As the popularity of minivans soared in the mid-Eighties on both sides of the Atlantic, the new-ish form factor not only inspired a wave of rethinking the basic format of the automobile, it also pushed manufacturers that had never considered building anything but cars to suddenly abandon decades of precedent, as we see from the more-similar-the-more-you-look-at-them Pontiac Trans Sport and Bertone Genesis concept vehicles.
It wouldn’t be enough for carmakers who were late to the minivan scene to just hawk their own one-box multi-purpose vehicles, especially not after Chrysler’s “Magic Wagon” minivans and Renault’s Espace bowed in 1984 (and Toyota’s LiteAce and other Japanese minivans started to make their way into the American and European markets). No, they had to have some sort of gimmick of their own, some new door configuration or new re-imagining of how vehicles could move small families around.
GM’s Astro/Safari twins and Ford’s Aerostar, whatever their positive attributes, offered little on those fronts when they followed in quick succession. Volkswagen’s T3 Transporter, meanwhile, used the same basic format that the original Type 2 offered back in the Fifties. Into that scene bowed the 1986 Pontiac Trans Sport concept.
According to Don Keefe’s “Pontiac Concept and Show Cars,” the Trans Sport marked Pontiac’s return to futuristic concept cars after a decade-long absence. Pontiac’s engineers chose to base the Trans Sport on the Pontiac 6000’s front-wheel-drive chassis, lengthened to a 116-inch wheelbase and fitted with a turbocharged all-aluminum 255 hp 2.9-liter V-6, and three-speed automatic transmission. Like a number of other GM concepts of the time – including the 1985 Buick Wildcat, the 1988 GMC Centaur, and the 1989 Chevrolet XT-2 – the Trans Sport’s futuristic looks came via a highly sloped helicopter cockpit-like windshield in line with the hood, slotted headlamps and taillamps, and lots of flush-mounted glass. Its aggressive looks came from its 17-inch wheels pushed to all four corners, cladding that didn’t look tacked on, and wing of questionable functionality.
“It was our chance to demonstrate the kind of freewheeling innovation you would expect from a totally new breed of Pontiac,” Terry Henline, Pontiac’s exterior design chief, said in the press release announcing the Trans Sport.
But it had to bring something new to the table, so instead of a sliding rear door like every other minivan out there (save for the Espace), the Trans Sport used a gull wing-style rear door, of the type that so many custom vanners installed a decade prior. The Trans Sport also boasted a number of high-tech gadgets, including a heads-up display, a built-in Nintendo Entertainment System, and a built-in computer for accessing weather reports and navigation systems. According to Marshall Schuon at the New York Times, who described the Trans Sport as “a lot like a monorail capsule… applying future-tech to what was hitherto a utilitarian box,” the Trans Sport’s glass “could be darkened at the driver’s will, a result of windows that sandwiched liquid crystal between dual panes.”
In Europe, despite the Espace’s (and Transporter’s) success, competitors were relatively slow to market. Even futuristic concepts took their time coming. Two years after the Pontiac Trans Sport debuted, two design houses released their takes on the minivan. Italdesign’s Asgard had the same Robotech service-center decor on its quarter panels as the company’s Aztec and Aspid concepts but added another pair of doors and plenty more seating inside. And Bertone’s Genesis perhaps brought more crazy to the minivan than anybody before or since.
To begin with, Bertone – following a design from Marc Deschamps – snatched a Lamborghini 5,167 cc V-12 from a Countach 5000 Quattrovalvole, plopped it in the forward portion of the Genesis’s chassis (104.3-inch wheelbase, same as the Espada), backed it with a TorqueFlite three-speed automatic transmission, and had it power the rear wheels. Next, the company installed its front bucket seats to either side of the V-12, under a highly sloped canopy with a big divider down the middle. That divider held the hinges for each of the front doors, which opened butterfly-style.
The cushions for those front bucket seats rested right on the upper surface of the front wheelwells, and the back of the passenger seat could swivel around to face the rear passengers, enthroned on each of their own Colani-esque seats. Rear doors slid open like any ol’ Plymouth, and an NES-less TV entertained passengers back there.
While plenty of sources claim Lamborghini could have built the Genesis with LM002 production wrapped up by that time, Lamborghini didn’t bite. As for the Trans Sport, its name and design cues lived on in the U-body 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport dustbuster minivan, Pontiac’s first non-coupe/sedan since the Twenties. Other unconventional egg-shaped designs (Previa) and radical minivan designs (Italdesign Columbus, 1990 Chrysler Voyager III) have since come and gone, but the Trans Sport and Genesis concepts at least illustrated how pushing the design envelope could have kept minivans from eventually becoming four-wheeled punchlines.