In the post-war years, General Motors Corporation regularly held a traveling Motorama exhibition, the purpose of which was to showcase GM’s latest developments. Motorama began with a big January presentation at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, after which a caravan of concepts and prototypes went on a big tour around the country: Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston… It was the same in 1955, and the main star of “Motorama” of that year became GMC L’Universelle – a very non-standard van even by the standards of crazy American design of those years.
The project was created together with Pontiac, the company, which was the closest to GMC: the cars used a lot of common components, and also were distributed through a single dealer network. Harley Earle was responsible for the van’s design, who had a difficult task – to create a dream car in a body, which initially was not suitable for this.
In the exterior of L’Universelle the family features of several General Motors brands are present: a massive front bumper with “bullets” at the corners and fang-shaped turn signals refers to the Pontiac models of that era, and panoramic windshield and slanted against the move center columns – to Chevrolet and Cadillac. The body is flanked by gull-wing doors, all in the latest fashion of the time.
The interior was much less radical. Inside there was not even a place for such usual by American standards things as an air conditioner. All the same, it is a utilitarian car, and moreover for an exhibition. A radio, three-spoke steering wheel, speedometer marked up to 100 mph, decorative trims from stainless steel and sofa, covered with vinyl – that’s all that is offered to a driver and a passenger. The seating position is upright in a cargo-oriented way.
As you could notice, L’Universelle is very different from the vans of that time, and not only American. It is noticeably shorter (length – only 4775 mm), has a low floor, low roof, but the volume of its cargo area exceeds all analogs of the mid-50s. This is achieved because the engine is located in the center – just behind the driver’s and passenger’s sofa, and the traction is transferred to the front axle.
The V-8 of 4.7 liter capacity was borrowed from Pontiac, and gave 180 horsepower and 358 Newton-meters. Since the front mounted radiator was impossible, it was kept in the engine compartment, and the air supply was through an air intake on the roof. However, this was not even the most bizarre technical solution. To make the engine turn the front wheels instead of the rear, it was simply rotated together with the gearbox! As a result, L’Universelle had, roughly speaking, only one forward gear and four reverse speeds!
Nevertheless, L’Universelle became one of the first examples of practical front-wheel drive vans, which Chrysler brand brought to the American market for the first time only twenty years later. The concept’s wheelbase length was 2,743 millimeters, with independent front suspension and a simple leaf-spring rear suspension, because it was required to keep the luggage compartment floor as low as possible.
The cars that became part of the “Motorama” were not usually intended for serial production, but L’Universelle really wanted to be put on the assembly line – or rather, were going to produce on its basis shuttle buses, roomy cabs, cars for long trips. The concept was too bright and unusual for mass production.
In addition to Motorama, the concept briefly became part of Powerama, a stationary show given over to GM’s technical partners: Allison, Detroit Diesel, Frigidaire, Euclid, Fabricast and so on. The last Powerama was held in 1955 and L’Universelle became the jewel in the crown of the show, while Motorama lasted until 1961.
Although it did not become a serial beauty L’Universelle, its appearance did not go unnoticed. Echoes of the concept can be seen in the rear-engined Chevrolet Series 95 and Corvair Rampside, as well as in the related Loadside, Greenbrier, and Corvan. Most importantly, it showed that a dream car could even have a utilitarian body and front-wheel drive. Down with the stereotypes!