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lllustrated Corvette Series No. 151 - "Frank Winchell's Mid-Engine Corvettes"
In the summer of 2009, the Corvette blogosphere was abuzz with speculation about a possible C7 Corvette. GM’s much-publicized financial challenges had many Corvette fans pondering the fate of the iconic sports car. In a chat-room Q&A with GM CEO Fritz Henderson, I asked if and when we might see a C7. His response was that product planners had a lot of exciting things in the works for the car. Since the 1960s, speculation about the “next” Corvette has always led to a discussion of a mid-engine configuration. Back in the ‘60s, weight distribution and traction were the major advantage of such a drivetrain layout. But thanks to undreamed-of advances in tires and suspension controls, the disadvantages of a mid-engine placement now far outweigh the advantages.
When it comes to early Corvette history, men such as Bill Mitchell, Ed Cole, and Zora Arkus-Duntov cast very long shadows over the storyline. While these and other men definitely steered the overall direction of the Corvette toward their own visions, they did not design every aspect of the car. While Duntov got the lion’s share of attention for pushing the mid-engine effort, there was another power player who was all but invisible to the public: Chevrolet Chief of Engineering Frank Winchell. Many inside GM and Chevrolet wanted to design Corvettes, but Winchell had some unusual design perspectives.
Unlike Duntov, Winchell was comfortable being a low-profile corporate man. He felt he could get more done that way. Those who worked with both men said that while Duntov managed with love and enthusiasm, nobody worked “with” Winchell; they worked “for” him. While Duntov and Winchell respected each other, they often locked horns over design concepts. Winchell guided the designs of three unique mid-engine concept Corvettes, which we’ll cover here.
While GM did not officially race cars, the company did manage a backdoor system for assisting select racers. Jim Hall of Chaparral Cars ran one of these unofficial road-racing outfits. The first joint effort between the two produced a slick-looking car that unfortunately had lots of front-end lift. Their second effort produced a car with a much more nose-down attitude; it was called the Corvette GS-II. The initial version was build on a thin-gauge steel monocoque chassis. Once the basic design was worked out, an aluminum version was created with an ultra-thin fiberglass body, a small-block Chevy engine, and an automatic transmission. The total weight was just 1,450-pounds, and the car had a top speed of 198 mph.
Hall used the basic design as a platform for his Chaparral race cars. Many were suspicious of the aluminum chassis, but Hall called it “an eyeball jiggler” because it was so rigid. After a GS-IIb version was created, work on the project ended.
Winchell’s next shot at a mid-engine car came as a result of an argument with Duntov. Winchell contended that if you put an aluminum engine behind the rear axle, and added the correct oversized rear tires and suspension, the car would offer superior handling. Duntov disagreed. After the basic locations of the car’s major components were established, Larry Shinoda was brought in to “make it look pretty.” Considering that Shinoda had to cover a small-block engine hanging off the rear axle, the car didn’t look bad, and a prototype was built. The running car handled great—up to the tires’ breaking point, when it would oversteer wildly. The car ultimately crashed in testing when production-size tires were tried on a wet track. After the wreck, the pieces were sent to Smokey Yunick’s shop to be used as a starting point for a new race car he wanted to build (but never did). The pile of scrap was later discovered by some Corvette enthusiasts who recognized with it had once been. They bought the basket case and refurbished it with a cast-iron small-block Chevy. Reportedly, it does excellent wheelies!
By ‘68 mid-engine mania had gripped Ford and even American Motors. When Chevrolet officials learned that Ford was developing the Mach II mid-engine Mustang, they had to do something. Of all the mid-engine Corvette concepts Winchell dreamed up, the XP-880 was the closest to a production design yet. This time, an L36 427 was placed ahead of the rear axle and turned 180 degrees so the accessory parts would hang off the back of the engine. A steel backbone frame was created, with fuel tanks placed inside the center backbone. To make the car more realistic from a production standpoint, suspension and brake components were off-the-shelf Camaro and Corvette pieces. The two-speed automatic transaxle—sourced from a ’63 Tempest—was a glaring weak point. Stylists did a great job of making the XP-880 look like a Corvette. The roof looked like the new C3, and the front and rear fender humps definitely said “Corvette.” Initial track testing proved that the design had real potential. This time, Winchell got it right.
The car was painted Fire Frost Blue, dressed up with “Astro II” badges, and sent off to the ‘68 New York International Car Show. Many said that the XP-880 seriously upstaged the Mach II. Ultimately, the concept was rejected for two reasons. First, tooling costs would have added too much to the sales price. And second, the new C3 was selling just fine. It wasn’t broke, so Chevrolet wasn’t about to fix it.
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lllustrated Corvette Series No. 22 - 1964 Corvette - "Sweet Success"
After 12 model years, the Corvette was finally a sales success. 1961 sales hit a high mark of 10,939 units. Two years later, the stunning 1963 Corvette was sold to 21,513 customers. Now that made the GM bean counters happy! The demand for new Corvettes was so high that Chevrolet had to start a second production shift. Finally, there was a waiting list for Corvettes.
Normally, when a car hits the showroom floor, the manufacturer already has changes in the works. The new Sting Ray was no exception. What little criticism the '63 Corvette got, Chevrolet heard loud and clear. The biggest complaint was the Bill Mitchell split-rear window. One magazine said that it was just wide enough to conceal a motorcycle cop! So the split-window was soon history, making the '63 "Split- Window" Coupe one of the most valuable cars in Corvette history. The over-done, fussy, 1963 chrome trim was removed. Gone were the fake hood grilles, and the chrome trim from the A- pillars. The vents at the B-pillar were made functional. However, the vents on the front fenders still didn't function. The interior was toned down by eliminating the bright-center dials on all of the instruments.
There was also exciting new hardware offered in '64. Most obvious was the new optional knock-off aluminum wheels. The $322.80 wheels were only ordered on 806 Corvettes. The suspension was improved by adding new variable-rate springs that gave the car a reasonably soft ride under normal driving, but stiffened up when pushed in heavy cornering. Body and interior noise was reduced with improved insulator mounts, foil-backed firewall insulation and thicker fiberglass in the body's rear section.
Under the hood, buyers had their choice of four small-block engines. Power ratings of 250, 300, 365 and 375 horsepower were available. The hot setup was the L84 Fuel-Injection version for a stiff $538!
Ordered with the 188.30 four-speed and the $43.05 Posi rear, the '64 Corvette could be a potent customer. One automotive publication tested a fuel-injected '64 Corvette with 4.11:1 gears, clicking off 0-60 in only 5.6 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds at 100 mph! The Corvette Sting Ray was coming into its own in 1964, with more in store for 1965. - K. Scott Teeters
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Illustrated Corvette Series No. 23 - 1964 CERV II -
"Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle"
CERV II was Zora Arkus-Duntov's most exotic experimental car. Like the CERV I, this car was built with one thing in mind, competition.
For many years, Duntov's little rocket car held the Milford Proving Ground track record with an average speed of 206 mph! With short gearing, the CERV II would run 0-to-60 in 2.8 seconds. With Duntov's patented 4WD power train, the car wanted to be driven faster!
The original plan was to build six cars, three for competition and three spares. The construction of the car was truly ahead of its time. Some of the advanced features included four-wheel drive using a Powerglide torque converter for each end of the car, side-mounted fuel cells, a monocoque frame, low profile Firestone racing tires, and a 377 cubic-inch all aluminum V-8 using Hilborn injection, single overhead cams, making 500 horsepower.
The body was styled by Larry Shinoda and Tom Lapine. Unlike the Grand Sport, the CERV II was stable at speeds over 200 mph. It only needed a small spoiler on the rear deck. The wheelbase was only 90 inches, front and rear tracks were 53.5 inches, making the CERV II a short, wide car.
Jim Hall and Roger Penske both liked the car's unique handling and driver's position. When pushed to the limit, the CERV II would go into a very fast, flat spin. Much of the CERV II's technology was later used in the Chaparral 2D.
In 1970 a ZL-1 engine was fitted into the car for some "tire testing." Later, in 1989, the car was valued at over $1.5 million. All I can say is those dragster headers must have sounded awesome! - K. Scott Teeters
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lIlustrated Corvette Series No. 42 - 1964 XP-819
"Experimental Rear-Engine Corvette"
Car companies make prototype cars all the time. Most of these machines are never shown to the public. Corvette prototype cars often become very high-profile machines. Only a few were never shown, for good reason. The XP-819 was an engineering study used to prove a point concerning the correct direction for future Corvette development.
The XP-819 was the result of a clash between Zora Arkus-Duntov and engineer Frank Winchell, who'd been involved with the Corvair project. Winchell contended that you could make a balanced, rear-engine, V-8 powered sports car by using an aluminum engine and larger tires on the rear to compensate for the rear weight bias. Duntov adamantly disagreed. A loose design was drawn that received some very unflattering comments from Duntov and Dave McLellan. Winchell asked designer Larry Shinoda if he could make something beautiful with the layout, to which Shinoda told him that a tape drawing could be shown after lunch. Shinoda and designer John Schinella sketched out the basic shape shown here. Duntov asked Shinoda, "Where did you cheat?"
It didn't look "too bad", so a working prototype was ordered. Shinoda supervised the styling and Larry Nies' team of fabricators built the car. In only two months the XP-819 was on the test track.
It turned out that Frank Winchell's theory about rear-engine, V-8 cars didn't work out very well. However, Shinoda's design was well received. They were obviously into the "shark thing" and picked up styling points from the Chaparral cars. It even had wheels from a Chaparral.
This car was definitely a Corvette, even though the back end was big. Unfortunately, with all that weight behind the rear axle, it was only a matter of time before it crashed during a high-speed lane change test. The question of stability was answered, and the XP-819 was send off the the scrap bin...almost.
Oddly enough, GM sent the car to Smokey Yunick's shop in Daytona, Florida. The chassis was cut in half and usable parts were removed. What was left was stored in an unused paint booth as just "old junk." Years later, a Corvette collector was buying some parts from Yunick and offered to buy the junked XP-819.
So the pile of car scrap was rebuilt and finished as a streetable car, like a kit car. A cast-iron V-8 was used in place of the original all-aluminun engine. We're talking serious rear weight bias here. It's quick and now does awesome wheelies! - K. Scott Teeters