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CCotW: Triumph XL90 (1967)

11 January 2019 | by Karl Smith

The Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter or Kombi, or Microbus is the grandfather of all MPVs. After this Giugiaro’s New York Taxi, a project instigated by MOMA, is considered the origin of the modern MPV. The Lancia Megagamma deserves a mention, as does the venerable Renault Espace (before it recently became a crossover) which actually reached mass production. In America the Dodge Caravan, which had its origins at Ford, pioneered the format in the US at around the same time as the Espace in Europe (1984).


Giugiaro’s New York Taxi. Smarter than many cars today

But an unusual and now forgotten concept from, of all manufacturers, Triumph, deserves a place in the history of the MPV too. Triumph is mostly remembered for its classic sports cars, although there will be some who remembered its Michelotti-designed saloons. But what Triumph proposed in 1967 as the car of 2000 was completely unlike anything the British public had ever seen.

It was futurisitic monovolume car with an enormous glasshouse and tiny wheels. There seemed to be a periscope on top. The windscreen was gigantic, and vaulted over and up into the roof structure. To keep the interior from broiling in the sun, light sensitive window tinting covered all glass surfaces.

Inside, four could sit in a lounge-type setting with form-fitting seats. The driver faced an electronic instrument panel and with hand-grip steering. It was so spacious, and so open to the view, it was as if the occupants were traveling in a rolling pavilion.


Views of the XL90 model. Radical in almost every way, especially for Triumph

The British Motor Museum described the project like this:

It was the vision of Standard-Triumph stylist E. Pepall; how, in 1967, he saw the car for the year 2000. XL90 had a raft of novel features. On the motorway, the car used electro-magnetic pulses from cables buried in the road to keep on track. An engine governor controlled the car’s speed and a radar unit detected cars ahead and the speed adjusted accordingly.

The car had a plastic body strengthened by a roll hoop. The roof was lined with an electroluminescent substance which, when energised, provided a diffused glow inside the car. The windscreen was designed to vibrate, faster than the eye could detect, in order to throw rain and mist off the screen. The lamp mounted on the roof showed the vehicle’s speed; a steady light increasing as the car went faster.

Pepall's design wasn't far off the shape of a modern MPV, although the predicted price of £2,000 in the year 2000 was, perhaps, a little way off.”


Pepall and his creation – an unlikely future for Triumph

The Museum’s description of the car was certainly tantalizing, but we wanted more, if possible. We did some research on E. Pepall and managed to track him down. Through LinkedIn, connected for a brief interview. Here is a transcript, lightly edited.

Car Design News: How did the XL90 project come about?

Graham Edwin (Eddie) Pepall: Harry Webster, Triumph’s Chief Engineer at the time instigated that project. He chose me to do this because I had won several auto design competitions with IBCAM and Daily Telegraph.

CDN: Can you tell us about your design?

GEP: At that time no one considered a 'one box' package format as feasible – I thought it obvious. Yes, the window area was clearly (no pun intended) too big, and the wheels were too small (but the later BMC Mini had those small wheels). The interior, however, had seats which hugged the occupant and had self-reeling safety belts – unfortunately we did not explore this as a package.

CDN: Can you tell us more about the interior?

GEP: The interior is probably the most advanced as there was no conventional dash panel, instead I had a heavily padded panel which swooped around the entire interior – the body-shaped seats had integral headrests which rose to top of head or higher, and the slide/adjust mechanism had an integral impact 'buffer' arrangement – also the seats themselves had self-reeling seat belts (I did not foresee air bags, but did anticipate the passenger safety aspects of later years).

Regarding the controls/instrumentation – this was an interesting idea – these were on a totally separate unit shaped like a kinked-up 'L' shape so that the short arm of the L was in front of the driver, and the digital instruments and controls were placed directly in front of the driver – including the steering wheel. It was all sliding and fully adjustable (and I do believe that this is very appropriate for the electric revolution in process)

I did hope that my 'drive by wire' ideas would be acceptable but no... and two ideas that were included (and I don't agree with) – the little teardrop thing on the roof, and vibration to clear the screen, were added by Les Moore, chief designer, and Mr. Webster respectively.

CDN: How was the project received, by the profession, or the press?

GEP: The design world was a different place then. Most of the designers were unknown, not like today when they are like fashion designers. So I don’t know how it was perceived among my fellow designers. But the press certainly published it.


Whether it was well-received or not, the XL90 was prophetic...

The XL90 was never seriously considered for production and disappeared very quickly from public or professional view. Eddie Pepall would soon move to British Leyland and continue a long career that included stops at a number of international design studios, as well as a successful career as a consultant.


GM minivans of the early 1990s echoed the design of XL90

Some twenty-five years later, Eddie Pepall’s vision of the car of the future became a reality, at least in part. General Motors placed into production a series of minivans for its Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac divisions. Although the proportions are different, the overall shape seems similar.

We asked Pepall about these vehicles, and he told us, “I had no reaction to the shape of the GM MPVs, it was expected.” He knew his vision was prophetic and just waited for the reality to come.


The XL90 model – still with us today

Eddie Pepall is retired now and living on the south coast of England. He had a long career in automotive design design and is lately looking at design in the context of some bigger questions about life and the universe. You can find him on LinkedIn.

The model of the Triumph XL90 still exists is housed at the British Motor Museum in Gaydon, Warwickshire. It is available for viewing along with the regular collection.

The XL90 certainly derives a place in the history of the MPV. But it was more that just a people hauler, it was a vision of a new way of traveling, one that has seen much of its proposals come true. It is nice to visit the design and the designer to see the future that was, and undoubtedly will be again.