Mid-engine memoir: How and why Don Sherman became a Corvette clairvoyant
Some would say I’ve crossed that fine line distinguishing fan from fanatic. My adoring wife, for example, has banned dinner conversation related to mid-engine sports cars in general and future Corvettes in particular. Never mind the fact that I bring bread to our table by convincing magazine editors to print my soothsayings, she’s heard all she wants to know about the merits of locating the Vette’s engine behind the driver.
Hear me out before you decide whether therapy for this affliction is warranted. I am the product of a half-century of stalking sports car truth and beauty.
My odyssey began in 1969 during my U.S. Army service at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Car and Driver’s Patrick Bedard, whom I knew from back home in Iowa and who unwittingly served as my mentor, planted the kit-car seed in my mind. Although his personal stab at constructing a home-built failed, as most do, he referred me to contemporary car magazine ads offering tantalizing alternatives to store-bought Porsches and Ferraris. Most of these do-it-yourself fantasies were erected atop a shortened Volkswagen Beetle chassis, an approach that didn’t interest me. Rather, I reached for the top shelf: Fiberfab’s Valkyrie GT, a blatant forgery of Ford’s stunning GT40, which was then enjoying a hot streak at Le Mans.
Building that car started out as a means of staying semi-sane in the Army. But the final consequences exceeded my fondest aspirations. This $1900 Fiberfab kit married a mid-mounted Chevrolet small-block V-8 to a steeltube frame under a fiberglass body.
After convincing Yuma’s craft shop supervisor that my project deserved one of his precious auto-repair bays, I found the required Corvair suspension and driveline parts and Mustang greenhouse glass at a local salvage yard. The 327-cubic-inch Chevy V-8 came from a fellow GI; other buddies made welding and machining contributions. A requisitioned propellant can became the fuel tank.
Halfway through construction, I determined my Valkyrie was ready for a shakedown run, despite its lack of rear bodywork, doors, glass, or throttle cable. I blasted out of the craft shop with a riding mechanic goosing the carburetor while I steered, shifted, and braked. The sound of my unmuffled V-8 running amok, and the blast of air through the windshield opening made me feel like “Lucky Lindy” on final approach to Le Bourget.
After 18 months of toil, my craft-shop special was ready and able to haul me 1800 miles back to civilian life. Although suspension tuning and handling dynamics were still mysteries at this stage of my life, my Fiberfab achievement moved Bedard to hire me as Car and Driver’s technical editor in 1971. I wrote about the Valkyrie for C/D’s November issue that year.
The proving ground caper whetted my appetite for the next five decades of mid-engine sports cars. A few highlights: I cut my teeth as a car tester in a De Tomaso Pantera. At the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, Bedard and I hot-lapped a race-prepped Porsche 914/6. On a trip to Stuttgart, I savored the Mercedes-Benz “Wall of Death” test track with the brilliant Rudolf Uhlenhaut at the wheel of a Wankel-powered C111 prototype.
In 1987, I left Car and Driver to commence a 23-year journey as an independent journalist. My 1991 dream assignment from Britain’s Supercar Classics was to drive all four editions of the aforementioned Ford GT40. George Stauffer of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, magnanimously supported the project with exotic mid-engine machinery from his collection. I drove his Mark I, formerly owned by the Fittipaldis, at Blackhawk Farms Raceway near Chicago. The Mark II in which I lapped Road America was the illustrious ’66 Le Mans winner driven by Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren. The street-legal Mark III I drove around Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, was originally Ford Motor Company’s gift to race team boss John Wyer. Stauffer’s Mark IV was still adorned with stickers from its ’67 victory at Sebring with Mario Andretti and Bruce McLaren at the wheel. Unfortunately, my stint in that racer was at the end of a tow rope because the engine had no oil pressure.
After Corvette patron saint Zora Arkus-Duntov retired from General Motors, I talked myself into his home for a Corvette Quarterly interview during which Arkus-Duntov patiently answered the question prompting my visit: What exactly triggered the two decades you invested in mid-engine Corvette development?
Unfortunately, GM policies and politics conspired against Arkus-Duntov, and he died in 1996 without seeing his dream reach production. That left the mid-engine mission in the hands of fanatics like me and current Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter. It’s been a tough grind, but we’re making progress toward a noble end. To pay my Corvette club dues, I purchased a frazzled ’67 big-block roadster and restored it to full cover-car glory.
On our Italian honeymoon, my bride and I waltzed Ferrari’s Fiorano test track in a feisty F40. At various other times, two mid-engine sports cars hurled me over 200 mph. The prince was a $1.9-million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport that accelerated to 201.7 mph at a Mojave Mile event. The pauper was a Kelmark kit car that puked its 737-hp big-block V-8 just after reaching 7500 rpm and 203 mph at the Transportation Research Center in Ohio.
One of my favorite tasks has been fanning the mid-engine flame with news reports of future Corvettes years before they roll across the auto-show stage. Spy photographer Jim Dunne and I collaborated on an early look at the C4 Corvette for C/D’s June 1981 cover. Motor Trend’s editor was skeptical of my two-years-early C5 scoop in ’95, until timely photos arrived on his desk. In 2008, I told the C7 story in Automobile, along with exterior designs imagined by students attending Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. Once concrete plans were in place for a mid-engine eighth-generation Corvette, I convinced C/D’s editor to announce the news in 2014. We staged a contest among three world-class mid-engine sports-car designers to supplement my in-depth hardware prognostications.
Flushing GM’s secrets has been a challenge. Obvious sources, such as Juechter, know better than to leak strategic information. He did, however, provide his home address after I offered to send him the latest good Corvette news to hit print. Inevitably, his wife tired of my ringing their doorbell to deliver such gifts on those (frequent) occasions when I lacked the patience to rely on the mailman.
One of my favorite tactics is blurting out the odd secret tidbit while carefully monitoring the ensuing reaction. The twinkle of an eye, the twitch of a lip, can be telling evidence the conjecture is at least partly correct. This technique has worked well with two GM vice-presidents: global product chief Mark Reuss and global design chief Michael Simcoe.
A Tremec engineer recently confirmed that the dual-clutch transaxle shown on his company’s new-products website was destined for Corvette use. Brembo brake experts smile knowingly at every reference to a C8. One shipping clerk and three competitive analysis experts who left GM to join C/D were all putty in my hands. During one racing weekend, I bumped into a woman employed at GM’s crash-analysis lab who had witnessed a C8 prototype bang the barrier.
Over the years, I’ve contrived a network of 20 or more accomplices. Whenever mules break cover for testing, helicopter pilot Chris Doane’s eyes are in the sky to photograph the latest camouflage fashions. Autoextremist.com proprietor Peter DeLorenzo has kindly provided valuable insights based on his personal experience and wealth of GM sources. Keith Cornett of CorvetteBlogger.com has generously shared his juiciest discoveries.
To keep the mid-engine faith vital, I’ve passed it on to the next generation. When my son Steven exceeded expectations by earning three University of Michigan engineering degrees in six years, I rewarded him with a pristine 1996 Acura NSX.
Last summer I was on a mission at the Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. A day or two before 2017 production shut down, I hoped to snag a hint of the coming C7 ZR1 and mid-engine C8. Alas, I was nearly evicted for taking a few notes during the tour.
To the crime of mid-engine fanaticism, I plead “not guilty” due to extenuating circumstances. When the 2020 mid-engine Corvette finally appears, vindication will be mine.