By John T. Houlihan
September 25, 2014
Published by permission
It was a hot and muggy summer in July of 1968 in the Detroit area. My good friend and college roommate was in the Navy and being transferred from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. He stopped by on his way to San Francisco for a brief visit. We commiserated over several beers that evening. He had to leave early the next morning and I had to go into work.
I was an exterior designer for the General Motors Corporation working in the GM Styling department at the GM Tech Center on Mound Rd in Warren Michigan. This was my first job out of college and a prestigious one at that. GM Styling was recognized as the pinnacle of American automotive styling. By the summer of ’68 I was into my third year as a designer.
That day was important because I was finishing a full size air brush rendering that I had convinced the studio chief designer needed to be included in the array of proposals which were to be shown to the GM “brass” that day. The studio where this was taking place was the Advanced Chevrolet studio. We were working on the XP-887.
GM had been considering the introduction of another “small” car after the Corvair project ran into trouble following bad press years earlier due to Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed book which panned the car’s design as being inherently unsafe. This new small car needed to be a “world beater” to restore GM’s reputation and to gain further market share in, what was believed to be, a growing demand for smaller, economical vehicles.
The earlier designs for the XP-887 project were rejected by the corporate management team assigned to this effort as being too “GM looking.” The new direction needed to be “European” in look and feel. Advanced Chevy Studio was assigned this project.
Large photos of the Fiat 124 were placed all around the studio as inspiration. The engine for the XP-887, already under development for a few years, was actually placed into a Fiat 124 for testing at the Milford Proving Ground. The designers were encouraged to research European cars so as to get feel of that aesthetic.
Despite all this effort to “Europeanize” the design, the real influence for the XP 887 was the current design effort for the new 1970 Camaro. That design was taking place in another Advanced Chevy studio under the direction of Hank Haga. That design was stunning.
I had the opportunity to visit the studio where the Camaro design was taking place and saw a full size perspective rendering of a wagon version of the new Camaro. It was awesome. Not only was the full sized air brushed rendering in perspective, it was a breathtaking design. It left a deep and lasting impression on me. I had to take this back to our studio and create a wagon version for the XP-887.
It was not easy to convince my boss to allow this excursion in a new direction since the company was not planning on tooling a wagon. In fact the basic plan called for a hatchback and possibly a sedan type (ultimately called a notchback) version. No wagon planned.
Since I was willing to do this on my own time the boss relented. I worked on this after hours for a few nights and a weekend. Thus, this fateful day arrived and I was compromised in that I had been up most of the night with my friend on his way to dangerous assignment.
That dawn I dragged myself out of bed said a sad goodbye to my good friend and drove to the Tech Center very early in the morning. There was no one in the studio at that hour. I had to complete the full sized rendering before the 9 am visit. It was going to be close.
As I began to remove the masking areas of the rendering and preparing to complete the fine details of the highlights and other features, I heard the door rattling. Studio doors were always locked—we all had keys. I went to the door and opened it. There standing in front of me was none other than Edward N. Cole, President of General Motors.
In shock and still somewhat wobbly from the beer soaked prior evening, I was at a loss for words, but not completely. I blurted “Holy Shit! What are you doing here?” Not the most cordial greeting one would expect for such an exalted visitor. Mr. Cole graciously ignored my blunder and told me he wanted to see what was going on with the XP-887 project without the entourage that normally accompanied him on these visits. He wanted to get real look at the project with out the “editing” which inevitably occurred.
Dutifully I took him around the studio and pointed out the various renderings of the hatchback, notchback and the clay model in the center of the room. I answered his questions to the best of my ability although I did not have the detailed technical knowledge the studio engineer or the studio chief possessed. Mr. Cole seemed to be satisfied with everything.
He then pointed to the partially masked rendering I was completing and asked, “What is that?” I said it was a wagon version of the project.
He said, “We aren’t tooling a wagon.”
“I know.” I answered.
“Well, why is it there?” He wanted to know.
“Well, Mr. Cole, young people can’t afford a B-body wagon and even an A-body wagon is a bit pricey. I think young people would really go for a small wagon like this.”
He looked at the partially complete rendering, thanked me for my help, turned and walked out of the studio.
Later that morning, when all the underlings were relegated to the back room so as not to crowd the high ranking visitors, the big meeting with Mr. Cole and his minions took place. I climbed on a chair and was looking over the lockers so as to see and hear what was going on.
Only the clay model and two full sized renderings were on display. The discussion focused on these. Questions were asked and answered then Mr. Cole asked the chief designer where the wagon rendering was.
The studios had huge movable boards that served as supports for the full sized renderings. There were three or four of these boards in bays along one of the studio walls. Each could move up into the ceiling to reveal the rendering behind so that multiple designs could be shown if needed. The wagon was behind one of the renderings on display for the meeting.
The chief designer looked a bit embarrassed but went over to the bay where the renderings were and raised one of the boards revealing my wagon rendering.
Mr. Cole then looked at the gathering and said “Young people can’t afford the larger wagons we offer, I believe they will go for this small wagon. We will be tooling a wagon.”
The entourage then filed out of the studio and life returned to normal.
Thanks to John Houlihan for this amazing account.