8 Corvette(ish) concepts you may or may not know

Chevrolet

Pull a thread on a sweater, and you may reduce it to a ball of yarn. When trying to unravel automotive history, you also sometimes end up with a yarn or two. Here’s an example: Perhaps because it was the only show car in the history of General Motors’ Motorama that actually became a car you could buy in showrooms, the Corvette earned such positive reception from the public that GM executives decided to green-light the concept. That legend is likely not true, at least the part about why the Corvette was approved for production.

Here’s the real story. Chevrolet brand manager Thomas Keating wanted a product to compete with the British sports cars, which had become popular in America following WWII thanks to GIs returning from the UK and Europe. The two-seat, rear-drive, open-top Vette certainly got a strong reception. A true part of Corvette lore concerns an attendee at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, where GM first showed the car, who was so impressed by the car’s potential and disappointed in its driveline (a six-cylinder engine and two-speed automatic transmission) that he wrote a letter to Chevrolet’s head engineer, Ed Cole, who hired the young engineer. His name was Zora Arkus Duntov, and he went on to become the Corvette’s chief engineer for decades.

Since that first Corvette show car (EX-52), concepts have played an important role in the history of the brand, shaping both production models and brand enthusiasm. To Corvette enthusiasts, Bill Mitchell’s 1959 Stingray and the Mako Shark II are almost as familiar as the Split Window or the C3. In my exploration of the mid-engine, all-wheel drive Corvette concepts that preceded the new, hybrid/AWD E-Ray, I came across a number of Corvette concepts that are worthy of attention. Some are better known than others, and not all of them are precisely Corvettes, but all of them had some kind of role in shaping the brand.

The Duntov Mule

duntov mule corvette first v8 EX-87
Cameron Neveu

First, let’s get back to Zora. After he was hired on at GM, he wrote a four-page memo encouraging his superiors to make cars that would appeal to the hot-rodders of his day. It was Duntov who convinced Cole to take the small-block, overhead-valve V-8 in development for Chevy sedans and put it into the Corvette, turning the two-seater into a true performance car. The result was EX-87, currently owned by Ken Lingenfelter and better known as the Duntov Mule.

Not only is EX-87 literally the first Corvette with a V-8 engine, but it also has a provenance and pedigree that is a bit hard to believe. The engineer tasked with installing that engine in a production ’54 chassis was three-time Indy 500 winner Mauri Rose. The famed operator of Daytona’s “Best Damn Garage in Town,” Smokey Yunick, was responsible for tuning the V-8 prototype. Duntov set speed records in it. The cut-down windshield, tonneau cover over the passenger seat, and tail fin (for high-speed stability) were also Duntov’s ideas, as was increasing the displacement of the engine from 265 to 307 cubic inches.

1961 Mako Shark I

corvette mako shark i and ii
Mako Sharks I (L) and II (R) General Motors

If you’re wondering why the Corvette was nicknamed Stingray, that’s because Bill Mitchell, who followed Harley Earl as GM’s head of styling, liked to go deep-sea fishing. He followed up 1959’s Stingray racer and show car with XP-755, the original Mako Shark.

Not as well known today as the Mako Shark II, which presaged the production version of the third-gen, or C3, Corvette (1968–82), the first Mako Shark was based on the second-gen car (C2). It had a streamlined front end that came to a point, six taillights, and an impressive paint job that faded, roof to rocker panels, from blue to white. The color scheme reproduced the coloration of the actual mako shark, an example of which was displayed by Mitchell in his office.

The way the story goes, when the styling team repeatedly failed to paint-match the shark’s colors to Mitchell’s satisfaction, they snuck into his office one night and repainted the fish to match the car.

1962 Corvair Monza GT

Yes, the Monza GT was branded as a Corvair concept and used an engine (an air-cooled, horizontally opposed turbocharged six-cylinder) from the production car—mounted in the middle, not the back, of the chassis. However, XP-777 and its open-roof sibling Monza SS, designed by Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine, may have been the first expression of the styling themes expressed in Mako Shark II and the third-generation Corvette. The chassis for the Monza GT was also the basis for the 1963 Corvette GS-II, also penned by Shinoda, and part of the Corvette Grand Sport racing program. While the GS-II never raced, it became the basis for Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2C racer.

1967 Astro I

General Motors

For 1967 Larry Shinoda took the design themes of the Monza GT and Monza SS to a radical extreme with the extremely low Astro I, also based on a Corvair. At just 35.5 inches tall, it is even lower than the Ford GT40. GM’s official history of the car says that it was “designed to investigate the visual potential of automobile aerodynamic characteristics” and that it “dramatically demonstrated the harmony that could be achieved between aesthetics and aerodynamics.”

With a roofline that low, ingress via conventional door was problematic, so roof and side glass were integrated into a clamshell that tilted rearward. To save driver and passenger from plopping down into such low seats, the chairs automatically raised when the canopy was opened and lowered as it retracted. Chevrolet said that the Astro I was powered by an experimental, overhead-cam version of the Corvair six-cylinder, but it’s not clear whether that engine was actually ever fitted to the Astro I.

1969 Manta Ray

Ronnie Schreiber

I’d like to show you a photo of what the 1965 Mako Shark II, XP-830, looks like today but that influential Corvette concept, also designed by Larry Shinoda, no longer exists—at least under that name.

For the 1969 Detroit Auto Show, Mitchell’s team modified the Mako Shark II into the Manta Ray concept, expanding the Corvette’s aquatic menagerie. The Manta Ray had a longtail rear end, a styling feature that would show up in the Aerovette family of concepts (we’ll get to those in a bit), a “sugar scoop” rear glass treatment, a flip-up roof panel, tiny side mirrors, pop-up turn signal lights, a deep front spoiler, and side exhaust pipes—the last perhaps intended as a nod to the original 1959 Stingray. The Manta Ray was powered by the aluminum-block ZL-1 engine developed by Chevrolet with Bruce McLaren for use in the Can-Am racing series.

A different, Studebaker, Manta Ray Mecum

In a bit of concept-car trivia, the Manta Ray Corvette was not the first Manta Ray car. In 1951, a couple of West Coast customizers, Glen Hire and Vernon Antoine, built a highly modified Studebaker called the Manta Ray that bears more than a little resemblance to Harley Earl’s famous LeSabre concept.

1973 Aerovette

paris auto show aerovette concept 1973
October, 1973 — Chevrolet Aerovette at the Paris Auto Show. Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

One of the better-known Corvette concepts that never reached production is the Aerovette. Its origins lie in the XP-880 mid-engined Astro II concept, first revealed at the 1968 New York Auto Show. Less extreme than the Astro I, the Aerovette had actual doors, a front storage hold, and a clamshell-style rear end that lifted to allow access to the transversely mounted V-8 engine.

Duntov’s team then developed two prototypes for what was tagged XP-882. Chevy general manager John DeLorean initially canceled the program, deeming it too costly, but when Ford announced the DeTomaso Pantera would be sold at its Lincoln-Mercury dealers, the program was revived and one of the XP-882s displayed at the 1970 New York show.

xp-880 corvette concept
XP-880 General Motors

At the same time, General Motors was developing its own version of the rotary Wankel engine for the Vega small car. In 1972, DeLorean approved additional development of the XP-882 chassis, leading to the XP-895, powered by a pair of the two-rotor Wankels ganged together to make a 420-hp, four-rotor powerplant. A sibling, two-rotor car dubbed XP-897 was also developed. Both of those concepts were shown in 1973, before the oil crisis sparked by the Yom Kippur War and increasingly stringent emissions regulations put the kibosh on rotaries, which are relatively thirsty and dirty.

four rotor corvette rotary wankel XP-895
The 4 Rotor Corvette, XP-895 GM Media Archives

The exterior styling of the rotary-powered Corvette concepts was much rounder and organic than the production Corvette of the era. The two cars wore distinctive fender flares and NACA ducts on their hoods.

Three years later, in 1976, the four-rotor engine in XP-895 was swapped out for a 400 cubic-inch V-8. The car was renamed Aerovette and, according to reports, it was approved for production for the 1980 model year, albeit with a 350-cubic-inch small-block Chevy V-8.

By 1976, John DeLorean had moved on to his own self-named venture. It may be just a coincidence that, like the Delorean DMC-12, the Aerovette was given gullwing doors. Unfortunately for Corvette fans hoping for the new design, all advocates for producing the Aerovette (Duntov, Mitchell, Ed Cole) had retired by then, and new Corvette chief Dave McLellan, after deciding that the conventional front-engine layout was more economical and would have better performance than the Aerovette, killed that program.

Reynolds Aluminum Corvette

972 Chevrolet Reynolds Aluminum Corvette front
XP-895 (shown here) led to the Aerovette concept, and for a time Chevrolet teased that the C4 Vette might finally go with a mid-engine design. GM

The reason why the Aerovette had poorer performance was that, unlike the production Corvette with a composite body, the Aerovette’s skin was steel, making it 100 pounds heavier than a 1973 Corvette coupe. DeLorean, who then was still at GM, turned to Reynolds Metals.

Reynolds, the same folks who make aluminum foil used in kitchens, had been a GM supplier for over a decade, providing the alloy used in Corvair engines, Corvette intake manifolds, bell housings, and other parts, along with the specialty alloy used in the ZL1 block, L88 head, and all-aluminum Vega motors. Reynolds made an exact copy of XP-895 out of 2036-T4 aluminum, a special alloy that could be spot-welded. Even then, some epoxy adhesive was used to make the hand-fabricated body. The result shaved 450 pounds off the weight, making the body almost 40 percent lighter. While it weighed significantly less, it was also significantly more expensive to produce than either a steel or composite body.

2009 Stingray concept

The most recent Corvette concept was the 2009 Stingray, intended to preview the seventh-generation Corvette, which was introduced in 2013. Interestingly, it may be the least well-known of the Corvette concepts here. Given the design brief of making a retro-modern Corvette, the Stingray, which also had a starring role as an Autobot in one of the Transformer movies, mashed up the split rear window of the ’63 C2 with contemporary scissor doors and a clamshell hood. Although the Stingray was part of the C7’s development, it also anticipated the newest C8 Corvette, the E-Ray, in that it was a mild-hybrid.

If you had to pick one, which one of these concepts would you tell Chevy to put into production? Drop a comment below.

 

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Comments

    Man, if you could merge the front of the Reynolds XP-895 with the rest of the 2009 Stingray concept. Where do I sign up?

    The Corvette prototypes are some of the best known cars in the world. You generally have to live under a rock not to have seen or know about them. Most still exist and many are still displayed often. GM for the most took care of most of them and the collectors found the rest.

    The 54 Harley Earl custom personal car was the most recently found and restored.

    My favorite is the Mitchell 59 Stingray racer. I have always loved the lines of this car. I have seen most of the prototype Corvettes accept for that one.

    I was shocked one day I walked into the lobby of the GM building on Park Ave. and found the Stingray in the lobby just sitting there in all its glory. That was a very special moment in my automotive history.

    One place that got me well caught up was the Henry Ford Museum that had a GM show car display years ago. They had a number of the mid engine cars as well all three turbine Firebirds and the X and Y model on display. We went just for the auto show down town but had time to stop and see the HF collection and they had this special display for GM there.

    We are lucky so many are were saved and we can still see them in person or even on the track. No one throws away a Corvette.

    Always loved the 62’ Corvair concept. Another killer design by Larry Shinoda. They should have used it for the Corvette.

    If the auto genie granted me one wish it would be for the aluminum XP 895 with the 400 motor! Choice 2 would be the
    Astroray! I currently have a C7 so that Protype would be choice #3

    Perhaps because the Opel wasn’t a concept car, wasn’t a Corvette spinoff, and wasn’t a Chevrolet.

    The XP 880 is my favorite. Timing would have been perfect to propel Corvette into the 21st century much earlier than the recent C8. Love it!

    They should take another swing at the Monza GT. That concept with today’s technology Look out German rear engine sports cars.

    The 4-rotor/Aerovette was an outstanding design of its time. One can see how some of its surfacing treatment was transferred into the C4.

    The original Stingray though remains one of the most seminal designs and was a massive break from the aesthetic language of its time.

    Maybe GM did use the styling theme of the Monza GT. They built the Opel GT didn’t they?
    And Raymond Motors, an imported car dealer in Cincinnati, purchased a Porsche 904
    from GM that was purported to be Bill Mitchell’s personal car. Silver with black custom
    leather interior and many comfort upgrades. Any resemblance of the roof sail panels
    to a production Corvette would be a coincidence, right?
    ( I have been trying to find that car which disappeared after it was sold to an
    elderly dental technician who had it painted yellow !)

    CGI and sketch cars don’t count, if it didn’t roll it didn’t happen. Chip Foose draws a lot of things that could never be built as well, lets not kid ourselves.

    1961 Mako Shark I –
    Looking at this beautiful design I like to think I can see every Corvette since.
    The more you look the more you see, and from 1961, amazing design.

    Every one of them were viable in reality. The first mid engine design of the 60s would have been the greatest, coupled with ZL-1 and mechanical stack fuel injection straight out of a Chaparral or McClaren Can am car. In one of his last interviews, Carol Shelby stated that if GM brass had allowed Zora to do what he wanted there would have been no reason for him to build the Cobra or later, the GT40.

    Aerovette and Manta Ray 2. The Aerovette in the flesh is even more gorgeous than in the pictures. Just a perfect design, without need of ornamentation. Unlike the ridiculously busy C8….

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