I was working in Detroit at the time. Early ‘70s. General Motors was crazy about the Wankel rotary engine. Didn’t matter that Mazda had it in production, the one that they were gonna do was gonna be better.
More about that later.
In order to promote the regular passenger cars that would have them they wanted to build an exotic showcase.
So they selected Pininfarina, who had done many Ferrari designs, to do the bodywork on the prototype of a show car, though the design work was done in Detroit.
Or should I say Germany because the whole project was kept secret so they actually had it done in Germany as an Opel project.That way if anyone heard about a new two seater they would assume it was a revival of the Opel GT.
Technically the car was badged as the two-rotor 1973 XP-897GT Corvette concept.
GM had built a mid-engined Corvette concept earlier, the 1969 XP-882 . And some say the 1972 XP-895 mid-engine came before it as well, that was a mid-engine car with an all alloy body meant to showcase aluminum coachwork and perhaps chassis.
The engine for the rotary engine one was General Motors’ new 266 cid 180 horsepower Wankel rotary engine. Now because the engine was a midship, they took an automatic developed for a front wheel drive car and turned it around. In all the other GM cars they wanted to use the engine in, it would be front wheel drive.
The 2-rotor Corvette was rolled out for its debut on the auto show circuit in 1978 in Frankfurt, Germany. It later made the rounds to all the major auto shows.
Rumors in GM were that Bill Mitchell, the VP in charge of design, didn’t like the Two Rotor, and felt it was too small. But if you believe that, how do you explain he was The Man in Charge? At any rate, he sponsored a parallel show car, the Four Rotor, partly because he was antagonized by the fact Mercedes had a four rotor prototype the C-111 and even Mazda, who were the first to mass produce rotaries had a four rotor or maybe even a five rotor variant called the CX-500. Those guys made the Two Rotor sound like a junior edition, for those not quite man enough to drive more rotors.
But it was no slouch. Ask me. I drove it. I talked my way onto the tarmac at GM Design and they rolled it out and handed me and my photographer Gero Hoschek, the key. Now, it’s true that they mistook me for a Motor Trend editor, but I think when those Motor Trend guys showed up later in the day they realized they hadn’t read even Chapter 1 of any James Bond book.
I was half way through whipping it around the “Styling Circle” with 100 pictures in the can before they showed up with some galoots to give me the boot. My opinion? It had a guttural growl, predictable handling and would have made a beautiful little grand tourer.
Its big brother, the Four Rotor, by contrast, was a more impractical design, lots of front and rear overhang and gull wing doors. One of those cars you know will never be built.
Plus the Four Rotor was, to put it plainly, a bit of a fraud. Oh, the magazine writers heaped praise on it but you would be hard to find one that actually drove it since it only had a motor adequate to get it up on the stage at a car show and that was it. And they didn’t want you looking at the engine to see that it was but two twin rotors lashed together in some sort of Rube Goldberg chain drive deal, not like the Mercedes and Mazda multiple rotor jobs.
GENTLEMEN, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall and…you guessed it, the whole raison d’etre for the rotary show cars disappeared when Dr. Ken Ludema, yes, the very same well – respected engineer who said at the outset that there was no problem with rotaries, but was in charge of GM’s program, came out on stage at a press conference and admitted the GM engine was uh, doomed.
It was gas hungry. Positively greedy. And there wasn’t any quick fix (I think it was the tips of the rotors, Mazda has solved a lot of the problems since).
Plus there was an energy crisis in full bloom. In some States, like where I was in California by that time, you had to stand in line for gas. If you had a car that could only get 15 mpg, you couldn’t even drive one day on the amount of gas they would let you buy.
Plus GM really didn’t want to pay Curtiss-Wright, U.S. holders of the patent rights to the rotary, a royalty per engine. I ask you–were they paying the descendants of Otto, the inventor of the Otto-cycle engine, per-engine royalties on all the millions of engines they made, all of which were Otto cycles? Hell no.
(And that Felix Wankel, you didn’t have to dig very deep to find wasn’t he on The Other Side during the war..nicht wahr?)
So GM banished the Two Rotor. Tore up the press releases, and it was like it never existed. Oh, the Four Rotor got saved, because someone remembered the chassis was the old piston-engine XP-882 so, if they took the rotary out, they could have it driving around with a good ol’ pushrod Chevy V8 in a couple days. It was renamed the Aero Vette and is still in GM’s museum today.
The Two Rotor, after being celebrated at the British Motor Show, was shunted off to a warehouse at one of their UK factories. The engine was removed (and presumably melted down for scrap) and even the transaxle was removed.
GM planned to store it and would have even liked to crush it because with that Pininfarina body, if it was brought to live in the U.S., then someone would have to pay duties (let’s see, what’s the customs duties on a car that cost a couple million or more to engineer and build?).
AN UNKIKELY SAVIOR
And then the car got saved. But just in the nick of time. It so happens that Englishman Tom Falconer, owner of a Corvette shop on The Old Sode, heard about it and happened to mention it from time to time to his buddy, a Vauxhall stylist. Well, turns out Falconer was also a writer and had secured an assignment to interview Chuck Jordan, Mitchell’s successor at GM Design about the new Cadillac Seville.
As Falconer sat down in Jordan’s outer office to stir his cuppa he gets a frantic call from his buddy in England who says something like “I’m on the roof of the Vauxhall building and they’re about to throw away the Two Rotor Corvette.”
Falconer absorbs this and, thinking 100 miles an hour, goes into Jordan’s office and schmoozes big time. They talk about this and that and Falconer cleverly works his way around to the fate of the Two Rotor, pointing out he and he alone is championing the Corvette in Europe. And wouldn’t that be a nice car to put in his showroom (don’t laugh, in the village of Snodland).
Jordan sympathizes. Hell, the car has no engine. And no transaxle. What use was it? He says “yes” and only a few days later Falconer is driving his Citroen wagon to the roof of the Vauxhall building with a trailer to pick up the car.
Back in Blighty Falconer threw in any old engine to get it running, in this case a Vauxhall Cavalier but soon found a Mazda 13B rotary engine to go in its place so as to at least make it a rotary engine sports car. The trans from a Cadillac front-wheel drive went into it. He repainted in its original Candy Apple Red color, though it had been silver when shown in Europe.
Now imagine what happened when some time later Falconer shows up with the running rotary powered Two Rotor Corvette at the NCRS (National Corvette Restorer’s Society) convention. Pandemonium! Here US Corvette fans can’t buy GM prototypes – no way no how – but some slick talkin’ Englishman drives up with the Corvette equivalent of the crown jewels. Bloody hell!
But there was another darker reason that GM didn’t want the car around the U.S. Not only was it a reminder that they couldn’t beat tiny Toyo Kogyo (the real name of Mazda) in making a rotary, but Zora Arkus Duntov (called “the father of the Corvette” though he was hired well after the Corvette was in production), had one too many chardonnays over there in Grosse Pointe at the Yacht Club and let slip to a reporter that, yes, it was true it was built on a Porsche 914 platform. Yes, GM had spent $2 million making the world’s most expensive custom Porsche!
(You wonder if, at auto shows, they had shooed engineers from other firms away from taking a peek at the underside, lest they discover their sin…)
And so it is, one of the most beautiful show cars ever made by GM (except for the nose, used later in the Chevrolet Monza) has to live its days in ignominy…an heir to the throne thoroughly disinherited….
by Wallace Wyss –