Wed though it is to efficiency and mass production, Detroit cannot suppress an impulse to give romance—here defined as motor sport—an occasional whirl. The latest manifestation of this cautious courtship is a research vehicle from Chevrolet. Shown in detail on these pages, this prototype of what could be a racing car is remarkably attuned to the up-to-date, rear-engined, independently sprung European Grand Prix automobiles that compete for the world road-racing championship.
Called the CERV-I, this light, low, long-nosed car was first shown publicly at the recent United States Grand Prix. Within a few weeks it will be put through exhibition runs on the International Speedway at Daytona Beach, Fla. during the annual Daytona Speed Weeks. It will perform on both the high-speed banked track and the infield road course.
But neither at Daytona nor anywhere else will the CERV-I actually be raced in the foreseeable future. Why not? Chevrolet stoutly insists that the car is a "test platform from which direct visual studies may be made into all types of ride and handling behavior under amplified conditions." Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Chevrolet engineer responsible for its design, likens the car to a microscope, capable of penetrating more deeply into such fundamental concerns as improved steering, braking, cornering and ride stability. "Without the microscope you would know only that people are sick," Arkus-Duntov says. "You would not be able to isolate the bacillus."
All well and good. What intrigues motor sportsmen is that Chevrolet has chosen, for this particular microscope, a single-seater that echoes the latest Grand Prix practices—most noticeably in the matter of a rear engine—and has included racing circuits among its field laboratories.
It will be remembered that the Detroit automakers joined hands in 1957 and vowed to forsake motor racing. Each of the Big Three had more or less openly dabbled in stock-car racing, and Chevy had just ventured to put an all-out sports racing car, the Corvette SS, into the Sebring 12-hour international event. Their decision to quit the sport was undoubtedly influenced by several members of Congress who were casting a fishy eye at Detroit's horsepower race and presumably anything else that smacked of speed.
But racing is addictive. Last year, for instance, Chevrolet's profound interest in the performance of three more or less standard Corvette sports cars entered in the Le Mans 24-hour race was only partly masked by the fact that they were officially managed by Briggs Cunningham. European racing men reacted with stunned admiration to the Corvettes' straightaway speed, and although early accidents removed two cars, the third finished the race honorably.
Light and powerful
Chevy's new car reflects the racing man's constant search for lighter components and increased power. Weighing only 1,600 pounds, it is equipped with an ultralightweight fuel-injection version of the basic 283-cu.-in. Chevrolet V-8 engine. The engine weighs just 350 pounds, some 175 pounds having been pared off through the use of light alloys, and develops 350 hp, or one hp for each pound of weight.
Independent suspension systems go with rear engines like gasoline with combustion. They are inherently more compact than any solid-axle system combined with a rear engine. Further, they give greater flexibility in the adjustment of handling behavior. The CERV-I's arrangement includes two transverse links to control each wheel's vertical motion and a third, extending forward from wheel hub to frame, to transmit driving and braking thrust. The upper transverse links are merely the axle shafts doing double duty. Four-speed transmission and differential are conjoined as a "trans-axle." The drum-type rear brakes are mounted inboard, as were those of the regrettably short-lived SS. Like that of the standard Corvette, the body is made of a fiber-glass plastic.
As it stands, the CERV-I has too much engine to be admitted to any competitive arena except free-formula racing, which has little prestige. The current Grand Prix rule limits piston displacement to 1.5 liters (91½ cu. in.), and even the big Indianapolis "500" engines are not so big as this one.
Despite Chevy's emphasis on research goals, however, and the round-peg-for-square-hole status of the CERV-I in regard to current racing, the Chevy people are obviously keeping closely in touch with racing developments and clearly exploiting the inherent glamour of the racing world.
They should be encouraged to go on. For too long now the United States has been an underdeveloped road-racing country. One has to look all the way back to Jimmy Murphy's 1921 victory in the French Grand Prix, with a Duesenberg, for a purely American triumph in the loftiest road-racing category. Something like the CERV-1—or any racing car Detroit backs with all its resources—could put the U.S. at the top of world racing. If the risks of failure are sobering, the rewards for success are incalculably greater, as Germany's Daimler-Benz firm has proved over the years. The prowess of its Mercedes racing cars has been such that the company's passenger cars have come to be regarded by the public with almost mystical esteem. Could Chevrolet—or Ford or Plymouth—inherit the Mercedes mantle? Given a favorable climate of opinion and the will to strike boldly, surely yes.