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How the Mid-Engine Chevrolet Corvette Became the Automotive Industry's Biggest Urban Legend

Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media)
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A true, production mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette has been perpetually imminent, for decades and across generations. Until last night, it was always something that was said to be on its way but never showed up—a cautionary tale of automotive rumors that never panned out, no matter how many times the world heard them.

That changed with the debut of the C8 Corvette. For the first time ever, America’s sports car has, in production spec, an engine behind the driver with a true supercar’s ideal weight balance. If you’re among the Corvette faithful, you may feel like it was hard to believe this was finally, actually, truly happening.

Before this, it was an urban legend, of sorts—one roughly six decades in the making, fueled by a lot of taunting from Chevrolet and a lot of oversold magazine covers. Each time, it was derailed by just as many factors. The rotary engine was even involved at one point.

On the surface, it’s a wonder how General Motors strung us along for so many years. Beneath, it’s more understandable than it seems.

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The Corvette began in 1953 as a much softer version than what we have today, a car inspired by European sports-car imports but also a competitor to the Ford Thunderbird. It morphed into a more hardcore machine thanks, in large part, to Belgian engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and his team.

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Arkus-Duntov, who died in 1996 and was part of the 1998 Corvette Hall of Fame class, joined General Motors the year the C1 came out and began tweaking the car to his performance-oriented liking. (Ultimately, that included swapping the blasé inline-six for a V8, in true American fashion, which has held true since.)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Arkus-Duntov was also the catalyst for the mid-engine Corvette ideas that continued, straight from Chevrolet, throughout his life and long past it. It all resulted in the 2020 C8 Corvette Stingray, with 495 horsepower, an eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox, and the engine behind the driver at last.

When the car debuted Thursday night, GM President Mark Reuss said on stage why now, and not any other time over the past six decades, was the right time for the mid-engine Corvette: GM wrung all it could out of the front-engine car.

“You could make the case that once we got to C7, we had pushed the limits of what we could do in that configuration,” Reuss said. “It was as close to perfection as a front-engine, rear-drive Corvette was going to get. To take performance and driving dynamics to the next level for our customers, we had to move to mid-engine, and that’s what Zora had always wanted.”

He’s right, at least in terms of times to 60 mph: The outgoing, front-engine top C7 performance trim, the 755-HP ZR1, did it in a claimed 2.85 seconds. The new 495-HP Stingray can apparently do it in “under three” with the Z51 pack.

Reuss thus called the C8 “everything Zora dreamed of with technology he never could’ve imagined.”

Zora’s dream began with an observation, when he, Hagerty wrote in a 2018 feature, watched a Corvette SS record a DNF—“did not finish,” in racing speak—in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1957. That race was what made him decide that the power plant “must be located behind the driver.” From the story:

Although the official explanation of the DNF was a failure of a rear suspension bushing after only 23 laps of racing, driver John Fitch’s feet were being cooked by the eight uninsulated exhaust pipes located in close proximity to the magnesium firewall and floor panels.

The inherent advantages of locating the engine near the middle of the car just ahead of the drive wheels were not lost on Arkus-Duntov. In the 1930s, he witnessed the mid-engine Auto Unions occasionally beat Mercedes-Benz racers with traditional powertrain layouts. Also, a mid-engine Cooper T43 driven by Jack Brabham showed promise at the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix.

Arkus-Duntov never saw a mass-production Corvette realize his mid-engine dream before his 1996 death, despite handfuls of concept cars and decades of rumors. But it still remained a possibility all of these years, through seven full generations of the car, stringing automotive enthusiasts along from the late 1950s through the year 2019.

“Detroit’s in the grip of mid-engine mania,” the December 1969 issue of Motor Trend declared, the year after the third generation of the car began its run.

Its cover advertised the race between Chevrolet and Ford to build mid-engine cars for the 1971 model year. “Again, there’s said to be a mid-engine Corvette in the works, for 1972 or perhaps ’73,” the story read.

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Photo: Motor Trend

The fourth generation didn’t come around until 1984, with the C3 running a full 14 years from 1968 through 1982. (Famously, the 1983 car doesn’t exist, aside from one.)

But not long after that article, in June of 1970, another Motor Trend cover story described the scene at the 1970 New York Auto Show: An apparent mid-engine Corvette, later dubbed the Experimental Project 882, or just the XP-882, roared out, taunting the world yet again with what was potentially to come.

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Photo: Chevrolet

The story read: “Obviously, the two things everybody, and most of all Ford, wanted to know was: 1.) Will Chevrolet build this car and; B.) When? To which Chevrolet replied in kind: A.) No, this is strictly a prototype but air conditioning is optional and; B.) No comment.”

Chevrolet didn’t stop the teasing there. A few years later, there was the Wankel-powered Corvette—again, with the engine in the middle.

“Publicly, it’s a show/test car,” read a subheading about Chevrolet’s two-rotor concept car in the December 1973 issue of Car and Driver. “Privately, it may be on the road in 1976.”

A few pages later, the subheading of the story on the four-rotor version of the concept was less confident: It was, the story said, “the betting-man’s choice to replace the Stingray.”

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By the December 1978 issue of Car and Driver, people were getting antsy for a new Corvette. The C3 had been out for 10 model years, and the cover stories in the issue summed up the atmosphere well.

“Unless you have the faith of Moses, you probably long ago gave up any hope for the appearance of a new Corvette,” it read, before saying there would be another. But, it told readers, they could “forget a mid-engined car” when the new generation finally did arrive.

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It came around in 1984, engine up front.

A Motor Trend story from March of 1985, a few years after the C4 hit the road, profiled the Guanci SJJ1 GT—what it deemed to be the mid-engine Corvette that Chevrolet had been too scared to sell for all of those years. “Mid-engine and all-American,” it called the car, saying the entrepreneur who built it went “where Chevrolet feared to tread.”

The Car and Driver cover in July of 1990, which published during the C4’s run between 1984 and 1996, screamed: “1995 Corvette! Forget those mid-engine rumors!”

The issue had spy photos of the C5, which it expected to roll off of the line for the 1995 model year, and a look at details of the Corvette Experimental Research Vehicle, or CERV, III, which it called “the single greatest influence on the technology that will be woven into the next Corvette.”

The CERV III was a mid-engine car. The next Corvette would not be, Car and Driver wrote.

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Photo: GM

They were right. The C5 debuted for the 1997 model year, engine up front.

The sixth generation of the Corvette debuted for the 2005 model year. By the turn of the century, though, the general idea was that it wouldn’t come with an engine in the middle—it would, instead, be an evolution of the C5. In September of 2000, Motor Trend said the C6 would appear with “substantial engineering and styling refinement.” Five years later, that’s exactly what happened.

As such, mid-engine rumors had lulled for a few years. The C6 wasn’t expected to be a wild departure from the C5, and it ran from 2005 to 2013. But once the C6 became old news, the idea surfaced once again.

By that time, car internet was on the rise. Jalopnik itself began in 2004, right around the start of the C6. The rumor mill around the ever-upcoming mid-engine Corvette circulated online before it made the front pages of magazines, morphing the idea into one warranting a laugh and an eye roll at each mention.

A Jalopnik story from 2007 cited a column claiming that the seventh-generation Corvette would likely come in 2010 with the engine in the middle, according to “executives at the top of the company.” The mid-engine C7, the story said, had “progressed far beyond the initial planning stages,” and the engineering of it was apparently “well underway.” The staff at the time shared it with plenty of skepticism and ridicule, which turned out to be the right move.

But as the Detroit News reports, the car was closer than ever before in 2007—until the global recession and GM’s subsequent bankruptcy and reorganization halted things. “They produced multiple prototypes, and GM even green-lighted a mid-engine car for production in 2007 before the financial crisis put an end to that,” the story said.

But, like an underdog making it to the playoffs in a sport, the heart-thumping potential for the mid-engine layout to finally win remained. In 2010, we jumped on what looked like it might be a mid-engine Corvette testing on the road, since the taillights were decidedly ‘Vette.

It turned out to be a Fisker.

Just days before that 2010 spotting, General Motors told Automotive News that despite the rumors, there wouldn’t be a mid-engine C7. From the story:

Over the past two years or so, numerous stories in print and on the Internet have been written about the upcoming redesigned Corvette, and nearly all have speculated that GM was developing a mid-engine model. Speculation for the timing for the mid-engine car was anywhere from the 2014 model year to several years later.

[GM Vice President of Global Vehicle Engineering Karl-Friedrich Stracke] said he was familiar with those stories: “I don’t know who made this public. I think it is wrong.”

When asked for clarification on that “think” statement, a GM spokesperson told Automotive News that Stracke was “quashing those rumors.”

The C7 came out in 2014, and it was August of that year when Motor Trend had it from “multiple sources” that the C7 ZR1 performance trim, and perhaps the entire eighth generation, would be mid-engined. The ZR1 debuted in late 2017 with an engine in the front, 750 horsepower and a $119,995 starting price.

In September, Car and Driver had “serious dirt” on the “mid-engined American Dream Machine that Chevy couldn’t, until now, muster the courage to build.” It predicted that the revolutionarily different C8 would come around in 2017.

C/D’s render from 2014
C/D’s render from 2014
Photo: Car and Driver/Jalopnik

The C8 predictions did eventually come true, but not in 2017, and not before a few more years of rumors.

There were debatable spy shots in 2015. There were suspicious talks of a $290-million update to the Corvette factory in June 2016, as well as later discussions of why the new configuration was needed in the first place: rapidly aging buyers of the front-engine Corvette. There were blurry spy shots around the same time.

There were even more debatable spy shots a few months later. There were transmission rumors a few days after that. There were horsepower rumors in 2017. There were CAD images after that. There were more CAD images a week later. There were key fobs that looked to show a mid-engine silhouette in November of 2018. There were more convincing spy shots the next month.

There have been so many mid-engine Corvette rumors, stories and spy shots over the past few years, in fact, that it’s just easier to browse through the tags.

Then, on July 18, it finally came—more than 62 years after Arkus-Duntov declared it should.

Throughout the history of the Corvette, what contributed to making Arkus-Duntov’s vision seem like a near reality was the virtually constant rollout of mid-engine prototypes. The number has crept into the double digits over the decades, and, at times, made the concept of a mid-engine Corvette seem almost certain—to the point that even the automotive press occasionally mistook the prototypes for the real thing.

There was a V8 mid-engine concept in 1959, called the XP-719 and labeled, on the back of a 1960 photo, as the “first mid-engined Corvette proposal.” That Experimental Project naming system was used for multiple Corvette prototypes, as was the “Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle”—CERV, for short.

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The original CERV was an Indy-style car that Arkus-Duntov got approval to build soon after in 1960, that, according to Hagerty, got a 500-HP, small-block V8 and an independent rear suspension that appeared in later Corvettes.

But GM wasn’t big on direct racing involvement then, and, as Hagerty puts it, the CERV was “loaned” to a museum because of that. It sold for about $1.3 million at Barrett-Jackson in 2017—to GM.

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Photo: RM Auctions

A few years later, around 1963, the CERV II came around. It was a mid-engine car more geared toward Le Mans, aimed, according to Hemmings, to compete against cars like the Ford GT40.

GM again turned the race car down, but instead of axing it, Arkus-Duntov shifted it toward being a hardcore street Corvette with all-wheel drive. The CERV II became “a test vehicle for future exotic Corvette ideas” and was demonstrated throughout 1970, when it was put into storage, according to an RM Sotheby’s auction listing. It auctioned for $1.1 million in 2013.

Astro I
Astro I
Photo: GM

More ideas with an engine toward the rear turned into concept vehicles in the years after. The 1967 Astro I, a fiberglass concept shown at the 1967 New York Auto Show, was meant as an investigative dive into of the “visual potential of automobile aerodynamic characteristics,” according to the GM Heritage Center. It helped shape the next Corvair platform before GM axed that car in 1969.

Astro II
Astro II
Photo: GM Heritage Center

The Astro II, or the XP-880, debuted a year later at the 1968 New York Auto Show, according to Road and Track, with a mid-engine layout and speculation of whether it would be the next Corvette. The next year, in December of 1969, Motor Trend wrote that with all of the mid-engine cars coming out and all of the concepts being tested, it was said to be a matter of time before the Corvette went that way.

There was the Corvair Monza GT coupe, the Mustang I, the Ford GT44, the Astro II, the story said—tons of mid-engine fever, and European competitors pushing the layout, to go around.

“Ford and Chevy stress that the Mach 2 and Astro II aren’t as advanced as their current thinking,” Motor Trend wrote. “Nonetheless, they are indeed excellent barometers of the ’71 1/2 or ’72 stuff both companies will hawk.”

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But things got really interesting when the mid-engine XP-882 came out at the 1970 New York Auto Show: The January 1971 issue of Road and Track said, without a doubt, that the concept did preview the next production Corvette.

“At the time [of the show] we speculated that it was a production prototype and surmised correctly several details of its powertrain that Chevrolet did not reveal: that its engine was transversely mounted, that the transmission was ahead of and parallel to the engine and that the differential was a separate unit behind the engine,” the story said. “We have now established beyond a doubt that the car was indeed a prototype for future production—1973, to be exact—and can report full details on the 1973 Corvette.”

That was wrong, Road and Track later learned.

Road and Track wasn’t the only outlet taking the XP-882 seriously. Motor Trend called that debut at the 1970 New York show “a day that will live in infamy at Ford Motor Company” in its June 1970 issue.

It was the day GM, and Arkus-Duntov, “threw open the doors to the secret section of Chevrolet’s Sport Department, springing not just a mid-engine car, but the ultimate in one-upmanship—a transverse engine, mid-engine car,” the Motor Trend story said.

Chevrolet said it was just a prototype, but magazines speculated anyway.

“Through its 17-year existence, the Corvette program has lived a rather fitful existence, never knowing when it would die in the front office, mostly because of astronomical production costs,” the story said. “And through it all, year by year, the machine improves and sells better than it did the year before.”

Motor Trend talked about what it would take to make a mid-engine Corvette successful, and concluded that “what Chevrolet needs ... and what they will sell, may not be one in the same car.”

“There is even the distant chance that the Corvette as we know it may not exist, being built instead on the Camaro floor pan and cowl section to save money,” it said. “Another alternative being discussed is to offer the mid-engine model as a limited production $10,000-a-copy vehicle, like Cadillac does from time-to-time. Otherwise, they’ll just have to decide to put the car into production.”

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Photo: GM

What might have added to that is that the XP-882 was just a code name at the time, according to Hagerty. When the car debuted, it was “billed simply as a Corvette prototype,” Hagerty wrote in 2018.

Karl Ludvigsen, who wrote the 1969 Motor Trend story and is currently working on his second volume of Corvette history, told Jalopnik at the time of the story, a mid-engine Corvette really did seem like it was happening within a few years.

“There’s no question that that was a time of great ferment, and it sort of started coming out in the 1970s with the [mid-engine concepts and production cars at the time],” Ludvigsen said on a phone call. “There was a lot of interest in this approach to the sports-car world. The mid-engine thing was happening.”

He mentioned the Road and Track story going right out there and saying it was the next car, incorrectly, but that there was “no question that Zora wanted that to happen”—both back then and for the rest of his life.

“For many years, the problem was that Zora would go to the boss of GM and say, ‘We really need a mid-engine Corvette,’ and they said, ‘Why do you need it? You’re selling all you can build right now,’” Ludvigsen said. “[Corvette buyers] thought the Corvette as it was was fine.”

Rotary-engine Corvettes came next, with a two-rotor and a four-rotor concept both shown in the early 1970s. At the time the gas crisis loomed large, and many companies thought the tiny rotary could be the way to get power and fuel economy in one package. That didn’t happen, and really the only automaker to make the rotary work was Mazda, but even that didn’t last forever.

Still, the projects showed what the Corvette could look like as a small, Wankel-powered sports car, and were referred to as “Corvettes” by magazines at the time.

Rotary engine Corvette concept.
Rotary engine Corvette concept.
Photo: GM

The two-rotor version, which Car and Driver estimated to have between 200 and 225 HP and said could be on the road in a few years in its December 1973 issue, had everyone asking: “Is this the new Corvette or not?” it said.

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Arkus-Duntov, our always-present mid-engine Corvette enthusiast, gave the magazine “a good, strong ‘maybe’” by saying the concept was typical of Chevrolet’s ideas of what “what a 1978 Corvette could be.”

It was different, considering that Corvettes were, and still are, known as small cars with big engines. Car and Driver called the two-rotor “almost tiny” by contrast, equating it to the size of a Datsun 240Z or Ferrari Dino. Arkus-Duntov called the two-rotor a reasonable basis for a future Corvette, except that it needed more power, and told Car and Driver it was a possibility for 1978 or 1979.

In contrast to Arkus-Duntov, GM said the two-rotor was no more than a show or test car. It wouldn’t be produced, GM said, which was logical: Corvettes were selling wildly in 1973 and 1974, the magazine said.

Arkus-Duntov called the four-rotor “exceedingly beautiful,” that same issue said, but its production was unlikely. Should the bosses have given Arkus-Duntov the go ahead, though, he told Car and Driver that Chevrolet “could make it into a good car.” But regardless of all of the concepts that debuted during the C3’s run from 1968 through 1982, from the Astros through the rotaries, and all of the rumors that the mid-engine car would finally happen, the C4 stuck the engine in the front.

In 1978, before that C4 debut, Car and Driver published then-technical editor Don Sherman’s story on the “truth about the long-awaited next Corvette.” It was that the car would have the engine up front, despite the rumors.

Sherman, who writes for Automotive Engineering and Hagerty these days, said over the phone that he never thought a next-generation mid-engine Corvette would be a sure thing until around 2014—the year the technically front-mid-engined C7 came onto the market.

That was, of course, in regards to the C8.

“There were inquiries of this sort [over the years], and GM was fairly frank of their plans,” Sherman said, in regards to questions about an upcoming mid-engine car. “They didn’t try to give you hope that was probably nonexistent.”

The C4 ran through 1996 before it was replaced by yet another car with the engine up front, but the concepts kept coming. Arkus-Duntov retired in 1975, but his idea lived on.

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Photo: GM

The Corvette Indy concept came to the 1986 Detroit Auto Show with a rumored 600 HP, according to Automobile, as yet another reminder that Chevrolet was still on a mid-engine wavelength. It received such a good reaction at GM and outside of it that two more examples were built, then GM moved on to the mid-engine CERV III around 1990.

The CERV III was a major influence on the next Corvette, as Car and Driver said in the July 1990 issue that put the mid-engine rumors back on the shelf once more. The CERV III had come to that year’s Detroit Auto Show with a Corvette badge, the magazine said, leading people to think it would be the C5.

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Photo: GM

But, Car and Driver said it had learned, the CERV III was “unequivocally not the next Corvette.” The next Corvette would have its engine up front as usual, and, as opposed to the CERV III’s four-wheel-drive system, would power the rear wheels—as usual.

Rich Ceppos, the author of the story who was Car and Driver’s executive editor at the time and is now its senior online editor, told Jalopnik despite the cover of the magazine telling readers to “forget those mid-engine rumors,” the rumors of a mid-engine C5 “weren’t very strong” by the time he wrote it in 1990.

Car and Driver had a good relationship with the people on the Corvette team, he said, and between whispers and spy shots of a design study, they knew the next car would have an engine up front.

“But as to the future, the CERV III did point to the possibility that, someday, there’d be a mid-engine ‘Vette,” Ceppos said. “Our job was to take educated guesses about which technologies would make it on to C5. We got some of them right, and we blew it on others.”

But it didn’t stop there. A mid-engine C6, naturally, was the next thought.

“We’d heard rumors that the C6 was going mid-engine, and years later GM insiders—Bob Lutz among them, I believe—confirmed that the idea it was once again floated, studied, and discarded,” Ceppos said. “We weren’t often surprised, but we were disappointed.”

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Later on, during the C6 Corvette’s run in 2011, the Corvette Daytona Prototype debuted. It was a fast race car with an engine toward the back, and that was all.

The mid-engine C8 became more and more likely as spy shots came out, and eventually landed in California for its debut on Thursday night.

Over the years, plenty of factors thwarted the thought of a mid-engine Corvette long before production. There were price concerns, given that the Corvette was typically a somewhat affordable American sports car. Motor Trend mentioned in 1970 that, in terms of Chevrolet, most things needed to be “adaptable to Detroit mass production requirements,” and said price and shareholder opinions were factors. Car and Driver called portions of the conceptual CERV III “space-age expensive” in 1990, although the C8 seems like it will be within the acceptable range for this audience.

Then, there was the thought of alienating traditional Corvette buyers with a new layout—something that, again, is happening today. They’re just older now, and buying fewer Corvettes, so they matter less.

That’s obvious in what Ludvigsen said about sales, and Sherman echoed it.

“Corvette customers tend to be rather conservative,” Sherman said, saying it often takes buyers time after a new Corvette debuts to get used to it and come back around. “When they went away from round taillights, there was a body of loyal customers who said, ‘No, I don’t like that.’”

Then, there was management turnover, which meant Arkus-Duntov had to keep convincing new people to make the car. Sherman said it didn’t always go well.

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Photo: GM Heritage Center

“I went to [Arkus-Duntov’s] house with one, and largely only one, question [after his retirement], and that was: ‘Zora, why were you so obsessed with mid-engine Corvettes and mid-engines in general?’” Sherman said. “His fascination was clear, but he wasn’t as successful of a politician or didn’t have enough influence at General Motors to get his will.”

Ceppos guessed there also could be a fear, especially today, that the target mid-engine market won’t embrace the car.

“It’s been designed from scratch, so it’s expensive, and there’s a lot of new-for-GM engineering that had to be validated along the way,” Ceppos said via email. “And what if the Corvette’s traditional customers don’t like it, and the hoped-for new, younger cohort doesn’t want it because of its image-baggage?

“The [Porsche] 911’s appearance and engine layout haven’t changed in more than 50 years, either. You can be a captive of your own success. The Corvette has traditionally been extremely profitable for the company. So, a huge change like this is a tremendous risk.”

There were also concerns outside of Chevrolet, like the oil crisis in the 1970s that shelved the mid-engine idea right around the time of the rotary concepts, or the GM bankruptcy of 2009. But Sherman said no matter what was whispered about the Corvette, one thing was important over the years: that “today’s plan may not survive tomorrow.”

“That really applies to mid-engine Corvettes, because you saw what happened in the bankruptcy,” Sherman said. “You saw the success of the C7. [Chevrolet] could’ve followed that in two years with C8, but they didn’t.”

Both Sherman and Ceppos, having covered the story for decades, agree that the mid-engine car is the next logical step for the Corvette, if only for performance.

“It’s where the car has to go to succeed, to improve, and in spite of marketing concerns and customer base, whether they’re primed for this or not—generally, they’re not—customers can only see in the rearview mirror,” Sherman said. “They know what happened before, and they can look back, but vision forward is the responsibility of [the company].”

Ceppos talked about how cars like the Corvette have become “ballistically fast” as of late, and keeping the engine up front just isn’t enough.

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“As Corvettes became more and more powerful, it was clear that more horsepower alone wouldn’t make the cars quicker; they needed to be mid-engine and probably all-wheel drive,” Ceppos said. “[Car and Driver’s] testing proved that the 755-HP ZR-1 was no quicker to 60 mph or through the quarter-mile than the 650-HP Z06.

“You needed more rear traction to go quicker, more load transfer to the rear wheels. The only way to get that was to go mid-engine.”

That’s the line Arkus-Duntov preached for decades, and although he died more than 20 years ago, his dream never did—even if it took many years after his death to be realized.

But in a world where things are so quickly forgotten, making a mark that deep is about all any of us could ever ask.