Why now? How the 2020 mid-engine Corvette came to be

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
The men behind the machine: The 2020 Chevy Corvette Stingray was developed by, from left, Mike Simcoe, exterior designer; Mike Murphy, interior designer; Tadge Juechter, chief engineer; with Harlan Charles, marketing boss.

The mid-engine Chevy Corvette C8 arrived in California's Orange County on Thursday night like a cyborg from the future. It is the iconic supercar’s first production model with the engine bolted behind the driver’s ear.

Incredibly, it’s an idea that has been germinating inside General Motors’ tech center for more than 60 years.

Since the late 1950s, GM engineers have debated the advantages of a mid-engine layout. They produced multiple prototypes, and GM even green-lighted a mid-engine car for production in 2007 before the financial crisis put an end to that.

The decision to finally produce the eighth-generation 2020 Corvette with a mid-engine was the result of a perfect alignment of engineering, marketing and financial wherewithal.

More: Revealed: Chevrolet takes the wraps off mid-engine Corvette C8

More: Watch the mid-engine 2020 Corvette premiere

“We seriously started thinking to do it with the sixth generation," said Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter at an interview in GM’s Warren design dome with fellow team members ahead of the C8's Thursday reveal.

“The 2009 ZR1 had 638 horsepower. Even (the generation) before that ... we knew that we were stretching the limits of what we could do from a performance standpoint with a front-engine car.”

He continued, walking around a Sebring Orange C-8: “It’s the same reason that race cars in elite categories migrated from front to rear engines in the 1960s. Zora knew that. He was a huge advocate for it.”

“Zora” is Zora Arkus-Duntov, the so-called “father of the Corvette” who took over the sports car program in the 1950s and molded it into an icon.

“He knew already that if you want to push the performance envelope of the ‘Vette, you had to push in that direction,” Juechter said.

It wasn’t just a handling issue in the early days. It was also a question of driver comfort. Writer Don Sherman has covered Arkus-Duntov and the mid-engine car’s development for decades.

“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, said Sherman. “Pondering that, Zora told me ... that he had concluded that the heat source had to be behind the driver.”

Multiple prototypes followed.

In 1960, Arkus-Duntov built the single-seat, mid-engine Chevrolet Experimental Research Vehicle — the CERV I — with a powerful V-8 driving the rear wheels. The prototype hit 206 mph at GM’s Milford Proving Ground and would ultimately inspire the second-generation, production Corvette C2’s independent rear suspension.

The CERV II, a mid-engine, all-wheel-drive roadster followed in 1964. In 1968, GM dropped jaws at the New York Auto Show with the sleek Astro II, which was a response to Ford’s Le Mans-winning GT40 mid-engine racer. More GM prototypes were born including an aluminum-body XP-895 in 1972, the 1973 “Aerovette” and the 1986 “Indy,” which was also known as the CERV III. There was even a V-12 Cadillac Cien concept car in 2002.

“When Zora tried to do it, GM would say: ‘But the (front-engine) car is doing great as it is,’” said Corvette marketing guru Harlan Charles. “The horsepower levels weren’t where they are today, and they had all these packaging challenges that they didn’t know how to solve, but we know how to solve now.

“That’s why now is the time.”

Finally, in 2007, the passionate Juechter and team got the green light to produce a seventh-generation, mid-engine 'Vette.

The Great Recession and GM’s resulting financial emergency squashed it.

“In retrospect, it was probably a blessing because there were a lot of things we had to learn with the aluminum body in addition to learning production the mid-engine car,”  Charles said.

Instead of producing a mid-engine C7 post-bankruptcy, the team stuck with the front-engine architecture. But for the first time, they crafted it from aluminum. That meant GM brought aluminum construction in-house for the first time, a huge investment in know-how that would ultimately benefit the C8.

“It’s glued and screwed, as we say,” said Juechter. “You build the running chassis, then you put the exterior panels on last like a race car. We learned those construction techniques from the C7.”

Perhaps most significantly, the bankruptcy — for all its stress — honed the team’s mid-engine pitch to go back to leadership for a second bite at the mid-engine apple.

The Corvette team knew its demographic was aging. New generations of car buyers aspire to mid-engine cars: Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche. But the typical Corvette buyer also worried about losing the practicality the ‘Vette offered: affordability, interior room, cargo space.

“We took a step back. What if we could make this a unique, mid-engine car?” said Charles. “Keep the things that people like about the Corvette: the small-block V-8, the power-to-weight ratio, the ability to take it cross-country. Add the exotic experience of a mid-engine car ... with the road in your lap, quick steering, no weight on the front.

"If we can put those attributes together, and make it attainable ...  you really have a car that no one else can match.”

Mid-engine supercars are cool. But cool isn’t a business case. Management liked the team’s business pitch.

“We had no ‘cool’ description in any of our presentations. It was tactical, business, functional, physics-driven,” remembers Juechter. “Here’s why it makes sense for us.”

The C8 was on.

The engineers and designers rave about the car’s state-of-the-art attributes: dual-clutch automatic transmission, aluminum spine, upscale interior and that mid-engine athleticism.

“The whole car rotates better — it’s just pinned in the back,” marvels Juechter. “It’s surprisingly stable, it feels super nimble. It’s actually better than we anticipated.”

For all its modernity, there is also a nod to the middiecar's GM history.

“We kept (the old prototypes) in the studio for inspiration. The Astro II is one of our favorites,” exterior designer Kirk Bennion said. “We had the Aerovette out, the Indy, we had them all out.”

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.