As far back as the debut of the third-generation Corvette in 1968, headlines have screamed, "Next Corvette to be Mid-Engine!" or "Next Corvette to be Four-Wheel Drive!"
But what many didn't realize is that the speculation that something radical was coming from General Motors during the late '60s was not far from the truth. In fact, The General was one small step away from creating a Ferrari 248 SP and Ford GT40-fighting racing program based around a project known as Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle II, or CERV II. While that didn't happen, today the CERV II is hailed as a pioneering vehicle that became intertwined with Corvette development during the height of the muscle car era.
Designed by Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine and engineered by the "Father of the Corvette" Zora Arkus-Duntov, CERV II employed the first-known operating example of torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. It was used as a tool in the development of the Corvette Grand Sport 377 V-8 and was later upgraded by Arkus-Duntov with an all-aluminum, 377 cubic-inch ZL1 engine.
Arkus-Duntov became interested in creating a high-performance four-wheel drive car after he witnessed the incredible straight-line performance of the Bugatti T53 which is "integral drive". But he also noticed the car's struggle with maneuvering.
He wrote in a 1964 memo, "The problem of force transmission to the ground is almost always present in design and operation of a racing car, but in the mid-30s with 650hp and under 2,000 lbs. running weight...this was a real problem. However, four wheel drives visualized at that time did not promise to be satisfactory and one case of execution did not meet with success."
CERV I was Duntov's attempt to answer this problem. The first example was completed in 1960 with the intent of competing in open-wheel racing. In 1961, Duntov began work on its successor, a car that would in his words " incorporate all the features necessary to make it a successful contender, not only in sprints but in such long distance events as Le Mans and Sebring." Six cars were planned, originally designated the G.S. 2/3, "to permit selective usage as 2-wheel drive (G.S. 2) [or] 4-wheel drive (G.S. 3)."
Knowing that the G.S. 2/3 would be four-wheel drive and house a 377 cubic-inch motor, Duntov and members of the original CERV I team (Walt Zetye, Ernie Lumus, Bob Kethmann, Larry Shinoda, and Tony Lapine) got to work with a goal of 1,400 pounds in mind. The initial configuration actually managed to land in that ballpark through the use of titanium hubs, connecting rods, valves, and exhaust manifold. An 11-inch Powerglide torque converter and clutchless two-speed manual gearbox reside in the rear while a driveshaft in place of a harmonic balancer extends to another 10-inch Powerglide torque converter up front with another semi-automatic transmission. Chevrolet tried desperately through numerous torque split ratios and gears for 35% power delivered to the front end at low speed and 40% at high speed.
In the spring of 1964, General Motors told Duntov that a racing program along the lines of what Ford had embarked upon with its GT40 program was off the table. The car was repurposed as CERV II and according to RM Auctions, he noted that, "We feel that in case we are not permitted to go racing, we should obtain permission to demonstrate it...It will show that although GM is not in racing, its engineering is more imaginative and more advanced than anyone else [sic]."
Since CERV II surfaced in the same timeframe as the Corvette Grand Sport and Z06, demonstrations were limited. It served as a test vehicle of sorts for future exotic Corvette ideas. CERV II saw action in 1964, 1968, 1969 and 1970, including Firestone and Goodyear tire tests, aerodynamic research, as well as top speed testing at GM's Milford Proving Grounds, where it achieved up to 1.19 gs in steady state cornering.
In 1969, an all-aluminum 427 ZL1 V-8 was tested in the CERV II which Duntov deemed capable of 700 horsepower. He theorized the car was capable of breaking Mark Donohue's 221.160 mph closed-course speed record, but he never got a chance to test its limits. As it exists today, power has been conservatively estimated around 550 horses with a weight of 1,848 pounds. It was tested one last time in 1970 before being banished to storage in 1974 with a ZL1, a spare, fuel-injected 377 with dual ignition, a third unspecified SOHC fuel-injected engine, multiple boxes of spare parts, and 18 unique Haibrand CERV II knockoff wheels. (Sadly, those components have all since disappeared). Eventually, CERV II was donated to the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa, California. It was displayed there for ten years and was shown from time to time and even allowed to stretch its legs.
When the museum closed its doors in 1986, Miles Collier, Jr. bought the entire collection and sold CERV II to John Moores, who eventually donated the car to the Scripps Research Institute. Then, in 2001, to benefit SRI's medical programs, it was sold to its present owner.
Being that the entire car was hand-fabricated, it is assumed that the car has the same parts it did after its final test runs in 1970. The car is clear of any significant damage and the blue and white paint appears to be original from 1964 according to its caretaker. Minor inconsistencies such as later spark plug wires (possibly from its Briggs Cunningham era) have been rectified and it is almost entirely in correct period configuration.
Because of the irreplaceable mechanical components which constitute CERV II, its use has been limited in recent years, but it is operational and demonstrates strong performance. Lack of clutch and radiator fans make driving CERV II a complex experience, with a type of adrenaline rush that cannot be easily reproduced.
CERV II will cross the block on November 21 at the RM Auctions and Sotheby's Art of the Automobile auction in New York City following a three day exhibition. Pre-sale estimates have been set around $1.3 to $1.8 million.
For more information, click here and stay tuned to www.Vetteweb.com for an update after the gavel falls!