By on March 17, 2010

The history of mid-engined Corvette concepts is almost as old as the car itself, but even more colorful. Once the performance and racing potential of the ‘Vette was unleashed by its father, Zora Arkus Duntov, ambitious developments intended for the race track, Futurama, or the front pages of buff books speculating about the coming mid-engined production Corvette have never ended.

Duntov is shown here, proudly posing with his 1959 CERV (Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle) I, clearly a racing-oriented concept intended to test advanced designs and components for future use. The CERV’s independent rear suspension was adapted to the 1963 Corvette. It’s 350 hp 283 CI V8 featured aluminum block and heads, and fuel injection. A grand start to a long series of exciting Corvettes, even if they never made it into production.

There’s some question about the body on this CERV II from 1963-1964 (above), because there are pictures (very poor quality) of an earlier and different looking design. The CERV II was intended to be a competition car, and it had formidable performance from its revolutionary four wheel drive system. It was unusual, to say the least, with a Powerglide automatic on both ends of the 377 CI advanced V8, each one feeding its respective axle. It could top 200 mph, and knock of the zero to sixty in 2.8 seconds. In 1970, the CERV II had a 427 ZL-1 engine installed for tires tests. This radical concept is perhaps Duntov’s greatest achievement, heralding four-wheel drive in racing cars, and clearly influenced the Chaparral.

It’s a little sketchy as to what exactly defines a Corvette concept or not. The CERVs weren’t actually called Corvettes, nor was this ultra-low Astro 1 from 1968. But all the mid-engined concepts were in some related to the Corvette idea, this one exploring the outer limits of aerodynamic drag reduction for a sports car, as well as alternative power plants. The Astro 1 featured a modified Corvair flat six, making 240 hp.

The 1968 Astro II (XP-880) was the first real attempt to envision (and start rumors of) a mid-engined production Corvette.  Chevrolet was now frantically following Ford, who had set the racing car world on its ear with the GT-40, of which a street version was available as the Mark III. The Astro II was cobbled together quickly, using the Tempest-sourced two-speed transaxle. That alone raised questions as to how serious Chevrolet really was, or if this was just ther first of numerous exercises in arousal without fulfillment.

The power struggles over the Corvette (as well as everything else) at GM were well known. Larry Shinoda had commissioned the Astro II, and was more worried about its looks and image. Zora Arkus Duntov didn’t buy into the modest two-speed Tempest transaxle in the least, and set about building his own answer to the mid-engined problem, the XP-882 of 1970 (above). He mated a Chevrolet 454 V8 with the Toronado’s FWD transaxle, which found a home under the louvered slats of this slightly cobbled-up but wicked-looking concept. It might have been one of Duntov’s rare missteps, as the whole powertrain weighed almost a thousand pounds. Ouch! So much for all those studies in lightweight alloy engines. But a lightweight engine solution was beckoning, just across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the 454/Toro combination went on to have a useful life in GM’s motorhome.

GM liked extremes, and the jump from the monster XP-882 to the diminutive XP-897 2-rotor concept (above) certainly defined that. GM had signed a licensing agreement to build Wankel rotary engines, and the  1973 XP-897 was the first attempt to show off its potential. Unfortunately, it didn’t get the blood boiling too much, despite the handsome Pinifarina-built body.  The little mill cranked out some 180-250 hp, but it was emissions and efficiency concerns that ultimately killed GM’s rotary program.

If the cute little 2-Rotor was wasn’t up to true Corvette status, then Duntov had the solution: mate two of the 292 cid spinners into one 585 cubic inch rotary monster, and reuse the Toronado transaxle and platform of the failed XP-882. But this time there was serious support for this to be a true Corvette replacement: GM would trump the world with the first production high-performance rotary sports car. Styling guru Bill Mitchel was personally involved, as were GM President Ed Cole and Sales exec Joe Pike. This was going to be the real thing! Seriously!

The early seventies were heady times for the experimental Corvette development group, with concepts flying out left and right. The XP-895 was an experiment in using aluminum extensively, although heavily based on the 2-Rotor. But it used a conventional (presumably aluminum) 400 cid V8, and weighed some 400 lbs less than its steel donor. But plain old cast-iron and fiberglass production Corvettes were flying out the dealers’ doors, so there was little incentive to rock the boat.

In 1986, the Indy Concept was intended to piggy-back on Chevy’s Indy-engine program, although not as in actually use that 2.65 turbocharged demon, but in the classic halo-car way.  It used a 32 valve 5.7 liter engine, and showcased GM’s styling themes of the times, evoking the Aurora in particular.

The Indy concept was developed into the CERV III of 1990, designed to be (another) world-class top-level sports car, but this one was taken towards being more production ready (or am I just stirring up old rumors?). It’s 650 hp twin-turbo LT-5 engine left little doubt as to its capabilities. The car was built by Lotus, using carbon fiber extensively. Final cost estimates to produce it: $400k. Never mind; once again.

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12 Comments on “An Illustrated History Of Mid-Engined Corvette Concepts...”

  • avatar
    crash sled

    You may have forgotten one. Urban legend has it that Fiero was originally a Corvette prototype.

    • 0 avatar

      Just urban legend. Pontiac did want to be truly the excitement division. The potential of competition with the Corvette combined with GM not wanting to spend any damn money on the program, kept the Fiero neutered till nearly the end.

      I do remember Car & Driver talking about how at the end of Camaro/Firebird production in 2002, trying to figure out why anyone would by a Corvette when they felt that the F-body offered 98% of the performance at 50% of the price.

    • 0 avatar

      Just wrote this in the other article, but I believe the response they got was something like “Corvette buyers don’t value-shop for Camaros.” Base price for a 2002 Corvette was $43k; the Camaro SS was selling up over $30k, and to switch nouns in an MT article comparing an SS to an SVT Cobra, “The SS makes speed; the Vette handles it.”

    • 0 avatar

      Not hardly, in fact I think the Fiero design was sold to GM management as a commuter car, and later on a halfhearted effort was made to make it into a sports car (showing that GM learned absolutely nothing from the Corvair). The real Pontiac Vette-alternative was the Banshee concept. Having just seen the Banshee in person at Amelia, I can say that it is indeed a beautiful design but also there is no way GM could have made the business case for producing it and the Mako Shark Corvette at the same time.

      Apparently the Cadillac 4.5 or 4.9 liter aluminum V8 (1988-92) is an easy swap and with a few other mods turns a Fiero into quite a nice car. Too bad GM didn’t think of that.

    • 0 avatar

      Supercharged 3800 fits well too. I first heard about the V8 powered Fiero’s in Hot Rod Magazine, they compared it to a skateboard with a 20hp Brigs and Stratton engine on it.

  • avatar

    Wow! I never saw any of these pictures. Thank you for the history of GM’s mid-engine experiments.

  • avatar

    Some of those concept cars have survived. I photographed the Astro II at the National Corvette Museum last summer – it’s got a fantastic shape.

  • avatar

    The Halibrands on that 59 CERV are probably worth more than the car.

  • avatar


    Excellent post, thanks. Shows what GM could do when it had the drive, engineering creativity (Zora Duntov) and determination. Also hints at Duntov’s love of the big inch engines; he was as much behind the development of the “rat” motor at Chevrolet as anyone was, inspite of its less than optimal handling results in the Vette.

  • avatar

    A great post for anyone who blurts out “A mid-engine Corvette? Unthinkable blasphemy!” The Corvette name will survive conversion…the heritage is there, if only in concept form. But before ’53, ask someone what a Corvette was, they’d say a small, maneuverable, lightly armed warship. How far it’s come.

    FWIW, I’d love to see a functional CERV II do battle with a ZR1 on the track.

  • avatar

    I read some where Duntov used to raced in a RS 550 Porsche and won her in Le mans ( from wikipedia )prior to join GM.

    The Oil Embargo killed the Rotor Vette.

    OT wonder if Merc had any plans to build the C111 rotor car then?
    If Merc would build C111 now I bet the line up won’t be short either.

    • 0 avatar

      He raced several cars at LeMans. IIRC, he had 2 or 3 class wins, and drove a Porsche and something else. Don’t recall what.

      He was officially prohibited from racing as GM wanted to keep their engineers alive.

      IIRC, he did some racing anyway.

      C111 was a concept/record car. Woulda bene neat to see it produced, but back then we didn’t have income distribution screwed up to the point where there was a huge market for supercars.

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