Designing the Mid-Engine 2020 Corvette: The Inside Story
We spoke with the C8’s chief designer about what it took—and what it meant—to create the new Corvette.
When did General Motors decide to move the Chevrolet Corvette's engine location? It's been a long, slow process beginning with Zora Arkus Duntov's push for a mid-engine layout in the 1950s. Even while several mid-engine concepts were produced (primarily in the 1960s and '70s), the walls at GM's Design Center have continued to be plastered with drawings exploring such a Vette. The C8's exterior design chief, Kirk Bennion, even sketched such a car before GM hired him in 1984.
"As a young man in college, I created a mid-engine Corvette" at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Bennion says. "Back then we did one-fifth-scale cars. We did them in clay and we molded them, then we made them out of fiberglass. That's probably everyone's wish list when you're in college.
"The first year I was hired in, we were all sketching on what you know as the Corvette Indy. [GM design chief] Chuck Jordan opened up that entire exercise to every designer in the building."
He worked in John Cafaro's studio on the second-generation Pontiac Fiero that never happened and began designing Corvettes in 1986, including the second generation of Hendricks Racing's GTP Corvette race car. Bennion spent nine years on trucks—none of them mid-engine—before he became a regular in the Corvette studio about 2000.
A few years later, the advanced engineering department approached Bennion and said, "we've got a couple of guys working on a mid-engine package. Would you work with them?"
Bennion's team benchmarked other cars, "what was in the marketplace, the size of the Porsche [Boxster/Cayman] and things. Then we had to get a feel for what kind of size and package we would want this car to have. And then, we actually got into a seating buck, had a full-size clay, and then we hit bankruptcy" in 2009. "There was no more money in the checking account."
Mid-engine talk started up again about 2011 or '12 as the new GM's financial fortunes turned around. "We're starting to put together a kind of bill of goods as to what we'd want to do if we could do that car."
After a dozen years officially—and nearly four decades unofficially—drawing mid-engine Corvettes, Bennion is proud of what he and his team designed in the face of some harsh comments, including our own.
"We took the interior cockpit and we moved that forward 16 and a half inches because that gave you the same entry and egress that you have on the front-engine car. The same way people would get in and out of their front-engine Corvettes is the same way you get in and out of this mid-engine Corvette." It's not a minor detail, especially considering the relatively small aperture of mid-engine Ferraris.
The C8 Stingray is 5.4 inches longer than the C7 Stingray, which often felt like a bigger car than it was thanks to its long hood. The C6 and C7 were slightly shorter than contemporary Porsche 911s. But the new mid-engine car's extra length is a result of the pointed nose, which you can see easily from the plan view. The rest of the car is really much closer in overall length to the front-engine C7, which you can see by studying the overhang past the front wheels.
The more compact feel of the mid-engine car is striking from behind the wheel. In previous models, the hood stretches out past your vision, more muscle car than sports car. In the C8, the front hood drops off to the point you can see only the flare of the front fenders. At the fenders' leading edges are Bennion's favorite detail.
"We've got this all-new LED headlamp shape," he says. "It's horizontal, no longer a round projector, with a semi-circle face to it. We're basically taking that headlamp, pushing it against the tire and down on top of the radiator, while pushing it in that corner. Getting that lamp function really enabled that sleek pattern."
The controversial black-painted rear quarter windows hide the shoulder-belt anchors. In back, Z51 buyers will have a choice of a body-color or carbon-fiber rear spoiler. Many details of the C8 that have come under fire are functional elements, to aid aerodynamics or engine cooling, including for higher-performance versions, Bennion says.
Unlike mid-engine Ferraris, the Corvette targa coupe and the convertible will share the same windshield. The black "gaiters" on the rocker panels are for deflecting stones and avoiding chipped paint. In back, the sheet-molding compound vents with aluminum mesh bookending the rear window allow engine heat to escape. The rearview mirror camera at the backlight's leading edge, the rear glass's subtle curve and lower notch, and the Stingray badge are subtle references to the split-window '63.
Bennion acknowledges that design of all of the Corvettes through the years have been influenced by European sports cars such as Jaguar and Ferrari while deflecting comparisons between the C8 and current mid-engine Ferraris. Influences of popular culture, military aircraft, past iterations, and the needs of racing teams who will run the C8.R are key. Like most previous models (except perhaps for the overly clean C4) the C8 is designed to look like it's doing 200 mph standing still.
"The charm of the Corvette is it's always the sign of the times. You can look at each model and it's always reflective as to what's happening around it. That's what makes the car resonate, makes them popular. We talk about this car being like a jet fighter, military aircraft-influenced. Those aircraft have a very assertive stance. We want to make the car assertive. Where it's got this ready-to-pounce stance."
A few feet from our conversation, a dozen or so middle-school-aged girls swarm the C8 on display and take turns in the driver's seat. They're on a special visit from the You Make a Difference organization with a one-week summer sketch workshop designing emergency response vehicles. With an electric e-Ray Corvette still under possible consideration, I wonder what their drawings of that car would look like.