This is much more extreme than I recall. So says acclaimed stylist Wayne Cherry of his radical SRV concept car. Mike Taylor reunites him with it, as well as its XVR predecessor. Photography Malcolm Griffiths/LAT. Cherry’s best concepts. We reunite a design legend with his outrageous XVR and SRV creations.
The last time I met Wayne Kent Cherry, he was looking especially pleased. He had just emerged from the 1990 Autocar and Motor Awards at London’s Savoy Hotel. The Vauxhall Calibra had won Design of the Year, one of many accolades his cars have collected during a long career in the motor industry. Born in Indianapolis in 1937, Cherry is as well known for his work in Europe as he is in his native America. Spending some 26 years on this side of the Atlantic, it was here that much of his memorable concept-car work was carried out.
In 1964, a new Design and Engineering Centre orchestrated by David Jones and John Alden had been opened at Vauxhall’s Luton site.
The comprehensive facility was capable of taking a concept from a drawing-board proposal to a running prototype. This increase in accommodation called for a rise in staffing levels, filled in part by the move of American designers from GM’s Technical Center in Warren, Michigan.
That year, Leo Pruneau was the first to join the Vauxhall team as assistant design director to Jones, followed in 1965 by Cherry. The impact of this injection of talent was immediate.
The Viva HB and Victor FD had both been under the control of Pruneau, and shortly after they were in the pipeline the design team proposed undertaking an altogether different task – producing an aspirational two-seater sports car. The concept vehicle was code-named XVR, for ‘Xperimental Vauxhall Research’. In total, three were built. One was a fully drivable assessment and show model, with steel bodywork and a backbone chassis produced by Metal Panels of Coventry. It was finished in an eye-catching dark metallic green. The other two were laid up in glassfibre, one being a solid version to aid Metal Panels with its bodywork fabrication.
The show car was displayed at Geneva, Paris and London during 1966. Unaccountably, this example, along with the solid model, was broken up. Only one remains – the GRP-bodied rolling shell, now part of the firm’s Heritage Collection.
“Some people have said there’s a bit of the Bill Thomas Cheetah in this car,” reflects Cherry, “with an element of the Chevrolet Corvette in its styling. And while I cannot say they influenced me in shaping the XVR, designers invariably draw on many influences and I certainly do find both the Cheetah and the Corvette exciting.
“The principle behind the XVR was to illustrate to the world that we could design and engineer a serious and futuristic-looking sports car. It gave us the chance to work the proportions properly, which is essential in any design. It was completed in two months or so. We used sketches, illustrations and full-sized tape drawings – a fairly new technique in the ’60s. We also built a seating buck made out of wooden stringers while quickly moving on to the clay form.”
As Cherry examines the nose more closely, he adds: “XVR gave us the opportunity to design something that was unique – a windscreen that splits down the centre line and sweeps round to the side, requiring no intrusive A-posts. We also did a clamshell front-tipping bonnet, and a reartilting boot to reveal the storage space beneath.
“With a show car, presentation is everything – the way the doors hinge upward to reveal the inside especially. Gullwings are always exciting, but this was done with a twist because the hinges are located down the centre of the windscreen.”
From October ’1965, the XVR programme raced ahead to meet the March 1966 Geneva deadline: “This gave us precious little time for aerodynamic development work. However, there was a lot of thought given to channelling hot air out from the engine. We added louvres to the bonnet and there are side vents in the wing panels.
“On the show car we used a 1975cc slant-four located as far back and as low as possible, and placed in position from beneath the car. We had developed a complete aesthetics package for the engine, but lack of time permitted only the addition of camshaft and cambelt covers.”
The size of the rims and the broad track are critical to the XVR: “At the outset we wanted to use the widest wheel and tyre package we could carry in the arches to give an impression of performance. We fitted 8in-wide, 15in-diameter wheels with deep offsets. Standing back, you can clearly see how the body surfaces flow over and wrap around the wheel openings.”
Lack of time demanded sourcing components from Vauxhall’s parts bin: the front suspension came from the Victor VX 4/90, while the rear set-up used items specially adapted from an independent layout that never actually made it onto the HA Viva. Brakes were PC Cresta discs.
Cherry enthuses that his favourite viewing point is from the rear three-quarter, looking forward across the cabin curvature and down the bonnet and wings: “I love the way the surface is developed over this area and transitions into the curvature of the haunches. Without an A-post, the effect on the eye is to shift the cabin roof further towards the rear of the vehicle, emphasising the long bonnet and the rear wheel forms.”
Cherry then climbs inside: “Originally, each door was supported on a gas strut, but these proved heavy to overcome when closing it again. Later, they were modified to include a roller ball design, which solved the problem. Even today, the visual experience from inside the cabin, looking forward over the sloping bonnet and rising front wheelarches, is just stunning.
“With the door open, you can see just how much of the interior – including the deep backbone structure – would have been revealed to spectators. It also exposes how the seats nestle between the rear wheels and the cantilevered instrument panel. I think it really adds to the visual interest to see the amount of structure that is uncovered when the doors are opened.
“The first time that some of Vauxhall’s senior management saw XVR was on the stand at Geneva. I think they were very impressed with what we as a design team had achieved. And I want to emphasise the word ‘team’. While I am very appreciative of, and certainly enjoyed, the design responsibility that I was given, one has to remember all the people and their respective skill sets who were involved from the first sketches to the finished car.”
But what changes would he make if he were to design XVR today? “I am still pleased with what we achieved,” he asserts. “However, perhaps the nose is a little out of character with the rest of the vehicle, being slightly too long, and the pointed front is a little overstated. And while the wheels were large, in today’s world I would go for even larger-diameter ones. It’s easy to forget that we are looking at a concept car that was produced 50 years ago.”
Clearly, in the eyes of Vauxhall’s management, the XVR programme was a huge success. Three years later, Cherry put together a proposal for an even more outrageously futuristic concept called SRV, or ‘Styling Research Vehicle’.
“From the outset in ’1969 we wanted to look at a different form of styling vocabulary, something radical,” he explains. “I wanted to push the boundaries and do something unexpected. Most designers love to create two-seater sports cars, while this model is more about packaging.
“Another critical criteria was its proportions, especially the extended rear. We wanted to experiment with a whole new design ethos, which made it much more angular and revealed how far advanced we’d become since producing XVR.
“In addition to myself, the two key people involved were John Taylor and Chris Field. I think what influenced me most when I designed the SRV was the Lola T70 and the long-tailed Porsche 917s that raced at Le Mans in 1969. I thought that those cars were extremely exciting and would provide the inspiration to do something markedly different. But, this was very much a concept vehicle into which we added a fair amount of futuristic technology. Almost every day someone on the team would walk in and say: ‘Listen guys, I’ve got this great idea’.
“In contrast to XVR, we did spend quite a lot of time on aerodynamics. We did some calculations and development to ensure that not only was it visually futuristic, but the drag coefficient was as low as we could achieve. Significantly, the car could change its aerodynamic profile using an adjustable wing in the nose section.”
Operated by a pedal from inside the car, the tilting front spoiler was intended to complement the electrically operated height adjustment for the rear suspension, which is responsible for giving the car its aerodynamic efficiency.
The challenge was to build a four-seater sports vehicle just 41in high. “What made this possible was the introduction of mid-engined technology, which enabled us to move the driving position forward,” he acknowledges. “And this provided the space we needed for the rear seats.”
“As before, I produced a full-size tape drawing to enable me to visualise the streamlined, elongated appearance, essential to the look I wanted. This was done over a developing package drawing.
The side graphics also evolved while I was doing the tapes, the angular orange/red shape following the line of the rear window. The rear doors, which have novel hidden exterior handles, are hinged so they open rearwards and complement the conventionally hinged front doors.
“Another device for creating the illusion of length was to cover the back wheels with skirts that extend out and rearwards on cantilevered arms to expose the wheels. But this made the rear track considerably narrower than the front.”
The engine is a mock-up of a transverse 2.3-litre slant-four with injection. The transmission was never developed and the car has to be pushed into position. Also visible is the electrically operated rear suspension: “The front and rear systems were created to maximise interior space and provide a variety of adjustments, while looking as if they were designed for the next generation of race cars. Also, we introduced twin fuel tanks, and to aid weight distribution the fuel could be pumped from one tank to the other.
“Like XVR, access had to be made easy despite its limited height so we designed the front doors to swing out as far as possible. As it moves, so the pod fitted to the inside moves with it. The shape and style of the instruments were specifically chosen to emulate the feeling of an aircraft. One of the many novel readouts was intended to display information on the air pressure at different locations along the body.”
Cherry was persuaded to climb inside for the first time in more than 45 years. “This is really awesome and much more extreme than I recall,” he says with a huge grin. “The seating position must be fairly close to a modern F1 car.”
“I like the SRV shape so much that I have three favourite views: the rear three-quarter, front three-quarter and the side. If I were to do it again today, I wouldn’t change a thing. “These two cars bring back wonderful memories. I think we put together one of the world’s best teams at Vauxhall Design. I consider it a real privilege to have been part of it.”
Thanks to David Boon, Greg Stringer, Graham Miller and Simon Hucknall at Vauxhall
‘WE ENSURED THAT NOT ONLY WAS THE SHAPE FUTURISTIC, BUT ALSO ITS DRAG WAS LOW’
Behind the wheel
“It’s so much smaller than I remember,” says Cherry with a grin once inside Silver Bullet, the 1974 concept estate car that was once his personal transport. “And the windscreen is right here, close in front of you. There’s none of the raked angle that is so much a part of modern car designs. Then there’s the dashboard treatment – I still love the matt-black effect with the deeply sunken instruments.”
Cherry starts the Firenza HP engine, needing no prompting that ‘his’ car has a Getrag dogleg gearbox, then he guns the throttle and we’re away: “I had the interior trimmed with black leather and the unique centre console houses the stereo controls. There’s a large, smoked, Perspex roof panel and a special bonnet with a NACA air scoop. We also fitted bespoke door mirrors, a tailgate spoiler and six headlights recessed behind a Droopsnoot front panel. The result is still pretty dramatic.
“The steering is much heavier than I recall, especially at manoeuvring speeds, because it lacks assistance. Under way, though, there’s quite a lot of feedback from the road.” The power unit was originally fitted with a development fuel-injection system; it produced 147bhp. Today, it is running twin Stromberg carburettors, reducing power noticeably.
“During my time with it,” says Cherry, “I was living in north London and had the joy of driving it up to Luton every day. It still works for me. It’s terrific to be back in it again, it feels so tight on the road. This car, the Black Magic Chevette and the Silver Aero are very special to me. It is marvellous that they’ve been preserved.”
Clockwise: engine is only a mock-up; Griffin gives away its identity; Cherry needed persuading to get into SRV, 45 years since he last sat in the car – and found it to be more radical than he recalled; module moves with door; thinking back to happy commuting days in Silver Bullet, which was his personal transport.
Clockwise, from above: Cherry explains the whole new design architecture for the SRV; there are no A-posts on the radical XVR cabin; slits for rear lights look contemporary and could have inspired the BMW Z8; clever cabin design, with two-spoke wheel and clear view to cantilevered dashboard. Right, from top: Cherry says that the Langheck Porsches that ran at Le Mans in 1969 were one of his main influences when designing the SRV; Cherry in period, with GM design team and Opel Kadett prototypes; XVR was a hit with Vauxhall’s top brass when it made its debut at the Geneva Salon in ’1966.
Cherry loves rear threequarter view of the XVR, looking over cabin. There’s a touch of the Cheetah about it. Both cars live at Vauxhall’s Heritage Centre.