It was late 2014 and General Motors was about to wheel out one of the most important prototypes in the company’s history, deep inside one of its top secret US test tracks.
One of the first running examples of a hand-built mid-engine Corvette prototype was about to do a shakedown run – hidden underneath what from a distance was supposed to look like a Holden Commodore ute.
It was the perfect disguise, or so General Motors thought.
The part of the car that was supposed to look like the ute tub would also give engineers easy access to the mid-mounted engine and other key mechanical components that were hidden under its tonneau cover.
The Holden ute’s small two-door cabin was positioned roughly where the cockpit should be on a mid-engined Corvette, so it didn’t look too out of place on a low-slung pick-up.
The finishing touch: the nose of the then current model Commodore ute grafted onto the front.
The Frankenstein of a car was painted black so the unusual joins and bulges that cobbled it together hopefully wouldn’t stand out if the car happened to be caught on camera.
The test track’s fence line was so far away that, even with a long lens, spy photos of the Corvette cloaked in a Commodore ute’s clothes would hopefully be blurry enough to keep everyone guessing for a little while longer.
But General Motors hadn’t counted on the invention of the drone, and the good luck – or impeccable engineering sources – of a photographer who decided to fly a camera over the test track that fateful day.
Crystal clear spy shots – taken from much closer than General Motors would have thought possible – published in January 2015 by Car And Driver magazine (pictured below) revealed the mid-engined Corvette’s disguise wasn’t so convincing after all.
It took no time at all for US media to twig that this was a test mule for a mid-engine Corvette, the first time its V8 has been located behind the driver in the iconic sports-car’s 57-year history.
The only thing left for media to speculate on was whether the mid-engine layout was approved for production at that time, or if the Holden Commodore ute mule was one of a number of alternatives the company was considering.
But the program had already been given the green light by the time the badly disguised prototype came to life.
It turns out a mid-engined Corvette was supposed to arrive a decade ago, but the Global Financial Crisis put the brakes on development of certain models as General Motors clawed its way out of bankruptcy. A mid-engine Corvette was seen as an extravagance.
Instead, to buy time, Chevrolet gave the sixth generation Corvette an overhaul (new body, revised engines, same frame) to create the C7 – and save the ground-up mid-engine program for the C8.
Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter told US podcast Autoline After Hours in December 2019: “One thing we knew right from the beginning is that we wouldn’t be able to keep it (the switch to a mid-engine layout) a secret. You can’t test the car and hide its proportions. The Holden ute, one of our very first (test) mules, was the only way we could think of making it at least questionable what it was.”
The Commodore ute version of the mid-engine Corvette was only used in the very early stages of development – to help map out the layout of the car and test suspension geometry options – before the engineering team switched to prototypes using real bodywork.
But that presented its own problems: it was next to impossible to keep the final design of the car a secret.
“Such a high performance car, and with airflow being so important, we had to have very minimal camouflage towards the end of the program,” Juechter told Autoline After Hours. “Everybody’s gotten so good at peeling that off digitally and doing renderings, we knew that by the time we revealed the car that people would pretty much know what (the mid-engine Corvette) looked like. But the story is so much bigger than just what it looks like.”
Meanwhile, the Corvette chief engineer revealed that while General Motors is immensely proud of creating the first factory-built right-hand-drive, it is still a “toe in the water exercise”.
“We’re taking a little bit of a bet there. (For years) we have people come to Corvette events from Australia … asking for the car,” Juechter told Autoline After Hours. “We’re dipping our toe in the water for right-hand-drive and we’ll see how it goes, hopefully it will take off. We’re super proud to be doing that, first time ever. We looked at it before, but it was never affordable.”
Juechter added: “We’ve never sold the car in Australia. We know we have passionate fans there, but we really don’t have a great sense of what the (sales) volume is going to be. So we had to look at new ways of tooling parts to do … a mirror image of it to get to right-hand-drive and do it at a reasonable (cost).”
Juechter, who has worked on every Corvette since the C5 released in 1997 said the switch to a mid-engine layout made a right-hand-drive version more economically viable.
“Not having the engine in the way, and being able to translate everything over and not having to worry about all the plumbing … mid-engine made it inherently simpler on the outside of the car,” Juechter told Autoline After Hours.
As reported by CarAdvice when the Corvette was confirmed for Australia in July 2019, the new model is powered by a 6.2-litre V8 with claimed outputs of 370kW and 637Nm, matched exclusively to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Holden had invited Australian media to test drive the new Corvette in the US this week. However the preview drive was cancelled in the wake of the Holden shutdown announcement last week.
CarAdvice understands it is likely the new Corvette will still come to Australia – in early 2021 – as part of the rollout of General Motors Speciality Vehicles (GMSV) across a much smaller, niche dealer network and be sold alongside the Camaro muscle car and Silverado pick-up which are converted to right-hand-drive locally. Other General Motors models may follow.
However, CarAdvice understands the GMSV plans are still in the early stages of negotiations between Holden Special Vehicles’ parent company, Walkinshaw Automotive Group, and General Motors in Detroit, and are not yet approved or finalised.