My Car Quest

April 23, 2019

The Big Scoop (GM’s Wankel Mid-Engined Corvette)

by Wallace Wyss

I’ll never forget the Big Scoop.

The way I got this advance story ahead of the rest of the press started out with a photo shoot. I was out at Cranbrook, a private high school northwest of Detroit, shooting a 1964 Ferrari Lusso that belonged to General Motors styling executive Chuck Jordan.

When we were almost done, Jordan piped up: ”Say, we’re having some press in to look at a new prototype next week–do you want to come over too?” Well, do bears walk around in the woods?

The next Thursday I was there, with a photographer I flew in from California. The secretary said “Oh, Wallace Wyss from Motor Trend.” I corrected her and told her that in fact I had left MT but my name was still in the magazine. No matter. She directed me to the outdoor view area.

When I got there, I saw a low red sports car with tan interior. They handed me the keys. It was an automatic. It produced a sporty sound, like a very tuned four cylinder. I took a few loops around the small driving area, my photographer shooting one roll after another.

Then about four or five guys showed up in suits. They began jumping between the car and my photographer, elbow to elbow in unison like the Rockettes. I got the feeling I was suddenly being uninvited and skedaddled. And sold the story to Car & Driver.

Later I find out Motor Trend had set up a shoot and when I arrived, the secretary thought I was from Motor Trend. Much egg on face ensued for their crew.

Years later I found out more about the genesis of the car. Turns out that Jordan had conceived the idea back when the Corporation was going to make several rotary engine production cars with the GM engine and needed a show car to kick it off.

Corvette Wankel Engine

Styling credit to Kip Wasenko, Tom Covert with Hank Haga supervising and Chuck Jordan managing them.

Pininfarina was picked to do the prototype build, but the project was done out of Germany where , if anyone saw it, they would think it was an Opel project. By the time they brought it back to the US and got ready to show it, over in GM Engineering, they had made the discovery that the GM rotary engine was an oil pig. Like 1000 miles on a quart. (My new Nissan, by the way, gets 4000 miles on a quart).

Anyway GM decided to drop the whole rotary thing though they later on brought out the Monza 2-plus-2 car with a piston engine instead of the planned rotary. But the promotion for the rotary engine was just starting. Mitchell had started another rotary engine show car called the Four Rotor, with two GM two rotors linked together to work as one engine but that was not really a drivable car.

GM banished the Two Rotor to Europe to get it out of the media’s eye and for another secret reason I’ll tell you in a moment.

In one letter on the website Deansgarage.com a contributor wrote that he believed Mitchell had it crushed. Why? Because he hated the design, thinking it was too Porsche-like. He championed the bigger Four Rotor. All to no avail—as the brass on the 14th floor had decided that they didn’t like the rotary because the oil embargo had started and the last thing they wanted to do was have GM bring out a car that used a lot of oil.

Rediscovered

So decades pass and finally I read that a guy from England owns the Two Rotor–the car that everyone said was crushed.

Corvette Wankel Engine

The guy is Tom Falconer, owner of a Corvette shop. He was visiting Chuck Jordan and just before he went into Jordan’s office he got a phone call from his buddy, Geoff Lawson, the late Jaguar design chief, who in 1982 was head of styling at Bedford Trucks in Luton. Lawson told him that he knew he was visiting Jordan and that in the conversation he should try to work his way around to asking if he could have that old Corvette show car that was over in the UK without an engine and scheduled to be destroyed. Well, you don’t ask, you don’t get. His excuse was that he had the only Corvette shop in England. Jordan said yes.

When Falconer got back to the UK he drove over to the GM plant and put the car on a trailer and drove it to his shop, later putting in a Mazda 13B rotary unit . Then a few years later he blows everyone’s mind at an NCRS convention by showing up with a prototype Corvette that slipped the net.

The design has stood up well, except for the headlights that look like the crummy Monza 2-plus-2 and the off-the-shelf American Racing Vector wheels.

Ironically the Brit was offered a real GM rotary engine later but turned it down because he didn’t want to re-engineer the car. (I figure that cost him about a million if the car is ever auctioned…) My estimate of its value is about $2.5 million USD.

And so it is, sports fans. Oh, I should mention there was another mid-engined Corvette built with a similar body but with a better nose style that is often confused with the Two Rotor Corvette. That was built at the behest of some aluminum company hoping GM would make a car all out of aluminum … I am not sure of the engine on that one, maybe a V8..

Oh, and why did GM banish the Two Rotor to outer Siberia? Well, blame that on the late Zora Arkus-Duntov, the chief Corvette engineer. One day he might have had one glass of grappa too many and he divulged to a reporter that the Two Rotor was in fact built on a modified Porsche 914 chassis.

So in effect GM had spent $2 million to make the World’s Most Expensive Custom Porsche…

THE AUTHOR: Wyss specializes in barn find stories in his series of books called Incredible Barn Finds, which are available from Enthusiast Books, Hudson, WI.


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Summary
The Big Scoop (GM’s Wankel Mid-Engined Corvette)
Article Name
The Big Scoop (GM’s Wankel Mid-Engined Corvette)
Description
Did Chevrolet really make a rotary mid-engined Corvette?
Author

Comments

  1. I love the AMC Pacer

  2. Byron LaMotte says

    Beautiful and most interesting write up! In the back of my mind I envisioned this is what the Corvair could have evolved into were it not for Ralph Nader.

  3. ~ ‘In effect GM had spent $2 million to make the World’s Most Expensive Custom Porsche.’ -yike.

  4. Thomas Ollinger says

    I’ve been waiting decades for the mid engined Corvette they promised us. I’m starting to think it won’t happen.

  5. Thomas Sadly that dream ended when Dr. Emmett Brown invented his flux capacitor powered DeLorean.

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