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After decades of dreaming, a mid-engine Corvette is reality

Casey Williams, Tribune News Service on

Published in Business News

On July 18, Chevrolet will launch the eighth generation of its iconic sports car -- what it calls the "first-ever mid-engine Corvette." Not true.

While the "C8" Corvette will be the first mid-engine version to reach showrooms, it is not the first to be designed, engineered or even green-lighted for production since the model's 1953 launch. So, why is it happening now?

"It brings the Vette closer to exotic cars -- the Ford GT is an easy comparison," said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds. "It's GM's time to shine with a technology showcase. Performance will be extremely impressive, but the price point, expected to be over $100,000, will give Chevrolet more room to put in technology."

When Tesla sedans out-run your corporate flagship, it's time for revolution, but if base Corvettes rise from today's $55,900, it could make the car prohibitively expensive for enthusiasts.

"People who aspire to own a Corvette could be slightly left out," Caldwell said. "It gives opportunity to Camaro, but there could also be something between Camaro and the mid-engine Corvette. The new car is definitely going to attract a different audience."

Almost as long as there have been Corvettes, there have been mid-engine concepts percolating in the shadows. Chevrolet showed the CERV II in 1964 with a 550 horsepower V-8 engine and all-wheel-drive. The curvaceous XP-880 Astro II followed in 1968 with a 390 horsepower V-8. Styling expressed clear lineage to contemporary Corvettes, but GM management rejected it too. Mid-engine cars were deemed too expensive to build, especially when front-engine Corvettes were selling well.

 

One of the more notable mid-engine Corvette concepts was the XP-882 that debuted at the 1970 New York Auto Show with a 400 cubic-inch V-8, beefy styling, and positive crowd response. GM then pushed further with the aluminum-bodied 1972 XP-895 and compact 1973 XP-897GT that ran with a two-rotor Wankel engine. Strong sales of the third generation C3 precluded both, but development of the C4 was underway.

That car was almost a silver gull-wing exotic that looked like a Stingray had relations with a DeLorean. It debuted in 1973 as the "Four-Rotor Corvette" powered by connected Wankel rotary engines, but became the "Aerovette" in 1976 when a traditional V-8 engine was transplanted.

In an interview with the auto editors of Consumer Guide, Zora Arkus-Duntov, Corvette's first engineering chief, reflected on this period. "In 1974, I had a conversation with the chairman of the board," Duntov said. "He said, 'Let's wait. Right now, we cannot build enough cars to satisfy the demand.' I tried to promulgate the mid-engine car. If I was not forced to retire, (the 1984 model) would probably be a mid-engine car. The mid-engine design in '69 and '73-'74 was in the picture on and off. I think I would have won the fight given time."

Dreams persisted as Chevrolet rolled out its futuristic Corvette Indy concept in 1986 sporting a 2.65-liter V-8 from GM's racing program, glass canopy, carbon composite body, all-wheel-drive, four-wheel steering and hydraulic suspension. The Indy evolved into the more conservative 1990 CERV III, packing a 650-horsepower twin-turbo 32-valve V-8. It was visually connected to Corvettes but was ultimately passed over for production.

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