The 1973 mid-engine Corvette “Aerovette” was another concept developed by GM in a line of experimental prototypes as part of the Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle (CERV) program, where engineers tested various engine placements and chassis layouts – and most often a mid-engine setup. We’ve captured some exclusive shots of the Aerovette at an outdoor auto show to enjoy.
Unlike many other concepts, the Aerovette was actually approved for production for the 1980 model year. But drivers the world over would have to wait four more decades before getting the Chevy Corvette C8, which debuted in 2019 for the 2020 model year as the first-ever production mid-engine version of America’s sports car.
Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane to see how the Aerovette almost won that claim to fame.
Zora Arkus-Duntov was a Chevy staff engineer, designer, and race car driver who started development of the CERV I in 1959, which was unveiled to the public at the Riverside International Raceway in November 1960 as GM’s first mid-engine effort. While Harley Earl designed the Corvette and has been called the “Father of the Corvette,” that title is most often attributed to Duntov.
Duntov described the CERV I as “a design without limit,” saying that it was an “admirable tool” to describe what Chevy should apply to the Corvette. The design was equipped with no less than seven different engine combinations, with the original being a Chevy small block V8 Duntov had helped to develop alongside Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole.
About a decade later, the 1971 Corvette XP-882 was the prototype that nearly ushered in our mid-engine dreams. It looked production-ready, but was nothing more than a concept. Its design was an evolution of the C3 Corvette body, with the cab moved forward to accommodate the engine being moved behind the driver, which resulted in a more rounded profile.
In 1972, development work resumed on the XP-882, labeled the XP-895. Unexpectedly, the small block V8 was replaced with a transverse-mounted four-rotor Wankel engine created from combining a pair of prototype two-rotor engines that had been developed for the Chevy Vega.
The body was redesigned again into what became the Aerovette, and a prototype with the 420-horsepower four-rotor Wankel was featured in a GM video before that engine went the way of the Vega, being axed due to soaring fuel prices. Ironically, a 400 cubic-inch/6.6L V8 was selected to replace it – not exactly a fuel-sipper. In 1973, the Aerovette received the green light for production for the 1980 model year, but powered by GM’s vaunted small block 350 cubic-inch/5.7L V8, mated to a Turbo Hydramatic transmission.
But as before, the relatively high cost of production and small perceived benefit to performance, along with historically poor sales of imported mid-engine cars in the U.S., led GM to cancel the XP-895 Aerovette.
The 1973 Corvette Aerovette Experimental resides today in the GM Heritage Center. Here is a close-up look at this production-ready version with the V8 and see how it compares to Vettes of the past and the current C8 Corvette.
The front of the Aerovette mirrors the design of the C3 Corvette, especially the later years when the chrome bumper was dropped. This is not surprising since the Aerovette was designed while the C3 was in production. The design of course includes hidden headlights, the V-shaped and pointed front, and long creased hood – though proportionally the hood is not quite as long as other Vettes since this is a mid-engine car. Near the top of the hood, we find two circles along with two sets of small vent slits above and outside of those.
It also features a deep-V windshield, angled at 72 degrees, as part of the greenhouse that wraps around the sides. GM claimed a “low coefficient of drag of 0.325,” though most vehicles these days are actually well below that, including sedans.
Below the front end are two wide grille sections – even though this is a mid-engine Corvette – with square fog lights set behind the louvers.
The side of the Aerovette reveals an interesting departure from past concepts and all production Corvettes. First, it featured bi-wing gull-wing doors. The doors were opened using hidden handles down in the center of the door and then manually lifted up. That old GM video made the claim, “exit and entrance is simple.”
Second, it had fixed side windows to reduce body weight. Another measure included stationary power seats that could only move up and down, accompanied by power pedals that could be adjusted to fit the driver, and a steering column, wheel, and instrumentation panel that could be manually adjusted by the driver “in a single motion.” Further weight reduction came from a steel and aluminum body of birdcage construction with fiberglass skin. Inside, it featured an on-board computer system and fully digital instrument cluster accessed by control on the center console.
The design also features a soft crease that wraps all the way around the car, but more pronounced than the C3 Corvette. And flared fenders that harken to the C3 house Corvette-esque alloy wheels. In front of the rear wheels, down low, is an intake vent, but much less pronounced than the higher, larger side vents of the C8.
The side profile reveals a soft, symmetrical curve from bumper-to-bumper, with equal front and rear proportions afforded by moving the engine from the front toward the middle of the vehicle. It was a modern iteration of the Corvette of its time.
Out back, the design of the Aerovette is all Vette, from the C3 generation onward, but is longer and sweeps back more since this is a mid-engine iteration. That also means that this is not a hatchback like other Vettes.
Also, where the rear quarter glass window would be, the car features open glass louvers to allow the venting of engine heat. An upright rear glass inside separates the engine from the passenger compartment, and a rear glass out back covers the small-block V8 engine, proudly displaying it like the C8 Corvette does. This model features chrome valve covers and a small air filter cover with the Corvette prominently displayed on it. Underneath the engine cover window are two rows of long, horizontal rectangles going down to the end of the engine hatch. Below that is a small trunk.
Very low in the back are two blacked-out taillights, one on each side, which is a departure from every other Vette. You’ll find no connection here to the telltale four taillights of every other Corvette. It also reveals four center exhaust pipes like the C7 Corvette, but these are straight chrome pipes coming out from underneath without a diffuser.
Overall, the design of the Aerovette lives up to its name, clearly showing a heritage to the Corvette. That makes sense as the Aerovette was at one point green-lighted for production as our first-ever mid-engine Vette – a vision finally realized in the C8 Corvette Stingray.