An oft-overlooked early example of efficiency

1992 GM Ultralite ConceptThe Ultralite concept is a no-compromise efficiency statement, branded a GM product, yet independent from any of its divisions.

Press release documents, dated January 6, 1992, describe it as a technological test bed; same as most concept vehicles. But Ultralite had two distinct “educational objectives” set before it. One was to introduce consumers to technologies and materials that were possible but not yet practical; the other was to inform American consumers about GM’s fuel economy leadership.

Full of surprises
1992 GM Ultralite concept front leftWhen reading this, keep in mind that, as of January 1992, being green wasn’t yet chic. Consider that Toyota’s first generation Prius was still almost a decade away and the price for a gallon of gasoline was around $1.00.

While efficient engineering and designs can save money at the pump, the costs behind the enabling technology can sometimes outweigh the fuel-saving benefits.

With low demand and prohibitive costs, it’s no wonder building super fuel efficient cars probably didn’t rank high on the to-do list.

1992 GM Ultralite concept models (backdrop sketches)Nevertheless, fuel efficient concepts were nothing new. In fact, Ultralite was fourth in a series of “environmentally sensitive” and fuel efficient concepts from GM over recent years. There was the solar-powered Sunraycer; the EV1’s conceptual predecessor, the pure-electric Impact; and the six-passenger, gas-electric hybrid HX3 van.

Rather than launching into a discourse on why domestic makes and models were wholesale branded as being incurably inefficient, or whether the persona was even accurate, the branding nevertheless happened. Going into the 1990s, it hadn’t worn off.

Worth mentioning, since one of the Ultralite’s educational objectives was to help dispel those notions, GM was sure to include some substantiating information in their press release. For example, it points out that Buick’s 1992 Park Avenue, with the 3800 V-6, achieved better highway mileage than Toyota’s V-6 Camry.

So, it seems with good reason GM wanted, or maybe needed, to focus on marketing the fruits of their efficiency efforts.

1992 GM Ultralite concept sketch profile leftEnter Ultralite.

GM describes the concept’s five-month creation process as having started as a sketch, then gone from scale model to interior seating buck, then to a full-size clay model and master molds which were used in constructing the concept’s body.

The project was produced under the Technical Staffs Group but involved engineers, designers and scientists from the Advanced Engineering, Design and Current Product Engineering staffs, and the GM Research Laboratories.

The concept was going to challenge much conventional wisdom regarding design, materials and construction.

For instance, Ultralite’s wheelbase, at 110 inches was comparable to that of a Lexus LS 400; however, its roughly 166-inch overall length was about the same length of a diminutive Mazda MX3.

And, unless you’ve done prior research on it, I’ll bet you didn’t suspect the rear wheels drive this car; or that the engine also sits at the rear.

1992 GM Ultralite concept wind tunnel

According to Donald Runkle, then Advanced Engineering Staff vice president, “The wind tunnel told us to do a rear-drive, rear-engine car. And then it said to package the powertrain to enable a five-inch taper from front to back.

Remember the power pod I mentioned above? It contains the engine and transaxle, and exhaust and suspensions systems. The pods were intended to offer an easy swap for engine upgrades or even with a loaner pod, in the event the vehicle’s needed servicing.

Another surprise is that this concept is actually powered by a two-stroke engine. That’s what you’d normally expect to find in lawnmowers, chainsaws and motorcycles, but not a car.


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