The concept of a mid-engine Corvette is almost as old as the Corvette itself. Here’s the General’s first attempt at the driver-first vehicle layout, the 1968 Chevrolet Astro II.
If the press reports to date are any indication, it looks like the 2020 C8 mid-engine Corvette is going to be a winner. Almost universally, the automotive media has applauded its handling, ride, performance, and packaging. In their eyes, the new C8 is everything a Corvette ought to be. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by all the thumbs up from the reviewers. After all, General Motors has been kicking around the mid-engined package for future Corvettes for many decades now, so they’ve had plenty of time to get it right. The automaker’s first working prototype was the Chevrolet Astro II way back in 1968, bearing the internal GM designation XP-880.
Above, the guy in the blazer is checking out the Astro II’s novel (for 1968, anyway) drivetrain setup: a 427 cubic-inch big-block V8 coupled to a two-speed automatic transaxle borrowed from the 1961-63 Pontiac Tempest—which in turn was based on the Corvair Powerglide, a unit not known for its torque capacity. The body shell is fiberglass, naturally, and everything rides on a Lotus-like backbone chassis of welded steel. Hidden in plain sight along the right side of the engine is a BF Goodrich Space Saver collapsing spare tire. The fuel tank resides on the other side, while the radiator is mounted over and behind the axle, aided by a large grille in the tilt-up bonnet.
First shown to the public at the 1968 New York Auto Show, the Astro II was a mere 43.7 inches tall. We note that for its debut, the show car was not officially badged as a Corvette, a sort-of tradition in Corvette concept vehicles. While the Astro II is widely heralded as the first mid-engine Corvette, it wasn’t the first mid-engine Chevy R&D vehicle; precursors included the CERV I and CERV II test mules and the GSII racer. And yes, there was an Astro I. That name was applied to a futuristic Corvair-based dream car that seems otherwise unrelated to the Astro II.
Above, this overhead view of the Astro II’s cockpit illustrates one shortcoming of the backbone frame layout: In this case, there’s scarcely enough lateral space remaining for a driver and passenger. Like the make-do transaxle, the cramped cockpit demonstrates that the mid-engine Corvette was a work in progress. But then, that’s the purpose of concepts and prototypes: to explore all the advantages and pitfalls of various ideas. The new C8 Corvette has been acclaimed as one of the most comfortable mid-engine sports cars ever, so it appears they got that part right.
The rear-quarter view below recalls the Porsche 904 a bit, and shows that Chevrolet experimented with several wheel-and-tire packages over the years. Here, the cast-spoke aluminum wheels usually seen have been exchanged for production-style Chevrolet Rally wheels, caps, and trim rings. In various forms, the Astro II appeared on the cover of Road & Track magazine in July of 1968, Motor Trend in December 1969, and no doubt countless others. And so, with the 2020 C8 Corvette, another tradition comes to an end: magazines perpetually teasing their readers with headlines like “Coming soon—a mid-engine Corvette?” By the way, XP-880 is still around in pristine condition, and is usually on display at the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage.