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The 1964 CERV II.

Michael Furman/Courtesy of RM Auctions

The epic on-track fight for sports car supremacy between Ferrari and Ford in the 1960s is part of racing lore, but it could have become an even more intense three-way battle, with the third participant sporting a bow-tie badge.

If Corvette's development wizard Zora Arkus-Duntov and performance junkie and Chevrolet division boss Semon "Bunkie" Knudson hadn't been reined in by anti-racing General Motors management, an experimental car called the CERV II – the world's first mid-engined, all-wheel-drive design – might have joined the fray.

The story is well known: Ford scion Henry II and Ferrari supremo Enzo almost inked a deal in 1963 for the former to buy the Italian sports car maker's company. Ferrari then reneged and Ford vowed to best him – and did – with multiple wins at Le Mans with the fabled GT40. But the story behind the CERV II is a tantalizing, little-known tale of what might have been – one that intrigued a collector sufficiently to hand over $1.1-million (U.S.) to acquire it at RM Auctions' recent New York sale.

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Arkus-Duntov, an engineer, turned up at GM after seeing the Corvette at its New York debut in 1953, and went on to influence its development so much so that he's known as the "Father of the Corvette." Much of his effort involved improving its performance and proving its mettle on the race track, a process that began at Sebring in 1957, continued at Le Mans in 1960 and was followed by the Grand Sport racers of 1963.

Arkus-Duntov also oversaw the Chevrolet Experimental Research Vehicle (CERV) program that originated in 1959-60 with a mid-engined single-seater he envisioned taking the chequered flag at the Indianapolis 500. However, it only turned a few demo laps – with Arkus-Duntov in the cockpit – at the 1960 U.S. Grand Prix because of an American auto manufacturers agreed-upon ban on racing.

The CERV II was created in 1963-64, and this time Arkus-Duntov's vision included taking on Ford and Ferrari in long-distance sports car racing with a stable of six cars. The idea was aided and abetted by Knudsen, who believed racing would boost Chevrolet's brand image.

The CERV II was built around a bonded aluminum and steel monocoque with subframes front and rear to mount the 490-hp, fuel-injected, 377-cubic-inch Chevy smallblock V-8, independent suspension and inboard disc brakes. Its open-cockpit fibreglass shell was actually the bottom half of what was intended to become an aerodynamic coupe.

The CERV II also incorporated a high-tech party trick in the form of an all-wheel-drive system, based on a torque-converter and two-speed transmission that drove the rear wheels, and another smaller unit that powered those up front.

All-wheel-drive had been tried by Ettore Bugatti and American Indy-car builder Harry Miller in the 1930s. Britain's Ferguson built a Formula 1 car with it in 1960, and later in the decade Lotus, Matra and McLaren tried it – all with little success. If GM had persevered, it might have beaten the dominant Nissan GT-Rs and Audi quattro racers of the late 1980s to the all-wheel-drive punch. The automatic transmission development work did, however, find its way into American Jim Hall's innovative mid-1960s Chaparrals.

The CERV II was quick, capable of 0-100 km/h in about three seconds, and featured a top speed of 340 km/h, but it would never get the chance to prove itself in competition.

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Knudson and Arkus-Dunton received a cease-and-desist order from on high that put an end to their racing aspirations. After the demonstration runs, it became a high-speed test mule for future Corvette technology, before being tucked away under a dust sheet in a warehouse. GM donated it to the Briggs Cunningham museum in the late 1970s and, from there, it passed through the hands of various collectors.

Two final CERVs were built – the CERV III displayed at the 1990 Detroit auto show, with a twin-turbo, 650-hp, ZR-1 engine and all-wheel-drive system, mid-mounted in a carbon-fibre chassis, and the CERV IV, built in near secrecy in 1993 at a time when Corvette's future was in doubt; this car became the brand-saving production C5 model of 1997.

General Motors was creating some clever cars in the early 1960s – the CERV II is proof of that. It's a shame GM didn't have the boldness to race against Ford and Ferrari.

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