An exercise in aerodynamics and efficiency

1984 Chevrolet Citation IV ConceptChevrolet introduced its first front-wheel-drive car under the Citation name in 1979, as a 1980 model. Initially, it was a tremendous sales success but within a few years the segment had grown more competitive and more crowded with rivals from other countries, Japan in particular. The Citation, which started being developed in the mid-1970s, was aging.

Essentially visually unaltered from the original introduced back in 1979, the 1984 line-up was renamed Citation II after receiving some minor mechanical updates.

That same year, whether out of genuine aspirations for the model or merely to boost its name, Chevrolet engineers showed off their rendition of what a future Citation IV might be like.

1984 Chevrolet Citation IV ConceptAt the time, former Chevrolet general manager Robert Stempel stated, “We think of today’s Citation II as a second-generation, front-drive Chevy. Assuming it will be followed in a few years by Citation III, then a car like the IV could be in line for production by the beginning of the [1990s].” Chevrolet ended production of the Citation nameplate after 1985 never having made a III, let alone IV.

1984 Chevrolet Citation IV ConceptDespite the demise of the production Citation, some of the Citation IV concept’s visionary ideas carried over to other production vehicles. However, before delving deep into specifics, please allow me to set the tone so we can better appreciate the decades-old technology.

Understanding the Times
GhostbustersIn 1984, the movie Ghostbusters had just been released, and a ticket to see it only cost about $2.50. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. not only debuted, but was also offered on the first CD to be made in the U.S.

DOS 3.0 promptIn the budding computing arena, a new digital storage medium had just arrived: the 3.5-inch floppy disk; of course, many had yet to determine how to save anything to one using Microsoft’s new DOS 3.0. Interestingly, 1984 was the same year that Apple released its intuitive, mouse-controlled Macintosh home computer.

All of the aforementioned historical tidbits serve as colorful reminders of life during that time. However, what they don’t tell us is what contemporaries anticipated from the future.

From Art Deco to the Box
Since the days when art deco shapes were all the rage, stream lining became an important ingredient in automotive design. Apart from aerodynamic advantages, the decreasingly blunt shapes imparted refinement and progress, and even a hint of tomorrow’s world. From locomotives to rocket ships, it seemed designers sought to continually improve the aerodynamics of their cars without neglecting style.

During the sixties, tidier styles took over with crisper but overall sleeker lines. Although most designs out of the seventies rounded off the edges, the cars were still large with sometimes flamboyant and overwrought design traits which looked less than wind-cheating.

1984 Chevrolet Citation IIBy the eighties, down-sizing was in and many manufacturers had adopted very angular, boxy designs for their mainstream products. (Shown, in light blue, is a production 1984 Chevrolet Citation II.)

Despite generally occupying less square footage than their predecessors, their shapes still had plenty of room for aerodynamic improvement.

In the early eighties, Chevrolet engineers had estimated that the aerodynamic drag of contemporary cars, traveling at a speed of 50 mph, constituted 50% of the vehicle’s rolling resistance. Despite technological advances, it was almost as if the engineers and designers of that generation had given in to the wind.

What wasn’t widely known was that, at their Tech Center located in Warren, Michigan, GM had already fortified their heavy artillery and declared an all-out war against wind drag.

World-Class Upgrade
GM Aerodynamics Lab wind tunnelIn August of 1980, GM’s engineers got a new tool, a big one: their Aerodynamics Laboratory. With its new on-site wind tunnel test equipment, GM’s Tech Center was well equipped to better understand how to cheat the wind, allowing them to move beyond the constraints of testing scaled models and outsourcing the work.

The tunnel’s testing area, which can experience steady, fluid-like wind speeds of up to 160 mph, is 70 feet long by almost 35 feet wide. Its 4,500-horsepower electric motor-driven fan measures 43 feet in diameter. With over three decades under its belt, the title for world’s largest wind tunnel (specific to automotive testing) still goes to this unit at GM’s Aerodynamics Laboratory.

The proverbial gloves were off and it would begin to show in GM’s forthcoming concepts.

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