History originally published in Automobile Quarterly Volume 36, Number 2; February 1997
Carmakers usually keep a shroud of secrecy over future products, as it’s unwise to tip your hand in the poker game of the automobile market. Why let the other guy know what you have in hand? Whether smashingly bold or more of the old, the competition can’t adjust to what it doesn’t know. Hence there are a lot of locked doors in General Motors’ Advanced Design Studios, top-secret projects with information, even knowledge of a product’s existence, on a need-to-know basis only. Loose lips sink ships and all that.
So it is not surprising, perhaps, that Oldsmobile’s project XP-888GT was known only to a handful of insiders, and now that it has been revealed some 25 years later, many of those who knew the most about it have died.
But here is what we do know: in the late Sixties, Bill Mitchell’s GM Design Staff showed Oldsmobile execs a design proposal for a two-seat sports coupe. It was small, a true sports car in dimension, but with a wide track and a sporty profile and an aggressive face that, like sporty cars of the era, had an open grill and fender-mounted headlamps. It was a good-looking car.
But for the design to be more than Mitchell’s brainchild (which it seems to have been), it would need a division sponsor, and that’s why it went to Olds. At Pontiac, John DeLorean was already busy with a two-seater of his own, project XP-883. That car was somewhat larger than XP-888 and was to be powered by Pontiac’s revolutionary OHC in-line 6-cylinder engine. It was, DeLorean would later write, “not totally unlike the Corvette.” Oldsmobile, on the other hand, had no such project, but did have a solid history of innovation. In the Sixties alone, it had introduced a turbocharged engine and the front-drive Toronado. Never mind that both were slightly ahead of their times.
Mitchell found a receptive audience at Oldsmobile, which was, by all accounts, enthusiastic about the two-seater project, although at least one account has DeLorean’s project as the inspiration for Olds management to request such a design.
At any rate, the decision was made to build a full-scale fiberglass mockup of the car. It was to share the basic Vega platform, then still in development, but not the engine. Olds reportedly had something of its own up its sleeve, and the mockup would have a swoopy dual exhaust. The mockup’s body material was particularly appropriate, as the design concept was for a car with a fiberglass body. There was reportedly no particular reason for this car to have a fiberglass body, although some of the body contours might have been difficult to stamp from steel. And anyway, the Corvette, would have been the 888’s senior sports car sibling, was made from fiberglass.
The design group working on the XP-888GT was clearly singing from the same corporate hymnal as those working on the Camaro, Vega and Firebird, at least for the front end. Every feature from the front end of the 888 can be found on at least one of the 1971 models of those cars. The rear end, with the horizontal slat tail lamps, has a general Pontiac look to it. The profile of the XP-888GT was unique, however. The fastback’s arching contour, uninterrupted to the beltline, wouldn’t be seen elsewhere, and the dip along the top edge of the door was unique, making the interior airier than, say, the Vega’s, with that cars conventional door line. The wheels and tires look exceptionally tall for a small car of this era, as if the Camaro-spec footwear was fitted to a Vega. Probably done purely for affect, the tall rubber was not likely to make it to production. As one GM designer confessed, “we do that sort of thing all the time.”
On the other hand, the XP-888GT’s roof – or perhaps roofs – was one of its main attractions: it was a modular concept. It had a targa panel that reached from the windshield header to hoop at the B-pillar, and then covering the hoop, which was body color and blended into the rest of the body exterior. After the B-pillar was a choice of two roofs. One was the fastback. The other made the car into a mini-wagon. Its “footprint” was the same as the fastback, but it had a vertical rear window and side windows that wrapped into the roof. SA lip on the trailing edge would be reprised in the Vega Kammback wagon, though the proposed Olds’ roof with more raked than the Chevy’s. The mockup’s roofs had no hinges, but presumably either of these, if put into production, could be operated as a hatchback. These rear roofs could also be lifted off completely, turning the XP-888GT into a mini-sport pickup, though minus any separation behind the cab. With the targa roof and choice of rear hatches, drivers would have six configurations from which to choose. “The idea of making the demountable parts [was] to make it an automobile that was unique,” says Paul Guillen, who supervised the advanced studios. “That was my idea.”
“At the time everyone thought it was silly,” he says, “because the engineering department said it was going to rattle like hell. Pretty soon, if it wasn’t bolted on, is going to be shaking back and forth. The idea is, we just wanted to try [the idea on] a car. If it works, we’ll let somebody work on it and see what they can do to solve these problems [for production]… Everybody liked it, and we were just scratching for something different at the time.”
That concept would not reach production, however, until 1987, and then by Nissan. The Pulsar Sportback was an attractive and intriguing car, although doomed by marketing snafus and limited availability. Furthermore, the Nissan’s fastback and Sportback weren’t really sold as interchangeable – it would have been an expensive option for an inexpensive car to have two roofs – and even unbolting the roof was more mechanically involved the most owners would want to get.
The mockup’s interior was, according to then-Olds interior trim engineer Bob Dustan, fairly ordinary in design. “It was pretty much generic two-seater – bucket seats, center console. There wasn’t anything particularly outstanding about it… If it had become a Go program, then the work would really have started on the interior.” The purpose of the mockup was to test the exterior styling, and the interior was provided essentially to make it look like a real car and to allow over-the-hood views.
The model had been completed and was shown to executives and photographed in July 1969, by itself, in various configurations and from different angles. The car was also compared with the Opel GT and the Corvette, most likely the 888GT’s biggest in-house competitors. The comparison photos show the true size of the wood-be Oldsmobile. It was significantly smaller than the Corvette, the Chevrolet more than a quarter again as long and significantly wider. Even the Opel dwarfs the Olds’ height and is longer as well. Wider and with a greater track, the 888GT makes the GM’s German sportster look tall and tippy.
Available GM records show development of XP-888GT continuing after the July photography. In August, a front-end skin was mounted on a seating buck, and an operating headlamp system was installed in a seating buck fiberglass front end. A fiberglass seat mockup was sent to General Tire and Rubber for evaluation. Further work on the interior continued into October, and in November, the Oldsmobile Division ordered “one male F/G [fiberglass] skin of all exterior surfaces for a design relationship study.” But this order would be canceled on December 10 “due to timing difficulties.” Then, on “… 12-17-69, the XP-888 Program was canceled. Shop orders closed.” That was the end of the Oldsmobile XP-888GT.
Now that many of the principles involved are dead, why the XP-888GT didn’t go further is subject to some conjecture. One suggestion is that it got caught in the backwash of the Pontiac two-seater , canceled because it threatened to cannibalize Corvette sales. “I begged the Fourteenth Floor to let us build (the XP-883),” DeLorean wrote. “But it wouldn’t.” Oldsmobile’s similar project couldn’t survive when Pontiac’s was scratched.
Another possibility suggested is that upper management, seeing no other two-seaters on the market at the time (British sports cars being dismissed and the Opel GT being introduced only during the 1969 model year), presumed there was no market for them. Of course, then came the Datsun 240 Z. The Opel GT, too, may have seemed to be too close a competitor. It’s certain, as well, that with impending smog and safety regulations, carmakers needed to mend fences as well as conquer new territory. Paul Guillen said simply, “Oldsmobile was intrigued with it in the beginning, but they didn’t want to put any money into it. So that’s why it never flew. That was the 888.”
Regardless of the reason, the Oldsmobile XP-888GT never became a production model. Oldsmobile was denied a sporty model until the 1975 Starfire, a visually massaged spinoff of Chevrolets Monza, though with the 231cid V-6 shared with Buick’s Skyhawk. The XP-888GT, however was never anything more than a “roller.” It simply would not be done. But the XP-888GT had potential to be not only a sporty car, but a sports car, and from Oldsmobile. It may have stolen sales from the Opel GT, maybe even swayed buyers of the Vega GT who could dispense with the backseat. Many concept cars, when brought to light, show clearly why their projects were terminated. But rare is the sports car enthusiast who would not be intrigued by the XP-888GT and moved to wonder, what if….