Inside Vauxhall’s space-age SRV concept

| 20 Feb 2019
The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept

 Into three figures, the car feels a touch unstable, the wheel becoming light as the nose starts to lift. No problem; ease back the lever in the door to tweak the front spoiler, press a couple of buttons to reduce the rear ride height and pump 20 litres of fuel into the forward bag tanks.

The trim gauge says we’re riding level, so plant the throttle and the boost needle flickers as the turbocharger spools up, noisily forcing fuel and air into the compact twin-cam motor. 

Except we aren’t on an empty runway, we’re in a studio in Middlesex; the speedo needle is resting firmly on its lower stop, and those whooshes and whistles are entirely self-made. “Er, could you get out now?” asks photographer Spinney.

It’s hard not to drift into fantasy when you clamber aboard this dramatic, aerofoil-shaped concept car, but the clue to its silence lies in the name: Styling Research Vehicle (SRV).

Not much functional engineering went into this vision of the future, yet it feels remarkably complete. And exotic, which is why it comes as rather a shock to find Vauxhall’s unmistakable Griffin plastered on the car’s flanks.

The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
Clockwise from top: four-seater reveal creates a ‘wow’ moment; packaging drawing shows clever internal layout; Stephenson designed parallelogram hinges for rear

Yes, this low-slung pseudo-supercar is from Luton, land of the Wyvern, Viva and Victor, but there’s an even greater surprise to come. Its engine might be transversely mounted amidships, but the SRV is a pillarless four-door, four-seater ‘saloon’.

“Designers always love to do two-seater sports cars because they’re easy, but I don’t think anyone had ever done a four-door coupé before,” explains former GM design supremo Wayne Cherry from his home in Broomfield Hills, north of Detroit.

“I wanted to test some packaging theories, and one of the most important things with a concept car is that there is a surprise. The idea was that you wouldn’t see the rear hatches – I never called them doors – until they were opened, then you realised it was a four-seater – it was a real ‘wow’ moment.”

Cherry joined GM in 1962 after graduating from the Art Center College in LA, and moved to Luton in ’65. He is charged by some Griffin fans as contributing to the marque’s downfall, having been GM Europe design boss during the amalgamation of the Opel and Vauxhall ranges.

John Stephenson, a young studio engineer at the time, remembers differently: “While Wayne was there it was a golden era for Vauxhall Styling, there were no real limits in terms of practicality or price. The realities of the company were changing as we realised that we wouldn’t be designing our own cars any more, yet Wayne sustained a really great team who were all trying to keep the Vauxhall side up.”

And the SRV was the manifestation of this passion: “It was a fantastic piece of work. The fact that it is still a credible design and still looks modern is amazing.”

The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
Clockwise from top: instruments hinge out with door; Cherry (r) with Field (l) and Taylor (sitting); ‘engine’ was hand-made

When Cherry had completed sketch designs and full-sized tape drawings, stylists John Taylor and Chris Field were tasked with turning the idea into a reality, along with a skilled group of fabricators.

“From conceptual sketches, the design came together very quickly,” recalls Cherry. “There were four studios on one side of the hall, then a metal shop, wood shop, glass-fibre, paint and trim shop on the other side. The design went in one end and the car came out the other!

“We did a seating buck first and presented that to management, then they agreed to go ahead with the project. We started late in 1969 and the car was unveiled in the fall of ’70. John and the guys put a lot of work into the chassis – it was the first mid-engined Vauxhall and I think the only one until the Lotus-derived [VX220].”

Under the well-finished glassfibre skin – Cherry and Stephenson scoff at period claims that it was carbon reinforced – plenty of thought went into creating a car that would really work. In principle at least, because the turbocharged twin-cam slant-four was largely made of glassfibre, wood and CNC-machined aluminium dummy parts.

But there was a proper monocoque rolling chassis, with the fixed front seat bases – both pedals and steering column were movable – forming part of the structure. Tubular subframes carried a beam front axle – with leading Watt linkages to allow for ride angle changes – and a cast-alloy de Dion tube at the rear with long radius arms and an ‘electric levelling system’.

Weight distribution was given as 35% front, 65% rear, while the body sides created the equivalent of a modern passenger safety cell.

The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
Clockwise from top: refined wedge developed from fussier early designs; dials pretended to show everything from oil pressure to transmission temperature; mocked-up turbo twin-cam ‘four’

Stephenson was involved in some clever engineering to make the car work as its creators wanted.

“There was no way you could support those huge doors with an ordinary hinge,” he says. “So we used Morris Minor track-rod ends and had hinges to hang off them machined from solid steel billet – they haven’t dropped in 40 years! I was always very proud of the ‘hidden’ rear-hinged doors, because they eventually arrived in production on the Mazda RX-8.” 

The ‘test’ aspects of the car, however, were pure theatre. Items such as an instrument binnacle that hinged out with the door, a manometer that used aerospace Pitot tubes to measure pressure over the nose and adjust the front aerofoil, or the gauges in the engine bay to monitor everything from boost pressure to exhaust gas temperature. There’s a clock – digital, of course, with a data logger, and measuring tenths of a second.

“Between race cars and aircraft you have the entire inspiration for the vehicle,” says Cherry. “Le Mans cars inspired John Taylor’s monocoque and the long tail; interest in aerodynamics inspired the adjustable front wing and rear suspension.

“The thing I always thought was cool was the instrument panel – with the instruments out of the way, the view ahead was like in a race car, with room around the wheel for your legs. The fully instrumented engine bay gave that experimental look we were after.”

It would be wrong to dismiss the design as folly, however. As anyone who has ever sat inside a Mondial or Urraco will attest, it is very hard do build a genuinely practical mid-engined four-seater.

At 41½in high, the SRV is just taller than a Ford GT40 yet it’s remarkably spacious, though its 6ft 4½in width and 16ft 8in length (just under 8ft of it overhang) would have made it an unwieldy beast.

“To be leading edge it had to be mid-engined, with a transverse motor,” explains Cherry. “In race cars of the time drivers were moving forwards so we did the same, which allowed us to package a second row of seats and a motor inside the [8ft 9in] wheelbase, with the twin radiators and spare wheel in the tail.” 

The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
The SRV was first shown to the public at the Motor Show in 1970

A year after the project began, the SRV made its debut at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1970, with GM quick to point out that it wasn’t a production possibility.

“Every component was stylised; you can look for engineering logic but it just doesn’t exist,” says Stephenson. “Even though it was only representative in engineering terms, it was very well thought-out. John Taylor was the key to that. I did the push-button door release and I was on the stand for the whole two weeks waiting for it to break!”

The ground-hugging wedge has been accused of being derivative, yet only by those who have their dates mixed up. The shape was largely resolved when the Pininfarina Modulo appeared at Geneva in March, and London visitors got a glimpse of the SRV two weeks before the doors to the Turin Show opened to reveal the Bertone Zero and Giugiaro’s Tapiro.

They may not have invented the wonder-wedge, but Cherry and his team were firmly at the cutting edge – with one hand on the scissors.

“Where XVR was a joint project between Styling and Engineering – we even built a moving car – SRV was a pure Styling project,” says Cherry. “XVR was softer, more rounded. With SRV we wanted it to be more sheer, more taut, with more delineation of line to increase tension.”

Perhaps fairer was Autocar’s scepticism over its relevance, with artist Gordon Horner’s cartoon of SRV and HC Viva – launched side by side – cheekily captioned ‘any real connection?’. That’s probably a bit hard on the Viva, which came away from Earls Court with a Gold Medal for coachwork. “Must have been a lean year,” chuckles Stephenson. 

The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
Cherry says the SRV project changed opinions of his team

Cherry is the first to admit that the SRV didn’t directly influence a particular road car, but still vigorously defends the project: “Within an energetic organisation one idea inspires the next, so you can’t underestimate the importance of advance design. It changes everybody’s perspective and perception – including management’s.

“A lot of concepts are basically pre-production cars, while others are a radical statement of what you are capable of – the SRV was one of those. It changed opinions of our team, and for me that was the most important aspect. The Bedford TM Aero truck and the ‘Droop Snoot’ Firenza came from the same fascination with aerodynamics that a handful of us in Styling shared.”

Proof of the car’s importance to its maker lies in its longevity. While most cardboard concepts are consigned to history within months, the SRV was still being shown as ‘a glimpse into the future’ at the Scottish Motor Show in October 1977. Even in mid-’78, by then eight-years old, it was tagged ‘a look ahead to the possible Vauxhalls of tomorrow’.

“I don’t know what it cost, but we got good value out of it,” laughs Cherry. “It was probably the most thoroughly developed non-running concept car ever made. There was XVR in 1966, SRV, then Equus in 1978 and VX Lightning from Simon Cox’s studio in ’03 – and they are the only true Vauxhall concept cars. When you only do one occasionally, you have to get as much use out of it as you can.”

The space-age Vauxhall: inside the incredible SRV concept
Cherry inside the concept he created

Cherry retired from GM in 2004, but remains enthusiastic about his 40-year-old creation: “Some designs just have a lot of presence. It’s gotta be one of the highlights of my career, along with things like the Cadillac Sixteen.

“There have been thousands of concepts over the years, but when people sit down and name the top 10 or 20 they usually identify the SRV.

“Years later, when I travelled around design schools I’d see photos of it pinned above the desks. A lot of designers thought it was a real benchmark – and that’s about as high praise as you can get.”

Images: Peter Spinney; Vauxhall


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