Steamrollered

The pursuit of pure aerodynamics is rarely pretty – as this unusual story from Croatia illustrates – in abundance.

(c) Yuri Samoylik

The vehicle in a sorry state seen here, slowly decaying in an impound lot in Split, started out as a radical aerodynamic concept from Croatia that piqued the interest of both Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz. What is it, how did it end up here, and what happened to it? No, it has not been the victim of an unfortunate steamroller mishap although at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that: it really was designed to look like this.

Lifelong Ferrari aficionado Zlatko Vukusic (he named the restaurant-café he owned after Enzo’s firm) dabbled in car design and specifically aerodynamics in his free time. Through contact with erstwhile Ferrari chief engineer Giotto Bizzarini in the early nineties, the Croatian was able to obtain an audition at Ferrari with Sergio Scaglietti. Upon being shown Vukusic’s drawings Scaglietti commented that he was like a modern day Leonardo da Vinci, although presumably in the sense of the audacity of his designs rather than their aesthetic qualities.

Vukusic claims that Ferrari expressed serious interest in his aerodynamic concept but that they could not come to an agreement over the price to be paid for his idea. Long before before negotiations with Maranello soured however, Vukusic had been able to arrange for a Ferrari 328 V8 engine and gearbox to be provided to him to produce a full working prototype. He decided to go at it alone and build the concept himself.

With Ferrari out of the picture, Vukusic turned instead to a Nissan Silvia (type S12). The Silvia’s body was not only (outwardly) fully reworked, the front-mounted engine was removed and the Ferrari V8 was installed in a mid-rear engine configuration. When first shown to the public at the 1994 Bologna Auto Show (the car would subsequently also be seen in Geneva and Frankfurt the year after) the highly unusual looks attracted their fair share of attention. Hardly surprising as this was not a car that anyone walked by without a double-take!

That unconventional front end had been seen before in a somewhat less radical form on the Marcos Mantis XP from 1968, but the Cosmopolit -for that is the name Vukusic had given his brainchild – continued the concave shape into the windshield and roof; Vukusic claiming the advantage of this unusual design was an extremely low coefficient of drag.

At the 1995 Frankfurt IAA, Zlatko Vukusic was approached by representatives from Mercedes-Benz. These discussions resulted in a 1:5 scale model of his design being evaluated in the Mercedes-Benz wind tunnel – and these tests really did take place. The results were quite impressive: it was shown to be 23% more aerodynamically efficient than any of Mercedes’ in-house prototypes at the time. In addition it also displayed excellent stability at high speeds.

Alas, here too negotiations eventually crashed. This time (according to what Vukusic claims anyway) because Mercedes-Benz wanted to go over his head and deal directly with the Croatian government, the aim being settlement of debts Croatia had with Germany. Vukusic refused to budge -he claims to even have been followed and intimidated by Croatian government agents in order to change his mind – Mercedes lost patience, walked away and that spelled the end of the Cosmopolit.

(c) Bestcars.com

Because so much money was spent to bring his aerodynamic concept alive, Vukusic had accrued large debts, lost his beloved restaurant and ended up virtually penniless. The Cosmopolit was also confiscated and has been sitting in an impound lot for years.

Today, Zlatko Vukusic is still working on designs for an aerodynamic car but so far these ideas are limited to drawings and small scale models. In view of his earlier work some will say that is for the best, but (even though we may have reservations about the accuracy of Vukusic’s version of events) people who dare to be different, to be an outlier, deserve some respect. Aren’t there enough straight-laced, sensible but ultimately boring individuals (not to mention car designs), already?

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

20 thoughts on “Steamrollered”

  1. It is a well kept secret that Zlatko Vukusic is the illegitimate grand nephew of Luigi Colani. They share the genes for their considerable design talent but with a distinct individual expression as uncle Luigi’s attempt at the same topic shows

  2. Good morning Bruno. What an extraordinary tale, particularly the skullduggery surrounding the Croatian government and it’s debts to Germany. However aerodynamic the prototype, such an extreme appearance was never going to be commercially viable, so Mercedes-Benz probably could have thanked Vukusic for his time and tried to incorporate a much more aesthetically palatable version of the concave surfaces into its own designs.

    As an aside, wasn’t the S12 generation Nissan 200SX really rather smart in an 80’s way? A work colleague of mine had one as a company car and it was a nice drive too.

    I miss pop-up headlamps!

    1. That looks great, doesn’t it Daniel? Very similar to the Isuzu Piazza but better resolved I think, especially at the front. With modern technology you could probably replace the lights below the pop-ups with laser diode lights and forget about the pop-ups popping up.

    2. Yes, one of the nice, sober Japanese designs of that time. We’d need more of this today (although I’m not sure about the headlights – with today’s technology, it should be possible to make a very slim front end and still have good illumination.
      The only aspect of the Silvia I really don’t like is the wheelbase-to-length ratio. Especially the rear overhang looks like it’s longer than the section between the wheels. It shares that problem with the Isuzu Piazza, perhaps that’s why Andy was reminded of this one.

    3. “A work colleague of mine had one as a company car and it was a nice drive too.”

      Were they? These were contemporary with the last rear-drive Celicas which were pretty hopeless and stodgy but as bad as they were, the Gazelle (as the Silvia was known locally) was always regarded as even worse. They got absolutely blown into the weeds commercially and dynamically by the first front-drive ‘Twin Cam 16’ Celica. The Piazza was equally hopeless dynamically and real old-school turbo lag but at least it had significantly more finessed styling going for it…

    4. Hello Daniel,
      I agree that this aerodynamic concept was, is and probably never will be commercially viable for general passenger use, but (and I am guessing here because the info I have on Vukusic does not say anything about this) it is possible that both Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz thought it might be useful in competition cars, were aesthetics are less important. The Chapparral 2J would be an example of this.
      I am not versed in aerodynamics but I could see how this weird concave shape might help with airflow and stability because it “scoops” the incoming air over the center of the vehicle. On the other hand I wonder how it is to sit inside of it with the windshield and roof moved inwards so much. A center driving position (often used in competition) seems out of the question.
      And about the S12 Silvia- yes, it is a nicely resolved design. I only have driving experience with its successor, the 200SX with the 1.8 turbocharged engine, which was a good looking vehicle as well in my opinion. And I liked how it drove and performed although the 300ZX Twin Turbo I tried straight after that was even better in all respects…..

    5. Hi Stradale. By ‘nice’ I meant comfortable and quite refined. I only ever travelled in it as a passenger and my colleague was quite a gentle driver. I’m happy to defer to your greater knowledge of its dynamic abilities, or lack thereof.

  3. That Mantis XP looks very much ahead of its time compared with what was around in the world of supercars circa 1968 – Miura, Mangusta, Daytona. This prescience was also true of the Adams brothers’ own Probe series.

    It goes some way to explain the media attention given to Marcos at the time, which was out of all proportion to the number of cars produced.

    1. Yes, agreed. Fascinating story Bruno, I had no idea about this at all. To Robertas’ list one can also add the Purvis Eureka, albeit a little later and drawing considerable ‘inspiration’ from the Probe in particular.

  4. Thanks Bruno, another interesting DTW find of something I’ve never seen before! The question here is: how can I un-see it again…?
    I think it’s one of the perfect examples where someone is so obsessed by one idea and one aspect of a car that he completely loses any sense for the bigger picture. Think of people like Bruce Mohs, for example. Their efforts are usually doomed to fail, but how much more boring would the automotive landscape look without them.

  5. I don’t believe a word of this story, it sounds like bullshit all the way. A very tall tale meant to inflate the story and the ego of a failed artist. It reminds me of those artists that paint seamen and crying children and who used to send their work pro for free to the National Gallery so they could boost they were “represented”. Like this guy somehow “was invited” by both Ferrari and Mercedes and rejected by both. I wonder why?

    1. Ingvar, while I appreciate your forthright views, I feel you could have got your point across equally well without sounding so trenchant. Bruno not only went to the trouble of writing 800 (or so words) and sourcing photos, but also made it clear in his piece that he was doubtful about Zlatko’s claims, so to simply dismiss the whole article in those terms (intentionally or no) comes across to me as being a little snide.

    2. You’re right, and I apologize. I usually appreciate the sensible and moderate tone at this place, and you’re right that snide remarks doesn’t really belong here.

      I’m a little trigger happy sometimes, and for that I’m sorry. My critique had nothing to do with the author of the article but about the subject of the article, which I simply don’t find credible.

      If I could add anything to the discussion, it’s that you either present it as a mock tale, including photographer Land Windermere and such, but if you present it as fact you have to back it up quite substantially when it comes to such extraordinary tall tales.

      As Carl Sagan used to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As standing, the piece is open for debate.

      But yeah, I’m sorry for my tone. I guess afternoon tea is on me today…

  6. I don’t buy the story behind this article. The website Bruno probably used as inspiration for his entertaining story is full of nonsense
    https://www.carthrottle.com/post/a7rdxo8/
    Simple question: if the red car is based on the Nissan, where does the engine go under the piece of molten cheese used for the bonnet?
    Zlatko Vukusic is said to claim that with his concept the Cd of a Ferrari Testarossa was reduced from 0.65 to 0.32 and he believes that the latter hasn’t been improved upon until today.
    Of course he may believe whatever he wants but actually the TR had a Cd 0f 0.38 and we all know that nowadays series production cars regularly achieve values in the region of 0.28 – something I’m sure Zladko would know if he were the aerodynamic Merlin as which he is portrayed.

    1. Hi Dave,
      The website you mentioned is one of the four (the three other being two Russian and one Czech website if I remember correctly) I consulted in the making of my article. As Eóin pointed out in his post of yesterday 23:09 I did try to make it clear that although the Cosmopolit makes for an interesting story and its creator, however flawed he may be, a person of interest that I have my doubts about the accuracy of the events as told by Vukusic. Be that as it may I found it something worthy of sharing on DTW.
      To answer your simple question: There is no engine under that concave bonnet; the Ferrari V8 engine was mounted in a mid-rear engine configuration, not at the front- by the way, this was already stated in the original article.
      Here is a photo I have found of the engine in situ: https://i.imgur.com/W3q17b7.jpg

    2. In no way did I want to detract from the effort you put into writing this article.
      To be honest, at first sight I thought it was an extremely well written belated April’s joke because the background story sounds too much like tales from Roda Roda or Nasreddin Hodja to be true.
      The nonsensical claims to the aerodynamic improvements on the Testarossa did the rest.
      That’s why to me the story could place the engine of that car wherever they liked and it even might have been a flux compensator.

      I don’t understand why the car had to have that extremely concave form of the roof instead of just being lower. There’s no headroom under that roof anyway so the lateral beams could have been lowered without sacrificing any interior space. Zagato’s ‘double bubble’ roofs are a much better solution here.
      The rest looks like wind tunnel experiments where soft material is placed on the surface of text objects. Areas of high pressure like bonnet and lower windscreen just get distorted to a concave form by the wind with no aerodynamic advantage to be gained by that.

  7. Hi Dave,
    No worries- I did not perceive your comments (or Ingvar’s for that matter) as detracting my article and efforts at all. But should I cover a similarly “misty” story sometime in the future I will take the lesson to heart to more clearly state disclaimers and caveats where needed!

    I agree with you that this concave solution is highly unorthodox and would have to give significant aerodynamic advantages to be seriously considered. Normal road use seems out of the question in any case because of the headroom problems- and the aesthetics obviously. Perhaps it could be used in competition because there looks and practicality do not matter that much. I am in no way an aerodynamic expert but could imagine how this concave shape and the airflow that flows through it at speed helps in both pushing the car downwards and at the same time improve straightline stability. Something for Le Mans for instance, in F1 the needle-like noses provide too little square area to make much of a difference I guess.
    We would need to see further proof of real world testing but that is not going to happen so Vukusic’s idea will likely fade away into the mist of time….

  8. brrruno thank you so much for this article. Yet again something from DTW which had completely passed me by . I think you did clearly distance yourself from the claims of Vukusic, either way full credit to you – and others – for not taking any disagreements too much to heart.

    Looking forward to your next

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