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Revisited: The GM Concept Cars

From radical... to more radical

Courtesy of GM

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This article was first published in 2009.

One of our most popular articles has been our coverage of some of the GM Concept cars of the 1950s and 1960s. In this expanded and revised article, we renew our acquaintance with some of those fantastic looking cars - and add a whole lot more, some shown in rare colour pictures.

1938 Buick Y-Job Concept Car

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The 1938 Buick Y-Job is generally considered the industry's first concept car. Created by General Motors Styling and Buick Engineering, it was designed by Harley J. Earl, GM's first design chief, and built on a production Buick chassis modified by Charlie Chayne, then Buick's chief engineer.

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Buick called it "Y" because so many makers dubbed experimental cars "X." Styling and mechanical features of the "Y Job" showed up on GM products, particularly Buick and Cadillac, throughout the '40s.

1951 LeSabre

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The LeSabre combined functional styling and advanced engineering. Reflecting Harley Earl's fascination with sleek jets, the LeSabre adapted many of the design and engineering features found in high-performance aircraft. Lightweight materials are used throughout the car, including cast magnesium for the decklid, front fender valance and inner door panels. The hood, fenders and outer door panels are sheet aluminium. The supercharged V-8 engine was constructed entirely of aluminium. Rubberized 20-gallon fuel tanks are located in each tail fin - one for gasoline, the other for methyl alcohol for additional power bursts when the accelerator was depressed past the mid-position.

1954 Firebird I

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The idea of the Firebird originated with Harley Earl who also designed its fibreglass, reinforced plastic body. The car's Whirlfire Turbo-Power engine and the chassis were developed under the direction of GM Vice President Charles McCuen, general manager of GM Research Laboratories Division. The aircraft motif is evident in the car's "needle" nose, delta wings swept back over the rear of the body, a vertical tail fin and a plastic bubble over the driver's cockpit.

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Mechanically, the gas turbine of the Firebird is the reverse of conventional automobiles. In the nose, ahead of the driver is a 35-gallon glass fibre-plastic fuel tank. Behind the driver is an integrated power "package" with an engine consisting of two mechanically independent parts - the gasifier section and the power section.

1954 El Camino Dream Car

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The Cadillac El Camino, first displayed in 1954 as part of GM's Motorama show, had a fibreglass body and a brushed stainless steel top which was a preview of Cadillac styling later that decade. The passenger compartment used a curved glass, aircraft-type bubble canopy.

1955 GMC L'Universelle Truck

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The GMC L'Universelle concept truck was unveiled in 1955 to show forward thinking in the area of delivery vehicles.

The futuristic styling of L'Universelle influenced design in the '60s with the first compact passenger van from Chevrolet, which was built on a Corvair chassis.

1956 Firebird II

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The Firebird II represented a progress report on the feasibility of gas turbine powered vehicles. Unlike the original, single-seat Firebird I that developed exhaust temperatures of more than 1250 degrees F, the four-passenger Firebird II featured a regenerative gas turbine engine that operated nearly 1000 degrees cooler. Other innovations included the first use of wheel disc brakes, fully independent four-wheel suspension and the sophisticated electronic guidance system for use on the "electronic highway of the future."

1956 Golden Rocket Dream Car

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Oldsmobile's 1956 Golden Rocket featured a seating system in which a roof panel was raised and the seat was elevated and rotated toward the entering occupant when the door was opened. Buttons on the steering wheel allowed the column to tilt downward, providing the driver with easier access.

1956 Centurion Dream Car

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The 1956 Buick Centurian was an aerodynamic four-seat coupe with a patented rear-mounted television camera to provide a rear view to the driver. Front seats automatically slid back when the doors were opened for easier entry and also moved forward to provide entry and exit to the back seats. A cantilevered steering wheel positioned the steering shaft down the centre of the car, allowing more legroom for the driver.

1958 Firebird III

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The Firebird III was the first space age inspired car by General Motors. The Firebird III has an aerodynamic fibreglass body and is pearlescent silver-gold in colour. It has a wide, tapered nose, twin plastic bubble canopies over the passengers and a high dorsal fin at the tail. The car's most significant single feature, its control system, features combined and improved versions of "no-hands" steering and the single-stick Unicontrol introduced separately by GM Research Laboratories.

1959 Corvette Stingray

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The Corvette Stingray was built in 1959 to explore the limits of handling and performance of the future Chevrolet Corvettes. This Experimental concept car was designed and built in 1959 by then vice president of General Motors Styling, William L. Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell designed this unique thin shelled, fibreglass body for the minimum racing weight possible. The vehicle has an advanced multi-tubular chassis with de Dion rear suspension and inboard rear brakes.

Powered by a fuel injected, high performance Chevrolet V-8 engine, this vehicle was campaigned as an independent on the sports car club circuit in 1959 and 1960. After its racing days were complete, the vehicle was retired and is now part of the vintage concept car collection, owned and cared for by the General Motors Design Center.

1959 Cadillac Cyclone

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The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone was designed to test new styling and engineering ideas. The two-passenger automobile has a clear plastic cover that fits snugly against the panoramic windshield to give the driver true 360 degree vision. When not in use, the power-operated canopy folds backward beneath the surface of the trunk deck. It automatically lifts out of the way when either door is opened. At a touch of a button, Cyclone's doors move outward from the car three inches. Moving smoothly on ball bearings, they can be slid back for easy entrance. Among its advanced engineering features is a radar device which scans the highway, and warns the driver electronically of objects in its path. Large, twin nose cones in the front of the car house the proximity-sensing units.

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They electronically alert the driver with both an audible signal and a warning light if an object is in its path. The Cyclone is powered by a 325 hp engine that is positioned in the nose of the car. It features a low profile carburettor, cross flow aluminium radiator and twin fans. The muffler and exhaust are located in the front engine compartment with the exhaust outlets just ahead of the front wheels. Inside, instruments are clustered like an aircraft dashboard before, and between, the two passengers. An intercommunication system allows passengers to converse with persons outside the automobile without raising the canopy.

1961 Corvette Mako Shark

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The basic lines of the 1961 experimental Mako Shark Corvette concept car were inspired by a mako shark caught off the coast of Florida by Williams L. Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell was at the time, Vice President of General Motors Styling Staff now known as General Design Center.

The Mako Shark concept car is finished in a varicolored paint scheme based on an iridescent blue upper surface that blends into a white side and lower body, like the natural colouring of the shark Bill Mitchell landed.

The present engine is a production 1961 427 cubic inch ZL-1 Chevrolet V-8. This engine has an all aluminium block, heads and intake manifold. It is equipped with a single four-barrel carburettor that produces upwards of 425 horsepower. The Mako Shark is presently part of the Vintage Concept Car Collection owned and cared for by the General Motors Design Center.

1964/65 Runabout & GM-X Stiletto

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The experimental small commuter car Runabout was unveiled at GM's Futurama at the New York World's Fair in 1964. A three-wheel hatchback, Runabout carried two passengers and had ample storage room.

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The GM-X Stiletto was an advanced, high-performance car with styling strongly influenced by aerospace design. It featured aircraft-type steering, a maintenance monitoring system with toggle switch controls, and a three-way speaker system for inside/ outside communications. It also debuted at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

1973 Aerovette

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Back in the 70's, it became apparent to General Motors that their Corvette Stingray would have to be replaced after almost twenty years in production on the same chassis. GM is aware that Corvette drivers are a very demanding group, and did not want any next-generation designs that would alienate their existing customers. Chevrolet built a variety of concept cars to test owner reactions, showcasing advanced technology ideas.

One of these concept cars was the Aerovette. It began life as the XP-882, a mid-engined prototype using a 400 CID V8 mated to an Oldsmobile Toronado transaxle. For the 1973 Paris motor show, an XP-882 chassis was repowered with an experimental four rotor Wankel engine, which looked very promising until it was cancelled due to concerns about the rotary engine's typically poor fuel economy with an impending oil crisis just on the horizon. The Bill Mitchell, the ardent Corvette styling department magnate, gave the car a new life by reinstalling a small-block Chevrolet V8 and christening it the Areovette. A stunningly dramatic looking car, it was promoted as the new sixth generation Corvette for 1980, but never saw series production.

Charles Jordan oversaw the Aerovette design, which included radical bifold gullwing doors, and deformable plastic body-coloured nose and tail sections which are common today, but revolutionary in the mid-1970's. The sterling silver paint, with silver leather interior and forged alloy turbine wheels later seen on the 1978 Corvette Indy Pace Car, gave the Aerovette a space craft like appearance unmatched by any other advanced sports car.

1982 Aero 2000

The GM Aero 2000, one of the most aerodynamic automobiles ever developed, was unveiled in 1982 at the Epcot Center World of Design display. The experimental four-seater featured sliding doors, front wheel skirts top-hinged for access to wheels and tires, and a speed-regulated rear foil to reduce fuel-costly air turbulence. Many of the design concepts are evident in GM's electric car, EV1.

1983 Buick Questor

The Buick Questor was unveiled in 1983, GM's 75th anniversary year. The Questor demonstrated state-of-the-art electronic systems for future cars, including a laser key entry system and a voice-actuated radio telephone.

1988 Oldsmobile Aerotech

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The 1988 Oldsmobile Aerotech, an experimental high-speed vehicle incorporating the latest in performance technology, was driven by three-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt to a world closed-course speed record of 257mph (413 km/h). It was powered by a specially-prepared turbo-charged version of the Quad 4 engine. The Aerotech body was designed by GM Design staff and is one of the sleekest vehicles yet developed for a GM car division. The design of the Aerotech includes the capability of adjusting underbody sections to control the distribution of downforce, front to rear.

1988 Pontiac Banshee

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The Pontiac Banshee was introduced in 1988 to provide a glimpse at the high-performance sports car of the future. The Banshee name first appeared in the '60s as a code name for the forthcoming '67 Pontiac Firebird, companion to the '67 Chevrolet Camaro.

1989 Pontiac Stinger Concept

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The Pontiac Stinger concept introduced in 1989, featured all-wheel drive, carbon fibre body panels and, with the exception of the windshield, removable glass panels. The distinctive aerodynamic grey-and-green body could be transformed from two-door enclosed transportation to an open-air vehicle for all-season fun, utility and convenience.

1991 HX3 Hybrid Van

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Designed as a low-emissions, high-fuel-economy alternative to the traditional family sedan, the HX3 utilizes a powertrain that can be switched between gasoline or electric power. The monocab design seats five passengers comfortably in a compact package, and redefines the look and function of a traditional passenger car. Inspired by jet aircraft, the vehicle's tapered shape achieves a 0.258 drag co-efficient.

1992 Ultralite

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Developed jointly by General Motors Design Center and Research Laboratories, the Ultralite concept was created to be the ultimate test-platform for fuel economy. The four-passenger vehicle features a carbon fibre monocoque structure that combines high-strength with exceptional weight savings. Due to efficient packaging techniques and use of lightweight materials throughout, Ultralite's curb weight is a mere 1,400 pounds. The concept also incorporates low rolling resistance tires and a 1.5-litre, three cylinder, two-stroke engine that delivers 111 bhp at 4500 rpm. Fuel economy is EPA rated at 80 mpg (highway).

1997 Oldsmobile Alero Concept

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The 1997 Oldsmobile Alero concept car was a popular attraction at auto shows and many of these styling cues were evident in the production model that later debuted.

2000 Cadillac Imaj

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The Cadillac Imaj, a high-tech concept car revealed at the 2000 Geneva Auto Show, extends Cadillac's philosophy of blending art and science to its logical next step: an all-wheel-drive ultra-luxury sedan with exhilarating performance and unprecedented technological applications. With its crisp lines and sharp angles, Imaj is a direct descendant of Evoq, the concept roadster introduced in 1999 and the first embodiment of Cadillac's vision of art and science. Imaj takes its lead from Evoq in giving further tangible form to Cadillac's vision to be a uniquely American, global automotive leader in both design and ingenious technology. Underneath the hood, Imaj features an updated version of the supercharged Northstar V8 engine that debuted on the Evoq. Featuring a liquid-to-air intercooler and continuously variable valve timing, the enhanced Northstar delivers 425 horsepower. The power is fed to all four wheels through an all-new five-speed automatic transmission. Imaj also features Cadillac's Night Vision system with obstacle alert signals work both in front and the rear. Adjustable pedals, seating, steering and head-up display combine with steering wheel mounted controls and shift-by-wire gear selection to create the quintessential driver-in-control environment. Adaptive cruise control manages following distances at highway speeds, while front- and rear-facing radar ease parking in close quarters.

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The Cadillac Imaj offers "first-class" seating for all four passengers, including infotainment systems, state-of-the-art night vision, and rear seat display screens. Ventilated front and rear seats can be individually controlled. Rear seats recline with articulating footrests. Pedals and steering wheel are adjustable for optimum control and unsurpassed comfort. Rear-hinged rear doors ease entry and exit. The Imaj Concept showcases GM's finest safety and security technology with finger print based, keyless Biometric Security; active suspension/aerodynamics with the next generation Stabilitrak; adaptive cruise control with alert; dual function, reconfigurable head up display; accident avoidance technology; and run-flat tires.

2000 Precept

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The Precept concept demonstrates an ultra-high-efficiency, environmentally friendly architecture from GM. The parallel-hybrid Precept concept employs the most aerodynamically efficient design known, with a drag co-efficient of 0.163. Its four-wheel drive, dual-axle configuration features a 35 kilowatt three-phase electric motor driving the front wheels, and a lean-burn compression-ignition, direct-injection heat engine driving the rear wheels.

2000 Buick Lacrosse

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LaCrosse's most notable feature is its ability to be quickly transformed-with a single voice command-from a luxury car to a light cargo carrier with an open bed. The tailgate electronically slides downward and under the vehicle, and the rear window and rear portion of the roof slide forward to reveal the cargo area. During this operation, the front section of roof moves slightly downward to accommodate the sliding panels. LaCrosse's four doors are power-operated and hinged at the front and rear pillars, opening at the centre pillar for easy access.

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The interior showcases consumer-friendly advanced technology such as voice-activated controls in place of the switches and displays usually mounted in the instrument panel. The only visible controller is a single trackball-like device installed in a console. The driver uses the controller in conjunction with voice commands to operate all systems except throttle, brakes and steering. Features selected by the driver are projected on the windshield in reconfigurable colour head-up displays for both the driver and front passenger

2001 Chevy Borrego

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The segment-busting Borrego concept from Chevrolet combines the road-taming agility of a rally car with the traditional rock-hard toughness of a Chevy. The all-wheel drive vehicle can commute very comfortably during the weekdays and then let off a little steam on the weekends. The interior continues Chevy's traditional dual-cockpit design, and gives a sense of protection for rough riding. Rugged analog gauges finish the rally appearance. Borrego's sturdy roll bar not only harkens to durable pre-runners and rally cars, it also accommodates an innovative reconfigurable mid-gate at the rear of the passenger cab that allows seating for two more passengers.

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Self-inflating seals keep the compartment watertight regardless of its configuration. With the seating expanded, the cargo bed changes from 6 feet to about 3 feet to provide more room for passengers. The Convert-a-Cab™ system allows one person to reconfigure the cargo area in seconds without tools to create a 4' x 8' cargo area to transport large items. The Borrego's sturdy all-wheel-drive powertrain is based on Subaru's longitudinal all-wheel-drive system. The turbocharged 2.5-liter horizontally opposed 4-cylinder engine keeps the vehicle's centre of gravity low for improved handling and a better sight line down the hood.

2001 Hummer H2 SUT

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The 2001 concept HUMMER H2 sport utility truck (SUT) is the next evolution of the HUMMER brand - a daring look at what this unstoppable sport utility truck might be like on the road and in the woods. Derived from the production intent 2003 H2, the SUT concept vehicle is functional, versatile and almost endlessly reconfigurable. It blends a superior off-road capability and versatile rear cargo bed with an adjustable bulkhead and a no-nonsense interior of polished metal, leather and fabric, and state-of-the-art telematics. The 17-inch wheels and heavy-duty independent front suspension and 5-link rear suspension provide superior handling, carrying and towing capability.

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Powering the H2 SUT concept vehicle is GM's 6.0-liter, Vortec 6000 V8. It's mounted longitudinally and mated to a heavy-duty five-speed automatic transmission with full-time all-wheel drive. The SUT concept vehicle is packaged with state-of-the-art technological advancements, including roof-mounted, 360-degree infrared night vision, Global Positioning Satellite navigation, the OnStar system, and 110V power outlets galore. Pop open the largest skyroof in GM's history, lower the rear window and you have a truly open-air vehicle. Vertical side windows create an enormous roof area for carrying still more cargo, and give the interior a spacious feel.

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