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.
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.
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.