The Miata, everybody seems to agree, caught lightning in a bottle when it first came out. The nimble and zippy roadster segment had all but been abandoned at the time, and if Mazda hadn’t gotten the MX-5 right, there’s no saying it would have inevitably risen to success. After all, take a look at the 1990 Micro, GM’s ostensible attempt to shoulder into that market.
Pontiac had just put a headstone on the Fiero – GM’s only two-seat automobile other than the Corvette at the time – so it seemed strange that the General would pursue another diminutive two-seater so soon after in the late Eighties. Longtime GM designer Elia Russinoff, who typically worked on more advanced concepts, apparently knew only that GM’s design staff heads wanted such a vehicle, so he got to drawing.
At the same time, however, GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Subaru, and others had made some inroads into modernizing the two-stroke engine for use in small cars. The second fuel crisis, after all, was only a decade in the rearview, small front-wheel-drive cars were becoming the norm, and Detroit continued to plow dollars into alternative engine designs well into the Eighties. According to a July 1990 Popular Sciencearticle on the two-stroke trend of the time, automakers had hoped to put the technology on the road as early as the mid-1990s.
They both arose from the same economic factors and in the same general time period. They had some styling similarities, emblematic of that time period. They both relied on collaborations with Ford-adjacent companies. And, of course, they shared the same name. But the series of Ford Probe concept cars came about in pursuit of a far broader objective than just to produce the Ford Probe production car.
By the late Seventies, Don Kopka, an executive stylist at Ford who had designed the 1967 Mustang and (before joining Ford) the 1958 De Soto and who had risen to the executive directorship of Ford’s Advanced and International Design Studio, had taken up Alex Tremulis’ charge and started to focus on making Ford’s products more aerodynamic. His initial efforts at making minor surface changes to the company’s production vehicles resulted in a 1.5-mile-per-gallon boost to the company’s corporate average fuel economy. As he later told Popular Mechanics, traditional engineering tactics would have cost roughly $3 billion to get that sort of result; his approach cost just $10 million.
With that success under his belt, Kopka started to envision a Ford passenger car designed from scratch with aerodynamics as a priority rather than an afterthought. The 1979 energy crisis no doubt helped Kopka get the ear of his colleagues and supervisors, but he also had to prove that an aerodynamically designed car wouldn’t be a mere jellybean and that a fuel-efficient car would have the amenities that a full-size car buyer expected.
Kopka’s Probe I, which debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September of that year, aimed to counter those concerns. Built, essentially, on a Fox-body Mustang platform, it had a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder under the sharply sloped hood. The main attraction, of course, was the sleek body designed and built in collaboration with Ghia that achieved a coefficient of drag of 0.25. The fully finished interior featured an electronic entertainment center and an ignition system ostensibly activated by credit card. Ford claimed the Probe I would’ve been good for 39 miles per gallon, better than what some modern hybrids get.
One word might best sum up the arrival of the 2020 Corvette, the first mid-engine model in the Chevy sports car’s nearly 70-year history: finally! Mid-engine Corvettes had been teased as engineering cars, prototypes and concepts for more than 50 of those years. If your car magazine collection stretches back to the late 1960s, you likely have issues promising “the next Corvette” as a mid-engine car. Since then, there have been six generations of front-engine Corvettes and, as social scientists could point out, two generations of humans.
The half-century lineage of mid-engine Corvette teasers was on display at this year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in March. Nine of those cars were gathered in the same place for the first time ever, including Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle I (CERV I), CERV II, GS-II, CERV III, XP-819, XP-895, XP-987 rotary Corvette, the Aerovette and the Corvette Indy.
Among the group, and even among rotary-engine ‘Vettes, the Chevrolet Engineering XP-819 had long seemed to be an outlier due to its rear-mounted, not mid-mounted, V-8. The XP-819’s recently completed restoration by Corvette Repair in Valley Stream, New York, has confirmed, however, that this car was a critical link in the Corvette’s evolutionary chain. Even if testing proved the rear-engine location to be unworkable, the XP-819’s legacy could be found in other engineering, design and safety ideas applied in Corvettes stretching into the 1990s.
This important, intriguing engineering car would have disappeared for good but for the efforts of several passionate Corvette enthusiasts since the 1970s. The restoration itself could better be described as a heroic rescue-and-rebuild, such was the XP-819’s severe state of disrepair and deterioration. “Of all the cars we’ve ever done, this was the most difficult and the most challenging,” says Kevin Mackay, owner of Corvette Repair. The shop is renowned for restoring historic Corvette racecars and ultra-rare production models.
[Editor’s Note: Chris Theodore’s book, “The Last Shelby Cobra: My times with Carroll Shelby,” released last year, recounts not only the former Chrysler, AMC, and Ford engineer’s relationship with his boyhood hero, but also the development process for the 2004 Shelby Cobra Concept. In this excerpt from the book that Chris provided, we get to see how the concept car, codenamed Daisy, came together.]
Every year in Detroit after the North American International Auto Show, J Mays and I would get together to plan concept vehicles for the next year’s round of shows: LA, Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Mays’ design team would provide suggestions, as did my Advanced Product Creation group. With the success of the Ford GT at the centennial, it was no surprise that a modern Shelby Cobra was at the top of both our lists. We also decided to do a new Bronco and Lincoln Mark X. Mays let Richard Hutting, manager of the Valencia Advanced Design Studio, know that we would be reviewing proposal sketches on our next trip out west – as J and I would pay regular visits to the Irvine and Valencia studios for design reviews. Now that the world knew about Petunia, we decided to call this project Daisy. We intended the codename to be a little tongue-in-cheek and sort of a tease. As J said, it would be “anything but a shrinking flower.” Eventually everyone would know that we were up to something, but not know what. I called it a ‘fan dance’ – the most tantalizing secrets are the one that you know are there, but cannot quite see. In late March, we sent Manfred Rumpel to see Hutting, specifically to explore how to help with the packaging of the Ford GT suspension and a V-10 engine. During one of my weekly program reviews with the SVT team, I mentioned to (O. John) Coletti that I had kicked off Project Daisy
Long before anybody’s wildest imaginations could have conceived of Chrysler (not to mention Dodge and Jeep) becoming part of a multi-national carmaking company that included some storied Gallic brands, perhaps one of the most important Chrysler concept vehicles of the Nineties intentionally evoked the design and feel of one of the most important Citroens of all time.
At first glance, the CCV, introduced at Frankfurt in December 1997, looks like little more than another pre-millennium exercise in retro looks, albeit one that aped a popular car that Chrysler had nothing to do with. By all accounts, Bryan Nesbitt intentionally designed the CCV as an homage to the “Tin Snail” and the name (two Cs and a V), though deployed as an acronym (Composite Concept Vehicle), could hardly be mistaken as anything other than an evocation of the Citroen 2CV.
Automakers rarely build concept cars for the heck of it. The paper that designers draw on is cheap; the real-life versions, even the non-working ones, aren’t. So concept cars typically arise from a purpose, sometimes clearly stated, sometimes befuddling, and sometimes misguided. Chrysler needed the Neon to succeed for multiple reasons, and that necessity was reflected in the many varied concept cars based on the friendly little compact car.
The Plymouth brand had, by the early 1990s, become largely redundant. Little differentiated the brand’s offerings from the models that it shared with Dodge and Eagle, it had no truck line other than the Voyager minivan, and Dodge had outsold Plymouth for the prior decade or so. It was high time for a revamp, one that would play an integral part in keeping Chrysler’s value/volume brand around
Metalshaper Wray Schelin says he can teach an absolute beginner in metalshaping how to form a car fender in just a week, and he’s decided to back that claim up by assigning his metalshaping students to create a super-slick Virgil Exner-penned car body design that the world has never seen in sheetmetal.
“I just thought it was the coolest future car I’d ever seen,” Schelin said of the circa-1945 rendering that Exner drew during his time with Studebaker. “As soon as I saw it, I said, ‘Well, I’m making that.’”
Schelin, who offers coachworking classes out of his shop in Charlton, Massachusetts, grew up around his grandfather’s restoration business and old car library, but said he never came across the drawing until an acquaintance of his posted it to Facebook a year and a half ago.
Today we learned: The Fiero wasn’t Pontiac’s first mid-engine car
Not counting horseless carriages and other early automobiles that placed their engines under and behind-ish the driver, the Pontiac Fiero is often hailed as the first mid-engine American production car, arriving 35 years before the mid-engine Corvette. But, as it turns out, Pontiac’s engineers had investigated the mid-engine layout 50 years ago, long before the Fiero.
True, the XP-21 Firebird I placed its gas-turbine engine behind the driver, making it a mid-engine design, but all three gas-turbine Firebirds were considered GM designs, not of any particular brand, similar to the XP-8 Le Sabre and the Futurliners.
We did recently come across mention that GM considered switching the Firebird and Camaro to mid-engine in the early days of the third-generation F-body’s development. However, it appears those ideas progressed no further than drawings and scale models, and the GM folks involved spent more time debating whether the third-gens – in pursuit of lighter and more fuel-efficient packaging – should be front-wheel drive than they did debating whether they should be mid-engine.
Today we learned: The Fiero wasn’t Pontiac’s first mid-engine car
Raddest of the rad: When Detroit thought all the cool kids wanted high-tech dune buggies
Since the Mustang first made its debut, carmakers have chased the youth market in increasingly varied ways. Then, a quarter century later, the Big Three all seemed to happen on the same idea at the same time, resulting in three remarkably similar short-wheelbase neoprene-laden eye-searing concept cars dropping at the same time. And Keanu declared them excellent.
From left, Ford Splash, Plymouth Speedster, Pontiac Stinger. Photos via Ford Media, FCA Media, GM Media.