By on May 26, 2009

Curbside Classics is all about serendipity. Good thing too, because how else would I be inspired to write 800 words about the Pontiac Trans Sport? And I don’t just mean stumbling across this bizarre Transvertible. Well, yes, that was good. But I also needed a regular Trans Sport to complement this flight of fancy. Easy, and boring enough. But take a look at the paperback tucked into the dash: John Steinbeck’s “The Wayward Bus”. Two for Two.

Steinbeck’s pessimistic story revolves around the stories of several “stuck” personalities, waiting at Rebel Corners for the broken-down bus “Sweetheart”. We’ll skip all the human drama that can happen in one evening, and get back on the bus, after Sweetheart finally is running again.

It’s a rainy night, and the bridge to their “destination” is deemed unsafe. The choice put to the passengers by Juan, the driver, is to return to Rebel Corners, or take a dirt road. They choose the road. En route, he deliberately runs the bus into a ditch, telling the passengers it was an accident. After some more drama, the bus eventually heads for its destination. The passengers have resolved to make changes in their lives. Will they? And has a better metaphor for GM and the Pontiac Trans Sport ever been written?

Enough with the literary allegories. The Trans Sport was based on the ditch. Whereas Chrysler’s boxy family haulers were all about practicality, GM’s were about . . . well, what where they about?

GM’s had a curse when it comes to people haulers. It could never get past its Jetsons Motorama styling tendencies or technical overkill/suicide. Or both, simultaneously, like in this 1955 L’Universelle. The task was to come up with a VW bus competitor. The result: so baroque, complicated and expensive, with a FWD system powered by a Pontiac V8 engine, that it could not be put into production.

The Corvair Greenbrier almost got it right. Actually, it was a nifty piece of work, one of my favorites, and merits its own CC feature. But profitability was always the devil with the relatively complicated Corvair, especially compared to the cart-axle Econoline. GM’s equally dumb and cheap Chevy Van/GMC HandiVan soon killed the Greenbrier.

And history repeats itself, especially at GM, which seems to specialize in corporate amnesia. The Trans Sport concept was ambitious stylistically and in its packaging, gull doors and all. And it was built on GM’s vaunted space-frame technology, first pioneered on the Pontiac Fiero. If GM had done it right, they would have figured out a way to make a more prosaic boxy Chevy Lumina to compete against the Caravan, while still building a swoopy Trans Sport for the lovers of exciting mini-vans. All eighteen of them.

Instead, the dust-buster was badge engineered for Chevy and Oldsmobile too, for their um . . . oh, yes, the highly forgettable Silhouette. And they all were a big royal flop. And GM did the predictable: responded with the next generation minivans so conservatively styled to be utterly invisible.

But in GM’s desperation to salvage the first generation Trans Sport, radical ideas were solicited from the marketing mavens and development experts. A few niches were discovered and described, and the result was several prototypes were commissioned, including this “Transvertible”. Why not an open-air mini-van? And not really a convertible either, as a folding top for a van was way beyond the technical expertise of the vaunted GM “skunk works.”

To be sold only in the Sun Belt, the Transvertible had a completely water-proof interior, borrowed from the boating industry. In fact, an advanced amphibious version was underway when the metaphorical plug was pulled on that overly-ambitious project. The prototype was last seen being towed out on a lake near the GM proving grounds, due to the difficulty in engineering a driveshaft for the proposed propeller.

But the “conventional” Transvertible prototype has survived, and miraculously ended up just blocks from my house. I’ve always hoped to run across a vaunted GM Motorama concept, like a Futureliner, but living in Eugene, I feel mighty privileged to be able walk past the Transvertible anytime I feel the need to steep myself in GM’s creative genius.

Speaking of steeping, Eugene’s rainy winters have not been overly kind to the interior components of the open-air concept. Perhaps that’s why it’s here, as part of a long-term weathering test. Although, according to a neighbor, it’s there because of “something to do with a divorce.”

Now that’s hard to figure. How could anyone’s wife not want to make sure she ended up with the ’vertible as part of a divorce settlement? Oh well; her loss is my serendipitous gain.

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33 Comments on “Editorial: Curbside Classic: Pontiac Trans Sport and Transvertible...”


  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    Waterproof interior? Then add a hot tub, that looks like just the right vehicle to put one in.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Paul, another great article. I’ll be on the lookout for the Wayward Bus. Steinbeck is a favorite author of mine. I vaguely remember the Transport, but I havent seen one in ages. The Greenbrier apperars at carshows from time to time. IIRC, there are 2 or 3 Futureliners still in exostence.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Arrgh! My Eyes! Must stop the pain!

  • avatar
    grog

    Yunno, this would be the kind of car to appeal to today’s yooots. I real partay barge. See and be seen.

  • avatar
    commando1

    “…and the result was several prototypes were commissioned, including this “Transvertible”.”

    You almost had me there. Good try.

  • avatar
    don1967

    Knowing how even the most solid automotive platforms can be weakened by chopping the roof off, I am surprised that this abomination doesn’t require a third pair of wheels just to hold up the middle.

    Of course, that would spoil the look.

  • avatar
    snapper35

    Haven’t you ever seen Get Shorty? The Silhouette is the Cadillac of minivans. John Travolta made it look cool.

  • avatar
    John Holt

    Hilarious. I’m motivated now to investigate the local Subaru Lega-truck.

    The amount of torsional body twist is blowing my mind right now.

  • avatar
    Guzzi

    Mr. Schwartz beat me to it, so I will only add, if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out!

  • avatar
    erikhans

    I just went on a weekend road trip in the Olds version. it was a blast. My friends both in their early 40′s needed something cheap to haul their bikes, etc. in. Well. an elderly neighbor died and the rest is history. They love driving it around. From what they say…Adults look at it, “what the hell is that?” , kids point and laugh and a few cops have pulled them over to find out what the heck is going on…”Where’d ya steal the space shuttle from?” At night it is another story. (The windows are tinted and it has those weird tail lights.) Cops follow them all the time (at night) trying to figure out what is in front of them. Anyway, it gets great mileage and holds tons of crap. I would have one just for the shear weird factor.

  • avatar
    superbadd75

    Wow, that Transvertible was a real concept? Absolutely horrible. This is a fine example of everything GM has done wrong over the last couple of decades. Did they really think anyone would want to see, much less buy, a convertible minivan? As for the waterproof interior, what exists of it doesn’t look very waterproof.

  • avatar
    Mekira

    @Richard Chen & superbadd75:

    Your comments reminded me of this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isDaY0Wu_bE

    A short video of a Mitsubishi van in Japan that got converted into a mobile swimming pool! ~~Quite hilarious

  • avatar
    brettc

    I saw a vehicle like this in Auburn, Maine a few years ago in traffic. I think it was based on a Lumina APV, but of course there’s no actual difference. It had the roof remove and was basically turned into a pickup type vehicle.

    From what I remember, it was multi-colured, meaning there was some factory paint and some gray primer. And it wasn’t professionally done. I wondered how it could even get an inspection sticker, but they probably just took it to a shady garage. I have no idea if it’s still on the road, this was probably in about 2004-2005. It was a WTF moment for both me and my wife.

  • avatar
    newfdawg

    And just when I thought the Transport couldn’t get any uglier….

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Oddly enough, the Trans Sport sold pretty well in Europe. At the time, there was nothing except for the Renault Espace that came close. Of course, buyers didn’t know it had crappy quality.

    Looking at mobile.de, there are currently 47 Trans Sports being offered in Germany alone:
    http://suchen.mobile.de/fahrzeuge/search.html?isSearchRequest=true&editSearch=&scopeId=C&lang=en&export=ALSO_EXPORT&sortOption.sortOrder=ASCENDING&damageUnrepaired=ALSO_DAMAGE_UNREPAIRED&sortOption.sortBy=searchNetGrossPrice&makeModelVariant1.makeId=20000&makeModelVariant1.modelId=17&maxPrice=&minFirstRegistrationDate=&maxMileage=&fuel=&ambitCountry=&zipcode=

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    @superbadd75, Would I pull your leg?

    @Martin Schwoerer, Interestingly, those “Pontiac TransSports” after the ’92 MY are actually the Oldsmobile Silhouette with Pontiac emblems glued on. And available with a 4 cylinder (Olds Quad4?), and a 1.9 L Peugeot turbodiesel. I suspect GM did that because the Olds version was the worst seller (by far) in the US.

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    This brought back horrible memories of an Olds Silhouette I once had as a company car. I have driven nearly everything on the road and never got car sick but in the Olds, I actually used to get car sich while driving. The visibility out of the thing was terrible, that huge windshield was way out in front of you creating nothing more than a huge solar heating pad and the glass was all distorted.

    To make matters worse, the rear seats weren’t comfortable even for small kids. And, while the competition was already coming out with dual sliding doors, rear windows that opened, seats that were easy to remove or fold flat, this thing was a throwback. It wasn’t even as practical as the first Chrysler minivan that GM had years to copy if not try to beat.

    If there is a top-ten list of examples why GM SHOULD be out of business, surely their inability (or lack of desire) to even come remotely close to competing in the family/people-mover category should be on it.

    When I was growing up it seemed that everyone I knew had a station wagon at home. My parents bought a Buick Electra Estate new in 1978 and we had it for years… it eventually became my car when I started driving. Every other house had a GM or Ford wagon in the driveway. These days, there may be a GM or Ford SUV in the same place but more than likely there is a Sienna or Odyssey and I have a Mazda5 (stick-shif, baby).

    I realize that kid-haulers aren’t the coolest vehicles out there and that the execs would rather drive their company Escalade or Corvette to the country club on weekends. But in the scheme of things if you can’t even try to at least competently play in a bread and butter category when you were still the single biggest player in the business you have no business, well, being in the business.

  • avatar
    Redbarchetta

    Did anyone guess this in the contest?
    Who won?

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    Here are a few more thoughts on that top-ten list of reasons GM should be gone.

    - Never had a remotely competitive minivan… I guess they thought everyone wanted to drive a 3-ton truck so they could carry a family and luggage.

    - Aztek. I won’t carp on this one, at least it prompted them hire Bob Lutz and try to change the product development culture.

    - Blowing Saturn – the division that brought in 75%+ conquest sales and import intenders was left to flap in the breeze with no new products for ten years. Yeah, I know they invested a lot but to put it in perspective, GM blew something like $3 billion creating the brand… they blew $2 billion just because Rick W. and friends got suckered into the Fiat deal and they throw away that much money every week these days. Didn’t they loose $4 billion on the GM-10 midsize platform at the same time that Saturn was starting? How much did they blow because of the corporate inability to stick with a project until it’s successful? Multiply this several times over.

    - Uncompetitive small cars. Look, I’m no tree-hugging California driver who wants to drive a car made out of balsa wood that runs on cow farts. My reasoning here goes beyond building fuel-efficient cars. GM constantly believed that the different divisions and products created a lifecycle of cars their customers could move up to as their needs and budgets grew. The problem is that they never really tried to create a world-class small car (even Saturn was initially successful despite the cars they were selling). The issue is that customers who went to the competition to buy their first cars never came back to GM when it was time to “move up.” This contributed to their losing at least two generations of drivers in many parts of the country.

    - EV1. No, the car wasn’t bad… if you ever had the chance to drive one it was downright amazing. The failure was to take the experience and engineering knowledge gained and do something constructive with it. Rather, once the decision was made to cancel the program GM didn’t move quickly enough to come out with other alt-fuel vehicles like hybrids… again ceding a new segment of buyers to the competition. They could have tried to carry the mantel of the most technologically and ecologically forward-thinking company ahead but instead Toyota and Honda got the glory. I believe this was due primarily to a corporate culture that was fundamentally incapable of learning from mistakes… or at least projects they perceived as mistakes… and learning rather than trying to erase the whole experience from the history books. Then again, they kept promoting the same inbred failures to positions of leadership in the company, so who knows?

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    This was great! I can’t believe you knew about the L’Universelle. It’s pretty obscure. Here’s a phantom view. It was pretty advanced for the time, like a little Futurliner.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Looks like a modern-day Monkeemobile.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Redbarchetta,

    No. Wasn’t likely to happen.

  • avatar
    H Man

    Damn! I’ve seen this exact car. I didn’t look closely but assumed it was a one-off college type project. Had no idea there was a coorporate connection.

    On the plus side, I know where Paul lives now (or damn close) so I can start prowling around looking for the cars he posts. :D

    Not that I need a VW manual…

    H

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    Greenbriers rock. The package is sized much like the original Caravan — a true “garageable van,” much lower than the VW bus. I wonder if the missed opportunity with the Greenbrier was to waterbox it, like VW did with the Vanagon, enabling you to have real heat and A/C and greatly extending the utility and life span of that platform.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    This could be the ticket to fame and fortune. Let’s get a fleet of these, stretch them, and rent them out for proms and weddings ! Or else put them into production as Rudiger’s idea- Monkeemobiles. Here I come, driving down the street.
    I get the funniest looks from everyone I meet !
    This could SAVE PONTIAC !

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Still better than the Aztek…

  • avatar

    Eugh.

    Give me an International or Blazer with removable, un-boltable top, thank you.

  • avatar
    WildBill

    No lie… I read this before leaving work yesterday. Stopped at a fast food joint on the way to another appointment and nearly got hit by a Trans Sport coming around the corner behind the place. Hadn’t seen one is quite sometime. For your next article write about a pile of cash and maybe that will fall on me tonight!

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    Wow. Great piece.

    This is SO appropriate on the eve of GM’s bankruptcy.

    Those white captain’s chairs in the pics? Are those original?!? I don’t know if it’s the beer or the lack of sleep or that it’s 2am local, but I’m torn between tears and laughter at the historic insanity this shows about GM’s past.

  • avatar
    zenith

    Mexicans love the Dustbuster! Any time a South Omaha car lot gets one in, it’s gone in a couple of days.

    Ditto, the Aztek. I’m seeing lots of those around with big chrome wheels and, to quote ZZ Top, “glass so dark they won’t even know your name”. Haven’t seen one yet with a big Virgin Mary across the back, but I’m sure that at least one exists.

    Ordinary vans, Chryslers, Ventures, Toyota sienas, Honda Odysseys, sit around the lots much longer, so it’s gotta be that the styling really appeals to those folks.

    Too bad GM is broke. They could re-create the Dustbuster and Aztek ,pitch them primarily to the Hispanic market, and own that market. Maybe Ford still has the money to clone those two.

    The Mexicans with better credit like the HHR. Despite stupid GM’s not making a big deal about the vehicle’s Mexican assembly–many Mexicans know–and are showing their national pride.

    It remains to be seen whether Fiat/Chrysler and Ford will hype “Heche en Mexico” when selling the Fiat 500 and the Fiesta. They’d be smart to do so.

  • avatar
    dolorean23

    “The Trans Sport was based on Pontiac’s 1986 Eponymous concept”. So it was originally named after an album by the Alarm? Or did this wonderful er, vehicle, form the nexus for the 1990 REM album?

    It looks like someone’s old Nikes that they ran in for years and now use to mow the lawn. Complete with the dog-doo stains.

  • avatar
    transvertible

    Ok, first of all Mr. Niedermeyer, Do you make it a habit of trespassing onto people’s property, (namely MINE) and photographing cars when someone (namely me) was going thru a very brutal divorce of 20 years and just lost my 4 kids. This car was GOING to be a car for my older kids prom at Crow High school. Your disclosure of my situation and posting it all over the internet is not only sleezy but shows that you have no respect for anyone including yourself. Yes this car was half done. Let me guess though for a moment: You have probably NEVER done anything custom in your life except for the critical commenting you do on various cars around Eugene Oregon you display on your curbside classics. I have been a machine shop owner for 25 years and a craftsman and to have some stranger as you not even have the decency to ASK ME if you can post potentially litigious material during my time of crucifixion is nothing short of uncalled for. As for the ensuing shark feeding frenzy, again, probably a bunch of non creative types that dont even know how to rebuild an engine, or weld, but experts at criticism. So I say to the automotive king of paparazzi Mr.Niedermeyer: MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS and stop trespassing and hurting others just for your own twisted pleasure. For the record the car was supposed to just be for fun, and it was right up until the time I stumbled across your journalistic abortion. Due to my private matter of divorce (that you made public) I didn’t get to finish it in time for the prom. At 70 mph your hair would not even move, try that in a 65 mustang!

  • avatar
    RatherhaveaBuick

    Love these things…


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