From Indy to "Zora"

Duntov may have retired in 1975, but his dream of a mid-engine production Corvette lived on

From Indy to "Zora" 1
May 7, 2015

Mid-engine (ME) prototypes have a been a regular feature of the Corvette’s development process since the late 1950s. In our last issue, we chronicled Zora Arkus-Duntov’s relentless—and ultimately fruitless—quest to bring an ME Corvette to market during his tenure as the brand’s chief engineer. What follows is an account of what has happened under the four chief engineers who followed, up to and including today’s persistent rumors that such a car may finally be in the works for production as soon as 2016.

The Perils of Downsizing

Following the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo and fuel crisis, and the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements that resulted, the U.S. auto industry entered a decade of downsizing, with GM rushing to convert nearly everything it built to transverse-engine front-wheel drive (FWD). Because this wholesale conversion was performed too quickly, and without sufficient FWD experience, it set in motion a long decline in quality, image and sales that would eventually lead to the corporation’s bankruptcy three decades later.

Duntov, meanwhile, retired in 1975, leaving the direction of future-Corvette development in the hands of two competing entities within GM. In 1979, as new Chief Engineer Dave McLellan and his team were ramping up work on a next-generation model, GM Styling still envisioned an ME design. “Unfortunately,” McLellan wrote in his 2002 book, Corvette from the Inside, “Styling management was still in love with the mid-engine Corvette, because it gave them the opportunity to radically change the proportions of the car.” And an ME car obviously could be lower and sleeker without an engine up front.

“Throughout the concept phase…I had to deal with a Styling management that wanted a mid-engine car and gave only grudging support to the front-engine design,” he wrote. “On the other hand, Chevrolet management, though committed to the front-engine design, would not confront Styling…or come to an agreement with them. So Chevrolet sent me to do battle with Styling, armed with instructions that we were not to support any mid-engine proposals. As it was, Styling modeled several more mid-engine concepts, and we in Corvette Engineering had to be the bad guys.”

Worse, the Corvette was in imminent danger of being sucked into GM’s downsizing mania. “[Styling studio chief] Jerry Palmer had his designers and studio engineers resize the mid-engine Four-Rotor Corvette around the corporation’s new 2.8-liter V-6,” McLellan continued. “In parallel with Styling, and in spite of the direction of our own management, we started an engineering study of a mid-engine V-6 Corvette in Chevrolet Research and Development.”

From Indy to "Zora" 2

But that V-6 at the time put out an anemic 130 horsepower and less than 200 lb-ft of torque, hardly suitable for a Corvette. It could have been turbocharged, but the new front-drive transaxles being developed would be incapable of handling the resulting power.

“Corvette engineering rejected the mid-engine V-6 proposal on performance grounds,” McLellan related. “Chevrolet management rejected the mid-engine V-6 because there was still no clamor for a mid-engine Corvette among the owner group. Absolutely nobody was asking for a V-6 Corvette.”

Not Messing with Success

Corvette set sales records in the 1970s despite reduced power due to emissions and fuel-economy requirements, and Chevrolet had sold nearly 617,000 of them by 1979. The car had built a loyal, enthusiastic following among owners and intenders who loved it just the way it was. So would going ME really make sense? “Were we going to drastically change a successful formula or…keep doing what worked? Chevrolet was very reluctant to…[try] something that was totally new and unproven,” McLellan wrote.

Because Chevrolet was always very secretive about future production vehicles, McLellan believes that the company publicly showed ME Corvette prototypes during the Duntov years primarily because it needed exciting show cars to counter the competition. But while those cars created a lot of buzz within the industry, they never generated substantial public demand for an ME model. Chevrolet management was well aware of this, according McLellan, and was therefore determined to make the next-generation Corvette a rear-driver with a front-mounted V-8.

“Duntov and the press had spent a decade trying to convince Corvette enthusiasts that the next new Corvette should be mid-engined. Yet, when we interviewed Corvette fans, they were quite split in their opinions. Some were in favor of it, and some were very vocal against it. The answer was clear—the only thing that made sense was to continue doing what we knew worked and make it perform even better.”

From Indy to "Zora" 3

Corvette Indy

For its part, GM Design (formerly Styling) refused to give up on the ME Corvette. In 1985, not long after the 1984 C4 finally hit the road, Design VP Chuck Jordan had Jack Schwartz’s studio design an ultra-sexy ME Corvette concept, then commissioned Cecomp of Italy to build a realistic, full-size model of it. Called the Corvette Indy, this long, low, swoopy stunner debuted at the 1986 Detroit Auto Show with a (mocked up) 600-horse, twin-turbocharged, 2.65-liter Indy-racing engine wedged transversely between its seats and rear wheels.

GM was part owner of British carbuilder/racer Lotus at the time (and would soon acquire all of it), so one key objective of the project was to showcase Lotus’ advanced technology, including active suspension and four-wheel steering, along with the twin-turbo Indy-racing engine then being developed by England’s Ilmor Engineering. Though this original Corvette Indy was a non-runner, its claimed technology also included all-wheel drive, traction control and advanced electronics. Eventually shown in both coupe and open Targa-top versions, it was strictly a GM Styling and Lotus project. McLellan says his team had no involvement with it.

Strongly positive media and public reaction to the Corvette Indy led to two more versions, a slightly toned-down show car and a running prototype, both just 43 inches high with T-tops (for structural rigidity) and doors that swung up and forward. The former debuted at the 1988 Detroit show with a 380-hp, quad-cam, 32-valve, 5.7-liter V-8 (an early version of the C4 ZR-1’s Lotus-designed LT5) in place of the previous racing engine. The car, largely engineered and built by Lotus, served as a rolling test lab for engine and suspension hardware. With four-wheel drive and huge tires (275/40ZR17 front, 315/35ZR17 rear), its estimated 0-60 performance was under five seconds and its top speed over 180 mph.

Changing Direction…Again

Meanwhile, a comment by then-GM chairman Roger Smith during an early 1989 Corvette design review sent studio chief Jerry Palmer’s team off on a mission: “We’ve got to be out front with the next Corvette,” Smith said, according to late author Jim Schefter’s book on the C5 program, All Corvettes Are Red. “It has to be the best Corvette we’ve ever done, and for my money, it has to be radical. I like what I see here, but it doesn’t reach out far enough.”

From Indy to "Zora" 4

“Roger Smith’s visit threw us into a lot of activity,” Palmer later said. “It was like a license to steal. He had us going off and looking at mid-engines and at all sorts of far-out stuff that really doesn’t apply at all. We wasted a lot of time looking at things that we’ll never, ever do.”

The C5, originally scheduled to launch for the 1993 model year, soon slipped to 1994. GM under Smith was beginning to struggle financially, and the engineers were told not to pursue mid-engine proposals. The C5 was to be what Corvettes had always been: front-engine, rear-drive. But Design VP Jordan had his own agenda. He kept his Design engineers exploring mid-engine designs, and by late 1989 was “…pushing hard on a mid-engine car,” Schefter wrote.

“When GM shut down for its traditional Christmas holiday,” he continued, “five scale-model Corvettes were sitting on display stands in [GM Design Director] Tom Peters’…studio. Two of them were mid-engine machines.”

CERV III

The two generations of Corvette Indy concept cars were followed at the 1990 Detroit Auto Show by a somewhat more production-feasible evolution of the design called CERV (Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle) III. Its styling previewed the roof shape and some other styling elements of what would eventually become the fifth-generation Corvette. Built by GM Corporate Engineering with Lotus consultation, it retained a long tail to accommodate its mid-mounted, twin-turbocharged, 650-hp V-8. It also featured a rounded nose and front fender shapes that would ultimately influence the look of the C5.

CERV III’s engine was mounted transversely, as in the Corvette Indy concepts, powering all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transaxle (actually a three-speed Hydramatic driving a custom two-speed gearbox) and advanced, viscous-coupled 4WD. Among its other features were a low-drag (0.277 Cd) body built from aluminum-reinforced carbon fiber, Nomex and Kevlar; Lamborghini-type “scissors” doors housing racing-style fuel cells; an active suspension to keep the car flat during hard braking and cornering; and computer-controlled rear steering to tighten its turning circle and improve high-speed stability.

From Indy to "Zora" 5

But as impressive as CERV III’s technological and design features were, GM’s worsening financial condition, coupled with a corporate proscription against devoting resources to unfunded projects, meant that the car would ultimately prove to be of little consequence to the Corvette production-car program.

“The mid engine Corvette Indy series [including CERV III] was interesting in that it used a drivable backbone that tied powertrain and suspension rigidly together with an isolated body,” McLellan notes today. “We also had the concept for the transaxle backbone design that became the C5. We reviewed both with the engine guys, and they rejected the structural backbone that bolted the engine rigidly to it as too radical. They thought the suspension loads would break the engine structure. They were probably wrong, but this made it easy for them agree to the alternative proposal. The Corvette Indy series was a Design flight of fancy that never made any sense beyond its backbone architecture.”

The ultra-high-tech CERV III concept car ended up being tested at GM’s Milford, Michigan, and Mesa, Arizona, Proving Grounds, as well as at Lotus’ test track in Hethel, England. It was seen at the time as GM’s final try at a production ME Corvette. But once the decision was made that the C5 Corvette definitely would be a front-engine car, CERV III disappeared from public view.

ME Mounts a (Brief) Comeback

Dave Hill took over as Corvette chief engineer when McLellan retired in late 1992. He notes that while a mid-engine layout was studied during his time on the C5, it was ultimately decided that the car’s versatility was reduced unacceptably by this configuration. He also points out that the C5-R and C6.R consistently defeated top ME cars in production-based racing during this time, indicating that the Corvette’s existing, front-engine platform was fully up to the job.

On the other hand, Tom Wallace, who succeeded the retiring Hill as Corvette chief engineer in 2005, very much wanted the upcoming C7 Corvette to be ME and worked hard to make that happen. “We were that close,” he says, holding up his thumb and forefinger with a tiny gap between them, “to getting approval to build mules to see if we should do a mid-engine Corvette. [I]t was pretty much ‘skunk works,’ pretty quiet, but we had architectural studies and a clay model of how its proportions would change and what it might look like.”

From Indy to "Zora" 6

One of Wallace’s goals was to drop the median age of the Corvette buyer, which had been climbing every year. To that end, he held secret meetings with the staff members of several automotive enthusiast magazines, posing the question of which layout configuration—front- or mid-engine—made more sense for the seventh-generation Corvette. To his surprise, most of the younger writers expressed a strong preference for a mid-engine car. That really got his attention. “‘Holy smoke,’ I thought, ‘We’ve got a whole new generation coming up that doesn’t like the car we have, so what can we do to sustain Corvette?’”

The more they studied the proposition, the more Wallace and his staff became convinced that they could bring a mid-engine car to market at a relatively affordable price. The only remaining hurdle was the issue of the expensive dual-clutch transmission (DCT) it would likely need.

But it was not to be. By mid 2008, with GM nearing bankruptcy and program budgets being slashed throughout the company, the mere mention of an ME Corvette had become practically verboten in management circles. Not long after, the C7 program was canceled completely, and Wallace took early retirement in October of that year.

To ME or Not to ME?

As we know, the C7 program was revived and brilliantly executed by new Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter and his team after GM emerged from its 2009 government-managed bankruptcy. And Juechter had been very much on board with Wallace’s original ME vision. Is he still?

“I get asked about that all the time,” he says. “We always keep our eye out looking at different architectures. We considered it almost every time. We didn’t on C6, because that was a very evolutionary [car], but we did on C7. We considered it again, we did some studies, [but] the only time we will ever go to a mid-engine is when it will make the whole car better.”

From Indy to "Zora" 7

He further notes that the C7’s stiff structure, relatively light weight and 50-50 weight distribution endow the car with handling performance that typically exceeds that of its mid- and rear-engine competitors. The existing Corvette also boasts a comfortable cabin and respectable cargo capacity, two features that would likely suffer in the conversion to an ME platform. While all of these observations are accurate, they only lend credence to speculation that any ME Corvette would arrive as a low-volume addition to the line, rather than a replacement for today’s truly outstanding front-engine C7.

“You should photograph the C7 coupe next to a Ford GT and ask which is mid-engine,” McLellan suggests. “The incredibly compact small-block architecture makes it possible to achieve the short-nosed, mid-engine look without taking [the step of] moving the engine to the back.

“In the end, a mid-engine Corvette is possible and someday may happen, but wherever they put the engine, the car has to be salable and justifiable as a GM offering,” he continues. “Getting it all right requires great vision and is the task of the Corvette engineers and designers. I think [so far] they’re doing a great job of it.”

He adds that an ME Corvette convertible would be an especially difficult challenge because stacking the top above the V-8 (as opposed to above a Porsche Boxster flat six, for example) would make the rear too tall. “An alternative might be to fold the top and then swing it rearward behind the engine,” McLellan says. But doing that would use up much of what little luggage room might be back there.

He also questions ME serviceability: “The mid-engine layout makes service difficult, so it’s fortunate that engines today are so reliable. I’ve been told there are mid-engine Ferrari models where you have to remove the engine from the car to change spark plugs. Try that on a Corvette customer.”

Fearless Prediction

From Indy to "Zora" 8

Nevertheless, we’ve now pretty much concluded that this first-ever ME Corvette will happen, at least as a closed coupe, and that we may see it—perhaps as a “concept”—as early as the 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). If its debut were that imminent, however, we should be seeing spy photos of disguised prototypes by now.

Still, here are three good reasons why we think it’s for real:

• When this author interviewed former GM product vice chairman Bob Lutz for last year’s “Twice Killed, Twice Saved” stories, he noted that when Wallace and Juechter were investigating whether to go ME for the C7, GM Design did sketches and clay models of an ME Corvette and a Cadillac version that could have been the next Cadillac XLR. Lutz further noted that both were “stunning.” He suggested asking Design VP Ed Welburn for photos of the Corvette version. But when we did, Welburn responded very strongly that he would not release them. That told us that GM’s mid-2000s ME-sports-car design program, though now a decade old, may still be very much alive.

• A high-performance Cadillac ME sports car would help justify (and share) the huge investment required for an ME Corvette, and Cadillac’s new leadership would very much like to have one.

• In case the decision was still pending, Ford’s surprise introduction of its spectacular, ME 2016 GT at this year’s NAIAS probably sealed it. Now that GM is healthy and profitable again, we can’t see it not responding to that in-your-face Ford challenge, just as it did with Zora’s ME Corvette concepts in the 1960s. Media reports say that the GT, powered by a 600-plus-hp EcoBoost V-6, will be limited to 250 units a year and priced in the $400K range. GM could counter with a 700-plus-hp, turbo- or supercharged V-8 ZR1, or “Zora,” at half that price and many times that volume. Such a car could also incorporate certain advanced features the Ford lacks.

“Technology has moved on from where Duntov was in the ’70s,” McLellan says. “Imagine the C7 as a light hybrid with electric motors driving the front wheels as the best-of-all-worlds solution to AWD. The Corvette V-8 is so compact that it makes such a configuration possible.”

Now imagine an all-new ME Corvette with such a state-of-the-art hybrid powertrain sitting alongside the standard C7 in Chevy showrooms within a couple of years. It would be fully competitive (or better) vs. Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche and other hybrid-powered exotics at a much lower price.

Bring it on!

Also from Issue 98

  • Supercharged C7 Convertible
  • Inside the Bondurant School
  • Buyer's Guide: C1/C2
  • Racing: C7.Rs Shine at Sebring
  • Ultra-Rare '62 "Tanker"
  • Autocrossing Primer
  • '68 Owens Corning Racer
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