Golden Jubilee of Mid-Engined Corvettes

Don Sherman

CERV II Lessons learned, Arkus-Duntov's next research vehicle moved a worthwhile step in the Corvette direction. With sights set on world endurance racing - specifically LeMans and Sebring - work commenced in 1962 on a mid-engined sports roadster. This time mad Russian's thinking was an order of magnitude bolder: the car coded XP-817 and later CERV II had a monocoque chassis with a mid-mounted engine and all-wheel drive. Two compact transaxles energized the low-profile tires and a driver-controlled rear spoiler aided high-speed stability. With a 6.2-liter small-block providing power, this prototype would theoretically accelerate to sixty mph in 2.8 seconds on its way to a stable 214-mph top speed. Unfortunately the dual-transmission arrangement wasn't reliable and GM officials chose Jim Hall's Chaparral effort to fly the flag in international sports car racing over Arkus-Duntov's creation.

CERV II was also donated to the Cunningham museum and may now be housed at the private Collier Automotive Museum in Naples, Florida.

ASTRO II XP-880 After experimenting with two rear-engined design studies - the 1967 Corvair-based Astro I and the ill-conceived XP-819 V-8-powered prototype - various departments within the GM hierarchy finally settled on mid-engined sports cars as the most appropriate platform for advanced engineering. This set in motion a 'mine's better' intramural competition that bore major show-car fruit.

In 1967, Frank Winchell's creative R+D staff cooked up a serious response to Ford's impressive GT40 program. The XP-880 was a beautiful two-seat coupe draped over an X-shaped steel backbone frame. Fuel was carried centrally in a well-guarded rubber bladder and the engine's radiator was located at the rear to avoid heating the cockpit or lifting the front end. A 390-horsepower big-block V-8 provided go through a lowly Pontiac Tempest two-speed automatic transaxle.

Painted metallic blue and christened Astro II, this still-born experimental Corvette was shown to a wide-eyed public at the 1968 New York auto show. Today it resides at the GM Heritage Center.

XP-882 Arkus-Duntov didn't take the XP-880 attack on his Corvette castle lying down. While tests on Winchell's challenger were underway, Arkus-Duntov's crew conceived a car that would take full advantage of knowledge gained from his CERV II project.

Arkus-Duntov's brainstorm was to mount the engine sideways in the car so that existing transmission and axle components could be used. The small-block V-8 and a choice of manual or automatic transmissions fit neatly in a 95.5-inch wheelbase. The most clever subtlety of the layout patented by Arkus-Duntov was the ease with which drive to the front wheels could be added.

Two test cars were finished by the spring of 1969. Unfortunately, the timing was horrible. GM was suffering a long labor strike, Corvette marketing geniuses fretted that a mid-engine car might not appeal to faithful customers, and there was a new sheriff in town: John DeLorean had just taken over the Chevrolet general manager's role. To Arkus-Duntov's chagrin, DeLorean gave XP-882 a firm thumbs down.

That didn't thwart other forces within GM from exploiting the striking mid-engine prototype for their ends. Fearing Ford and AMC presentations scheduled for the 1970 New York auto show, GM design boss Bill Mitchell had XP-882 painted a metallic silver to serve as a show stopper. That move worked as intended and a rabid public clamored for more. In response to this enthusiasm, DeLorean approved the next generation of mid-engined Corvette experimentation.

Vaguely aware of these corporate machinations, Road & Track presented XP-882 as its January 1971 cover subject with an unequivocal, "This is the New Corvette" announcement.

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