I Was There

Words and Photography courtesy of John T. Houlihan

In July of 1968, I was in my third year as an exterior designer for General Motors, working in the Styling Department at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. GM Styling was recognized as the pinnacle of American automotive design, and I somehow managed to escape the draft and land this prestigious job right out of college. My best friend and college roommate, less fortunate than I, entered the Navy upon graduation and had just been reassigned to a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam. Prior to departing, he flew in for a visit. His final night in the States found us commiserating about his fate at my kitchen table, well into both the morning and a case of Stroh’s fire-brewed beer. He had an early flight and I had to go to work. We caught a couple hours of sleep, and around five in the morning, I dropped him at the airport and headed for the studio.

This was an important day for me. I had to finish a full-size airbrush rendering that I had convinced, or so I thought, the chief designer to include in the array of proposals to be presented to GM “brass” later that afternoon. A team of senior executives were slated to tour the access-restricted Advanced Chevrolet Design Studio to review the XP 887 project, ultimately named the Vega.

GM needed another “small” car after the Corvair was derailed by Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe at Any Speed. Negative press had unfairly panned the car’s design as inherently dangerous. This new small car needed to be a “world beater,” intended to restore GM’s reputation and enhance our market share in the growing demand for smaller, more economical vehicles.

Earlier designs for the XP 887 project had been rejected by corporate management as being too “GM looking.” The new direction was to be “European” in look and feel. Large photos of the Fiat 124 were mounted all around the studio for inspiration. The engine for the XP 887, well into development for several years, was actually installed in a Fiat 124 for testing at the Milford Proving Ground. We designers were encouraged to research European cars to gain a feel for that aesthetic.

Despite all this effort to “Europeanize” the design, the real influence for the XP 887 was the current design effort for the next-generation 1970 Camaro. That design, underway in another Advanced Chevy studio under the direction of Hank Haga, was quite stunning. I had the opportunity to visit Haga’s studio and view a full-size, perspective rendering of a wagon version of this new Camaro. It was awesome, a truly breathtaking design that left a deep and lasting impression on me. From that moment, I was driven with a passion to create a wagon version for the XP 887.

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