The Cult of the Souls

It never made production, but the Pontiac Banshee was a harbinger nonetheless. 

XP 833 Pontiac Banshee conept. motor authority

Chevrolet, 1966. Two million passenger cars sold. But for a two front attack, life might have been peachy. Enemy Number One – Henry’s Mustang. Enemy One A being rather closer to home, a GM (un) civil war focussing on the difficulties that family ties can induce.

In the egotistical, self centred world of the car executive, John DeLorean managed to stand out – “a real piece of work.” Charismatic, blunt and ruthless, being just three adjectives coming nowhere near close to describing the man. Could it transpire a fourth being naive? When divisional head of Pontiac, he acquired funding for a two seater sports car sending an ill wind through Michigan’s design studios. 

Project XP-833 is a decent enough codename which went onto being known (onto four generations) as Banshee. Defined in Irish mythology as a female spirit whose wailing tells of imminent death, the nomenclature proved apt.

Plans were made in 1963 for an affordable and fun two seater sports car that could be highly customisable making the Banshee profitable, taking the fight to Ford’s Mustang. Only a troublesome thorn in the shape of Chevrolet’s Corvette, GM’s doyen of post-war orthodoxy, halted initial proceedings, dead. DeLorean and his team fumed. Their plan of “styling up” from the Monza GT captured hallmarks of a winner.

Two models were “around 80% production ready” – a coupé hard top powered by a straight six engine making 165 bhp as base could easily be upgraded to a Corvette troubling 326 cubic inch V8 found within the soft top. As these were experimental projects, the engineering was a little rudimentary but the styling was sound. When offered up to top brass in the summer of 1965, one could almost hear the abhorrent whispers primarily from the Chevrolet gang, though this has never been officially confirmed. Corvettes were shifting around 20,000 per year leaving no wriggle room for Banshee. Finance halted, project canned. 

Image: 95octane

Saved from the crusher by being secreted away in storage for many years, both examples still exist thanks to quick thinking. Indeed, the Banshee plan continued.

Diverted onto the Firebird, DeLorean held more than a candle to the Banshee project. Using a Firebird chassis, a 1968 fibre glass bodied Banshee II sporting a cut-down windscreen, flush wheel covers, brake cooling vents and a louvred bonnet hiding the 400cu V8 was made. Painted day-glo orange, this second wailing was pre-ordained to be nothing more than an style exercise.

Six years later, Banshee rose once more. Remaining on Firebird underpinnings, the styling became the most dramatic yet seen. With project name Pegasus, Mitchell offered Pontiac 2 Studio chief designer John Schinella and exterior designer Bill Davis almost carte blanche. Smooth and seductive, the metallic maroon embellished with gold pinstripes and wheels (of aluminium) made Banshee III practically lift off the tarmac when stood stock still. The wailing was provided by Pontiac’s 455 cubic inch Super Duty V8 engine, even though one stipulation of this car was fuel economy. Bill Mitchell adored power, more.

Banshee 3. Image Carstyling.

Curvaceous to the rear, un-opening glass that required an electrically operated toll window for the sides assisted the cars aerodynamics. Urethane, foam filled bumpers, three quartz halogen headlamps per side and the unmistakable Pontiac Vee gave this new Banshee some seventies chic and would assist in styling the 1977 Firebird. The 1974 iteration’s rear end was composed of two circular exhaust pipes along with almost boomerang shaped, thin rear lights. 

Image: oldconceptcars

The Banshee III was paraded on the American show scene for 1974 as a promotional vehicle for Pontiac’s commitment to safer construction, weight reduction and better economy. Inside, the car’s red leather with gold accents contained safety equipment replete for the day.

Returning to the studio, the Banshee’s rear end was treated in an even more theatrical manner. Gone were the thin lights, replaced by twenty circular recessed versions, their glow combined with now golden, rectangular end shaped exhaust, being otherworldly. GM obviously harboured more concern for this particular wailing woman, keeping her in the family archives.

Image: concoursvirtual

Twelve years passed until the final Banshee swept in on a bright red with Matt black bonnet accented wind. Now a 201 inch long, science fiction inspired projectile shape, Banshee 4 could have easily hailed from a franchise connected with another car that DeLorean had dealings with. Indeed, the car played a very minor role in the second instalment of Back To The Future – Marty McFly spies the 4 at a distance. The car can also be found parked outside a Pizza Hut in the film Demolition Man. 

Banshee 4. Image: carthrottle

Remaining a two door, fibre glass bodied coupé, the car could seat four. A V8 shoving out all of 230bhp didn’t quite match the go with the show; the shape was spectacular. Equally so the interior; head up display, a top end High-Fidelity sound system, an early form of sat-nav “based on those in jet fighters” and a steering wheel adorned with almost two dozen buttons. Having no external mirrors (nor door handles – opened by the key fob) led the Banshee to using cameras and dash mounted monitors for “vision clearer than ever.” The seats wrapped around passengers with electrically adjustable pedals and steering column for the perfect driving position. 

automotive-heritage

John Folden, head of Exterior No.2 studio made a fully operational vehicle, sadly governed to a 55mph top speed. That angular tapered, adjustable tail, there to direct air from under the car was barely troubled. Nor the moveable front air dam to facilitate engine cooling. The Banshee 4 did once more influence the Firebird until the wailing became overbearing. By 2010, GM retired the Pontiac brand but retain the trademark.

As for Banshee, listen carefully when the wind howls – it might be a Corvette, moaning.

oo00O00oo

Editor’s note:

Further to the above, there was one more Banshee concept. In 1966, a Pontiac skunkworks project was enacted as a more direct, four place Mustang rival. Work progressed on XP-798 resulting in a quite refined looking shape, but with Chevrolet’s own (F car) Camaro having gained approval as a quick and dirty solution, a Pontiac version was the best that could be salvaged. XP-798 was broken up (the badges purloined for the surviving XP 833 prototypes), but according to Irvin Ribycki (who was involved in the car’s conception) it did allegedly contribute ideas for the second generation (1970) Camaro/ Firebird model.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

19 thoughts on “The Cult of the Souls”

  1. Good morning Andrew. Another hidden history revealed, thank you. When I saw the first image, I immediately thought it was a prototype for the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette C3. It must have been particularly galling for Delorean, prevented from taking the Banshee to production and then seeing his prototype repurposed as a Chevrolet!

    1. Hi Daniel, I think that narrative may be inverted. My take is speculative, though supported by some facts:

      – No Pontiac designer ever stepped forward to claim credit for XP833.
      – Bill Mitchell ran several secret studios, the most famous being “Studio X”, from which several forbearers of the C2 and C3 Corvette designs emerged.
      – DeLorean was something of a pirate. His original proposal for his gull-winged sports car, for example strongly resembled a certain other gull-winged car, here illustated by its designer Paul Bracq…

      Now let’s look at the picture below, a staged photo showing various iterations of the rear engined Corvair Monza concept which is commonly credited to the same designers as the 1959 Sting Ray, which begat the C2 Corvette (Tony Lapine and Larry Shinoda). The accepted date of this photo is 1962. Any resemblance between the cars appearing here, particularly the red convertible and XP833 are likely not coincidental.

      Not to mention the Opel GT. DeLorean was a swashbuckler whose joie de vivre enriched the automotive universe. However, I am fairly certain that it would be stretching things past reasonable credibility to depict the XP833 as “his” design, or even Pontiac’s.

  2. Here’s a photo of Banshee III with its original wheels and rear end cap. This is probably the first public showing of GM’s “hot wire” bent rear glass technology, later featured on certain versions of the 1977-1978 Oldsmobile Toronado and the 1977-1980 Chevrolet Impala and Caprice Coupes.

    1. Wow! This reminds me of the Vaillante from the Michel Vaillant series.

    2. Great bit of history, Andrew. I like this first iteration of the III better than the revised version. From this angle, it makes the 911 targa look ill-proportioned and ridiculously upright. Interesting that the Pontiac has a crease in the glass where the Porsche simply has a curve (well, simply…).

      The fourth iteration looks awful to me, as if the wheels are an afterthought. Mind you, without them it doesn’t look much better.

    3. Hi Tom,

      For sure that 911 photo was taken with a very short lens < 50mm, an unfortunate choice. However, your point is understood, as it was by so many, including myself when the 911's putative replacement was introduced. Of course the 911's economical form helps to endow it with sought after virtues like wieildiness, lightness, reasonable comfort, and good outward visibility. Nevertheless, even a flattering photo can't help its engine from looking like dreck and sounding like a bag of loose nuts and bolts.

    4. “bag of loose nuts and bolts”? What an outrageous slur! It’s characterful, gooddog! It least it sounds better than the flatuent turbo-four in the latest Boxster and Cayman. The water-cooled N/A flat-six in earlier models and the 911 sounds sublime, however

    5. Hi gooddog, I’ve always rather liked the 911, for the reasons you specify: such a lovely format for a sportscar. Those engines are notoriously ugly, but I’m with Daniel as regards to the sound of a watercooled flat six.

  3. Here’s a couple of interesting pictures regarding the final Banshee

    I would have paid to have been a fly on the wall when the polystyrene was cut, equally as much as the meeting where they gave that dashboard and wheel the ok. Understanding they wanted to achieve a high level of luxury but, my word…no!

    And this the full reveal of those twenty lights.

    I can’t help but say groovy here. I’ll get me coat…

    1. I’ve sorted out the images in your comment above, Andrew. 🙂

    2. That looks a lot like a Monza (not the Corvair), the Vega based developments of the late 1970s.

  4. Would have. Would have.

    Imagine John Zachary DeLorean would not have wanted everything, the OHL of GM would have had a little more foresight and would have positioned the Banshee below the Corvette (6-cylinder only) what could have become of this beautiful first concept.

    Number 2 is a pretty good concept car, except for the pointy nose.
    Number 3 is too much of everything.

    1. Hi Fred. Agreed regarding the concepts: the first one was the best, the last one is, as you say, too much.

  5. A great and interesting read again Andrew, thank you. Another car I knew nothing about. I like the 1, 2 and 3, as for the 4, well, looks like something from Captain Scarlett, very futuristic but not quite there.

  6. The first Banshee prototype was indeed a real missed opportunity. am sure a way could have been found to allow both the Banshee and Corvette to co-exist with each other at GM.

  7. Hello Andrew. Another interesting piece so thank you. I really like the first image but things then start to go downhill in my eyes. What a shame it never made it to production.

  8. I want to leave this post with a remaining thought about GM and internecine competition. I feel like we could be too harsh on GM, whether it was for Pontiac stealing from Chevy, or Chevy trying to t-bone Pontiac, or Buick vs Oldsmobile, or all of the above scrabbling to eat Cadillac’s lunch.

    Take a look at the example shown below of the ad campaign for the 1960 Dodge Dart. In the event that the reader was truly thick headed and could not guess what the “P” car was supposed to be, they spelled it out by citing the model names. Call it cannibalism, fratricide, self-immolation, suicidal tendencies… By 1960 this had become a normal way of doing business for the Detroit three.

    And I have mixed feelings about DeLorean, he stuck out like a shark in a sea of swimmers and surfers, but wasn’t exactly a fish out of water either.

    Oh, and regarding the Opel GT. It is credited to the designer of the Corsa A/Nova, also the Calibra: Erhard Schnell, who worked in Rüsselsheim under Clare MacKichan, the former chief stylist for (you guessed it) Chevrolet. They managed to accomplish what DeLorean could not, and it was even sold in America (at Buick dealerships).

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