We all had an awkward period growing up. That period was the Nineties. Geo just happened to go through almost its entire existence during the decade and, not to dunk on the designers behind the brand’s relatively few concept vehicles – particularly its Tracker concept vehicles – but it shows.
The few retrospectives on the Geo brand out there tend to assert that GM desperately wanted to capture the youth market by rebadging some small captive imports already in the Chevrolet lineup, introducing a few others, and giving them a “gee willikers, kiddos, these are 23-skidoo” makeover. While the marketers in charge of Geo eventually went that way, GM – at least initially – was a little more transparent about its intentions for Geo.
Take a look at the first couple years’ worth of Geo television commercials, and you’ll hear less radical/lifestyle wording and more name-checking of Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and the other import companies then eating GM’s lunch. GM needed a counterpunch, but it was apparently unwilling or unable to develop small cars after putting the Chevette to bed and didn’t have a brand that resonated with the people buying imported small cars at the time. GM’s answer reeked of the late Twenties: Introduce a blank-slate companion brand to compete.
Ironically, some of the same Japanese carmakers GM was targeting with those ads were supplying GM with the basis for the Geo’s lineup. Isuzu, with whom GM had a partnership extending back to the early Seventies, lent it the Spectrum, nee I-Mark, and the Storm, nee Impulse; via the NUMMI partnership with Toyota came the Prizm, nee Corolla; and Suzuki sent over its Cultus/Swift and Sidekick to become the Metro and Tracker (both built under the NUMMI-like CAMI partnership with Suzuki in Canada).
The Geo brand launched in August 1989 with the assurance that Geo customers would be able to find, purchase, and service their vehicles through existing Chevrolet dealerships. It also launched with the somnolent theme song “Getting to Know You,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein ditty from the 33-year-old musical “The King and I,” a surefire bet to show younger buyers you know what they like.
The first indication that GM wanted to refocus the Geo brand to go after younger buyers came in 1990 when the brand showed off a few concept vehicles. The first, the California Concept Storm, looked like a mix between a Dodge Daytona and a GM F-body – almost timeless if not for the directional slotted chrome wheels that looked like the budget choice for the 17-year-old who’d just been handed down mom and dad’s old car. Chevrolet’s PR office described it as
…a rolling testimonial to the personalizing potential of Geo’s newest car – features full headlight covers, a blackout greenhouse and Cerello bucket seats. The body is lowered two inches front and rear. A steel panel replaces the quarter glass, and side panels are molded to the body. Body side moldings have been removed.
The second 1990 concept, the Tracker Hugger, took its namesake’s focus on flashy colors and cranked it to 11. Neon yellow paint looked like “a landing beacon for UFOs,” as Popular Mechanics described it. Conflictingly complementary purple coated the interior, the grille, and the bumper ends while the wheels and tube bumpers took an orange dipping. Aside from the windshield, it had no glass, ostensibly a roadster with its Pontiac Stinger-like door cutouts but also blocked in by chunky B-pillars and roof rails. According to the Chevrolet PR office’s writeup:
Geo Tracker Hugger is a highly modifies convertible Geo Tracker 4×4 with a production 1.6-litre engine. The interior features leather -trimmed front seats and steering wheel, with the rear seat, quarter-trim and carpet removed. The individualized exterior has front and rear tube bumpers, rocker extensions, roof panel and roof quarter extensions. The body panels have been removed and the vehicle sports “Hugger” graphics.
Another concept from 1990, the Sand Tracker, had a G.I. Joe camouflage paint scheme but in no other way appeared youth oriented. Later Tracker concepts, including the 1991 Dirt and the 1994 Kalahari, also attempted to display the Tracker’s off-road prowess.
For 1991, possibly for that year’s SEMA show, GM doubled down with a quartet of themed Tracker concepts. The first, a radical custom take on the Tracker, saw nearly every body panel save for the hood and doors modified. Wide fender flares sat low over the Geo-branded five-spokes while the windshield got chopped and all the roof except for a rollbar removed. The second (haven’t yet found its name) and third (Surf Tracker), also lowered, showed far fewer body mods but more of a focus on boardwalk cruising and surfing, respectively. The fourth, apparently named Boom Box, looked like somebody just lifted the car stereo section from Circuit City and dropped it in the back, along with pole- and bumper-mounted speakers, a B-pillar-mounted microphone and – lest one forget this concept was music themed – light purple music note graphics on the dark purple paint.
A year later, the folks in charge of Geo’s concept cars apparently just gave up. Down to just one Tracker, the Back Pack concept flashed some cheap aluminum five-spokes, and a purple-and-teal paint scheme that extended to the canvas bag mounted in place of the rear soft top and the eponymous backpack slung over the spare. The brush guard and somewhat aggressive tires and “4×4” graphic splashed across the doors screamed “I’m actually a capable off-roader” in the squeakiest squeaky-toy voice.
Five years later, on Independence Day, GM axed the Geo brand. Just as well; the purple-and-teal era was over by then anyway.