April 2, 1970 was a notable day for Corvette fans, as the XP-882 mid-engine Corvette concept made a surprise appearance, wowing the crowds at the New York auto show. Even this early in the mid-engine Corvette story, such a model had already taken on mythical status among the faithful, and the XP-882’s drop-dead looks gave Corvette lovers everything they didn’t even know they wanted. And then some.
Corvette lead engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov’s team started working on the XP-882 in 1968. Two prototypes were built around small-block Chevy engines, with plans for big-block power and eventually all-wheel drive. Zora had been playing with AWD since his experimental mid-engine CERV II racer. The styling group designed a new look that was crisp, edgy, and low-slung, yet it still looked like a Corvette.
Despite fierce resistance from sales, styling, and engineering, Chevrolet general manager John Z. DeLorean canceled the XP-882 project in August 1969 to pursue making Corvettes more profitable using the new, inexpensive Camaro chassis. Then Duntov learned that Ford was buying Italian carmaker De Tomaso so that it could market the new mid-engine Pantera as a “Ford,” and that AMC had designed a mid-engine car that was to be made by Italian carmaker Bizzarrini. Plus Mercedes was working on its C111 mid-engine car. Something had to be done!
Duntov showed Bill Mitchell and Chevy’s Chief of Engineering Alex Miar his mothballed XP-882. The decision was immediate: “Get the car into the New York show!” The XP-882 was quickly painted silver and dressed as a show car. The interior was utilitarian because the XP-882 never had a chance to get fitted with a proper interior—there wasn’t time. The car magazines were all over the XP-882, though, initiating a feeding frenzy of speculation that it would become the 1973 Corvette. Enthusiasts had been lusting for a smaller, lighter Corvette for years, and the XP-882 looked like it could deliver. Compared to a ’70 Corvette, the wheelbase was 2.5 inches shorter, the length was eight inches shorter, the width was 5.8 inches wider, and at 2,595 pounds, it was almost 700 pounds lighter. Of course, it was a prototype and not a fully featured car.
The powertrain was a combination of a transverse-mounted, 400-cubic-inch small-block V-8 coupled via chain drive to an Olds Toronado Turbo 400 transmission fitted with bevel gears and connected to a stock Corvette rear. Parts-bin stuff, yes, but also very clever. The wheels were spun aluminum, with vent slots similar to what would become available in 1976, and the tires were E60x15 up front and G60x15 at the rear. The rest of the suspension was made from production parts.
After the overwhelmingly positive reception, DeLorean approved the funds to develop a big-block, four-speed version of the car. Motor Trend enthusiastically reported, “Chevrolet roared out of the sun with the throttle wide-open and the wind shrieking, and watched their tracers stitch into the shining sides of the new De Tomaso.” For a little while, it was all sunshine and unicorns.
But, a few things got in the way. GM President Ed Cole, who was always thinking “over the horizon,” purchased a license to develop the Wankel rotary engine. Duntov was tasked with creating a high-performance version for possible use in a Corvette. Zora delegated this nightmare task to the capable hands of Gib Hufstader. Duntov then had to relinquish one of the two XP-882 chassis to Bill Mitchell to work out a new look for the Four-Rotor concept that was first shown in 1973. The other XP-882 chassis became the all-aluminum Reynolds aluminum R&D Corvette that weighed 500 pounds less than a standard Corvette. So, just like the Mako Shark II concept before it, the handsome XP-882 was taken behind closed doors, chopped up, and made into something else.
Mid-engine sports cars were the stuff of small, exotic European carmakers. But between the first Arab oil embargo, a recession, the rotary-engine tangent, and the sales success of the production Corvette, the XP-882—or any other mid-engine Corvette, for that matter—didn’t stand a chance. Forward thinking just couldn’t overcome bad timing until decades later, with the debut of the production C8 mid-engine Corvette.
A version of this story first appeared on our sister site SuperChevy.com in July 2015.