A fantastic selection of concept cars from the ‘80s were featured in Back to the Future II such as the Pontiac Pursuit, the Ford Probe or the Saab EV-1, but my personal favorite was the Chevrolet Express that almost ran over Marty upon his arrival in the year 2015.
Before being a movie extra, the Express was presented in 1987 as another attempt from GM to adapt aircraft engineering to automotive requirements. GM had been experimenting with gas turbines for more than 20 years, dating back to the 370hp XP-21 Firebird from 1954, but that concept was quite primitive compared to its younger brother.
The Chevy Express is powered by GM's AGT-5, a gas turbine that generates about 120hp and 350 pound-feet of torque. Nothing to brag about, but it was the scenario in which it was designed that justifies the use of turbine technology.
The four-seater would be part of a limited access high-speed highway network were all vehicle would self-drive, cruising at 150mph. It was capable of maintaining that speed while sipping only a gallon of kerosene every 25 miles. After leaving the highway, the driver would turn off the autopilot and drive to his final destination. This system would compete with short-haul aircraft travel, avoiding the time wasting in congested airport terminals.
Gas turbine aside, the Chevy Express was a walkthrough of GM latest engineering innovations. The car's structure was bonded steel and carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic for light weight and extreme strength. Instead of conventional springs and shocks, an integrated air spring damper formed the suspension system. This allowed adjustable ride height necessary to reach the impressive drag coefficient of only 0.19.
The excellent aerodynamics were only possible thanks to its fully enclosed underpan, the slippery body and the four-wheel fairings. As you can see in the video, the front fairings automatically articulate away from the tires on sharp turns for clearance, thus creating perfect aerodynamics without compromising maneuverability.
Great care has been taken to ensure the smoothest body surface possible: no door handles but keyless entry system to open the large canopy, the headlamps shine through the body to minimize shutlines and the rear view mirrors gave way to cameras for optimal air flow. The Express was also the beginning of drive-by-wire technology, with steering, acceleration and even gear change fully relying on electronic components.
Despite the futuristic blue-sky scenario and its unique powertrain, the Express was a fully-drivable prototype, an indication that most of the innovations displayed were not as far out as they might have appeared.
Your author, Flavien Dachet, is a UK-based, French-born car designer. You may know him as the purveyor of KarzNshit, a photo blog that if isn't already in your bookmarks, certainly should be.