Thursday, January 31, 2013

La belle L'Universelle: Workhorse at the Waldorf

There was certainly a lot to talk about in the 1955 General Motors Motorama. That annual convention of glitter, girls, and gladiolas, the celebration of the superiority of General Motors products was at its zenith in 1955. The show opened at the Waldorf in New York in January, as was its tradition, and then moved on to Miami in February, Los Angeles and then San Francisco in March, and on to a final stop in Boston in April.

In addition to showcasing the "Golden Jubilee" Chevrolet- representing the 50 Millionth GM vehicle- there were a host of concept cars on the stage for 1955. Chevrolet showed its Biscayne pillarless sport sedan, Oldsmobile unveiled a low slung coupe called the Delta. Pontiac showed its futuristic Strato-Star Coupe, and Buick its red Wildcat III sport convertible. Cadillac showed its futuristic La Salle II in sport sedan and roadster forms, and the fabulous Eldorado Brougham which would lead to a production car in 1957.

Oh, and GMC showed a panel truck.

Stop the presses. Yes, GMC did show a panel truck in 1955, but that is about one-hundredth of the story. GMC created their only Motorama concept vehicle for the 1955 show, and it was far from any ordinary truck. Named L'Universelle, the truck was a long, low, sleek vehicle with 13 inch wheels. a mid mounted V-8 engine, and a revolutionary front wheel drive system.

It was drawn by legendary GM designer Chuck Jordan and represented the most stylish and though provoking cargo hauler GM had ever imagined. A wrap around windshield and streamlined side glass, unique bi-folding cargo doors on the side and the rear, and an extremely roomy cargo area were some of the special features. And lowness- extraordinary lowness resulting from the chassis design which incorporated front wheel drive and 13 inch wheels.

Finished in copper metallic with a copper leather driver's compartment, it was the most exciting and glamorous GMC truck ever conceived, which is why the story did not end after the Motorama. The public loved it. GMC dealers were clamoring for it. And so by late 1955, GM announced plans to produce it. Almost as soon as the glamour girl made its debut at the Waldorf, chassis engineers in Detroit began building a running prototype chassis out of a Buick Roadmaster. With the fiberglass nose of a L'Universelle attached to the body of a Roadmaster, the beast was hideous to look at but before long they had the chassis dialed in and the ride and handling were nothing shy of impressive.

Unfortunately, by that point they had realized that the production projections would not pay for the unique driveline they had created, so the lovely L'Universelle was quietly shelved. Many of the styling cues appeared a few years later in the Corvair based Corvan in 1961, and it was a popular and well liked little van.

But imagine what the L'Universelle could have been...

L'Universelle in the ballroom of the Waldorf for the 1955 New York Motorama
L'Universelle in Golden Gate Park
Cutaway drawing showing the unique FWD driveline of L'Universelle
Overview of the 1955 Los Angeles Motorama. Golden Jubilee 50 Millionth Car on Lower Right.

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