There have been plenty of cars that never made their way to production, but none of them inspire as much passion and ire as the mid-engined Corvette. It’s a story that now sounds like folklore; 40 years ago, members of General Motor’s legendary old guard, including Ed Cole (father of the tri-five Chevys and Chevy Corvair), Bill Mitchell (head of GM Design), and Zora Arkus-Duntov (considered to be the Corvette’s savior) got production approval for the John DeLorean-designed Aerovette, a world-class mid-engined sports car with a that could do battle with European exotics while slotting above the conventional ‘Vette. But by 1980, the men had all retired, and a newer, more conservative generation of GM execs quietly killed the Aerovette.
Fast forward to the late ’80s. The C4 Corvette was getting old, and there were rumors from GM that a big change was coming. The mid-engined Corvette Indy debuted as a concept in 1986. By 1990, Chevy had refined the Indy into the CERV III concept, a stunning, fully-functional, all-wheel drive supercar that had an active suspension, four-wheel steering, 650 horsepower, and a top speed of 225 miles per hour. Word leaked out that Chevy was considering it for production, but the bean counters intervened and the mid-engined Corvette was killed once again.
Then came the automotive salt in the wound: In 2007 GM approved a plan for a mid-engine ‘Vette yet again, only to be quickly killed for a third time when the company went through bankruptcy. Like hell freezing over and the Cubs winning the World Series, it looked like an exotic ‘Vette would never happen.
In the words of a wise, er, well, a man: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me – well, you can’t get fooled again.”
But last year, a strange test mule was seen roaring around GM’s test track in Michigan. Since then, we could’ve sworn we’ve seen more and more fire lapping up through all that smoke coming from the Corvette rumor-mill, so with the Cubs in first place, this winter’s forecast is brutally cold, and if we aren’t crazy (that’s a big if), we just might have a near-production-ready mid-engined Corvette on Chevy’s Detroit Auto Show stand in January 2017. Now that you’ve got a brief history of the Corvette that would be king, here’s everything we know about the next one that will either break our hearts or answer our prayers.
In 2014, the rumors of a mid-engined Corvette slowly started coming again, only to be met by a chorus of gearheads saying “Yeah, right.” But by the end of the year, they became too loud to dismiss. In June, Chevy trademarked the name “Zora” – as in Zora Arkus-Duntov, the performance-minded engineer who pushed for the Aerovette – for a future model. Then word leaked that GM had a small team working on a new mid-engine platform. The waters got clouded in September, however, when Cadillac chief Johan de Nysschen mused to Automobile about high-performance halo cars, saying that his brand was interested in “… one or two sports cars that you buy for emotional reasons, not for practicality, but because they are so sexy and so fun to drive.”
The overwhelming arc of history, plus Cadillac’s long-held interest in a mid-engined halo (like the 2002 Cien concept, above), and de Nysschen’s very public lust for the new platform was enough to convince most experts that a production mid-engined Corvette was about as likely as the Browns winning the Super Bowl. Then came the new year…
In January 2015, a spy photographer for Car & Driver shot 15 photos of a bizarre-looking car lapping GM’s test track before he was spotted, and crews rushed to both cover the car and escort the man off the property. It was a mash-up of GM body panels: A shortened, wide-flared, front clip from an Australian Holden Commodore SSV (similar to a Chevy SS), and a covered truck bed from a Holden ‘Ute (think modern-day El Camino). But in the middle sat the unmistakable middle section of a C7 Stingray – only the wheelbase was shorter than a ‘Vette, the front wheels sat way too close to the cabin, and there were big air intakes along the rocker vents. The sighting quickly went viral, and in an age when PR teams stand at the ready to quash any rumors, Chevy’s silence spoke volumes. The strongest denial came from Corvette engineering guru Tadge Juechter, who Pled the Fifth a few months later on an episode of Autoline After Hours, responding to the rumors by saying “I’ll have to check that out, because I know no such car exists.”
Since 2015, the rumors have been coming hard and fast. In May 2016, Chevy re-trademarked the “ZR-1” name, hinting that a range-topping high performance model may be on the way. As Car & Driver have pointed out, the front-engined C7, with its small-block pushrod V8 and rear-wheel drive layout is reaching its maximum performance potential. An all-wheel drive, mid-engined supercar could be the only way for the Corvette could continue to evolve as one of the world’s premier sports cars.
In June, GM announced that it’s investing $290 million into its Bowling Green, Kentucky plant, home of the Corvette. The C7 is barely three years old, is a sales success, and is the only car built at the plant. So unless there are some big changes coming to the car, it seems like an odd place for the company to spend that kind of scratch. Back in Detroit, more test mules are spotted being driven in broad daylight.
In July, Katech, an engineering company that has worked with Chevy on high-performance Corvettes (including the C7.R Le Mans cars), accidentally put up a landing page for the “C8 Corvette ZR-1/Zora,” along with an illustration that matches the proportions of the test mule that was first spotted in 2015.
Last week, The Detroit News published a story that could force GM to make a decision on the mid-engined Corvette once and for all. The wolves are at the door now, with Car & Driver confirming that The General keeps its fleet of C8 test mules inside Building 54 at the Milford Proving Ground, and has two Ferrari 458 Italias, two Porsche 911 Turbos, a Nissan GT-R, a BMW i8, and recently had a McLaren in its “benchmark fleet.” If we didn’t know any better, we’d think GM was working on a supercar.
According to The News, the mid-engine Corvette program is code-named “Emperor,” and according to several sources will be in showrooms by early 2019. The C7 will likely stick around alongside the new car (which is good, it’d be a shame to se it go after just five years) until 2021, but eventually, the C8 will be the only ‘Vette in town.
It’s expected to have active aerodynamics, rival the Ferrari 488 and Ford GT in performance (while dramatically undercutting the two on price), and be powered by an all-new and much smaller V8. The new layout will also allow engineers to explore all-wheel drive, and even hybrid and even electric powertrains; an idea that GM seems to be considering since it recently trademarked both the “e-Ray” and “Manta-Ray” names.
And after all these leaks, where does GM stand on it today? One unnamed source told The News: “It’s happening. Mark Reuss [GM’s global product development chief] wants it,” adding “It’s the worst-kept secret in town.” Chevy’s official response? “We do not comment on future product plans.” That isn’t a yes, but it isn’t a no either.
We want to believe this time; and with all these pieces falling into place, we’re starting to feel confident that we can’t get fooled again.