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Concept Car of the Week: Chevrolet Astro (1967)

Fri, 29 Mar 2013 00:00:00 -0700

It gave its name to a boxy van in the 80s, but the Chevrolet Astro I was one of the most exciting dream cars developed within the GM styling studio. Presented in New York Auto Show in 1967, it was the first of three Astro concepts shown in annual succession and illustrates GM's desire to develop models that were both aerodynamic and attractive.

What we might take for granted in aerodynamics nowadays was almost untouched territory in the mid ‘60s. Engineers understood that a reduced frontal area, low nose and sharp tail would improve the drag and designers applied those simple rules to the extreme.

Initially, the sketches were intended for a powerful racecar to compete in Le Mans, but GM execs cancelled that program and the project was resurrected as a sexy show car instead. Bill Mitchell, then vice president of Design, always had a fascination for the oceanic world. Sharks, manta rays and stingrays in particular had dramatic influence over the design of Corvettes and many GM concepts.

Unsurprisingly, he selected a sketch showing a curvy and dramatic design from Roy Lonberger that resembled the 1965 Mako Shark II. From the large front fenders to the rear wheel fairings, the aquatic fluidity of the volumes conveys a mesmerizing sense of movement, balanced with a horizontal belt line that stabilizes the overall shape.

The pointy shark nose remains very close to the ground, topped with hidden pop-up headlamps and a V graphic painted in black extending from the nose to the base of the windshield, reminiscent of the 1964 GM-X Stiletto. A very fast wraparound windscreen blends smoothly with the roof that rises at only 902 mm from the ground –168 mm lower than a knee-high Countach. Even more impressive than the impossibly low height is the way passengers get inside. Conventional doors would have been too narrow and merely a few contortionists might have been able to get in through the letterbox sized opening.

Instead, the car is split in two by a straight line angled forward at 45 degrees extending the reversed A-pillar. The entire rear panel lifts up with a large screw mechanism behind the rear wheels. As the panel goes up, the two bucket seats are lifted to improve ingress and egress. Once the passengers seated, the clamshell would slowly rotate back in place, lowering the passengers into their semi-reclined seating position as if the car had swallowed them.

Once inside, the driver was faced with aircraft inspired controls including twin vertical handgrips for the steering, "head to toe" bucket seats and a control pod to the left of the driver. A three-element periscope provides rear view to the driver and compensate for the lack of a rear window.

A large V8 would have compromised the low profile of the rear deck, so a more compact six-cylinder engine was taken from the Corvair and then entirely reworked to increase the power output. Although the concept was announced with a 240bhp power plant, such engine was only developed as a mule. It never made it into the actual show car, which was not intended to be a drivable prototype.

Although it was not a runner, the Astro I was too good to be sent to the crusher, where sadly many design studies ended. It is now part of the GM Heritage Centre collection and is exhibited at various car and design shows. 45 years later, it still wows the crowds whenever and wherever it is presented.

Designer Roy Lonberger
Length 4,489mm
Height 902mm
Width 1,835mm
Wheelbase 2,235mm
Engine Rear mounted six-cylinders, 2,885cc
Power 240bhp claimed

Your author, Flavien Dachet, is a UK-based, French-born car designer. You may know him as the purveyor of KarzNshit, a photo blog that if isn't already in your bookmarks, certainly should be.

By Flavien Dachet