The XP-819 REAR ENGINE Corvette Will Get Its Day

Dateline: 12.7.11

“Pearl Harbor Day”

The Frank Winchell rear-engine Corvette gets the Corvette Repair treatment.

The XP-819 was once a genuime basket case. Literally. The purpose of the car was to prove a point. There was a bit of a pissing contest going on in ‘64 between Zora Arkus-Duntov and co-engineer Frank Winchell. Winchell was part of the Corvair team and had a different religion as to the path to handling glory. Winchell said, “Hang it out the back! It works for Porsche and VW.” Duntov said, “No, the engine needs to be in the middle to keep the car balanced.”

When the topic of mid-engine Corvettes come up, the name “Zora Arkus-Duntov” is almost unanimously, and immediately connecter to the subject. But there was “another guy” that championed mid AND rear-engine Corvettes. That would be, Frank Winchell. I’ve covered the XP-819 and Winchell’s Corvettes in my Illustrated Corvette Series VETTE Magazine column. Most of the Corvette blogs are talking about the newly restored XP-819 by by Kevin Mackay and his team at Corvette Repair. I thought it would be interesting and different to share with you the Frank Winchell / XP-819 story.

What I like about this car is that it kind’a-sort’a is cool. It was a very interesting design idea, and the back story between Duntov and Winchell is interesting as well. When researching my stories, I learned that the two engineers with strong personalities, had totally different management styles. Many of Duntov’s coworkers are on record saying that because of his passion of high performance cars and his almost boundless enthusiasm, he was wonderful to work WITH. You worked hard, but Zora made things exciting. (Duntov was such a misfit in General Motors!)

What I learned about Winchell was very insightful. So as to not seem “harsh or bias,” let me first say that Duntov was on record saying the Winchell was a fine engineer and very smart. It should also be mentioned that Winchell was the Chevrolet go-to guy in the early years of Jim Hall’s amazing Chaparral race cars – the pre- Chaparral 2J ”sucker-car” days. Winchell was as passionate as anyone, he just had his own ideas. An interesting insight into the man’s leadership style came from a member of Winchell’s team. The man said that you never work “with” Frank, you work :”for” Frank. Oh well.

As far as the design of the car is concerned, it’s interesting, but flawed. Chevrolet didn’t lose anything for not taking the Corvette in the rear end-engine direction. Duntov said that the car would be ugly with all the bodywork hanging out behind the car. But when he saw the full-size tape drawings he told Larry Shinoda, “It looks nice, but where did you cheat?” The XP-819 was ONLY an engineering study, with a nice bod.

But at the end of the day, the reason the “rear-engine” combination works for a VW and a 911 Porsche is this. Because both cars had flat, low, lightweight aluminum engines, with the VW’s flat-four being one cylinder shorter and with its weight close to the rear transaxle than the Porsche, the “weight factor” wasn’t nearly as great as the XP-818’s.

The experimental Corvette had a lot going against it, such as;
1. A heavy cast iron engine.
2. The small-block Chevy engine is longer and taller, with a much higher center of gravity.
3. While increased tire adhesion with wider real tires would provide grip longer into a power turn, when the tires eventually break free of the road surface, the pendulum effect of the increased high and rear-biased weight would be “startling” to say the least. Remember, this was an engineering study for a road-worthy production car and not a race car with a seasoned driver behind the wheel. Can you imagine this setup on a wet road? As safe as a front-wheel-drive car is, this would have been the least safe.

But, at least they tried and Larry Schinoda once again gets kudos for a fine tayloring job of the unique chassis shape. And by an amazing sequence of events, a piece of Corvette history that would normally been sent to the crusher, is still with us to enjoy. About 20 years ago after the XP-819 had been rescued and rebuilt from it’s “basket case” status at Smoke Yunick’s “Best Damn Garage In Town,” it made the magazine rounds. One story said, “It does GREAT wheelies!   – Scott

Related: Corvette Oddball: Did GM ever consider a rear engine Vette?

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