A man on a mission.
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.
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’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.
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.
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?