diameter with widths of 5.5, 6 and 8 inches were experimented with. The large Indy-style wheels and tires were added for tire testing in the early ’70s.
Over 12 years of use, CERV I had seven unique engines, but the first go-around was very ambitious. A super-lightweight 283-cid, 350-pound all-aluminum SBC engine was built. The block was cast using a high-silicone aluminum alloy that did not need steel piston sleeves and aluminum was used for the water pump, cylinder heads, flywheel, clutch pressure plate and starter motor. The clutch housing and the fuel-injection manifold were made of magnesium. The rest of the engine was a stock 1961 315-horsepower fuelie. The exhaust headers were a prehistoric “long-tube” design with 40-inch runner tubes and a large diameter, long collector. On the dyno, the engine pulled 352 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, that’s 1.25 hp per/cubic-inch; very impressive for 1960.
Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine designed the fiberglass body for minimal wind resistance. The nose had inlets to duct air to the oil pan and also housed an aluminum radiator that vented hot air out the top. The windscreen kept hot air from entering the cockpit. The completed body weighed just 80 pounds and went through several variations over the years. The bottom of the car was enclosed and each side had a 10-gallon fuel cell. Weighing just 1,450 pounds, and with 60 percent weight-bias on the rear wheels, The Hillclimber was perfect for a Pikes Peak run.
In September 1960, painted white with blue center stripes and fitted with special-compound Firestone Town and Country tires, The Hillclimber was shipped to Pikes Peak for testing. Oddly, when Duntov made his 60-some runs up the hill there were no officials timing the car and Zora felt that the car wasn’t performing well. Later, after returning to Detroit they learned that their times were actually very good.
With initial testing completed, The Hillclimber was ready for its official debut at the 3.3-mile Riverside, California, racetrack that was hosting the 1960 L.A. Grand Prix. But now, The Hillclimber had a new name, coined by engineer Walt Mackenzie: Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle, “CERV” for short. Zora got in a few demo hot laps, but the real street cred came when champion drivers Dan Gurney and Sterling Moss drove the undeveloped race car to lap times of 2:04—a comparable time to the fastest cars of the day on the Riverside track. Moss held the track record at 1:54.9 with his 2.5-liter Lotus Climax. So, the CERV wasn’t too much off the record, although its 283-cid (4.63-liter) engine was almost double that of Moss’ Lotus. After the CERV’s debut, the car pretty much went back to the R&D department for the next 12 years.
In 1960, NASCAR’s Bill France issued a $10,000 challenge to the first car that could lap the Daytona track at 180 mph. Duntov wanted that feather in CERV’s cap so in January 1962 he took a team to Daytona’s 2.5-mile banked track. After lots of testing, the best the CERV I could muster was 167 mph.
More power was needed, so Duntov tried some interesting combos. One setup used a GMC 4-53 supercharger with two downdraft Rochester injection-metering units that made 420 horsepower. Another setup used two TRW exhaust-driven blowers with a maximum boost of 17 psi and 8.5:1 compression that yielded 500 hp and 6,000 rpm. Then in 1964, one of the all-aluminum 377-cid Grand Sport engines with a cross-ram Hilborn-injection setup was installed into the CERV I. With Duntov at the wheel at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds facility, the CERV I was clocked at 206 mph! In the early 1970s, the nose was modified to include fairings to help cover the exposed front suspension and large, Indy car-size knockoff wheels and tires were installed. Also, the front drum brakes were replaced with discs.
By 1972, the CERV I had outlived its usefulness and it was time for the crusher. But when Zora learned of the CERV I’s fate he convinced GM’s brass to loan the car to the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa, California. A few years later, much to the objection of Duntov and GM, the Cunningham Museum sold the car (as part of the entire 71-car collection) to the Miles Collier Museum. The next owner was ProTeam Corvette and later, in 1997, Mike Yager bought the car to add to his “MY GARAGE” collection.
Mike is philosophical about cars. In the summer of 2015, after deciding it was time to sell the CERV I, Mike had an “Adoption Party” on August 1, where he said “owners of any car are simply caretakers until the car moves on to other hands.” CERV I went on-the-block at the RM Sotheby’s Monterey auction later that month, but was a “no sale.”
Finally, in January 2017, at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction the hammer came down on the CERV I. “SOLD. For $1,320,000!” The buyer was General Motors. It cost them over a million dollars to get back a car they never should have parted with in the first place. The CERV I’s new and probably permanent home is the GM Heritage Center. Welcome home, son.
K. Scott Teeters has been a contributing artist and writer with Vette magazine since 1976 when the magazine was titled Vette Quarterly. Scott’s Corvette art can be seen at www.illustratedcorvetteseries.com. His muscle car and nostalgia drag racing art can be found at www.precision-illustration.com.
Illustrations by the Author