For this edition of Magazine Memories, we’ll be reviewing what I like to call “cover concepts”. For decades, perhaps since the buff book genre began, putting a completely new and typically exotically styled concept or dream car on the cover, more often than not accompanied by hype that the car will actually go on sale, has been a staple of the automobile magazine industry. Hindsight tells us that most of them were indeed dream cars, never really making it to production. The dreams were so vivid (and so much in vain) that this will be a three-part series that barely scratches the imagined body paint.
Some of the cover cars were more concrete, representing cars that made it to production, mass production in some cases, but again hindsight gives us some perspective on unrealistic expectations or journalists buying into the hype. Examples of this category would be the May 1979 edition of Car and Driver, announcing the arrival of GM’s latest attempt to sell small cars, the all-new front wheel drive X cars, with a large photo of the Chevrolet Citation in its “performance” package X11 trim. The cover copy reads “REVOLUTION! GM blows everybody into the weeds with new front drive compacts!”
The Fairmont probably came closer to its less ambitious targets than the Citation and its GM clones. It was a decent sedan for its day and the ones that have survived are popular with drag racers, because of light weight and conventional RWD layout (and parts interchangeability with Mustangs). The Fairmont was the first iteration of the financially successful and long lived “Fox” platform that underpinned a wide variety of RWD Ford products in the 1980s in addition to the Fox Mustangs, like the Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar. There’s a sizeable community of Fox body enthusiasts today. Still, I don’t think that anyone today would call the Fairmont a “great” sedan.
Other cover concepts are pure auto show eye candy, like Bertone’s 1976 Alfa Romeo Navajo, featured in the Sept. ’76 Road & Track, with it’s radical side mounted pop out headlights, “advanced” digital instrument panel, chunky angular styling and rear wing supported by flying buttresses. Though it wasn’t a styling exercise pushmobile, having an Alfa P33 racing chassis underneath the fiberglass, neither Bertone nor Alfa Romeo ever really considered the Navajo for production.
Some cover concepts, like the DeLorean DMC-12 on the cover of the July 1977 Car and Driver, are part of a select group of cars like its fellow gull-winger, the Bricklin, that exist in that gray area between fact and fiction, hype and hope, scam and serious production. They went into production, but could not really be described as roaring successes. (For a more detailed look at the DeLorean, see previous Magazine Memories). It’s interesting that the DeLorean and Bricklin are regarded as failures, though they both built and sold thousands of cars, while a publicity stunt like the BMW M1 (Car and Driver June 1979), a genuine homologation special with fewer than 500 built, is one of the more treasured and valuable vehicles from that era. BMW wanted to go racing with the M1 and get on some magazine covers. Bricklin and DeLorean were actually trying to build and sell cars in large numbers. Okay, so I overstated the point a bit – the M1 is deservedly an iconic car with outstanding performance, but it was relatively insignificant in its impact on BMW’s bottom line or on BMW’s mass produced cars.
No discussion of cover concepts would be complete without mentioning the evergreen idea of a mid-engined Corvette. It’s been such a common phenomenon in automotive publishing that the February 1977 Road & Track, with drawings of the proposed 1980 “AeroVette” on its cover, even acknowledged that the “mid engine Corvette” story was a staple of their industry: “Now wait a minute, you say. These fabled mid-engine Corvettes have been just around the corner for about the last decade. More has been written about the existence of these non-existent cars than the whereabouts of Howard Hughes.”
Notwithstanding their own caveat, R&T proceeded to throw caution to the wind and state “The mid-engine Corvette? Chevrolet has finally decided to build it” and “On a shining day in the spring of 1979 as winter begins to release its grip, you will be able to walk into your local Chevrolet dealer and buy a mid-engine Corvette.” It’s now 2010, 30 years past the anticipated release date of the mid-motored ‘Vette, and we still hear rumors that the engine of the 7th (or maybe 8th) generation Corvette will join the transmission which migrated to the rear axle for the C5 edition.
In the defense of R&T and Victor Appleton who wrote the article, when it was written General Motors’ chairman, Thomas Murphy, had indeed greenlighted work on the advanced layout sports car for production as a 1980 model. The article was based on interviews with Dave McLellan, longtime chief engineer of the Corvette project. Much of the chassis and suspension work was already done, borrowing from the powered XP-882 show car, most recently Wankel powered, and the design brief was detailed enough to include specs for sealed lightweight Delco Freedom batteries, mounted in the rear trunk for weight balance. The 305 version of the SBC was spec’d for fuel mileage reasons.
According to Wikipedia, the retirement of Murphy and other advanced Corvette advocates like Zora Arkus Duntov, Bill Mitchell and Ed Cole, plus McLellan’s lack of enthusiasm for a mid-engine Corvette due to lackluster sales of mid-engined cars, lead to the project’s demise. Instead the company developed the C4, the first completely new Corvette since 1963 (Chevy carried over the StingRay chassis under the Mako Shark ‘Vettes).
Hope and mid-engine Corvette concepts spring eternal. Nine years later the cover of Car and Driver’s May 1986 issue featured “American Dreams – Detroit finally wakes up to build its future”, with photos of the Corvette Indy, Buick Wildcat and Pontiac Trans Sport concepts. The article by Rich Ceppos was a bit more realistic, was subtitled “A look at tomorrow through rose-colored windshields”, and reviewed the various roles that concept cars play for automakers, acknowledging that they rarely see actual production. The article featured four advanced concepts prepared for the ’86-’87 auto show seasons, including the Ford Probe V and Buick Wildcat, both mid-engined, the Pontiac Trans Sport van, and the Corvette Indy, another iteration of the XP-882 layout. Chevy had just bought the branding rights to the Ilmor Indy racing engine and thought that a mid-engine Corvette concept was just the platform to promote it, this time cladding the concept in a Kevlar monocoque. Notwithstanding Ceppos’ disclaimer, the mid-engine Corvette religion runs true: “What we can see here is the tip of the Corvette’s future. The next-generation production car will almost definitely be a wild-looking, mid-engine design.” Ceppos said that the engine would likely be a Lotus design, GM then having an equity stake in Lotus.
Ceppos’ prediction that a future ‘Vette would be equipped with a Lotus designed 32 valve DOHC V8 did come true, as that engine was the heart of the first ZR1 models in the early 1990s. The other part of his prediction, that the C5 would be mid-engine, of course did not come true – though to his credit Ceppos hedged his bet with a “almost definitely”. Another of Ceppos’ predictions came true, though not on the Corvette. The Corvette Indy’s “wild-looking” design survived pretty much intact, including the trick flow through spoiler integrated into the trunk lid, in the 4th gen F body Camaro. Speaking of styling, the Pontiac Trans Sport concept has a decided Toyota Previa thing going on, gull wing doors, and would have been a much more attractive minivan than the production “dustbuster”.
To be continued …