By 1976, the Chevrolet Corvette, once “America’s Sports Car,” had been well and truly neutered. The C3 Corvette launched in 1968 had started off well enough, with svelte chrome bumpers, curvaceous styling borrowed from 1965’s Mako Shark II concept, and a standard 300-hp, 327-cubic-inch V-8 engine. GM’s engineers had even developed a “for racing only” L88 engine: a 430-hp, 427-cubic-inch V-8 that many say was closer to a 500-hp, 500-lb-ft monster in reality.
Alas, the times were changing and as the U.S. rolled into the 1970s, the performance car seemed to suddenly be under threat. Emissions regulations began to become more strenuous, causing automakers to detune their fire-breathing performance motors with weak compression ratios and milder cams and carburetors. Oil shortages were leading to high gas prices at the pump and Corvette buyers themselves were aging, resulting in increased demands for comfort and, for the first time ever, more automatic-transmission Corvettes being sold than manual-equipped versions. Safety standards saw chrome bumpers replaced with plastic and by 1975, the standard Corvette engine was wheezing out just 165 horses from its 350 cubic inches.
Meanwhile, over a decade of mid-engine development work by “Father of the Corvette,” Zora Arkus-Duntov had still not resulted in a production Vette with its engine mounted between the rear axle and the driver. Concepts and development mules had come and gone. From the CERV projects I through III, through the XP variants, and on to the rotary-powered projects, Arkus-Duntov simply wasn’t able to make enough headway with GM’s tough accounting-driven management team. Frustrated, he retired in 1975.
Then, in 1976, a year before his own retirement, GM’s styling boss Bill Mitchell decided that maybe a mid-engine Corvette was the way forward after all. Despite having helped to shut down several of Arkus-Duntov’s previous mid-engine projects, Mitchell pulled the then three-year-old XP-895 mid-engine prototype out of storage. Originally designed for GM’s licensed 420-hp, four-rotor experimental engine, Mitchell ordered the rotary removed and replaced with a 400-cubic-inch (6.6-liter) Chevy V-8.
Mitchell was a fan of Italian car design and perhaps it was the plethora of mid-engine sports cars being developed in Italy in this period—think Lamborghini Countach; Fiat X/19; DeTomaso Pantera; Ferrari Dino, 308, and Berlinetta Boxer—that convinced him that GM needed a mid-engine performance car. He rechristened the gullwing-door concept the Aerovette and sent it off to the auto-show circuit, where the media and Corvette enthusiasts alike once again wondered if a mid-engine Corvette would become reality.
Despite being greenlit for 1980 production as the upcoming C4 Corvette, Arkus-Duntov’s replacement Dave McLellan decided for a number of reasons (cost and tradition among them) to stick with the Corvette’s tried and true front-engine configuration. Thus, the C4 Corvette we’re all familiar with came to be and while it wasn’t as innovative as many would have liked, it did return the Corvette to a performance-oriented car, dominating SCCA racing in the mid-1980s and culminating in the development of the 375-hp 1990 ZR-1. The Aerovette, meanwhile, would remain in the GM Heritage Collection where it is still kept today, an important part of mid-engine Corvette history and development as the concept finally reaches production with the 2020 C8.