General Motors has tried three times to sell cars with the engine behind the driver.
All are viewed as failures.
Will the eighth-generation Chevrolet Corvette, scheduled to debut late Thursday in Tustin, Calif., break that streak?
It’s a steep engineering challenge to place the engine in the rear of a vehicle. First, there are few off-the-shelf parts from other vehicles that can be repurposed. So the engineering bill is big.
GM’s first production rear-engined car, the 1960-69 Chevrolet Corvair, had a flat-six air-cooled engine that shared no major parts with any other GM engine. The transmission was a two-speed automatic in a unique case. The manual transmission was also specifically made for the car. The suspension was also unique to the Corvair.
Although Chevrolet sold more than a million Corvairs in a variety of body styles, the car’s early handling problems, in which some people were killed, including comedian Ernie Kovacs, earned the car a bad reputation that it never recovered from. It also launched the career of a consumer- and safety-minded lawyer named Ralph Nader.
GM has tinkered with various engineering studies of midengine Corvettes over the years, but no production car with the engine behind the driver came from a GM division again until Pontiac launched the ill-fated Fiero in 1983. The low-slung, two-seater got off to a roaring start, with sales of more than 130,000 in its first year.
Then the problems started piling up. The biggest: Engine fires that drove consumers away. Some cars had defective connecting rods. And GM engineers had to shrink the car’s oil pan to fit it in the tight space behind the seats. When the oil ran low, the engine broke a rod that punched through the side of the block, sending oil onto the hot exhaust manifold, igniting a fire that melted the car’s composite body.
After sales stalled, GM killed the Fiero in 1988 — right after a major redesign that corrected many of the car’s weak points in the suspension system.
No other GM vehicle with the engine behind the driver appeared until about 12 years later. In 2001, GM’s German Opel division introduced a version of the Lotus Elise that GM helped pay to develop. It was called the Speedster. The car remained in production until 2005, but only 7,200 were sold. The car had no significant engineering deficiencies, but it was not a sales success.
Now comes the midengine Corvette. What’s changed since the last time GM engineers were given the assignment to put the engine behind the driver? GM’s engineering capabilities are vastly different and far more computer-driven today than at the turn of the century.
The software systems GM uses today can detect potential problems before the first part even is cast.
Jordan Lee, chief engineer for the Corvette’s 6.2-liter V-8 engine, told me Thursday, on the plane ride to California, that engineers have piled close to a million real-world miles on the midengine Corvette engineering mules. That explains why Detroiters have seen camouflaged Corvettes running around southeast Michigan for nearly two years now.
Those test miles included such mundane events as idling in broiling, slow-moving traffic jams and driving in all-weather conditions; round-the-clock drives designed to stress all the vehicle’s systems; and plenty of other scenarios in which customers are likely to expose the new Corvette.
While GM might have a checkered past with cars that have the engine behind the driver, that is now just historical baggage and nothing more. That isn’t to say that the new Corvette is guaranteed to be a perfect car out of the gate. It’s loaded with technology and complex electronics — like all modern cars. It may need a reflash or two in the early stages.
But there’s no doubt that GM engineers have gotten the engine, suspension, cooling, lubrication and other basic but major functions nailed perfectly. There’s too much at stake in a car as important as the Corvette for there to be any Corvair- or Fiero-like blunders. And I don’t believe there will be.