Ill-fated 1973 Corvette mid-engine prototype to be shown at Amelia Island Concours

Ill-fated 1973 Corvette mid-engine prototype to be shown at Amelia Island Concours

GM Styling Division had updated the sports car and added a rotary engine before the automaker pulled the plug on the project

Editor’s note: The ClassicCars.com Journal is your source for Amelia Island news – from collector car auctions and shows to the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. Read more of our coverage on our dedicated page.


In the early 1970s, Chevrolet Corvette nearly went in a completely different direction from the classic front-engine sports car it had been for nearly two decades, powered by a succession of overhead-valve V8s since 1955.

The 1973 Corvette XP-897 GT was one of two compact mid-engine prototypes that not only put the engine behind the seats but did away with the V8 entirely, opting instead for the trendy allure of a Wankel rotary engine.

The what-might-have-been Corvette prototype will be displayed March 10 as part of a Mid-Engine sports car class at the 2019 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida, held on the fairways of The Golf Club at the Ritz-Carlton Resort.

Corvette

XP-897 GT was built on the shortened chassis of a Porsche 914/6

The Corvette’s rotary engine – small and lightweight yet generating impressive high-revving power – was meant to signal a new era for internal-combustion power. The General Motors Styling Division took advantage of the rotary’s compact size to create a trim prototype two-seater that was reputed to deliver performance comparable to a V8-powered Corvette.

But the unique engine invented by German engineer Felix Wankel turned out to be a dead end for GM. The rotary proved to be a gas guzzler and an air polluter, and the  prototype came out at exactly the wrong time, in the midst of the OPEC oil embargo and ensuing gas shortage as well as stricter federal standards to lower engine emissions.

So, the mid-engine/rotary-powered Corvette project was shelved for good, and XP-897 GT was boxed up in a plywood case and stored at GM’s Vauxhall Motors Design Centre in Bedford, England. Corvette continued on its current front-engine design route, although the eighth-generation will arrive this year in a mid-engine format.

Japanese automaker Mazda eventually picked up the rights to the Wankel engine for its production cars, most notably the RX-7 sports car.

Corvette

The showing of the prototype heralds the arrival of the new mid-engine Corvette

The prototype languished in storage, and then was scheduled to be crushed in the early 1980s. XP-897 GT was rescued from destruction through the efforts of Corvette author Tom Falconer and Chuck Jordan, GM’s then-head of design.

Still owned by Falconer and now fitted with a later Mazda rotary engine, XP-897 GT will be shown at Amelia Island along with a 1973 GM rotary engine recently obtained by Falconer. Also in the class will be a number of classic mid-engine sports cars from Ferrari, Lamborghini and DeTomaso.

After Amelia, the prototype will be headed for the National Corvette Museum in Rolling Green, Kentucky, where it will be displayed as part of the Corvette story. Falconer plans eventually to reunite XK-897 GT with the GM rotary engine.

For more information about the Amelia Island Concours, visit the event website.

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4 Comments

  • christopher dehner
    February 6, 2019, 4:59 PM

    This concept Corvette body shell looks likes a cross of: Porsche 944/28/11, Chevy Monza and Nissan 300ZX. Very impressive concept. It should have been set up in the same way as the Detomaso Pantera’s of the same era, Ford still placed the 351C’s in these sleek rides . The oil crisis in the early to mid 1970’s really retarded the minds of our automotive engineers, here in the good old USA, too bad…

    REPLY
  • Ryan Corman
    February 6, 2019, 7:24 PM

    But… this was such a bad idea, alienating the Corvette "base" while doing what GM doesn’t do- piss off their fans.
    And although a rotor-motor can make unbelievable power at ridiculous rpm, the engineering so to do was at least 20 years in the future. And it took Mazda, suicidally dedicated to the proposition despite the shareholders and front office, to get it right- in automobiles that are the antithesis of "Corvette".
    I’m all for a world beater like the new Z06. The mid-engine thing just doesn’t seem "Corvette" to me; why replace a design that embarrasses exotics- most mid-engined- costing double/triple the money, which must be unendingly serviced at specialist shops? I had the good fortune and heart-stopping experience of flogging a late model Grand Sport ‘Vette, with the 7spd manual. Jesus wept- how can one improve on that, save by changing the base character of the car altogether? And that guy can be serviced at any GM dealer in Canada, the ‘States, or Mexico, under a staggeringly comprehensive warranty. My stepfather’s 911 GT3 couldn’t come close to the GS ‘Vette; full disclosure, it was a route with very few tight corners, and some pretty eaten-up southern Indiana two-lanes with a lot of elevation changes… but. Those lumptybumpty two lanes never upset the ‘Vette in the least, and any straight, no matter how short, could be addressed by simply matting the loud pedal and trusting. The brakes on that thing were like God’s own anchors, and loosey-goosey bumpy, decreasing radius turns were, well, not an issue. In fact, I gained every time the road became substandard- my still-pissed stepdad, well, not so much.
    The GT3 sounds like the devil’s brush chipper- I think it’s redlined at 8500, and hearing it rip up and down through the gears was erectionific; the ‘Vette sounded like all high power V8s, urgent, hammer-y, lotsa bass.
    I won. Every time, and it wasn’t even my car, so I was less harsh on it than it was designed for… Christ, did I use the GS as it was meant, I’d probably outstrip my skills and be dead. And you can get a Z06, or ZR1.
    Why a mid-engine for arguably the best, most attainable sports car ever built? Who decides these things?

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  • Jimmy Abbots
    February 6, 2019, 7:57 PM

    It’s Bowling Green, KY

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    • Ken Smith@Jimmy Abbots
      February 7, 2019, 5:21 AM

      Does anyone remember that there were two rotary-engined Corvette prototypes–a two-rotor and a 4-rotor version? The 4-rotor version had styling that was similar to current Corvette styling with the pointed nose, pop-up headlights, subtly-smoothed fender-flares, but with gull-wing doors and minus the duck-tail spoiler at the rear. It was also called the ‘Aerovette’–google it for pictures.

      REPLY