A sinuous “ultrasport sedan”

1991 Pontiac Protosport4 conceptThe “fuscia-tinted, fluorescent Scorch Red” ProtoSport4 was Pontiac’s sixth consecutive concept produced over a period of as many years.

“My assignment to our designers and engineers was to produce a four-door, ultra sporty, ultra high­performance car unlike anything in the current Pontiac lineup–or in anyone else’s lineup,” said John G. Middlebrook (Pontiac’s then general manager) in a quote from 1991. “We wanted a car that was feasible right now and still would be contemporary into the next century.”

I’d call it, mission accomplished.

Following tough acts
In the mid-eighties, Pontiac began a tradition of presenting annual concepts. It started with their advanced Trans Sport minivan in 1986. Next was the 1987 Pursuit, then the 1988 Banshee. Pontiac ended the decade with the Stinger and entered the new one with the Sunfire. (All of which will be covered in future posts.)

Pontiac Protosport4 sketchesFor 1991, Pontiac brass wanted to do something different; something that provided as much real-world, forward-thinking useability as it did wow factor. Thus, the ProtoSport4 was dreamed up.

In this enthusiast’s opinion, the ProtoSport4 possesses one of the best shapes to ever grace a concept car. To me, it appears as seductive today as when it was introduced, over two decades ago.

Pontiac Protosport4 clay wind tunnelGenerally, a visually appealing exterior shape will impose on the functionality of a vehicle. But not in this case. The ProtoSport4 is an example of what can go right in a form-following-function design.

By 1991, relative to today, the cab-forward approach to automotive design was in its infancy. However, designers and engineers were rapidly adopting the idea because, by pushing the wheels out to the vehicle’s edges and moving the windshield and firewall forward, it maximized interior space. A common side benefit was a sleeker design.

Pontiac Protosport4 clay sculpting

In the image above, you can see designers scraping clay from what would be the full-sized final model. On the wall, along with banners marked “Ultrasport Sedan” in contemporary Pontiac font, you can see all sorts of slippery-sleek design options that Pontiac was toying with.

Pontiac Protosport4 scaled design exercise clayThe inspirational imagery are of different shapes and configurations for a four-seat sports car. (Incidentally, the sketch at the top right of the picture above is labeled “Grand Prix.”) Even the red clay model is different from the final concept in many subtle ways.

Along with a larger version of this picture in the gallery, I provided eight close-ups of the background drawings and the scaled red model which were taken from a huge version of the image. (However, these pictures were originally taken using film, so the quality is ultimately limited.)

Details, details, details
The ProtoSport4, which debuted at the 1991 North American International Auto Show, isn’t all show. But before we get to the “go” aspect, allow me to describe some of the innovative features worked into the concept’s design.

Pontiac Protosport4 concept head and tail lightsStarting with exterior lighting, the slim headlights are what are referred to as high intensity discharge or HID. While increasingly popular today (but still not commonplace), HID headlights were just starting to make their way into automotive applications by the early 1990s. In addition, the headlights were supplemented by auxiliary ultraviolet units.

At the rear, designers located all of the mechanical components for the tail lights in a central area and the light is transmitted to the thin, slit-like lenses from the single, high intensity light source. John Manoogian, Pontiac exterior studio chief at the time, described the setup thusly, “It’s like a blade that goes across the rear of the car and just the edge of that blade lights up.”

Having only been a part of automotive design requirements for about half a decade, the center high-mounted stop lamp (i.e., third brake light) was quickly becoming stylized instead of being an add-on lump. In this case the CHMSL is lit by fiber optics, in place of standard lighting, and incorporated into the ProtoSport4’s rearward-facing camera system that is a part of the central spine that bisects the rear window.

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