General Motors XP 511

I've spoken at length about the sheer might of General Motors in the '60s, and thanks to its dominance, the company often had the best prototype vehicles whizzing around the Technical Center in Warren, Michigan.

With a fat bank account, the company could try pretty much whatever it wanted to—even a van packed to the gills with a rudimentary (and very unstable) hydrogen fuel cell stack. Now, however, seeing what General Motors came up with in secret compared to what was actually put into production makes me quite disappointed.

Take, for instance, its series of XP 5xx commuter cars. General Motors did a few forward-looking city- and-microcar concepts with alternative powertrains (including all-electric) that were designed for urban use. In the late '60s, however, saving fuel wasn't exactly in fashion.

For my current commute, something like the XP 511 would be perfect. More stable (and faster) than the Bond Bug, it goes to show what a fat wallet can do to address some of the inherent shortcomings of the 'arrow' 3-wheel layout. With a longer nose and space race-inspired styling, it manages to mostly avoid the often tragic-looking styling often placed onto a 3-wheel chassis, and cuts a very low centre of gravity at just 34 cm (13.5 in.) above the ground. 

My favourite angles are the front 3/4 because of the canopy shape and very visible rear air intakes for the rear-mounted Opel-sourced engine.

Designed to take two people in relative comfort from the suburbs to an office block downtown, its backbone chassis, slippery shape, and that low centre of gravity would have made the XP 511 a willing companion on short freeway jaunts. At a weight of 590 kg (1,300 lbs), its 1.1-litre 67 horsepower 4-cylinder engine (possibly from the Kadett) with 3-speed automatic transmission was good for smart fortwo levels of performance: zero-to-100 km/h (62 mph) in 16 seconds and an undoubtedly fast-enough top speed of 130 km/h (80 mph).

Now, for some problems with the design: 

  • At the same overall height as a Ford GT40 race car, I can't imagine drivers would be very visible during the morning commute.
  • At best, General Motors says the XP 511 would do 6.2 l/100km (35 U.S. mpg) in city driving.
  • Is there any luggage space?
  • How do you open the canopy when it's raining?
  • Toll booths…

Anyway, I'm willing to forget about my reservations on its lack of practicality if you are. Let's take a few moments to appreciate the Larry Shinoda-penned shape and ask ourselves, "Why can't our highways be filled with cool, different-looking cars like this one?"

(Yes, we all know why. Wreckage of a serious accident in this would look like a canoe had been dumped over the Niagara Falls.)