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?
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.