Astro I Concept


1967 GM Astro I Concept Vehicle

I was there...

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Written by Bill Bowman

Chevrolet introduced a concept car for the 1967 show season that was clearly Corvair-derived, though it was not promoted as such. It was the radical Astro I, and nearly 40 years later, it still remains one of the most innovative Dream Cars ever to come from General Motors.

The Astro I was designed under the direction of GM Vice President of Design, Bill Mitchell, with the actual work being led by Larry Shinoda. The first thing that showgoers noticed about the red and black two-seater was how low to the ground it was, with an overall height of just 35.5 inches.

Up front, the nose design of the bright red Astro was quite similar to the Mako Shark show car, and also predicted the 1968 production Corvette, though on a smaller scale. Twin rectangular grilles were set in a V’d nose section, while hidden pop-up headlamps were located on the leading edge of the hood section, just above the grilles. A small hatch was located on the hood surface to facilitate access to the master cylinder, windshield washer tank and the battery. A three-element periscope was used in lieu of a rear view mirror. It gave the driver a wider field of view and compensated for the lack of rear glass.

The rear of the Astro I actually resembled a design one might find on a Can-Am of the era. Pop-up panels provided air braking when needed and air extractors on the rear deck vented engine compartment heat. A recessed license plate housing was trimmed in chrome and set in the middle of the tail panel. A large lip that merged the quarter panels and deck framed the tail panel itself. Simulated vents, located on the tail panel directly behind the wheels hid the small, slotted tail lamps.

Without a doubt, the Astro I’s most unusual feature was its method of allowing passengers in and out. With such a low overall height, conventional doors were not going to work. Instead, Mitchell’s team went with a wild clamshell entry system that really made the show car crowd stop and take notice. The entire body aft of the windshield was one piece and tilted up and back with a large screw mechanism. At the same time, the two bucket seats lifted out of their normal positions to aid getting in and out. Once the driver and passenger were seated and strapped in, the clamshell would close and they would be lowered into their normal semi-reclined seating position. Once inside, the driver was presented with a variety of aircraft-inspired design cues, ranging from the "head-to-toe" bucket seats, the control pod to the left of the driver and the twin handgrips that replaced the conventional steering wheel. Very little was conventional about the Astro I.

The Astro I also sported a complete four-wheel independent suspension system. Custom control arms were used at all four corners, as were disc brakes and custom magnesium eight bolt wheels, which featured removable outer rims available in a variety of widths. The two-seater was fitted with 5.5-inch wide wheels in the front and 7-inch wide wheels in the rear. Prototype Goodyear redline tires were used.

Due to its very low profile, a conventional V8 engine could not be used, so a Corvair powerplant ended up in the one-off machine. Chevy engineers came up with a very special variant of the air-cooled, horizontally-opposed six-cylinder. New cylinder heads were designed for the larger engine. They featured a belt driven, SOHC valve train, hemispherical combustion chambers and inclined valves. The carburetion came from a pair of prototype GM three-barrel, inline carburetors that used Weber internals. The castings were designed to place the carburetor barrels right over the ports, giving the air-fuel mixture a straight shot at the valves.

Although it was never a runner, the 1967 Astro I was a huge hit for Chevrolet and for GM Styling. Showgoers were simply astounded by the two-seaters proportions. It seemed impossible to them that a closed car less than three feet high could actually accommodate passengers-until the clamshell entry system was revealed. The Chevy Astro I is still owned by GM and was completely restored several years ago. Now it is part of the GM Heritage Center Collection. Though the Astro I was never intended as a production car, it nonetheless features a variety of innovations that have yet to reach the marketplace, all packaged in a design that looks very modern-even today. As it did 41 years ago, at its debut at the 1967 New York Auto Show, it still has no problem blowing away present-day car enthusiasts.

Additional Information:

First I want to congratulate you on the excellent article about the evolution of Astro 1 Concept. Overall, it is fairly accurate. However, several points of correction:

  • The Astro-I Show car was not designed by Larry Shinoda. It originated from a sketch that I did for Mitchell, while I was in Hank Hagga's Chevy-2 studio. Mitchell selected the sketch and sent me to develop the concept into a running vehicle, and I was sent to Larry's offsite studio called the Warehouse (across the street from the Tech Center). I was given Larry's studio, several modelers, and an engineer to develop the car. Larry's task was to make sure that this young designer got the car completed in time with Mitchell's approval. This was one of the rare instances that one designer's vision of a concept went to a running car with no changes.
  • You might be interested to learn that the reason the car was developed off-site, was because we all thought it was going to be raced at Le Mans with a high horsepower Corvair motor...Being a race car under development during a period that officially racing was banned by GM brass, we sere sent off site and away from scrutiny. If I recall, the car went from first sketch to running prototype in five weeks (although the engine had already been developed). It was only after the racing program had been cancelled for this car, did it become resurrected as a show car. At that time, I was promoted to become Head of Studio-X (Mitchell's basement studio).
  • During the period that I was at GM (1964-68), I had the fortune to work with a small group of very talented designers responsible for the performance and show cars for Chevrolet (including Corvettes, Corvairs, Camaros, Firebirds, and SS El Caminos and Novas). More interestingly, we were also involved with all of the Corvette show cars and future mid-engine cars through the 4-rotor. Not just one person, but all were responsible for the design of these exciting was just the way the studio worked and the teamwork between the designers. All were motorheads and wanted a more modern car in production.
  • I mention all of this because I have not seen an accurate depiction of the creation of these cars. In realty, Mitchell was the driving force, Jordan the executive in charge, Hagga the studio Leader to get the job completed, 10 modelers, several engineers (we called them technical designers at that time), and a team of designers which included David Stollery, Dean Clark, Jim Ferran, Dave McIntosh, Dave McDonald, Ira Gilford, Grahm Bell, myself, and several other designers whose names I have forgotten. Depending on workload or if the project was racing involved, Chevy-3 (Shinoda) or Studio-X (Bob Larson) would get involved.
  • The 1968 was not the first production Shark Corvette...actually, there was a more radical version slated for 1967. Even though tooled for production, the new chairman cancelled the program, and the result was the quickly developed 67 Stingray...The 68 became a watered down version of the cancelled '67. The Manta Ray show car was later developed from the cancelled 67 car.
  • Finally, the only time that I saw Duntov during the four years, was driving his Lotus F-1 around the Tech Center grounds. Mitchell hated him (because he felt that Duntov was getting all of the praise for the Corvette)...consequently, Mitchell never allowed Duntov into the Styling Center.

Roy Lonberger

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