13 March 2010
1964 Pontiac Banshee Coupe Concept
$400,000 - $600,000
Just a few years ago, each division of General Motors was a fiefdom, presided over by executives with regal powers and wide discretion. Conceived and managed as largely independent entities, GM’s divisions shared little and competed aggressively. They were guided only by the strictures of rigid corporate financial management and the loosely applied “aspirational ladder” defined decades earlier by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. that established the hierarchy of GM marques. Within these loose parameters, ambitious executives sought to establish their personal succession to the 14th floor GM executive offices by building unit sales, market share and profitability.
With an unparalleled executive development program and vast pool of talent from which to draw, the 50s and 60s saw a legendary group of talented executives leading GM divisions: Ed Cole at Chevrolet, Ed Ragsdale at Buick and Ed Roche at Cadillac. But the division which attracted the most aggressive, creative, competitive and imaginative executives was Pontiac.
When Bunkie Knudsen took over at Pontiac in 1956, it was moribund, a dull, pedestrian brand identified by pointless chrome stripes down the hood and little else. Pontiac reached its nadir in 1958 when it was the second lowest selling GM brand, placing fewer than twice as many cars as Cadillac. Just a year later in 1959, a rejuvenated Pontiac leapfrogged Oldsmobile and Buick on the strength of the “Wide Track” line and an array of powerful engines, establishing a reputation for scrappy, aggressive marketing and flamboyant show cars.
Knudsen got his reward in 1961: Chevrolet.
He was succeeded at Pontiac by Pete Estes. With John DeLorean as chief engineer and heir-apparent, Pontiac went on to more innovations: the flexible driveshaft, independent rear suspension Tempest compact, the Le Mans GTO, an innovative single overhead camshaft inline six-cylinder engine, soft (“Endura”) bumpers and the dramatically styled, high performance Grand Prix.
In the early 60s, still handily out-selling Buick and Oldsmobile, Pontiac’s leadership clamored for a sporty car to anchor its image. The Banshee concept, designated GM Project XP-833, was conceived in the nimble mind of John DeLorean with backing from Pete Estes. Positioned within GM as a response to Ford’s pioneering Mustang, it exploited a two-seat niche not met by Ford’s pony car. It fit neatly into GM’s sporty car hierarchy between Chevy’s Corvette and the coming Camaro.
Estes and DeLorean knew they couldn’t poach on Corvette’s turf. They also knew how to take an economy car (the Tempest) and option it up to seize the performance high ground (the GTO). Their intent, however, was clear even to the suits on the 14th floor, and the subterfuge that got Pontiac’s 389 cubic inch GTO “option” package past the corporate guardians didn’t escape notice this time, nor the notice of Bunkie Knudsen, now running Chevrolet and fully aware of how Estes and DeLorean thought.
Banshee was based on the mid-sized corporate A-body coil spring, live rear axle suspension that underpinned the redesigned 1964 Chevelle and LeMans. DeLorean gave it a 90-inch wheelbase steel platform chassis rather than the heavy A-body perimeter frame and clothed the convertible and coupe concepts with a dramatic fiberglass body conceived by PMD designer Jack Humbert under Chuck Jordan’s corporate design leadership.
While concept cars frequently hint at what stylists are thinking, Project XP-833 was an unprecedented preview of future GM designs. Its long nose, short deck layout, swooping “coke-bottle” profile, broad grille with chrome bumper surround, steeply raked windshield, fastback roof terminating in a hint of a spoiler, bulging fenders and triple slit taillights in a raked cut off rear fascia foretold the lines of the third generation Corvette and future Pontiac identity cues. So did the hidden headlights and the suggestive power bulge on the hood.
Under the coupe’s hood lay one of Pontiac’s most imaginative engines. Based on the re-designed Chevrolet block, DeLorean’s engineers came up with the single overhead camshaft cross-flow cylinder head to give their six better performance and a cool performance image. The high performance head was made practical by one of the first applications of a fiberglass-reinforced toothed timing belt to drive the camshaft. While it was offered in 215 hp “Sprint” tune with a four-barrel carburetor and high performance camshaft, in an attempt to assuage corporate’s fears, the engine in the Banshee coupe prototype was the base 155 hp version with a single-barrel carb driving through a four-speed manual transmission to the live rear axle.
Other innovative ideas incorporated in the Banshee included cooling air intakes under the long nose and fixed seats with movable pedals. Finished in silver to show the dramatic body lines to advantage, it was upholstered in bright red and was fitted with Rally II styled wheels. Estes and DeLorean had two complete, running prototypes built, the coupe offered here and a convertible finished in white.
Although both the Banshee concepts survived, the project did not, killed by GM’s committee management and adamant opposition from Chevrolet which vigorously defended its position as GM’s purveyor of high performance sports cars.
Carefully preserved for nearly a half century, the prototype Pontiac Banshee coupe has survived essentially as it was last shown to GM management and driven by Pontiac executives. It was an invited participant among the prestigious classics and important concept cars at the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance in 2001. Its odometer shows barely 1,500 miles from new, and its condition is original throughout. Its original paint has been protected and preserved with clear coat. The convertible counterpart survives in an important long term collection of show and concept cars.
It is tempting to conjecture how General Motors’ and Pontiac’s history might have been different if the Banshee concept had been green-lighted.
What is certain is that the 1964 Pontiac Banshee Coupe concept is a dramatically styled and innovatively designed fully functional and operating two-seat sports car. Its fiberglass body and platform frame kept its weight down to just 2,200 pounds. Even the 155 hp six gave it impressive performance – quarter mile times were reported to be under 15 seconds. Its bodywork foreshadowed the next generations of Pontiac, Corvette and even the Opel GT, some of the best, most aggressive but stylistically restrained designs to come out of GM design in the postwar era.
It is a singular example of a milestone in GM history. Its rejection by GM management forced Pontiac to settle for a badge-engineered version of the Camaro as its sporty personal car and is one of a series of actions which put Pontiac’s product development on a short leash. In a few years, corporate platform- and engine-sharing would blur the bright distinctions which Knudsen, Estes and DeLorean established for Pontiac.
Now, over four decades after the Banshee was introduced, GM has phased out its performance-oriented Pontiac brand, and enthusiasts fondly recall the groundbreaking concept cars of years past, rendering them particularly desirable. The Banshee is “what might have been,” and it is very good indeed.
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