Yesterday the Facebook Coachbuilding & Concepts page had this post:
Along with the Mercedes Benz C111, for me the Chevrolet Aerovette shares the distinction of being the best automobiles never manufactured. Just LOOK at it! It defines the expression “What a concept!” The Aerovette was everything good that William Mitchell ever thought of, and none of the bad, IMO. It’s magnificent from every angle, and 40 years later it STILL looks futuristic, yet not “Buck Rogers”…just the kind of futuristic that one can imagine as something really coming down the road ahead. Ironically, it shared with the C111 the doomed-yet-so-promising Wankel engine design, which makes them both even more interesting and special.
One looks at the Aerovette and can’t help but wonder, regarding it and what it could have meant to the Corvette, and GM’s fortunes as a whole; what if?
Readers of this blog are familiar with the Corvettes that could have been, but weren’t, and this might be the most famous of them.
I saw this for the first time in the November 1973 Motor Trend magazine, which featured the more conventional-looking two-rotor concept, designed by Pininfarina …
… and the four-rotor. Both were powered by Wankel rotary engines, which GM was trying to develop (as was AMC; the rotary was supposed to power the Pacer, believe it or don’t), until GM dropped the idea due to poor fuel economy and emissions. The two-rotor, called the XP-897, was never developed further, while the four-rotor, called the XP-822, was later powered by a 400 V-8.
How Stuff Works waxes rhapsodic:
The Aerovette displayed a strongly triangulated “mound” shape, deftly balanced proportions, and artful surface detailing. “Gullwing” doors harked back to the original Mercedes 300SL coupe but were articulated for easier operation in tight parking spots.
The interior was more fully engineered than the typical concept car, another indication that the Aerovette was indeed a serious production prospect.
The process to make the Aerovette production-ready moved swiftly. A full-scale clay was ready by late 1977, and tooling orders were about to be placed. The showroom model would have had a steel frame with Duntov’s clever transverse driveline and probably a 350 V-8, which was then Corvette’s mainstay engine.
Transmissions would have likely been the usual four-speed manual and three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic, and suspension would have come off the old “Shark” per Duntov’s original cost-cutting aim.
So despite its complex gullwing doors, the Aerovette wouldn’t have cost a whole lot more to build than a front-engine Corvette. Indeed, 1980 retail price was projected in the $15,000-$18,000 range.
Best of all, the gorgeous styling would have survived completely intact. As Mitchell later confirmed: “The only difference between the Aerovette and its production derivation was an inch more headroom. Otherwise it was the same.”
But once more, the mid-engine Corvette was not to be. There were several reasons. First, the project lost its two biggest boosters when Duntov retired in 1974 and Mitchell followed suit three years later. Ed Cole was gone by then, too.
A further blow came from Duntov’s successor, David R. McLellan, who preferred the front/mid-engine concept over a rear/mid layout for reasons of packaging, manufacturing economy, even on-road performance.
But the deciding factor was sales — or rather the likely lack of same. Though Porsche, Fiat, and other import makes had all proffered midengine sports cars for several years, none had sold very well in the United States.
Datsun, meanwhile, couldn’t build enough of its admittedly cheaper front-engine 240Z — as GM bean-counters evidently observed. Simply put, the midengine design was too risky.
The Aerovette was certainly inspired by the C111 …
… of which is written:
Let’s just say that Mercedes Benz will never again reach the height of engineering and design brilliance that this line of concepts-intended-for-production attained, especially not the cheapened, devalued Mercedes Benz of today.
That is the unintended consequence of the brief Daimler-Chrysler company, in which, instead of Mercedes’ improving Chrysler’s quality, Chrysler dragged down Mercedes’ quality. (The fact Chrysler is owned by Fiat, another company not known for the quality of its products, should give pause to those contemplating new Chrysler purchases.)
Such cars as the Aerovette are called “dream cars,” because, in part, you’re dreaming to think that Chevrolet or GM could have pulled off such a technologically complex car in the 1970s, regardless of How Stuff Works’ claims. A car of $15,000 to $18,000 would have been the most expensive ever built by GM, for one thing, introduced into the weak economy of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
GM’s build quality being what it was then, it’s impossible for me to imagine that GM could have gotten those articulated doors to work correctly for volume manufacturing. Other cars of that era and beyond have gull-wing doors too, but those weren’t built in any quantity, and their price tags were deep into five digits.
The 4oo V-8, the largest of GM’s small blocks, doesn’t have a great reputation either. The most powerful Corvette of the late ’70s had the L-82 350 V-8, with 220 horsepower. The 400 V-8, when it powered full-size Chevys and pickup trucks, actually had less horsepower. (The 454 V-8, on the other hand, had 240 horsepower.) The 400s also had poor cooling due to their thin cylinder walls, since the 400 had the biggest cylinders of any small-block. (The first Corvette V-8, which was 265 cubic inches, and the 400 used the same cylinder block design. So did the 350, which in my experience is an engine you literally cannot kill.)
And that 400 V-8 was in a mid-engine car. How many mid-engine cars had GM built to that point? None. The only non-front-drive car GM had was the Chevy Corvair, which had a rear-engine design. (A rear-engine car puts the engine behind the back wheels, while a mid-engine car has the engine somewhere between the front and rear axles.) The Corvair died thanks in large part to the libel of non-driver Ralph Nader, even though, you’ll notice, Porsche still builds rear-engine rear-drive cars four decades after the Corvair’s demise. Again, to think that GM could have gotten a mid-engine/rear-drive car right in those days is a triumph of hope over experience.
Let’s step inside for a minute:
That box in front of the steering wheel is not a TV, it’s the instrument panel. GM put digital instruments into some GM cars in the 1980s, including the C4 Corvette. Today, C4s often have their digital instrument panels die, and some people have gone so far to replace them with conventional needled dials. (Which GM did with the C5 Corvette; the two digital instrument panels of the C4 were roundly panned in the car press.) Other GM cars with digital instruments experienced LED death, while others with related gadgets, such as radio controls on steering wheels, had interesting (if it doesn’t happen to you) things happen when such unintended substances as rain water were introduced. (In one case I’m familiar with, after windows were left open before a sudden rain, the owner of the car had to drive the car with the radio at full volume, and the radio could not be shut off.)
Mid-engine cars are cool; there’s no question about that. GM could theoretically get perfect 50/50 weight distribution out of the Aerovette. GM also could have screwed up the car completely, either by bad design (the Corvair turned out to be a good-handling car only when owners had the rear suspension modified to stick the bottom of the rear wheels far outboard) or by excessive part-cheapening, (GM was doing such stupid things as increasing rear-seat elbow room by taking out roll-down rear-door windows.) GM had enough trouble building mass-market cars in these days; a badly executed Aerovette could have sold so poorly that it could have killed the Corvette brand entirely.
The McLellan quote also points out the folly of fixing that which is not broken. Even though the late 1970s Vettes were weak in power compared to Vettes before or since, the best sales year for the Corvette was 1979 — 53,807. GM management must have looked at the good ’70s sales figures and asked why what was not broken should be fixed. GM also had two substantially bigger priorities, the downsized full-size cars (which were great) and then mid-sized cars (which were less so) and then compact cars (the horrid X-Bodys).
It’s fun to imagine a mid-engine Corvette. It is also a car that will remain in your imagination and not anywhere else.