Rollin’ down the highway

This week apparently includes two anniversaries, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials:

state road signs

In 1924, AASHO recommended the adoption of uniform sign practices based to a large extent upon the action of the Mississippi Valley Conference, but distinguished colors for “luminous signs,” such as yellow for caution, red for “stop,” and green for safety. It was, however, some time before the “reflectorized” sign came into extensive usage, awaiting the development of economic and effective materials.

And, then…

In 1957, the Chief Administrative Officers of the several Member Departments were meeting in LaSalle, Illinois, on August 14, to attend a policy meeting dealing with the AASHO Road Test Project (more about that in a later post!) The occasion was used for these Administrators to view suggested route marker designs on a section of country road near the Road Test Project. They were viewed under night and day-time conditions, and after some discussion it was decided to adopt a marker that combined certain features of designs submitted by the States of Texas and Missouri. The Committee on Administration thereupon by unanimous vote adopted the official marker which is used on the routes of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways to this day.

Road signs have been another of my odd interests over time. (Which means I must have an interest in design, though there’s nothing I really can design other than meals.) Starting with a trip to Detroit (the Ford plant where the Mustang II was being made, the Kellogg’s cereal plant in Battle Creek — which you can’t tour anymore — and Greenfield Village, a must-see for gearheads), I would draw road signs as Dad drove the Caprice along whatever Interstate highway we were on.

The graphic is cool because it depicts the original design of state highway signs in all their variety. Wisconsin, as you know, was the first state to number its state highways (though county highways have letters, as you also know), though the first design wasn’t the triangle behind a square it was …

… a triangle. Wh0ever decided on that made a distinctive choice, though not a very usable design, which is how we got the square-over-triangle sign, which is at least original compared with circles (Iowa) or squares (other states).

The graphic shows that many states have, or had, state highway signs that either followed, or at least included, their state’s shape. (Including Minnesota.) I’ve always preferred that, though Wisconsin’s shape doesn’t exactly lend itself to such a design, except possibly in outline. (And why the Division of Motor Vehicles doesn’t use a Wisconsin shape in place of the dash on non-personalized license plates is something I don’t understand either.)

Speaking of Interstate highways …

Last week was the 56th anniversary of the opening of the first segment of Wisconsin’s first Interstate highway, I–94 between what now is Wisconsin 164/Waukesha County Y/Waukesha County JJ and Waukesha County SS.

Seven years later, on Oct. 27, 1965, Gov. Warren Knowles celebrated my impending five-month birthday by opening the last segment of I–94 between Madison and Milwaukee. In the pre-Interstate days, getting from Madison to Milwaukee required going on either Wisconsin 30 (pretty much the current I–94 route), or U.S. 18, which meant going through Cambridge, Jefferson, Oconomowoc and Waukesha to get to Milwaukee.

One year after the first part of I–94 opened, the first part of Interstate 90 opened, from the Illinois Tollway just south of the Wisconsin–Illinois state line to Janesville. The Interstate east of Madison (I–90 from U.S. 12/18 to I–94, and I–90/94 northward to the Dells and, eventually, Tomah) opened in 1961.

From the 1940s, when what became the Interstate Highway System began to be mapped out, I–94 was always intended to be a Twin Cities-to-Eau Claire-to-Madison-to-Milwaukee-to-Chicago route. I–90 was intended to be a Madison-to-Beloit route, but west from Madison things changed.

Notice that the freeway west from Milwaukee goes straight west. What became I–90 was originally supposed to follow U.S. 18’s approximate route into Iowa. Instead …

 

… I–90 went north to link to La Crosse and Rochester, Minn., saving money as well because of using the I–94 routing to Tomah. The original I–90 routing, or a proposal to have I–90 follow U.S. 14 from La Crosse to Madison via what now is the South Beltline, could have changed western and southwestern Wisconsin development substantially.

Speaking of the Beltline, according to the state Department of Transportation, its history dates back to first construction in 1949 of the “South Beltline” and “East Beltline,” which is U.S. 51, more commonly known as Stoughton Road. I had no idea the Beltline was that old. Obviously it was designed in a day before Madison took an official position against the automobile.

The red shows the Beltline and Madison in 1956. According to maps I’ve seen, by 1956 the Beltline was four lanes from Park Street (in the middle-lower right) west to about the curve west of Verona Road, where it didn’t get upgraded to four lanes until the late 1960s. (I always remember the West Beltline, which is technically from Park Street westward, as four lanes, though it was two lanes north of Mineral Point Road until the mid-2000s.

The Beltline comes to mind because a massive reconstruction project is under way at the Beltline–Verona Road interchange. The portion of U.S. 151 from east of Verona to the Beltline slows traffic down to stoplights. It is a huge bottleneck, and as usual the state is about 30 years behind upgrading that portion. Worse, in this case, because there is no good away around Verona Road, the project is taking place while traffic goes through it, both delaying construction and making the bottleneck even worse.

 

Change ≠ Progress, Future Corvette Edition

I got my new Car & Driver magazine in the mail earlier this week. And it reported on something I managed to miss from one month ago, passed on by Jalopnik:

Car & Driver’s depiction (actually done by a 15-year-old) of the supposed next Corvette.

GM’s head of global product development, Mark Reuss, confirms that the company is working on the next Corvette. Our sources elaborate on this salient piece of information, telling us that, after 61 years of evolution, the C8 will be revolutionary.

The new Corvette will be the mid-engined American Dream Machine that Chevy couldn’t, until now, muster the courage to build. In truth, the factory is still not prepared to detail what’s coming, which is why you’re looking at the 2017 model year through our freshly waxed crystal ball.

THE PLAN: The C8 flagship, the Zora ZR1, will debut the new mid-engine architecture. Launching as a 2017 model, it will define the top of the Corvette hierarchy just as its precursors did in 1990-1995 C4 generation and 2009-2013 C6 model years. As before, the ZR1 will be low volume, roughly 1500 units per annum, and high priced. We figure around $150,000.

Before I go on: Regular readers know I have a thing about the Corvette, though I have driven few and owned none. (I work in journalism, have kids, and to date have received exactly $0 from my supposed Vast Right Wing Conspiracy benefactors. And no one has gotten me one for my birthday or Father’s Day. And I have yet to see in the flesh the yellow convertible recently purchased by a member of my family, with the correct transmission, that really needs to come up here.)

So if you’ve read this blog, you know of my skepticism of mid-engine Corvettes (or more accurately Corvettes with engines behind the driver) such as …

XP-819

Astro II

XP-882

XP-895

The Pininfarina-designed prototype powered by a two-rotor rotary engine.

The four-rotor prototype, which with a 400 V-8 became the AeroVette prototype,

CERV III

Technically the Corvette has been a mid-engine — that is, the engine is mounted between the front and rear axles — since the C4 debuted in 1983. This obviously refers to a future Corvette with an engine in front of the back wheels, instead of behind the front wheels.

I truly believe that every car magazine publisher has a note in his desk that reads something like: “In case single-copy sales are lagging, do a NEW MID-ENGINE CORVETTE! story.” Car & Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Automobile and the others have resorted to what could be called “Corvette porn” — predictions that are fun to read and heighten anticipation, though they don’t actually happen — for decades. (This was particularly the case during the 15-year run of the C3 Corvette, which was due to be replaced by a new mid-engine Corvette any day now, or then.) Jalopnik calls the rear/mid-engine Corvette as “the automobile magazine’s white whale; an elusive beast that always seems so close and yet, always, just of reach.”

One of the two reasons I remain skeptical about a mid-engine Corvette is that GM already sells every front-engine Corvette it makes today. The side view of every mid-engine Corvette design except possibly the XP-882 and AeroVette shows a car with more back than front, which goes against every previous Corvette design. And there are enough people not enamored with the C7’s design; for some reason every alternative-looking version looks better than the actual animal.

The other is that I am extremely skeptical that GM could pull it off successfully. Fans of the idea of a mid-engine Corvette exaggerate, I think, GM’s ability to design a mid-engine car that works in today’s world. For instance, C&D reports that this C8 is likely to have all of 5 cubic feet of space in the front end and the rear end. C&D writes that “This will surely disappoint golfers who drive their C7s to the links with more than one set of clubs in their 10- to 15-cubic-foot cargo holds. The new Zora ZR1 will be for those who enjoy long drives without using clubs.”

Yeah, well, GM already has too many stories to tell of ignoring customers’ demands at GM’s own peril. Why not eliminate the sound system while you’re at it, and make drivers listen to nothing but the engine or their passenger? That’s the purist driving experience, after all.

You would think at some point car owners would get tired of being GM’s guinea pigs for technology not quite sorted out (the Vega’s melting aluminum engine, the Citation, Computer Command Control, Cross Fire Injection) when the car leaves the dealership. I can see maybe one-tenth of Chevy dealers being able to service a car with the engine in the wrong end. I can see service costs skyrocket, which would be good for GM and its Chevy dealers, but not so much for the owner.

C&D also reports that the C8 will not have a manual transmission, and won’t have a transmission designed by GM either, instead from the outside:

Our snooping suggests that the Corvette engineering group will develop just one transaxle for the initial phase of the C8 program, and that a dual-clutch automatic will be its choice. … After the inevitable weeping over the demise of the manual, life in Bloomington will continue. Mourners will probably be in the minority anyway — 65 percent of new Stingrays are delivered with automatics.

That’s a rather arrogant statement, whether it comes from C&D or its unnamed inside source(s). (The story was written by their veteran technical director, Don Sherman.) If two-thirds of C7 buyers are ordering automatics, then one-third are specifying manuals not because they’re faster than automatics, but because the driving experience is superior. Essentially GM is saying that manual drivers need not plunk down their money, which is a strange attitude for a corporation saved by taxpayer dollars, and a company that really needs to be more, not less, responsive to the public.

Then there’s this:

Alternative power sources are planned to keep the Corvette viable when regulations clamp down more aggressively on fuel consumption. Potent V-6s with and without boost are inevitable. Moving the engine behind the cockpit clears space for an electric motor to drive the front wheels; by 2020, a four-wheel-drive Corvette hybrid is a distinct possibility.

This is where I get off the train. GM, remember, has had more of its vehicles recalled in the past year than its entire 2013 production total, and for a rather simple (though potentially fatal) problem, bad ignition switches. GM’s hybrid, remember, is the money-losing Volt. GM has one, and only one, mid-engine car in its entire existence, the 1980s Pontiac Fiero.

Up until now, the Corvette’s success has been in large part not because of state-of-the-art technology, but because of high refinement of proven technology — for instance, pushrod V-8s instead of double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, except for the King of the Hill ZR1. (And even at that, C&D’s long-term test Stingray blew its engine at 6,000 miles, apparently because of a bad oil filter. Their engine was replaced under warranty; had the engine blown five years from now, you would have paid upwards of $100,000 for an expensive lump of fiberglass, carbon fiber and various other materials.) There used to be 6,000 Chevrolet dealers in the U.S., which meant you were pretty close to a dealer if something went wrong. And of course an entire aftermarket industry serving only Corvettes grew, but there is less you can buy to upgrade your Corvette because there is less the aftermarket can do.

The V-8, in small (up to 6.2 liters) or large (once up to 454 cubic inches) block size, carbureted (up to three) or fuel injected, has been part of the Corvette experience for all but its first two years of existence. If I wanted a V-6 and an automatic (and call it whatever you like, if it doesn’t involve a clutch pedal and the driver’s making every shift, it’s an automatic), I would buy a minivan. No automaker has proven that a turbocharged or supercharged gasoline engine lasts as long as a non-charged gas engine.

I am not one of these people who hates every advance in car tech. Fuel injection (now that it actually works) is superior to carburetors. I like air conditioning. I need tilt steering because of my size. But I have owned cars long enough to know that the older a car is, the more things stop working — sometimes things that prevent you from driving the car, but more often things that prevent you, absent a huge repair bill, from using the car as it was designed. (By the time our first Subaru Outback left the premises at 228,000 miles, one side marker light, the rear wipers, and various interior lights had stopped working. The cruise control on Outback number two has never worked in my six-year ownership experience.)

The irony is that the C4 and onward have each made great strides in turning the Corvette into a car you could conceivably drive every day. (If you have no more than one passenger, of course.) Purists don’t like the hatchback, but the aforementioned golf clubs, along with luggage for a weekend trip, groceries, or whatever else can now fit. Advances in traction control mean you could drive a Vette in a snowfall (assuming you have the right all-season tires). I don’t like the elimination of the hidden headlights in the C6 and C7, but at least owners don’t have to worry about them not working. The 2015 Corvette is EPA-rated at 29 highway mpg, and Corvettes have been at least in the mid-20s in highway mpg for years. And the price, as I’ve chronicled in this space, makes the Corvette the best high-performance bargain on the planet compared with its Porsche, Ferrari and other competition.

C&D reports that this Corvette will be sold with the existing C7 until it’s phased out around 2020. When that happens, all Corvettes will be mid-engined, all apparently will have automatics, and some may not even have V-8s. I’d question whether this is progress, but I’m betting I won’t be able to afford a C8 of any kind anyway due to the obvious steep price increase for all the new, yet unproven, GM technology.

 

Crash for Clunkers

The Daily Caller reports:

“Cash for Clunkers,” the 2009 Obama administration stimulus program designed to spend $2.85 billion to jumpstart the auto industry, turned out to be a complete disaster — for the auto industry.

In the minds of Obama’s team of advisers and economists, the program made total sense, of course. The plan was to dangle a $4,500 credit to persuade car owners to trade in their older automobiles for new cars with better fuel efficiency. It would stimulate an economy then in the midst of a deep recession. As a bonus, it would mean less oil consumption and cleaner-running cars.

The law of unintended consequences is a brutal thing, though, especially for inexperienced, shortsighted policymakers.

According to the findings of three Texas A&M University economics professors, “Cash for Clunkers” ultimately caused auto industry revenue to shrink by about $3 billion in less than a year

The professors issued the results of their research last month in a National Bureau of Economic Research-sponsored working paper entitled “Cash for Corollas: When Stimulus Reduces Spending.”

“This highlights how — even over a relatively short period of time — a conflicting policy objective can cause a stimulus program to instead have a contractionary net effect on the targeted industry,” the trio of economists wrote, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch.

“By lowering the relative price of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, the program induced households to purchase vehicles that cost between $4,000 and $6,000 less than the vehicles they otherwise would have purchased.”

For one month, the nearly-$3 billion program increased the sales of tiny, low-profit-margin vehicles. In the next few months, though, all sales faded rapidly.

Overall, the Obama administrative initiative produced exactly no net increase for the number of automobiles Americans purchased. …

In October 2013, researchers from the Brookings Institution came to a similar conclusion, notes The Washington Post.

In a paper called “Cash for Clunkers: An Evaluation of the Car Allowance Rebate System,” the generally centrist think tank’s Ted Gayer and Emily Parker similarly determined that the Obama administration scheme failed to stimulate the economy. To the extent the program improved the air quality and the environment, Gayer and Parker wrote, the cost was exorbitant.

That isn’t even a complete analysis of the trainwreck that was Cash for Clunkers, as two comments remind us:

  • Unmentioned in this piece is the effect which CforC had on used car pricing and who was impacted. Used car Inventories declined precipitously due to the destruction of “trade ins” thus resulting in a price spike which adversely affected those least able to buy a new car e.g. the underclass and first time car buyers.
  • Then there was also the loss of used vehicle parts, especially engines and transmissions. Those who needed those parts to keep their perfectly good cars running paid a premium, or weren’t able to repair them. America. Never ever vote for a utopian again. Period.

Wagons ho!

The Atlantic notices station wagon-like design in non-wagons:

At one point in America’s automotive history, the station wagon defined the typical modern, middle-class family. For more than 40 years, we trusted it to get us where we needed to go, to haul what needed to be hauled. And when it finally petered out, the station wagon left an indelible imprint on the future of automotive design. Station wagons in America bring to mind the gas-guzzling behemoth glorified in movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation; the unsexy byproduct of American families’ summer road trips; nightmares to teenagers and the rite-of-passage to middle-aged parenthood. But what we’ve come to identify with the station wagon has not always been the case.

According to Byron Olsen’s book, Station Wagons, the ultimate vacation vehicle is a uniquely American automotive design development with an origin almost as old as the automotive industry itself. …

After World War II, the era of summer family vacations began as many job benefits expanded to allow more time off. Car ownership became more widespread and new, government-funded highways were being built. Station wagons were there to meet the demand for family trips during the baby boom generation.

Car companies began making larger wagons—full-sized wagons—with six and nine-passenger seating to accommodate larger families and America’s newfound freedom of mass material consumption in the golden age of tourism. These full-sized wagons had forward-facing and rear-facing third row seats that folded down for hauling luggage, groceries and pretty much anything else, along with two-way and three-way tailgates with retractable windows, along with sliding roof panels, and liftbacks for versatility. Because of the widespread availability of station wagons, and the many different styles in which they were offered, they became a product more for functionality rather than style or status.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the popularity of the station wagon experienced an all-time high in the United States. But by the mid ‘70s, sales declined for a few reasons. The 1973 oil crisis—in which oil prices jumped from $3 a barrel to $12—didn’t help the cost of fueling the mighty V8 engines of these full-sized beasts.

And then the minivan happened. …

You don’t see too many station wagons on American roads these days. What you do see among the millions of minivans and SUVS are compact and fuel-efficient, sporty and sleek.

And they’re no longer called station wagons; rather, they are called sport wagons or crossovers, to avoid the embarrassing stigma of what modern-day parents remember from their childhoods.

However, were it not for the station wagon, which allowed consumers to have it all—utility, style and drivability—minivans, SUVS and even crossovers might not enjoy the popularity they do today. More than the minivan that replaced it, or the SUV, the station wagon wasn’t just a car; it was the epitome, at least for a while, of what it meant to be a modern American family.

For the modern American family in a hurry, Jalopnik helpfully compiled a list of the 10 fastest wagons of all time, including …

10.) Holden HSV Clubsport R8 Tourer

The Ten Fastest Station Wagons Ever Made

0-62 mph: 5.8 seconds

Top Speed: 160 mph

Available with a supercharged LS3, the HSV Tourer is Australia’s CTS-V Wagon. Only less fancy and more brutal.

Yes, it should have become a Pontiac.

9.) Dodge Magnum SRT8

The Ten Fastest Station Wagons Ever MadeExpand78

0-62 mph: 5.1 seconds

Top speed: 169 mph

Probably the fastest per dollar wagon.

Blue2010SRT:

A.k.a. the “unicorn” in the LX (Magnum/300/Charger) world. Very rare and still desirable. Good used ones don’t seem to stay on the market long.

0-60 in mid-high 4 second range with minor bolt-ons. …


8.) Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon

The Ten Fastest Station Wagons Ever MadeExpand91011

0-62 mph: 4 seconds

Top speed: 179 mph12

Not enough? Ring up John Hennessey. He can make it even less fuel efficient.

… that doesn’t include, for instance, Paul Newman’s and David Letterman’s Ford V-8-powered Volvo wagons.

On Collector Car Appreciation Day

Feel free to read my accumulated works on really big cars, coupes, station wagons, Chevrolets, PontiacsCadillacs, AMCs, other dead car brandskinds of cars you don’t see anymore, cars of dubious collector value, Mustangs, and, of course, Corvettes.

On a related note, you can also read about cars in movies and TV, including, of course, Corvettes. And you can read about songs about cars and songs for driving.

 

Oh look! Another crisis!

Geoffrey Norman delves into the world of Washington logic:

Washington needs more money and if it doesn’t get it, your morning commute will become:

a) more expensive

b) more unpleasant

c) both

The problem, you see, is that the Highway Trust Fund is “going broke,” by the Beltway’s curious definition of the phrase.  It is sort of the way that after a round of painful “cuts,” spending somehow still goes up.

The Highway Trust Fund takes in more than 18 cents on every gallon of gasoline sold in this country, so there is plenty of revenue.  Just not enough to meet Washington’s needs and desires.  People are driving more fuel efficient cars and with gas already around $4 a gallon, not taking the trips they might otherwise take. So instead of having the $50 billion that Congress budgeted, the trust fund is looking at $34 billion.

So cuts are coming, possibly as soon as August, and, as Keith Laing of The Hill reports:

Those cuts could leave drivers facing congested or damaged roads, sparking anger ahead of November’s midterms.

Sort of like closing down the monuments during one of those government shutdowns. The idea being to inflict immediate pain. …

Gasoline is not a discretionary item in the budget of most Americans.  Making it more expensive means there will be less to spend elsewhere.  The people calling for urgent measures to keep the trust fund from going broke say they are concerned about jobs.”  Theirs.

One wonders just how much pork a penny a gallon in new taxes would buy.

No talk, of course, of privatizing.  Using the tolls mechanism.

Just more taxes.  For jobs.

Tolls are controversial, to say the least. But if you’re not hearing about tolls, you’re also not hearing about the novel concept of actually spending transportation fund money on transportation-related expenses. Tom Gantert passes on this:

However, Jonathan Williams, director of the Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force of the American Legislative Exchange Council, studied the Highway Trust Fund in 2007 and found that gas taxes have been spent on far more than just crumbling highways. This raises concerns over how Highway Trust Fund money would be spent if taxes are increased.

Williams found that Highway Trust fund dollars have been spent on things such as public education, museums, parking garages and graffiti removal. He said it is premature to increase gas taxes until Americans can be assured the money would be spent on legitimate road construction projects.

“There’s just so much diversion of funds,” Williams said.

Nothing has changed since Williams’s study. Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, raised similar concerns in testimony in May to the Senate Finance Committee.

“There is no reason to raise the federal gas tax,” Edwards said. “You send the money to Washington, a lot of it gets lost in paper work and bureaucracy and pork-barrel politics.”

In his testimony, Edwards noted, since the 1970s, “fuel taxes have been siphoned off for non-highway purposes, particularly with the creation of the transit program in 1982. About one-quarter of HTF spending today is for non-highway purposes.”

O’Toole said in the last decade, Congress has diverted $55 billion of gas tax revenues to public transit.

“Congress has until the end of August to do something about the dwindling Trust Fund and until October 1 to reauthorize the gas tax,” O’Toole said. “Unless fiscal conservatives apply intense pressure, Congress is most likely to throw more General Funds at the Trust Fund and extend the current bad system another two years.”

Another way to spend less on road projects is to repeal the federal Davis–Bacon Act, which requires paying prevailing (that is, union-level) wages on road projects that receive federal funding, thus drastically increasing the cost of road projects. There is no reason for taxpayers to have to foot the bill for union wages.

The other thing that you won’t hear Obama parasites admit is that maybe gas tax revenues are down because people are taking fewer discretionary trips — for instance, vacations — in the Obama economy with gas prices heading back toward $4 a gallon. Of course, cutting back on vacations is a foreign concept to Barack and Michelle.

 

 

Better in theory than in likely practice

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.