GMC is General Motors’ often overlooked truck division. The brand’s origins go back as far as 1908, but the specific marque, ‘GMC Truck’, originated in 1912. Since 1920, their light trucks have been virtually identical to Chevrolet’s offerings.
GMC is not known for concept cars or trucks for the simple reason that few have ever been designed and put forth on the auto show circuit. The brand is a lunch pail workaday brand, emphasizing durability and function and not prone to exotic visions of future utility vehicles.
Nevertheless, there were times when General Motors wanted to stretch the vision of what a truck could be, and produced concepts to exhibit new ideas. Such a time was during the glory days of the 1950s when GM proudly showed visions of the future for all of its brands and some classic and prescient concept cars made their debuts.
After the success of the 1953 and 1954 Motorama shows, GM began planning for the 1955 show. Philip Monaghan, head of the GMC division renewed his lobbying efforts to put a ‘dream truck’ on the Motorama circuit. Harley Earl, GM’s legendary Vice President of Design, was intrigued with the idea. The pair brought in Chuck Jordan, who even at that time was making quite a name for himself in advanced design. He was the perfect candidate for the L’Universelle project, having started in GM’s truck division some years before.
Design work began with a review of the packaging of the typical panel truck of the time, which was typically a two-box affair – a box for the engine up front, followed by the big box for the driver and cargo. The cargo floor was raised over the driveshaft, typically 30 inches or so above the ground. Jordan and his team re-arranged the elements so that the engine box was eliminated; the engine sat amidships and drove the front wheels. This allowed the driver to be sat forward for excellent visibility. With front-wheel drive, the floor no longer had to clear the driveshaft and so could be lowered for ease of loading.
With the packaging in place, the stylists set out to animate the monospace form. At the front large frenched headlights highlight a slightly forward sloping fascia. Below these, the large chrome bumpers contain the obligatory Dagmars. A strong character line wrapped around the front and continued along the sides before curving down to the rear wheel.
A broad chrome panel ran along the lower sides to draw the eye further along the sides. The panel that was placed where the glasshouse would have been was similar in shape to the Chevrolet Nomad of that year, complete with the forward sloping B pillar. A wraparound windshield replaced the flat glass that characterized many utility vehicles. At the rear, much of the design was lifted from the 1955 Chevrolet.
The interior was accessed by two standard doors at the cab, but at the cargo area, upward hinged ‘Jacknife’ doors allowed for a dramatic entry sequence, and more access in tight parking situations than the standard swinging doors of the time. The interior was arranged around the engine and this allowed a certain separation of the cargo area from the driver’s cab. The cab itself was simple, but more like a standard passenger car than the Spartan appointments of the typical utility vehicle. A bench seat allowed for a bit more seating room, and the instrumentation was similar to a Chevrolet sedan of the mid-nineteen fifties. Still, such niceties as air conditioning were absent, even given the powerful engine.
GMC claimed that the L’Universelle, true to its name, was a platform for multiple types of vehicles. “Although the basic design of L’Universelle is a panel delivery,” noted Philip Monaghan, “minor manufacturing changes can convert it into a small bus, taxi, station wagon, or sportsman’s car.”
The L’Universelle was powered by a Pontiac 4.6 litre V-8 that produced a respectable 180 horsepower – a lot for those days. As previously mentioned, the engine was mounted just behind the front wheels, with a transaxle to facilitate front wheel drive. The radiator sat awkwardly behind the driver as well and angled upwards towards the roof, where a vent was intended to funnel air down to the engine The steering was a complicated set of vertical and horizontal shafts and gearboxes that connected back to the front wheels.
Once the completed truck was placed in the Motorama and traveled with the other cars to venues around the country. GM executives were delighted to see the positive response from show attendees – especially given the flashy sports cars and luxury sedans that were also on display. As a result, the L’Universelle was given the green light for production, and engineering teams began the task of converting concept car dreams to nuts and bolts reality.
But, no matter how they worked with the engine and drivetrain, the body and exotic doors there was simply no way to make the project ‘pencil out’. Estimates placed the cost of a completed production L’Universelle at more than a Cadillac sedan. Even replacing the Jackknife doors and using a smaller engine did not reduce the cost significantly, and the project was reluctantly shelved – a huge disappointment to all involved.
The ideas found in the design of the L’Universelle did not go away, however. Some found their way to the Corvair Rampside truck and Greenbriar van of the early 1960s. And later minivans used a variation of the l’Universelle package to maximize space and keep the floor low for passenger comfort and safety.
Looking back from a distance of sixty years, the L’Universelle has not aged well. Its porcine massing seems awkward and its styling is a homely mishmash of mid-fifties GM styling themes. Still it was a car of ideas, and as a packaging experiment it was enormously successful. And the styling, though awkward, was a brave attempt to sculpt a monospace and to break up its brick–like massing. It seems the L’Universelle was destined to become more influential than successful. It will not place high on anyone’s list of concept car beauties, but it had lessons to teach then, and still does today.