Monday, March 16, 2009

Nice Design, Shame about the car...

We've all had one of these at some time. Sharp sporty cars for their time, that for whatever reasons, bad engineering, poor management, or just bad luck in the stars didn't turn out to be what we thought they would be. Attractive cars that were plentiful and common to see just a few years ago, and now have virtually vanished from our roadways. Automobiles that were once modern and stylish to us then, but wouldn't necessarily want to be driving today.

The Dodge Intrepid

The Intrepid started out as a genuine gee whiz prototype built on a Lamborghini chassis. In the late 80's Chrysler designer, Kevin Verduyn, begin work on the Najao, as a replacement for the aging K-car based Dynasty. Initially the concept wasn't seen as feasible. The design had many elements of the "cab forward" design that would be the hallmark of the LH platform (Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde, & Eagle Vision). Extending of the windshield/A-pillars out & over the drive front wheels and the stretching of the rear (providing more interior room) was evident, but the feasibility and mechanics were not working out, smaller engine compartment size issues (required for the cab forward design)were proving to be engineering headaches.

Along comes the fortunate bankruptcy of Lamborghini for Chrysler, who bought up the famous Italian supercar maker. With that the Najao design was revived and with a stretched chassis of a Jalpa, the Portofino, a Lamborghini running prototype developed by Chryslers Pacifica studios, became the spark of life to the Intrepid.
Chrysler's Lamborghini Portofino was the Intrepids inspiration.
Built on a stretched Jalapa chassis

The Portofino was a stunning show car, and a great platform for working out the engineering issues of the cab forward design. From there Tom Gale, Chrysler vice president of Product Design, and John Herlitz, Chrysler's director of Exterior Passenger Car Design, ran the design right to the production studios.

Intrepid styling buck Intrepid ESX show car

The Intrepid was a smart looking car, borrowing many cues from the prototype (but not the flip up doors) and all the integral bits of the cab forward philosophy. Initially the LH cab forward platform cars sold very well, the design being a genuine step forward from the tired K-car based designs of the past.
ESX concept

Unfortunately, quality and build issues, excessive sludge build up and other engine problems with the standard 2.7 V6, requiring costly repairs, and in some cases engine replacement, killed most of the momentum the cars had with buyers. Even with a fresh, quite skillful and attractive restyle in 1998 the cars never attained the sales forecast Mopar wanted. Today its a sketchy used buy, and already starting to disappear from the roadways due to disrepair. The car was discontinued to make way for the hugely popular new LH rear drive cars like the 300C.

The Isuzu Impulse

What could have been the 2nd generation Scirocco for VW became the Isuzu Impulse (Piazza outside the US). The legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro and his design company Italdesign had penned the original Golf and Scirocco and was expected to be contracted for the follow up. After a exhaustive design study, VW went with their own in-house design with Karmann, and Isuzu was more than thrilled to have the fifth Giugiaro "Copernican revolution", the Asso di Fiori (Ace of Clubs prototype) as their own. Elements of car design we now take for granted, flush glass, complete absence of drip/rain gutters and door/shut lines extending to and into the roofline (in the style of limousine doors) were all introduced on a sporty, crisply designed 2+2 coupe in Geneva 1979.

Giugiaro's Asso di Fiori (Ace of Clubs) Piazza show car
Crowds gathered around the display stand in awe, Giugiaro's common themes of tight crisp lines melding with rounded end shapes were very prominent and very popular. Rumors were abound that this was going to be the next 2+2 introductory Lotus. The car and design certainly looked the part.

Mouths dropped when it was revealed that this was going to be a common production car for little known Isuzu. Jaws dropped further when it was known that the car was designed to meet the specifications of the Gemini 1800 (Japanese version of the Chevy Chevette chassis). Thoughts of such a great looking breakthrough design running on what was essentially a mild rehash of the failed Vega platform left many in the industry scratching their heads.

Despite the chassis, the Impulse initially sold well, assuredly due to its stunning good looks and design. Most of the industry magazines gave it great marks, and the Impulse won awards for the its design, but only so-so praise for the anemic 4 cyl. The handling of course left much to be desired working from Chevette underpinnings. By the time the ruse was reveled, that the Impulse was a very attractive paperweight without the power or footing to get out of its own way, sales for its enthusiast target market virtually disappeared. By the time Isuzu realized the problem and returned with a decent car, a turbo version with chassis tuning by Lotus, it was too late to save it.
It’s a shame to see the few cars of these on the road beaten up and abused; it was once a show stopping, award winning design.

The Pontiac Fiero
Pontiac Fiero SE & GT V6
GM’s second only 2 seat production car, and its only mid engine one has a history dating back to the 50’s with the Motorama show car two-seat Bonneville Special, the Club de Mer, heavily based on the new Corvette.
1956 Pontiac Club de Mer

By the mid 60’s Pontiac’s chief John Z. DeLorean (father of the GTO) campaigned heavily for a Pontiac two seat sports car, the Banshee. The Banshee, was a two seat hardtop, resembling much of the soon to be 68 Stingray in both shape and style. Though the design was very attractive, GM execs, understandably, killed the idea for fear of it competing with the Corvette. A second show only car, a mild rendition of the Banshee, appropriately named the Fiero, with a daring open targa style top proved popular but was never planned to make the public roadways.

1964 Pontiac Banshee & 1969 Pontiac Fiero
Come the late 1970’s, Pontiac, still committed to make a two seat sports car, set up plans to present GM with a proposal. A prototype, the “P”-car, was rushed to the Advanced Three design studio. Under designers heads Ron Hill w/John Cafaro, the car was designed to use plastic body panels above and below the center body line. This strong body line, giving a strong forward leaning wedge shape, became the major design theme running the length of the vehicle, rising slowly towards the rear end. Along with purposely large wheel openings, retracting headlights (but no front grille) the mid engine design was a strong and exciting prospect.

A running prototype was built and the final exterior design was moved to John Schinella in Pontiac studios where more specific Pontiac design identity cues, split bumper pads in the traditional Pontiac theme was added and the theme body line was made a rub strip running the entire length of the car.

The P-cars wedge-shaped, mid-engine design was a hit with GM executives, but at the time of rising gas prices, inflation and fuel shortages, the 14th floor at GM could only be convinced to commit to budget for a 2-seat “commuter car”, not a full on sports car. A large part of the Fieros future fate and problems were sealed from that change of focus.

A change to commuters car from sports car meant that to make budget and design specifications the Fiero turned into a GM shelf parts car. To save costs, development for engineering was farmed out to Entech , and to meet a greatly reduced budget and streamline the tooling process, parts were raided from GM parts bin, the front suspension modified from a Chevette, the noisy and rough Iron Duke motor and a rear engine setup modified from a front drive X car platform was used.

The debut was praised by the industry, and sold well, but the legacy of the shelf parts used, along with initial teething problems for a new model (engine fires, cooling and electrical problems) soon changed sales figures. The Fiero was great to look at, but was underpowered and disappointed those expecting a sportier ride to go along with its fresh looks. Slowly GM corrected problems, adding a stronger more powerful V-6 , reworking the rear suspension for proper sports car handling and in 1986 restyling it with a much more coherent and flowing “flying buttress” fastback design. But as it always seems for the General, and revisiting the fate of the Corvair, by the time they got the Fiero “right” GM killed it, just before the Fiero really got its chance to spread its wings and fly. Fieros are seen less and less on the road today and will probably become tomorrows collector’s items.