April 11, 2019 was a dark day for many fans Chevrolet Corvettetheir worst fears come true when General Motorcycles confirms an open and poorly kept secret – that the all-new eighth generation Corvette will receive an engine transplant, the V8 engine found under the muzzle of the first seven generations was surgically removed and inserted behind the driver. American sports cars, it seems, will soon grow.
Australia will also join the Corvette party, the first time GM has built its iconic sports car for the right-hand drive market. After a false start (GM’s decision to close Holden completely at the end of 2020 put the future of the RHD Corvette in doubt) Australians are finally starting to see sports cars born and raised in the US on our roads earlier this year.
Those concerned that moving the engine from front to center would sterilize what has, for seven generations and nearly 70 years, become an automotive and cultural icon, need not worry. The new mid-engine Corvette is an impressively designed and executed sports car, more like a supercar in appearance and performance than the ‘Vette’ has ever seen.
But, as a curse as the mid-engine Corvette to some, and perhaps even many, nameplate purists, have some in General Motors management their way, the switch will happen much, much earlier.
Plans for the mid-engine ‘Vette were being considered in the early 1960s. Inspired by what is happening in Europe – the Lamborghini Miura has destroyed the company by cramming a V12 in the center of the ship – renowned Corvette engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov is full of possibilities.
Arkus-Duntov, together with GM design legend Larry Shinoda, created what would be the first of several attempts to move the ‘Vette engine behind the driver, the Astro II, internally codenamed the Chevrolet XP-880.
Reminiscing about the European supercars of the day, with its low stance and dramatic curves, the Astro II was still a dashing American.
Under the engine canopy behind the driver, lives the GM 427c.i. (7.0-liter) V8, pumps out 400hp (298kW) and is mated to a two-speed automatic transmission stolen from the Pontiac Tempest. Drive is sent to the rear wheels. However, despite the awe-inspiring crowds at the auto show, any plans to push the Astro II into production were immediately scrapped.
But that’s not the end of the mid-engine Corvette story. Undeterred, Arkus-Duntov continued to push his vision and in 1968 began work on the XP-882. Two prototypes were built, both featuring a small block of Chev V8 crammed right in front of the rear axle.
Sleek, low and light (the XP-882 weighs about 317kg lighter than the production ‘Vette of the day), Chevy’s sales and engineering team went crazy over the concept, seeing a car that could take on Europeans at their own game.
But then Chev general manager John DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean) terminated the project in mid-1969. Cost rationalization was the way DeLorean had to go and, under its tutelage, the new Corvette would be built on the same platform as the Chev Camaro.
However, that didn’t stop Arkus-Duntov and his team from salvaging something of the project, the XP-882 found new life as a show car, debuting at the 1970 New York auto show. The crowd, as they say, went wild.
Things change quickly. Perhaps buoyed by the acceptance of the XP-882 concept that was received in New York, DeLorean reversed its initial decision to land the project, instead giving the go-ahead to develop a production version of the mid-engine beauty.
But, it seems not everyone at GM agrees. GM president Ed Cole wanted the Corvette to ditch its V8 engine altogether, commissioning the Arkus-Duntov instead to create a high-performance swivel version of the American sports car. The crowd became as silent as the twin, four-rotor engine making the 275kW scream and howl in full nos.
Scheduled to debut at the Paris motor show in 1973, Chev’s design and engineering team headed to town. Two Wankel twin-rotor engines were found in the center of the ship with a capacity of 585c.i. (9.6 liters) in total and can, according to GM engine designer Gib Hufstader, be tuned to produce 358kW.
The design team, meanwhile, were tasked with making the ‘four-rotor Vette as slick as possible in the air. Led by Hank Haga and Jerry Palmer, the team ditched the C3-generation Kammback design at the rear in favor of a sleeker teardrop shape.
Up front, the four-rotor Corvette looks very much like the C3 generation back then, although the windshield now has a 72-degree tilt.
On the sides, the large air intakes ensure the Wankel engine receives plenty of cooling while the 1970s-era gullwing doors must be opened and opened for easy entry into the leather and suede cabin.
For a while in the early 1970s, it looked like the Four-Rotor’ Vette was headed for the St. Louis, Missouri, production line, which would make it the first mid-engine production Corvette. But the Arab oil crisis and economic recession that threatened to derail GM’s plans and the Corvette Four-Rotor were relegated to a closet at GM HQ labeled ‘a great idea at the wrong time’.
But the idea for a mid-engine Corvette wasn’t completely dead. Not yet.
In 1974, GM styling boss Bill Mitchell revived the idea of an American sports car that would become a European with a mid-engine layout. He cleaned up the Four-Rotor concept and told his team to ditch the Wankel engine in favor of some traditional Chevy iron. A 400.ci. (6.6 liters) The Chev V8 unit found its way into the center of the sleek concept and now dubbed the ‘Aerovette’ soon became the darling of the world auto show.
But, more than just a mid-engine concept designed to show what could be, the Aerovette did receive the green light with production slated to begin in 1980. But, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
With Mitchell recently retiring, and with Corvette’s father Arkus-Duntov having his hat off, it’s up to Dave McLellan, now GM’s chief engineering officer to take the Aerovette baton and run.
A staunch traditionalist with one eye on finances, Mitchell closed the project and instead focused his team’s energies on a more conventional replacement for the Corvette C3. And that means sticking the engine in front.
In 1984, the C4 generation Corvette was launched and the mid-engine Corvette dream had to wait another 36 years.