Long-awaited mid-engine Corvette C8 debuts Thursday

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
After denying the existence of the mid-engine Corvette C8 for years, the automaker drove a camouflaged one through Times Square in April.

The mid-engine Corvette tease is almost over.

Next Thursday, all will be revealed about the new Corvette C8, the first Corvette to place the engine behind the driver.

The premiere in Orange County, Calif., follows years of speculation as to when Chevrolet’s iconic sports car would finally go mid-engine. Prototypes of the mid-mounted ‘Vette date all the way back to the early 1960s. General Motors insiders say the program was green-lighted for production as early as 2007, but was shelved by the Great Recession.

The Detroit News confirmed plans for the mid-engine model as the eighth-generation Corvette (thus the C8 badge) in August 2016. GM finally admitted to the model’s existence in April when Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter and GM CEO Mary Barra dropped jaws by driving a camouflaged C8 through New York’s Times Square in the middle of rush hour.

Next week's reveal of the C8 will take place in the historic Tustin Hangar No. 2 about 40 miles south of Los Angeles. At 17 stories tall and 1,000 feet long, the twin blimp hangars built in 1942 are among the largest wood structures ever made. The hangars were completed just over a decade before the first-generation, front-engine Chevy Corvette.

Not much — and a lot — has changed since the first Corvette was introduced in 1953.

The two-seater sold slowly in its early years until the program was handed over to Zora Arkus-Duntov, the “Father of the Corvette," who turned the car into an American icon starting with the introduction of a V-8 engine in 1955.

The front-engine car would endure, but Arkus-Duntov was convinced that a mid-engine platform was preferable even in the early years.

“It came to him after Corvette had dropped out of the Sebring 12-hour race in 1957 ... because driver John Fitch’s feet were being cooked by exhaust pipes” from the engine mounted in front of him, says writer Don Sherman who has reported on the Corvette for decades. “Pondering that, Zora told me ... that he had concluded that the heat source had to be behind the driver.”

Dozens of prototypes were produced over the years, but none made it to the production line. Until now.

Heavily camouflaged C8’s were first caught by the lens of spy photographers at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds test facility in mid-2016. Sources told The Detroit News that GM was pouring some $800 million into Corvette’s Bowling Green assembly plant and paint facility to produce the new car.

“The program I got approved in ’07 was $900 million,” former GM product chief Bob Lutz told The Detroit News in 2016, “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.”

Cadillac’s priorities have shifted to SUV production, but the mid-engine Corvette stayed on track.

As the C8’s development matured, pictures of it in the wild began to proliferate in the last year like grainy shots of Sasquatch. There was video of the car testing at the Nürburgring and Sebring race tracks, and on mountain roads outside San Diego. There was even footage of GM President Mark Reuss riding shotgun in a C8 on an Arizona highway.

A spy photographer captured video of GM President Mark Reuss in a C8 prototype, even as the company insisted it didn’t exist.

Yet GM continued to deny the supercar’s existence.

Rumors ran rampant that the car would debut at this year's Detroit auto show. The show came and went without a sighting. Sources said the car was suffering from issues ranging from chassis twist to, most convincingly, complications with a new electronics system to be introduced across GM’s lineup.

Then suddenly, the thinly camouflaged C8 appeared in Times Square this spring. Emblazoned on its side was the not so-cryptic 07.18.19, telegraphing the car’s official debut July 18.

Expect Chevy to reveal only the base model next Thursday, though the C8 should get multiple model options in coming years including a high-revving, flat-plane crank V-8 engine. There could even be a hybrid model with an electric motor up front that complements a ferocious twin-turbo V-8 in back. And then there’s the racing version set to debut at the Daytona 24-Hour race in January against other mid-engine weapons like the Ferrari 488.

Radical as its mid-engine layout is, the base C8 should still get the 6.2-liter, small-block pushrod V-8 that has reliably powered front-engine Corvettes for generations. Purists will surely grumble, however, at the lack of a manual transmission option; the C8 will be offered only with a dual-clutch 8-speed automatic.

The long-awaited Corvette C8 is the first production 'Vette with the engine behind the driver.

In today’s supercar world, lighting-quick automatics are vastly superior to manuals, and Chevy didn’t need the added complication of designing a mid-engine transaxle with a manual option.

Pricing for the C8 has not been released, but the Corvette made its mark over the years by offering the same capabilities as Lamborghini and Porsche Turbos stickering for two to three times as much. Don’t expect that to change, although without a manual option, the base Corvette is expected to cost $4,000-$5,000 more than the current $57,000 front-engine model.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.