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Raddest of the rad: When Detroit thought all the cool kids wanted high-tech dune buggies

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo via GM Media.

Since the Mustang first made its debut, carmakers have chased the youth market in increasingly varied ways. Then, a quarter century later, the Big Three all seemed to happen on the same idea at the same time, resulting in three remarkably similar short-wheelbase neoprene-laden eye-searing concept cars dropping at the same time. And Keanu declared them excellent.

First, let’s introduce the three. Ford’s 1989 Splash, ostensibly a four-seater, not only had removable windows, a removable roof panel, and removable hatch glass, it also had a see-through cover just forward of the highly sloped windshield, retractable HID headlamps, deployable mud flaps, a variable ride height, and neoprene covering the seats. Ford pitched it as ideal for under-25s who skied, surfed, scuba dived, or just hung out at the beach. Meant to use all-wheel drive, the Splash never rolled under its own power. As the story goes, the Splash originated when designer Jack Telnack approached the Center for Creative Studies’s industrial design department and recruited four students – Brad Baldonado, Chris Gamble, Warren Manser, and Ricky Hsu – to come up with a sporty and youthful car. Autodynamics then built the Splash for Ford.

From left, Ford Splash, Plymouth Speedster, Pontiac Stinger. Photos via Ford Media, FCA Media, GM Media.

The 1989 Plymouth Speedster was actually Chrysler’s second youth-focused out-there concept car of the late Eighties. The Slingshot from 1988 looked more like a Lotus of the far-flung future with its non-envelope body layout and forward-tilting canopy instead of doors. The Speedster dispensed with the top altogether in an effort to mate sports car minimalism with sports bike performance and used a molded plastic tub with molded plastic tube-frame seats to keep it light. Noteworthy features include a pop-up horizontal headlamp bar, removable neoprene seat covers, and no provision for a top. It reportedly wasn’t shown with a drivetrain, but from its appearance in a 1990 documentary on concept cars, it did appear able to move under its own power. Its design supposedly originated in Chrysler’s Pacifica design studio.

The largest of the three, the 1989 Pontiac Stinger, also appears the most developed of the three. Like the Splash, it used an all-wheel-drive chassis with a variable ride height; seated four; and had removable roof panels, windows, and hatch glass in addition to more neoprene seats and a pop-up light bar. The Stinger, however, went further with a full carbon-fiber body; a small windshield that flipped up for the rear passengers after their seats raised by 15 inches; removable panels in the doors that could alternately hold specially designed coolers and storage bins; a removable stereo; and a whole litany of accessories, from a sewing kit to a camp stove to the hose one was expected to wash down the whole car with – interior and exterior. It also had a transverse Super Duty-based 16-valve 3.0-liter four-cylinder good for 170 horsepower up front, driving through a Pontiac 6000 STE’s all-wheel-drive system. Inspiration for the Stinger reportedly came out of GM’s market research program, according to Pontiac historian Don Keefe.

Typically, one can see clear throughlines of influence – whether cultural, regulatory, or from competitors – on automotive trends, but the rationale for the near-simultaneous debut of the Ford Splash, Plymouth Speedster, and Pontiac Stinger is a little blurrier. Sure, there’s the demographic change at hand in the late Eighties. The oldest of the Boomers’ kids, Generation X, were at that point aging into late adolescence/early adulthood, and Ford, GM, and Chrysler – all weary of getting their teeth kicked in throughout the Eighties – certainly would have liked to have established brand loyalty with a new generation at that time.

(Of note, that could very well have proven a misplaced effort and a misreading of the culture on the part of Detroit. As Douglas Coupland, the author who popularized the “Generation X” term, wrote, he adapted the term from author Paul Fussell’s use of X to describe a “category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence.”)

But do changing demographics alone explain the trio’s cut-from-the-same-cloth appearance? Perhaps corporate espionage? Sure, the Big Three look over each others’ shoulders all the time and poach ideas and staffers just as often, but the commonalities among all three are more thematic than stylistic – notwithstanding the tri-spoke wheels, forward raked roll bars, and barely-there overhangs.

Or perhaps some advisor or consultant went door-to-door in Detroit, pushing the idea of youth-oriented proto-crossovers and, in their presentation, made frequent reference to beaches, water skiing/scuba diving/other watersports, and neoprene. Lots of neoprene. They also likely referenced how popular Jeep’s CJ series had suddenly become with younger drivers and vehicle owners over the last several years and may even have pointed out how the bombardment of lawsuits over the CJ presented the other carmakers an opportunity to swoop into that entry-level fun-vehicle segment with something not known for rollovers. And, given Chrysler’s intimate knowledge of the CJ lawsuit situation, that could have led the company to focus on a sporty vehicle with a lower center of gravity than what the consultants pitched.

(As for Jeep itself, Chrysler was focused on showing off the ZJ precursor Concept I in 1989. The Jeepster, the closest Jeep concept to the Splash/Speedster/Stinger, debuted nearly a decade later, in 1998.)

Or it could have all been a big coinky-dink. Either way, despite some rumblings of the Splash and Stinger possibly seeing production (according to Popular Mechanics, the Stinger was two years away), none of the three made it to production or significantly influenced any production vehicles. The Splash name did live on as a sporty, youth-focused sub-model of the Ranger, and the Stinger’s pack-everything-for-action-and-adventure mission statement kinda, sorta saw showrooms in the Aztek.

As for the actual concept vehicles, Ford auctioned off the Splash for $70,500 in 2002, while the Stinger appears to still be in GM’s collections, and nobody seems to have seen the Slingshot or the Speedster in nearly 30 years.