Aero-vette: The Mid-Engined Corvette That Almost Was
It looks like within a few years, the automotive landscape will look very different. No, not just because of the rise of autonomous driving systems, hybrids and EVs, increasingly efficient engines, and the continuing digital integration of cars into our everyday lives, but because cars that automakers said would never happen again will soon be a reality. Remember how Jeep would never get a pickup because Fiat Chrysler felt it would cannibalize sales? It’s building one. Or how the Ford Explorer killed off the big, rugged, go-anywhere Bronco back in the ’90s? It’s coming back, thanks to the latest Ford-U.A.W. contract negotiations. And after nearly half a century of ill-fated attempts to transform the Corvette into a mid-engined, world-class supercar, well, it sure looks like that’s happening too.
But the promise of a mid-engined Corvette is always a dicey one, and to many die-hard Corvette fans, getting their hopes up again will only open themselves up for what feels like another giant middle finger from the bowtie brand. By our count, this is the fourth time we’ve come close to a production-ready exotic ‘Vette, and for one reason or another, General Motors has always pulled back, and America’s Sports Car has kept its big pushrod V8 in its nose.
Still, the one that came the closest was also the first, and the most legendary: the Aero-vette. Not only did it have its V8 mounted amidships, it looked unquestionably like an evolution of the Corvette, and for GM as a whole. Its history even reads like a who’s who of midcentury GM heavies. Unfortunately, it ended up becoming little more than one of the greatest automotive “what-ifs” in history.
In the 1960s, mid-engined cars went from race track curiosities to the exotic car norm. Within a few short years, cars like the Lamborghini Miura, Ford GT40, DeTomaso Mangusta, and Ferrari 206 GT Dino had made front-engined performance cars seem dated, and the rest of the world was eager to catch up. GM explored a potential GT40 rival in its mid-engined Corvette Astro II and XP-882 concepts in ’68 and ’69, but alarm bells began going off when Ford, which already supplied engines to De Tomaso, announced that it would be selling the Italian company’s Pantera supercar at Lincoln-Mercury dealerships. The Pantera represented a genuine threat to the company’s sports car; at $10,295 (or about $60,300 today), the largely hand-built, Ford-backed exotic offered Ferrari-like performance for just $2,600 more than a range-topping Corvette. Chevy quickly went to work, with Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and his team scrambling to make one of the Bill Mitchell-designed concepts production-ready.
Fortunately for GM, quality control issues doomed the Pantera from the start, and by 1972, Chevy boss John DeLorean axed the mid-engined ‘Vette project. But less than a year later, DeLorean shocked the automotive world by leaving the company to build his own mid-engined sports car, and under the direct orders of GM president Ed Cole, the mid-engined Corvette project was revived. Using an XP-882 chassis, Reynolds Aluminum was contracted to build an aluminum body for the car, resulting in the XP-895. This kicked off a series of mid-engined concepts, each seemingly working toward a production model. 1973 and ’74 saw the 2- and 4-rotor Wankel-engined XP-897s, as GM was one of several major automakers who believed that rotary engines were the wave of the future, until they proved to be woefully unreliable.
In 1975, Duntov would retire, but the car continued to be refined. By 1976, the current C3 car was rapidly approaching its sell-by date, and the mid-engined car was beginning to look even more viable. To make it even more attractive to company bean counters, the Corvette team ditched the troublesome rotary engines for a good old 400 cubic inch big block V8 and renamed the car the Aero-vette. In 1977 (and according to legend, because DeLorean was publicly flaunting his still unreleased sports car in the media), GM chairman Thomas Murphy gave the Aero-vette the green light. It was approved for production, and slated to be released in 1980.
But it was a swift downfall for the Aero-vette. Duntov was gone, Cole had retired 1974, and Mitchell would follow suit before the year was out. Corvette chief Dave McLellan had worked closely with Duntov, but was resistant to messing with the car’s winning formula. And with its windshield raked at a 72 degree angle, falcon-wing doors (like on the current Tesla Model X), and low ride height, the car was just too exotic for the GM bean counters. It would need to sell at $15K-$18K (about $41K to $50K today) – a jump from the current car’s price, and after watching a number of affordable mid-engined cars falter in the U.S. – like the Fiat X/1-9, Porsche 914, and Pantera – ultimately decided to shut the project down. The C3 soldiered on through 1982, before it was replaced by the tech-laden, complex, and front-engined C4 for ’84.
Corvette engineers couldn’t let go of the mid-engined idea, though, and in 1986 showed the sleek Corvette Indy concept. That car evolved into the drivable CERV III concept of 1990, but despite a huge response from Corvette fans and the media alike, its complex engineering and huge price tag kept it from ever seeing production.
For a few years of every decade since the 1970s, we’ve been told that GM is working on a mid-engined Corvette, and every single time, it falls through the cracks. But now, it seems like the company is giving the car at least as much attention as it gave the Aero-vette program in the ’70s, and if the rumors are true, we should see a running prototype at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show, and a production model at dealers by 2019. It’s early yet, and a lot can still happen, but if it all works out, the Corvette that’s been nearly 50 years in the making will become a reality. It’s about damn time.