By on July 6, 2010

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 …

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29 Comments on “Magazine Memories: The Big Buff Book Cover-Up, Part 1...”

  • avatar

    Well, at least the button filled steering wheel on the Trans Sport concept came true!

  • avatar

    The funny thing is that 30 years ago, it actually mattered (to me at least) what C&D and R&T said. At the time, they were the oracles that could predict what vehicles were coming down the pike, and pronounce judgement on how great they were (although I learned to wait for a comparison test for a more honest appraisal).

    Nowadays, if I am reading C&D or R&T, it’s a sign that I probably have better things to do.

    • 0 avatar

      Hmmm, kinda like reading these car blogs. I, too, should be doing something, like work, instead of sitting here for hours reading these posts.

  • avatar

    I miss the vertically-oriented radios the Citations had.

  • avatar

    Oh the wondrous times, the howls of convulsive laughter, the side-splitting screams of joy as wrecking yard workers across the land grasped the increasing numbers of inexpensive front-wheel-drive smashed-in-the-rear totaled cars, cut them in half right behind the front seat(s) and proceeded to drive them at dizzying speeds around the wrecking yard.

    Sometimes cheap thrills are the best thrills.

  • avatar

    The most tragic thing about the X car was GM’s utter failure to fully develop the concept. It was a remarkable packaging job (kudos to GM designers and engineers) riding in one of the most compromised accounting packages ever.

    This wasn’t the beginning of the end, as the rot began in the 60’s when the bloated executive corps decided their market position was unassailable. What was so refreshing about Robert Farago was his insistence that the General, and others, really weren’t wearing clothing.

  • avatar

    I remember the 1980 mid-engine Vette cover … the yellow one reminded me of a lemon then, and it still does!

  • avatar

    My bud in college had a manual shift Citation X11 – it was fast enough, but the brakes were horrible. We were always hesitant to get it up to speed for fear we would crash.

    Vivid memories of him slamming the clutch and brake in panic stops.

  • avatar

    I recall C&D comparing the X-11 to a big block Impala SS 427 in power to weight ratio…

  • avatar

    A gentleman at the church I attend has a Mercury Zephyr (Mercury badged Fairmont) in a burnt sienna color. It’s a sedan, red cloth interior, washed waxed and polished within an inch of it’s life every Sunday. I would love to get my hands on that sucker. Give it a fuel injected 302, Mustang suspension, dual exhausts (exiting behind the rear tire to be more subtle) and BAM, sleeper.

    But yeah the X-cars always seemed like so much wasted potential. GM tried to decided how cheaply they could build them and still have them hold together long enough to get off the showroom floor.

  • avatar

    My dad was a lifelong Ford guy starting out in the 50’s with Ford sedans and then moving to a new Country Squire every 2 – 3 years from the early 60’s through the 1990’s when he passed. Mom never wanted to drive but eventually caved in. Her first car was a red 1972 2 door Maverick which I beat mercilessly whenever I got my hands on it.

    The Maverick was replaced with a good looking and well equipped 1980 silver Fairmont with a nicely done red interior. As I was no longer living at home when she got this car I didn’t get to drive it as much as I had the Maverick. One thing I do remember about the car was just how light/nimble it felt to drive and how “tossable” it was on the back roads of New England. It also got great gas mileage as I do remember that I never needed to put more than a couple dollars in it to top it off before I brought it home.

    When mom finally traded the Fairmont in for a 1989 Taurus she was never comfortable with the “heavy” feeling of the Taurus… or the according to her horrible gas mileage. She replaced the Taurus with a 2001 Focus which she still has. This car will be her last as she is now in her 80s and won’t hear of getting another… although I’d love to see her in a new Fiesta. She really has enjoyed the Focus and it has been an incredibly reliable vehicle. But she still talks about that Silver Fairmont… according to her the best Ford she and dad ever owned.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I miss the innocence and optimism of the buff books. I was a voracious C+D and Motor Trend reader for 30+ years…would start getting the shakes if the latest edition was even a day or two late, then would tear into them cover to cover.

    Then the internet happened, and around 2000 or so really strong online content was available. It made the magazines quaint. And the fact that sites like TTAC didn’t eat the spoon-fed sugar from the manufactorers.

    As painful as the ‘Detroit 3’ cleansing has been, it was long overdue… and only happened because of the internet.

    What a powerful tool….

    • 0 avatar

      I gave up on the buff books when I discovered Autoweek, which was still in newspaper format some 30 years ago. It eventually took the same path to irrelevance as the rest.

    • 0 avatar

      I was the same way in high-school and college. In the late 90’s, I began to realize the Motor Trend would almost never say anything bad about any car. Their tests always ended in “pick this car if your priorities are ABC and this car if your priorities are XYZ”. After renting a 300M and seeing how inferior it was to my Honda Accord, this was driven home even further.

      C&D is a bit better in this regard. I recently resubscribed, for free, to have something to read on airplanes.

  • avatar

    Those Chevy Citations were hot when they came out. My father bought one, thinking he was getting a bargain he used our next door neighbor who owned a rental lot to order one at the fleet price (so some fleet sales are real :). But the supplies were so backed up he had to wait several months for it and finally had to settle for one different from what he ordered. I remember he ordered the “Cinnabar” color and ended up with gray. The car was pretty good compared to its peers at the time, as long as you didn’t try to turn left into traffic. Something about the fuel system design, it always stalled on hard left turns. As a new teenage driver I had some hair-raising moments learning to adjust to that behavior.

    • 0 avatar

      What motor did you have? My dad had a V6 with 4-speed that i drove a lot and I don’t recall having any left turn issues. Aside from the plastic-fantastic interior, it wasn’t a bad car.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Yeah, mine did the same thing. Carb’d V6 automatic. Brake and turn left (into a driveway, for example) and the engine would stall halfway into the turn, which killed the power steering and forced me to crank the wheel for dear life to keep the car from arcing into the ditch.

  • avatar

    What, no love for the AMC Gremlin?

  • avatar

    I just checked my watch, it is today and I will be glad to say that the Fairmont is a “great sedan”. In the late eighties I owned one of the many Fox body variants, mine being a badged Grenada. It was reliable, handled and stopped adequately, was easy to work on, and had one ass-kicking AC unit. I really liked it. Only reason I got rid of it? Rust. Of course.

  • avatar

    Ah yes, the GM X-crement car. I went to school with a kid whose father was an engineer for an aerospace company. The father was like most professional, middle-aged, White Americans of the time — a complete patriotard. I recall fondly how senior/junior doofi would bloviate endlessly about how the X-car would teach a lesson to those uppity foreigners once and for all. I also remember how crappy the car was once they actually had it in hand. I also remember how they would never publicly admit to any of its shortcomings, despite countless trips back to the dealer for warranty repairs. I came to the realization that GM and its costumers deserved each other.

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    I get sad just thinking about the C/D and R&T of yore. They were sooooo fun and interesting to read. Today’s C/D is an utter slog. Subscriptions are free and I’ve given up on reading it.

    • 0 avatar

      Indeed. I remember C/D, or perhaps MT, referring to the Citation’s gearbox as a “gearbag”, due to it’s rather vague engagement. Good stuff.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Once one realizes that the Advertising departments drove/drive the Editorial departments in every single Brag Mag (at least for the last 30 years), one can look back and understand how many of these “howler” covers came to be.

    Advertising would lay out sample covers and trot them over to their long-time advertisers (like GM, Ford, Chrysler, etc). During their pitch, the Advertising reps from the mags would show the marketing brass the covers they’d receive, along with the center-spread feature stories. Concepts. Comparo’s. Awards. A whole year’s worth of ink. And then they’d proceed to negotiate how many ads (and at what rate) the manufacturers would buy in exchange.

    Editors back at the mags would seeth, then, learning that they’d have to praise the “sensational” new X-cars, or Fox-bodies, but hey, quid f-ing pro quo.

    I remember when the first Cadillac CTS was being launched (yes, the practice has only gotten worse in recent years). One particular magazine told the soon-to-be-bankrupt manufacturer they’d put the Sixteen concept on the cover, throw in the CTS center spread, in exchange for ad guarantees.

    A few years ago C&D, realizing they needed to expand their Advertising Services to manufacturers even went as far as starting an Event Division. They really didn’t have any experience in the field, but they had clout over real event companies: covers. And the month GM awarded the un-tried and un-tested C&D Event team their Corvette tour, guess which car was gracing its cover?

    There isn’t a single utterance by any Brag Mag that hasn’t been bought and paid for. Not one.

    Looking at these mag covers reveals — in retrospect — just how far Advertising bent Editorial to its will. And with each editorial sell-out, why these publications are no longer relevant.

  • avatar

    Chevy Citataaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-shun!

    [for those 40+]

  • avatar

    I swear Alfa stole the design of the Navajo from me! Right off the blue construction-paper cover of my Social Studies textbook cover. I painstakingly drew it over a period of several days of intense creative contemplation in Mrs. McDermot’s 3rd period Algebra 1 class in 1975.

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