Now that there’s actually a long-promised mid-engine American vehicle available for sale to the public, we thought we’d look at some concept cars that raised our expectations but didn’t make it into production.
By all accounts, the mid-engined C8 Chevrolet Corvette is off to a great start. However, the idea of a Chevy with the engine between the driver and the rear axle dates to 1962. In the intervening years, not only has Chevrolet developed running examples of the racecar-like layout, but so did Ford and even American Motors.
To various degrees, these running concept cars teased auto writers and the public alike for nearly 60 years. Here’s a look of 13 of the most intriguing central-engine sports cars that never reached the showroom floor.
Chevrolet Corvair Monza GT XP-777 (1962)
Developed by Larry Shinoda and future Porsche designer Tony Lapine under Bill Mitchell, the streamlined Corvair Monza GT flipped the Corvair engine to the middle of the chassis. The styling changed the design language at GM. Look around the Monza GT and you’ll spot elements adapted in later model cars, including the C3 Corvette. There were no doors but rather a clamshell front that had no A-pillars and a windshield of fictitious ‘transparent aluminum’ (shades of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Mechanical elements included four-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and aluminum-alloy wheels. The prototype survives in the GM Heritage Collection.
Ford Mustang I (1962)
The story starts with an aborted FWD VW Beetle fighter developed by Ford in the US. The design was cancelled for the US after $32 million had been spent on development. Instead, production tooling was sent to Ford of Germany, where the car appeared as the Ford Taunus P4. Seeking other uses for the longitudina, narrow-angle 1.5-liter V6 and 4-speed gearbox, many such engines were sold to Saab for the 96. Fitted midship in the Mustang I concept, Ford ha created a light, nimble sports car that “fit between a go kart and a Corvette.” Too complex to be manufactured in quantity, the Mustang label was transferred to the Falcon-based four-seater that debuted in 1964. The one running example is housed in the Henry Ford museum.
Ford Mustang Mach 2 (1967)
The brainchild of Ford design chief Gene Bordinat, the concept behind the Mach 2 was to take existing Mustang components, like a modified floor pan, front and rear suspensions, steering gear, Mustang discs front and Galaxie rear drums and the 289cid V8, though now fitted behind the driver to create a cost-effective sports car. Construction was handled by Ford subsidiary Kar-Kraft, its skunkworks that produced special projects and race cars for the company. The transmission was the same ZF transaxle used in the GT40 Mk II. Both prototypes were destroyed by company order. A Mach 2C was designed in 1969 by Larry Shinoda, newly arrived from GM, but it never went past the slider stage. We were unable to determine of the Mach 2C was based on one of the earlier Mach 2s or was on its own chassis.
Chevrolet Astro II XP-880 (1968)
Not just a styling exercise like the Astro I, the XP-880 developmental team involved both styling and engineering departments. The L36 427cid V8 was installed facing the rear, transferring power through a 2-speed Tempest automatic transaxle. The chassis was a backbone fabrication that featured front suspension comprised largely of Camaro bits while the rear was fitted Corvette components. On bias-ply street tires, the XP-880 generated 1.0g on the skid pad, an astonishing feat for the time. While positively received by the public, and given the rising sales of the C3 Corvette, there was little benefit to GM in undergoing the extensive development process that would be needed to take the XP-880 to production. The running protoype is on display at the GM Heritage Center.
AMC AMX/3 (1970)
It may seem odd now, but it’s American Motors Corporation that came closest to taking its home-grown concept to production. Styled by an internal team headed by Dick Teague and accepted by AMC for development over a Giugiaro-penned version, the company turned to Italy and Germany for the needed expertise in building a run of six prototypes. Former Ferrari engineer Gioto Bizzarrini, Giugiaro’s Ital Design, coachbuilder Autocostruzioni Torino and BMW were all involved in the development and testing of the prototypes, one reaching 170 mph at Monza. The AMX/3 was powered by an AMC 390cid V8. Gearbox for the first prototype was from ZF, though it was too long for the short AMX/3. Bizzarrini commissioned a custom transaxle from defense-contractor OTO Melaro. All six of the original prototypes are accounted for, one recently on the market for $795,000.
Chevrolet XP-882 (1970)
The XP-882 looked production ready when shown in 1970, with items like bumpers, windshield wipers, door handles, fog lights and so on typically avoided in pure styling models, and the car generating a frenzy among enthusiasts. Plus, the XP-882 looked like a Corvette, with design elements shared with the 1968-onward C3. The two prototypes were fitted with 454 big-block V8s, with power being transmitted through a Toronado transmission and a Corvette third member. The engine and trans were fitted transversely behind the driver. Read on for their whereabouts.
Ford GT70 (1970)
Harking back more to the Mustang I than to any of the intervening Corvette prototypes, the Ford GT70 was a small, light, two-seater. Designed by GT40 engineer Len Bailey, the GT70 was intended to replace the Escort as Ford’s rally weapon against sports cars like the Porsche 911 and Alpine A110. It was powered by Ford’s 2.6-liter V6, which was a development of the V4 used in the Mustang I. The 5 prototypes constructed needed loads of development to reach desired levels of reliability over rough terrain. In the meantime, the Escort, now fitted with a Cosworth BDA twi- cam, four-valves-per-cylinder engine, was conquering stages around the globe. This prompted the discontinuation of the GT70 project in 1973. One copy is owned by Ford France while several of the original others survive in private hands.
Chevrolet XP-895 (1973)
In 1972, the two XP-882 prototypes were restyled and renamed the XP-895, one of which was powered by a pair of two-rotor Wankel engines connected through a drive chain and producing a total of 420 horsepower. The second XP895 featured aluminum body panels developed in conjunction with Reynolds Metals Company and reappeared at the 1973 New York Auto Show, though still powered by a 454cid V8. See the 1976 Aerovette for the location of one of these prototypes.
Chevrolet Aerovette (1976)
Based on the XP-882/XP-895, the Aerovette featured a restyled interior and was fitted with a 400cid small-block V8. It was greenlighted for production for 1980 (which would have made it the C4 Corvette), but a number of obstacles came into play. First, other mid-engine cars were selling poorly while the wheezy C3 sold in record numbers. Second, the support team –comprising the father of the Corvette, Zora-Arkus-Duntov, design chief Bill Mitchell, and Chevrolet general manager Ed Cole — had retired. New Corvette chief Dave McLellan bowed to cost concerns and went on the develop the traditional front-engine 1984 C4 Corvette. The Aerovette resides in the GM Heritage Collection.
Ford Maya (1984)
By 1984 Ford was getting back into the performance business. It had launched the SVO Mustang, actively competed in NASCAR and IMSA and was developing with Yamaha the Taurus SHO DOHC V6. Ford turned to Guigario’s Italdesign not onlyfor design but the full development of a mid-engine prototype. To be called the Ford Maya, it was intended as a pre-production research vehicle. Looking more than a bit like a contemporary Lotus (also by Italdesign), the Maya was first shown with a mild V6 engine but the intent was for it to be fitted with the SHO V6 along with its manual transmission. Three examples were built, each with a slightly different exterior design. The second was fitted with a Taurus drivetrain while the third was fitted with a twin-turbo V6.
Ford Cobra 230 ME (1986)
The Ford Cobra 230 ME is an example of how fast things can change in the automotive world. It’s a two-seater powered by a transverse 4-cylinder engine and transmission mounted behind the driver. Sound similar to something already on sale over at Pontiac? That appears to have been the inspiration behind the Cobra 230 ME. Unlike the Fiero, it didn’t have to be sold to management as a “commuter car” so straight off the bat it was shown with a turbocharged and intercooled DOHC engine producing 250 horsepower. But Fiero sales were falling with production ending in 1988 and the next year a much stronger competitor appeared from Mazda. To counter the Miata, Ford pivoted to the FWD sports ca being developed in Australia that would be sold as the Mercury Capri. Based on an economy sedan, the third-gen Capri matched poorly against the Miata and faded away after just a few years on the market.
Chevrolet CERV III (1990)
If the 1986 Chevrolet Indy show car was the promise, the CERV III delivered on that promise. The Indy show car was intended to introduce several leading-edge technologies to the public, such as active suspension, performance AWD drivetrain and four-wheel steering, though none were fitted to the original non-running show car (constructed in a mere 6 weeks). The Indy morphed into the CERV III (Chevrolet Experimental Research Vehicle) program. Utilizing the assets of Lotus Cars, then owned by GM, active suspension, four-wheel steering, carbon fiber chassis and an all-aluminum DOHC turbo V8 were evaluated on the test track and on public highways. While seemingly production ready, the CERV III was finished to that level in order to best test the new technologies.
Ford GT90 (1995)
Tapping into the resources of another company Ford owned at the time, the GT90 was based on a Jaguar XJ220 with its advanced (for the time) bonded-aluminum chassis. Suspension and other gear carried over, as well as a rear-wheel drive version of the XJ220s AWD transaxle. Styling was intended to introduce Ford’s “New Edge” design philosophy that featured many edges and curves (think first-gen Ford Focus). Perhaps most intriguing was the engine, a 6.0-liter all-aluminum V12 created by combining portions of two DOHC Modular V8 and topping the result with four Garrett T2 turbochargers. Estimated output was 720 horsepower. The GT90 is on display at the Hajek Motorsports Museum in Ames, Oklahoma, but you’ll need to make an appointment to see it.
Ford Indigo (1996)
Maybe best described as a mid-engine Plymouth Prowler on steroids, the Ford Indigo concept car would have been one wild ride had it hit the market. Intended to demonstrate some of Ford’s motorsports technology’s two carbon fiber monocoques were produced by Reynard Motorsports, then a constructor of Indy cars. Powered by a 6.0-liter V12 engine designed by Ford and manufactured by Cosworth, the power plant utilized many of the DOHC Duratech V6 internal components fitted to a common crankcase. While the Indigo never reached production, its engine did, in 5.2-liter twin-turbocharged guise as the AM11 fitted to the Aston Martin DB7 Vantage and Vanquish. The running prototype is in Ford’s collection while a chassis with no engine or transaxle was offered for sale last year for $195,000.
Chrysler ME Four-Twelve (2004)
Chrysler shocked the crowds at the 2004 North American International Auto Show in Detroit when it rolled out the mid-engine ME Four-Twelve concept car. A secret project that involved just two designers and four engineers, the ME Four-Twelve took just a year to complete. Power came from the parent company, an 850-horsepower Mercedes V12 M120, a version of which powered the Pagani Zonda. The M120 was fed by four turbochargers, giving the concept car its name: Mid Engine Four turbos Twelve cylinders. Transmission was by a 7-speed dual-clutch transaxle, with big brakes and wide tires all around. The chassis was constructed from carbon fiber and aluminum honeycomb with a rear subframe fabricated from rugged 4130 steel. Two cars were produced, one a show car roller, the other an actual running prototype Chrysler took to Laguna Seca for the assembled press to drive. Current whereabouts unknown to us.