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CCotW: GM CERV III (1990)

29 June 2018 | by Karl Smith

There has been a lot of “mid-engine Corvette” news in the American motoring press of late. Spy shots, news items and even at least one have supposedly illuminated the most elusive of American cars. For almost half a century, Corvette fans have waited for a mid-engined version of their favorite car. 

Whether the rumored version of the C8 is an addition to the standard front-engine Corvette lineup, a new mid-engine only car, a track-only version – or even appears at all – is still a matter of speculation.


The Aerovette – a mid-engine Corvette that never made it to production

The long, complicated story of the mid-engined Corvette is worthy of a book-sized study, but this week we will visit the prototype car that perhaps was the closest ever to production-ready, the CERV III of 1990.


The Buick Centurion of 1956, and the Corvette Indy Concept of 1986- futuristic concepts showing GM design at its finest

The CERV III actually began life as the Corvette Indy concept of 1986. That car, a curvaceous study of a near-future Corvette, was a spiritual throwback to the futuristic glory days of GM’s Motorama cars, with its canopy-like glass house, and dramatic lines and massing.


Corvette Indy showed the possibilities of near-future Corvette. CERV III created a practical way forward

There were two Corvette Indy cars made, a touring “pusher” for car shows, and an actual running car for special events and testing. But even the runner had limited practicality.


Sleek lines and a bubble canopy characterized the Corvette Indy

The CERV III was created to bring the Indy up to date as the 1990s began and also to create a true running prototype. Legendary Corvette designer Jerry Palmer led the design team, and Richard Balsey led the engineering team.


The first CERV car and its creator, Zora-Arkus Duntov

The name CERV III stood for Corporate Engineering and Research Vehicle (The ‘C’ originally stood for Chevrolet). The ‘III’ represented the resurrection of a late 1950s early 1960s prototype program that created race-car like prototypes which explored lightweight bodies and chassis, as well as experimental suspensions and lightweight engines. Two of the prototypes were built before GM moved on to other research projects.

The Corvette Indy gave GM, and in particular Chevrolet, a chance to reboot the program, but it wasn’t a fully running car The CERV was designed to “flesh out” the Indy concept.


A dramatic stance for the CERV was retained even as it improved on the Indy Concept

Much of the construction of the CERV III was done at Lotus, which was eager to show how much of its bespoke racing technology could be transferred to the Corvette platform.


Mid-engined cab forward architecture makes for a long tail

The suspension was a typical Lotus backbone type, but made of carbonfibre and weighing only 38lbs (18kg). The springs and A-arms were made of titanium. Actuators were used instead of shock absorbers and were linked to an advanced computer-controlled active suspension system. ABS braking and traction control were a part of the handling package. Also, at each wheel a dual-disc braking system was used.


That dramatic scoop is entirely functional and necessary

The engine was a Lotus-tuned 5.7-litre V8 with Mahle pistons, stronger connecting rods, and twin Garret turbochargers. It produced 650 horsepower – impressive for those days when GM had dialed back the power of its engines.

Mounted amidships, the engine was linked to a computer-controlled transmission made from a GM Hydramatic unit, mated to a special two-speed gearbox that transferred power through a specially-built differential to all four wheels.


Dramatic performance matched the dramatic design

The body was made of carbonfibre, Nomex and Kevlar, with honeycomb aluminum reinforcement, and sported a low drag co-efficient of 0.277 – impressive for a road-going sports car of the day. It was mounted on the chassis with four special hydraulic mounts, and there were quick disconnects for radiator, oil and fuel systems. In theory, a new body could be connected in an hour or less.


Scissor doors create a dramatic entry to the CERV III

The canopy was more realistically shaped than the Indy, to allow for operable windows and more interior room.  The nose was shortened and raised to meet U.S. bumper regulations. The rocker and side panels were modified to accept two fuel tanks – one on each side – with adequate ventilation scoops for the intercooler, oil coolers, brakes and active suspension. The wheel openings were enlarged for more wheel movement on the open road.

Video tour of the CERV III – interior views at 2:38

The interior sported a whole host of electronic features and advanced controls, including two CRT screens, a navigation system and a centre console with over twenty rocker switches (and no apparent hierarchy; how one selected the right switch must have been a matter of pure memorisation).


The CERV nose was the site of the air conditioner and power steering units

The CERV III was introduced at the 1990 NAIAS in Detroit to great acclaim, especially for being a fully functional car. It seemed so close to production... but GM did the maths: a CERV III as a Corvette would have cost $300-400,000, and even standard Corvette sales were down almost 50 percent from 1985 already. There was just no way forward.

The CERV program would quietly go forward with the CERV IV prototype of 1997, built in secret with Chevrolet funds, and basically a test mule for the Corvette C5 series.


Future Corvettes would be influenced by the CERV III, possibly including the forthcoming C8

Fast forward to 2018. The mid-engined Corvette remains in the news, with tantalizing photos of heavily camouflaged test mules running on tracks, through the snow, and in other places. How this all shapes up for the future of a GM and Chevrolet remains to be seen.

But GM could do far worse than the design of the CERV III, even though the design is now almost thirty years old. An incredible effort, both the design and engineering teams at Chevrolet set a high bar three decades ago with the CERV III, and the current Corvette team has much work to do to advance their concepts into the future of Chevrolet’s most storied nameplate.