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The Sentinel 280, Syd Mead’s most influential design, revived as one-off full-scale project

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Images courtesy Mel Francis.

“Something happened that wouldn’t normally have happened,” Mel Francis said of the wedge-shaped supercars of the late Sixties and early Seventies, those low-slung mid-engined beasts with slashing lines, doorstop noses, and vents galore. Without Syd Mead’s Sentinel 280 concept, he maintains, those cars would never have been greenlit or even designed; the Sentinel 280, however, remained just a fanciful vision of the future that nobody ever bothered building — at least, until now.

One of dozens of designs that Mead prepared over multiple books and portfolios for U.S. Steel during the early 1960s, the Sentinel 280 appeared as a rendering with its canopy up and doors splayed outward to allow the driver of the car to access a keycard reader at a tollbooth. Deep blues shaded the front two-thirds of the car while yellows highlighted the boxier rear third and its stark lines that lent it the appearance of a large portable generator unit.

Illustration by Syd Mead.

“I like to do reflections,” Mead said of the design, particularly of the rear third. “And what better chance to do reflections than that back section?” Mead, in fact, meant for the design to be modular, as seen in the longer Sentinel 400 limousine renderings found elsewhere in the U.S. Steel books.

(Incidentally, the large portable generator unit analogy isn’t that far off: Mead envisioned a large turbine back there, though he admits that “was a complete mechanical fantasy — I didn’t know anything technical about turbines back then.”)

Francis said he first saw the U.S. Steel designs while working as an independent automotive design engineer during the Sixties and Seventies and recalls finding them fascinating. He wasn’t the only designer taken with the sketches, either. Francis points to such cars as the 1968 Alfa Romeo Carabo, the 1968 Bizzarrini Manta, the 1969 Ferrari 512S, the 1969 Fiat Abarth 2000 Scorpione, the 1970 Ferrari Modulo, the 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero, and the 1971 Lamborghini Countach as examples of cars that likely took some styling inspiration from the Sentinel 280.

“We don’t have any direct statement that the designers used it as a model,” he said. “(But) each one of these great concepts bore some of the design elements first seen in Mead’s revolutionary 1964 illustration, primarily the wedge nose with its deep-raked windshield, high tail, round front wheelhouses, large side-cooling intakes and angular, skirted rear wheels with extra cooling vents. Each of the concepts had their own way of addressing their novel canopy and door engineering requirements.”

That design language even reached as far as Australia and Japan with elements of the Sentinel 280 appearing in  the 1969 Holden Hurricane and the 1970 Toyota EX7, Francis said.

While Mead concurred that there’s no proof of direct inspiration, he said the U.S. Steel books were specifically targeted to car designers, with the altruistic goal of design inspiration paired with U.S. Steel’s hints that steel made for better car designs than the then-nascent-in-the-industry aluminum.

The idea to actually build the Sentinel 280, however, didn’t come until more recently, when Francis spotted the rendering again on the Internet. “I’d had enough years of building things under my belt that I realized it’s more buildable than I thought,” he said.

In part, that’s thanks to Mead’s “visual futurism” approach to design, in which he envisions not just the design but also the design’s context, including its environment, its use, and its plausible workings. “When Syd thinks of something, he thinks of it 98 percent of the way,” Francis said.

Specifically, Francis said he appreciated the generous space that Mead incorporated behind the driver, the gaping air intakes on the side, and the canopy-hinged doors that not only solved the problem of how the canopy would lift but also how the occupants would get in and out of the car without contorting themselves (or in the case of an emergency).

Mead said that’s simply what he was taught as a student at Art Center College in Pasadena in the mid- to late 1950s. “In Art Center, we were taught how cars were to go together, so I knew about manufacturing techniques and things like hinge points,” he said.

The actual work of interpreting the design into three dimensions began when Francis contacted Mead in 2015, not only to get Mead’s blessing, but also to see what Mead envisioned for some of the unseen aspects of the design — in particular the tailpanel, the interior, and the nose. Many of those elements Francis ended up taking from other renderings, he said.

As for the scale, Francis said all the reference points he needed were in the illustration itself, so once he figured out the real-world dimensions such as wheelbase (280 centimeters, or 110 inches) and overall height with the canopy down (117 centimeters, or 46.5 inches), “a lot of the rest fell into place.”

From there, Francis said he translated his dimensions to stacked pieces of pink insulating foam board to construct a 1/5-scale model. “And that all came down to referring again and again to the two-dimensional sketch,” he said. He even included a scale manikin underneath the hinged cockpit to illustrate how a human would fit into the Sentinel and hinged the covers over the rear wheels to show how those would be accessed. Francis then laminated the carved foam core with thin fiberglass cloth and applied regular plastic filler and paint over the fiberglass surface to complete the model.

To make it driveable, Francis said he initially envisioned placing the body on a Dodge Viper chassis altered to mid-engine layout. He later realized that Superlite’s all-aluminum SL-C chassis, if stretched 5 inches, could accommodate a Viper V-10 — twin turbocharged to 1,050 horsepower — and provide the foot room that the design required; a call to Superlite confirmed that the company could custom-build a 110-inch-wheelbase chassis for the project.

Up until now, the Sentinel has remained a hobby project for Francis. He finished it last summer and has since showed it at the Dayton Concours d’Elegance and at Gene Winfield‘s annual gathering in Mojave, California, where Mead saw the model in person.

“I was so stunned when Mel expressed this interest and now it’s a beautiful model,” Mead said. “I’m just blown away by the details of it. I think it’s worked out just excellent.”

Francis said that it would take about a year to a year-and-a-half and an estimated investment of $700,000 to $1 million to scale up the model into a fully functioning car. While steep, that price tag would buy the world’s only fully functioning Syd Mead design; the closest thing to it would be the Hot Wheels version of the Sentinel 400 limousine or the Winfield-built Spinner prop car from the original “Blade Runner.”

“Nothing that Syd designed has truly been built for the road,” Francis said. “This would be the first.”

Francis said he plans to continue showing the model this year as part of his search for an investor. He also said he’s taken an interest in Mead’s more recent Hypervan concepts and that perhaps they too warrant such a full-scale treatment.