GMC L'Universelle

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It's been a pretty sporty few weeks, and so it's time to swing back the other way toward delivery vans.

Not just any deliver vans, mind you: Motorama delivery vans.

For those of us under the age of 60 (no offence to those of you above 60, of course), now is a good time to have a little refresher on what, exactly, Motorama was.

It's important to remember that in the United States in the period following the Second World War, the Big Three—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—were roughly the equivalent of modern-day Apple, Google, and Amazon. 

They were titans of industry. They employed tens of thousands of people around the world. They attracted all of the best designers, engineers, and marketers.

Working at one of the Big Three was, in many ways, the ticket. And nobody thought it'd ever end.

In this context, Motorama was like Apple bringing their entire product line into select cities, plus concepts of future products. Now imagine that all of Apple's products were the size of cars.

How many people saw Motorama? Well, these days the San Diego Comic-Con International is a pretty huge festival that attracts about 130,000 pop culture and sub genre (Trekkies, Star Wars fans, etc.) fans. It's big.

In Motorama's first year? 600,000 people visited the General Motors exhibition. Actually, in 1955 Motorama had more attendees than the World Cup in 1954 and 1958…combined.

(In all, attendance stood at more than 10 million before Motorama ended in 1965.)

OK, now it's time for the L'Universelle.

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The idea for L'Universelle, as told by Dave Newell and Robert L. Hauser in a 1982 issue of Special Interest Autos, came from General Motors stylists Harley Earl, Chuck Jordan, and Bill Lange.

In 1954, Jordan was put in charge of an experimental styling group with the goal of developing a totally new delivery truck. The team was quickly assembled, and acquired both a truck-based Chevrolet Suburban Carryall and Volkswagen Type-2 "Bus" for comparison.

(Imagine what L'Universelle would have looked like if they'd been able to find a Citroën HY or TUB!)

With Jackson's Chevrolet Cameo about to enter production, there was a sense at General Motors that the truck and nascent van market deserved a Motorama show car. 

Earl loved the idea and decided that this special project crew would be asked to produce an actual vehicle—XP-39—to be a panel delivery dream truck. His other ask? That it have fold-up doors.

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The crew took the assignment seriously, with four main priorities: ease of loading, access to the load, "roadability," and interior comfort. 

Dropping the rear axle to accommodate a low floor meant that the team decided on front-wheel-drive, with the engine mounted just behind the passenger compartment, with a prototype running a forward-mounted transmission and drive parts from a General Motors bus!

In those days, the engineering team took direction from the styling department, with the article in Special Interest Autos saying, 

"They had a lot of practice from other dream-car projects; Styling would send drawings of what it needed and the Staff then worked them out in practical form."

And, once the project swung into high gear, Car Bock, chief engineer of GMC and Gil Roddewig, head of experimental engineering were assigned the task of building a running, driving chassis for L'Universelle.

First step? Buying a Jeep.

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Why? The engineering team at GMC were skeptical a front-drive van would work, so Roddewig found a Jeep, disconnected the rear axle, and had his engineers drive it around. Did anyone notice it was front-wheel-drive? Nope.

Even so, the chassis was designed purely for show—the engine was fed air through an intake on the roof!

Once the fold-up doors were completed and styling had placed their bodywork (and interior, complete with glove box-mounted two-way radio telephone!) on the special GMC chassis, L'Universelle hit the show circuit.

People loved it.

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So much interest was generated by the van, in fact, that General Motors were taken aback. They quickly patented the design of a cab over van with front-wheel-drive, (which was granted after the project ended, in 1958.)

They were serious—two test beds were completed, a delivery version and a wagon version. A gigantic metal stamping press was bought to create the—projected—roof for L'Universelle.

Someone then realized that with three General Motors divisions (the engine was from Pontiac) working on the van, the production version would cost more than a Cadillac.

Not from chrome or a luxurious interior, mind you—but because it'd cost so much to engineer.

Rather fittingly, the next front-drive General Motors van project would be sold as the futuristic 1990 Chevrolet Lumina APV, Pontiac Trans Sport, and Oldsmobile Silhouette. 

And no, don't expect to see the dust buster trio here any time soon!

Sources / Recommended reading