Improving the Breed

A man on a mission.

Image: caranddriver.com

The old adage of racing improving the breed was taken to another level when engineer, designer and talented race car pilot Zora Arkus-Duntov took up the development of the 1959 CERV – the first Chevrolet Experimental Racing Vehicle.

A Belgian-born naturalised US citizen, Arkus-Duntov is rightly regarded as the Father of the Corvette. Beguiled by Harley Earl’s beautiful styling but disappointed by the Corvette’s indifferent performance and handling, Arkus-Duntov wrote to Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole, offering his services to improve the car. He argued persuasively that the American driver of the 1950s wanted to drive fast, loud and to win.

Cole was impressed with Arkus-Duntov’s market knowledge and insights, so he employed him as an Assistant Staff Engineer on the Corvette development team in May 1953. Arkus-Duntov improved the car’s sporting credentials and image enormously in 1955 by installing the small-block V8 engine mated to a manual gearbox. Previously, the Corvette had only been available with a six-cylinder engine and automatic transmission. Arkus-Duntov was also instrumental in setting up a Corvette racing team. This would in turn lead indirectly to the establishment of the CERV programme.

CERV was conceived at Chevrolet’s Engineering Center in Warren, Michigan and revealed to the public at the Riverside International Raceway in November 1960. The car looked distinctly similar to most Indycar racers of the period. A small-block V8 of 283 cu.in. (4.6-litre) capacity evolved from the existing production V8 engine was installed amidships. The engine was of all-aluminium construction with magnesium ancillaries and weighed just 350lbs. (159kg). It produced maximum power of 350bhp (261kW) and was mated to Corvette four-speed gearbox, with drive to all four wheels.

CERV I. Image: corvsport.com

Arkus-Duntov’s passion for power with control was most clearly evidenced in the rigour of the CERV testing programme. In order for the test car to satisfy its master’s demands, weight-saving in all areas was a priority. The wheelbase was 96” (2,438mm) and the car’s all-up weight was 1,600lbs. (727kg). The chassis was constructed from chrome molybdenum tubes and weighed just 125lbs. (57kg). The car was clothed in fibreglass bodywork weighing around 80lbs. (36kg). Arkus-Duntov’s plan was to have the car closely observed for ride and handling characteristics under extreme conditions, hence the exposed wheels and suspension mechanism to facilitate this

Arkus-Duntov had long harboured beliefs regarding the potential dynamic benefits of all-wheel-drive, ever since he observed racing Bugattis in the 1930s. In a memo from 1964, he recalled that “The off-line acceleration of the [Bugatti] T-53s was startling, their manoeuvrability shocking. 650bhp and under 2,000lbs running weight made them a real handful.

The CERV was destined not to race, officially at least, because of a ban on any high-horsepower factory-assisted racing imposed by the US Automobile Manufacturers Association in 1957. This failed to dent Arkus-Duntov’s ardour as both fans and helmsmen wanted more: Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss were just two famous drivers who obliged with demonstrations of the CERV’s potential at the Riverside track. Arkus-Duntov himself took the blue and white car to Sebring, Daytona and Pikes Peak, nominally as a private entrant, but with unacknowledged GM backing. In 1964, he took a more powerful 377 cu.in. (6.2-litre) engined CERV to GM’s Milford Proving Ground where he achieved an average speed of 206mph (332km/h).

Continuing Arkus-Duntov’s quest for ever better performance and handling characteristics, CERV II began to evolve from 1963 with six examples; three to race in foreign endurance events and three for spares. It featured a steel and aluminium space-frame chassis and was now a closed coupé with Corvette-aping stressed GRP bodywork styled by Larry Shinoda and Anatole Lapine. Titanium was used for wheel hubs, exhaust manifold and certain engine parts, to minimise weight. CERV II was designed to take on the might of Ford’s GT40 and Ferrari’s 248SP. The updated engine, now with Hillborn fuel injection, had an increased power output of some 500bhp (373kW). 0 to 60mph (97km/h) took just 2.8 seconds on the way to a v-max of 212mph (342km). 

CERV II. Image: carbuzz.com

CERV II’s piece de la resistance was its driveline. A pair of two-speed automatic transmissions were fitted, one in front of and one behind the mid-mounted engine, with torque converters making the car ‘the first known operating torque-vectoring AWD vehicle’ apparently. It featured outboard vented disc brakes and low-profile, experimental Firestone tyres mounted on magnesium wheels. Arkus-Duntov aimed for 60-65% of the drive to head rearward, with numerous tests on different split ratios dependent on the characteristics of each potential racetrack. The chief test driver pounding the tracks was Bob Clift. A great deal of CERV II’s technology would later find its way into an altogether different racing car, the Jim Hall Chaparrals.

The engineering work was completed in 1964. Arkus-Duntov, along with Chevrolet General Manager Bunky Knudsen, were only too pleased with the results and positively burst with enthusiasm to get on track, only for GM to pull the plug entirely on its factory racing programme. Naturally disheartened, Arkus-Duntov refused to be beaten, insisting that, if racing CERV II was no longer possible, using it to demonstrate GM’s highly capable engineering prowess still was. While some high-profile outings for the car continued until the 1970s, much if it being high-speed endurance and tyre testing, GM management lost interest in the programme and CERV II was retired permanently in 1974. It was donated to the Briggs Cunningham museum before becoming an auction piece for wealthy stateside owners.

Image: southsidervoice.com

Zora Arkus-Duntov retired in 1975 and passed away in 1996. It would take GM until 2019 to make its own mid-engined Corvette, but CERV would first re-emerge in a new guise.

First unveiled as an unpowered prototype at the 1986 Detroit Auto Show, the Corvette Indy Concept was a striking Jerry Palmer design, strongly reminiscent of the later Jaguar XJ220. Another four years would pass as the Indy Concept evolved into CERV III, the acronym now redefined as ‘Corporate Engineering Research Vehicle’. Ostensibly still a test rig, it featured a mid-engined layout with all-wheel-drive, all-wheel-steering and cathode-ray-tube cockpit screens.

CERV III’s curvaceous body (0.277cd) was a blend of Nomex, Kevlar and carbon-fibre reinforced by an aluminium honeycomb frame. Titanium suspension components shaved off some weight, but the dual brake disc sandwiches (thus, eight in total) added back the pounds. Party-trick scissor doors captivated the pre-social media world, as did the early navigation system. Comparison with the earlier Indy Concept revealed a shorter nose positioned higher from the ground, along with space within the wheel arches for reasonable suspension travel. 

CERV III. Image: motortrend.com

The car’s power derived from a 5.7-litre V8 fettled by Lotus Engineering, with 32 valves and a pair of Garret T3 turbochargers. Like its predecessor, CERV III featured two gearboxes; a three-speed Hydramatic transmission connected to a two-speed, custom-built box with viscous coupling. Its vital statistics included maximum power of 650bhp (485kW), torque of 655 lb ft (888Nm), a zero to 60mph (97km/h) time of three seconds and a (calculated) 215mph (347km/h) top whack. Supercar territory for a supercar $400,000 (estimated) sticker price.

Considering that regular Corvette sales were in the doldrums when a standard model cost $32,000 and the exotic ZR-1 version around double that figure, few were willing to stump up that amount of cash for a Chevrolet. The public enjoyed the experience of driving the CERV III, albeit only in the blocky graphic video game, Test Drive III – The Passion. 

And bizarrely, the story continued in 1997 when the Corvette Group secretly tasked TDM Inc to build a test car using the production 1997 Corvette, naming it CERV IV, the acronym now stand for ‘Corvette Engineering Research Vehicle’. A $1.2M fee was paid by Chevrolet unbeknownst to GM top brass lest the project be cancelled. And finally, CERV IVb, which was another 1997 test mule for the forthcoming Corvette C5. With a modified interior, four-wheel disc brakes, BBS wheels and no side glass, this little-known concept sold in 2009 for $34,000.

Now all are expensive museum pieces. Were they value for General Motors’ money? What would Arkus-Duntov think?

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

8 thoughts on “Improving the Breed”

  1. A fascinating history and biography, thank you Andrew. Perhaps unfairly, I would not not have associated GM with such experimental engineering to improve the dynamic qualities of its cars.

    1. Daniel,

      Let me respond to your comment becuase it seems there is SOOO much on this topic you don’t know. Back in the ’60’s and ’70’s GM built a ton more mid and rear engine concepts than the ones shown in this article. Everyone was so sure they were going to come out with a mid-engine Corvette back in the ’70’s or ’80’s. It was always, always, always going to be the next one the C4 was supposed to be then the C5 etc etc. For GM, they always seemed to be hamstrung by the shortsightedness of Wallstreet and could never really look beyond next quarter’s profits. I think to a large degree they are still run like this and it hurts them…..they always seem to make C+ cars…as in just good enough. Not the worst or the best but decent and generally lacking passion. They also seem to be ruled by metrics where they can point out on paper they “beat” their rivals but never seem to be able to pull it off in execution.

      They never seemed to be able make the business case for a mid-engine car until of course the C8 that I’m STILL shocked they were able to pull off. I think they were able to do it because of the HUGE luggage space they incorporated in the front and rear compared to other mid-engine cars. Until the C8, the closest they had ever come was back in the late ’70’s when the mid-engine Covette program was tied to their rotary program. Of course when the rotary engine got cancelled so did the mid-engine Vette.

      Now I think a good example to help illustrate this point of GM and their mid-engine experimental cars is a period book I bought at a flea-market on the Pantera. It had an entire chapter dedicated to the GM mid-engine concepts because they were so sure a production car was right around the corner and the Pantera, sold for a short time at Lincoln dealers was their response after the GT40 Mrk4 was shelved.

  2. What a great article. Thank you.
    But what did CERV IV look like? As it turns out, very much like the C4 Corvette it was loosely based on. Four inches longer in wheelbase and without the C4 clamshell bonnet/hood over the 32 valve v8.

    1. David,

      Thank you for digging this up, I remember seeing this car at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green back in the day. The HUGE deal with this car was that it was the first car where GM used hydroformed frame rails instead of frame rails welded together from multiple pieces. This is what makes the C5 so much more rigid than the C4 was. If you want to know more about it I can recommend an excellent book written about the development of the C5 Corvette called, “All Corvette’s are Red”

  3. Did the all-alloy construction and any other elements of the Chevrolet Small Block based CERV I V8 contribute towards the development of the 215 Buick V8? Found it strange that both Oldsmobile and Pontiac had their own versions of the 215 Buick V8 known collectively as the 215 BOP V8, yet Chevrolet was absent presumably because of the divergent Corvair Flat-Six.

    Also seem to recall hearing claims the all-alloy BMW OHV V8 played some role in the development of the 215 Buick V8.

    A bored-out 4.9-litre version of the CERV I V8 would find its way into one Chevrolet Vega prototype, although was unlikely to reach production. Do wonder if GM could have applied the lessons of both the CERV V8 and 215 Buick V8 (later Rover V8) onto the Chevrolet Small Block V8 and related GM 90-degree V6.

    1. I’ve heard those claims about GM copying BMW’s little V8 too, and I don’t give them much credence. Other than being made of aluminium alloy the M502/503 was a straight forward crib of the 1940s GM V8s from Cadillac and Oldsmobile with it’s central camshaft, pushrods, and wedge combustion chambers. I doubt that postwar GM would have looked outside their own technical expertise in designing an alloy V8. The copying was more likely the other way round, Europe copying America.

  4. Good Morning Andrew
    An excellent and informative article so thank you. What surprises me are the vast sums of money that were spent on development of these cars and components before someone pulled the plug on them with no return expected.

  5. Andrew,

    Let me first thank you for a wonderful article but your statement that the CERVI was the first Chevrolet experimental race car is simply not true. The first car was the 1957 Corvette SS that was a show car and actually raced at Sebring. This car is VERY significant to this story because it had a magnesium body with the engine in the front. It is claimed THIS is the car that made Duntov want to move the engine behind the driver due to the heat coming off the engine of that car and of course the magnesium body not helping. I’ve seen this car, it’s on permanent display at the Indy Motor Speedway museum.

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