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General Motors Co. intends to start selling a mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette in early 2019, according to multiple sources familiar with the company’s planning.

While America’s iconic sports car has gone through seven generations of upgrades since it debuted in 1953, a mid-engine architecture would be the most radical change in Corvette history. The sources, who asked not to be identified because company plans have not been made public, said production of the mid-engine rocket would eventually be the only Corvette produced. One of those people said the current, front-engine C7’s Z06 and Grand Sport models would continue through 2021.

The eighth-generation Corvette C8 – codenamed “Emperor” — is targeted for an unveiling in early 2018, sources said.

“We do not comment on future product plans,” a Chevy spokesperson said.

One former GM employee with knowledge of the project said, “It’s happening. Mark Reuss wants it,” referring to the automaker’s global product development chief. “It’s the worst-kept secret in town.”

Chevy has long been concerned by Corvette’s aging demographic, and a mid-engine performance car could appeal to younger buyers.

“The median age of the Corvette buyer got three years older while I was there, which scared the hell out of us,” says Tom Wallace, who was Corvette’s chief engineer from 2006 until 2008.

Some sources say a mid-engine Corvette could be the basis for a Cadillac sports car.

When Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen was asked by Motor Trend last fall if a Cadillac “halo” car based on a mid-engine Corvette might be in the cards, he replied: “It has to be one of the options that we consider. In the future there are going to be some architectures inside the corporation that will remain purely Cadillac, but then there are others where it just isn’t economically feasible to enter segments by trying to do a unique Cadillac. Then you look at what’s available in terms of corporate assets. And I’m sure you’d agree that a new, very advanced Corvette platform wouldn’t be a bad place to start.”

C8 characteristics

With the engine located behind the driver and in front of the rear wheels, mid-engine sports cars are prized by performance-car fans for their balanced handling characteristics. The mid-engine format would make it more current with Corvette race-program competitors like the much-pricier Ferrari 488 and Ford GT.

The C8 is expected to be equipped with performance innovations like an active-aerodynamic system to enhance downforce, according to Car and Driver’s Don Sherman, who has been following the car’s development since 2014. The magazine says the next-generation Corvette will be powered by the tried-and-true small-block pushrod V-8 to keep costs down.

The mid-engine format would allow GM more flexibility to make performance variants — perhaps an all-wheel drive, plug-in hybrid model with electric motors driving the front wheels. That would put it head-to-head — at a more modest price — with cutting-edge, mid-engine hybrid supercars such as the Acura NSX and Porsche 918.

GM and Chevrolet last year trademarked the names Corvette E-Ray and Manta Ray. The names, some analysts believe, indicate the company is considering multiple vehicle variants.

Bob Lutz, GM’s former head of product development, speculates that the program’s long lead time — the C8 wouldn’t go into production until late 2018 — foreshadows an electric version “with 10- to 15-mile plug-in electric capability.”

“That would only require a 5-kWh battery, or $1,300 at today’s lithium-ion prices (plus motors and control hardware),” he said in an email. “It would be enough to give it a 50 mpg city label, and the electric motors at the front would enable limited AWD capability.”

The company recently announced investments totaling nearly $800 million in its Bowling Green Assembly Plant in Kentucky, where Corvettes are built. That includes $153 million for improving vehicle assembly line processes, on top of $137 million in previously committed capital. Last year, GM said it would invest $439 million for a new paint shop and $44 million to expand its Performance Build Center.

The plant is expected to be shut down for three months in mid- to late-2017 for retooling.

Lutz and Wallace say that they and then-Corvette Assistant Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter got the mid-engine Corvette approved in 2007, only to see the project shelved while GM went through bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.

Lutz says the $800 million Bowling Green investment figure is in line with what was asked for nine years ago.

“The program I got approved in ’07 was $900 million,” Lutz says, “and included a Cadillac XLR with a supercharged Northstar engine. If the current program is $800 million, I’d bet it includes a different-bodied Cadillac again as well.”

From ‘what-if’ to project

Corvette faithful have already begun putting down deposits on the car. Les Stanford Chevrolet in Dearborn, one of the top three Corvette sellers in the United States, confirms about two dozen customers have put down $2,000 on the C8 to be first in line.

“The potential for a mid-engine Corvette is in the future,” says General Sales Manager Scott Montgomery. “We have a lot of attention from members of the enthusiast community who have never been wrong.”

In addition to publishing spy shots of a camouflaged, mid-engine car undergoing testing, Car and Driver created computer renderings of the C8 featuring a muscular stance and low, menacing nose. The renderings are based on descriptions of the production prototype by people who have seen the car’s design.

Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst with forecasting firm IHS Markit, said there have been rumors of a mid-engine Corvette for a decade. “It seems to be maturing from a ‘what-if’ to a project,” she said.

Pricing a new Corvette in line with Chevrolet and its value-brand philosophy will be important, Brinley said. It can’t have a $450,000 sticker price like the Ford GT. But Brinley said there is some space for a price increase over today’s $55,445 base C7.

GM has flirted with mid-engine Corvettes in the past, particularly in the 1960s when Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov argued it was a superior architecture. Arkus-Duntov produced four mid-engine concepts from 1960-70, including the 1968 “Astro II.”

The Astro was a reaction to the mid-engine 1966 Ford GT-40 and its stunning success at the 24 Hours of LeMans. Fifty years later, another Ford GT has won LeMans — and this time GM’s response appears to be a full-blown, mid-engine production C8.

hpayne@detroitnews.com

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