Design History: Solaris (1961) – One Of The Most Influential GM Advance Design Studio Concepts Ever

(note:  Australian-based online classic cars magazine, Retroautos, conducted the original groundbreaking research about the Solaris and, with GM’s copyright permission, was able to access rare and previously unpublished images of the concept. Retroautos interviewed Leo Pruneau, the retired design director of Holden and one of the GM designers who helped shape the Solaris. Leo also led the design of many iconic cars at Vauxhall, Holden and GM during the 1960s to 1980s. Here’s a LINK to the original story in the February 2018 edition of Retroautos on the Shannons Club website. Shannons Club is one of the most comprehensive automotive heritage websites in the world.)

Images of rakish and even outlandish roadsters and sleek coupes come to mind thinking of concept cars from GM’s Advance Design Studios in its golden era. These were exercises to stimulate the creative juices of those stylists toiling in the divisional studios tasked with creating the more mundane production sedans. But the Solaris was different; it was the result of GM Design V.P. Bill Mitchell tasking Advance Design 4 studio headed by the legendary Carl Renner to participate in a competition with the divisional studios in order to develop a general design concept for the upcoming 1964 A-Body intermediates. And a sedan, at that.

The Solaris, whose two different sides are seen here, not only was the competition winner hands-down, but it influenced a wide and lasting range of GM cars in the US as well as in Europe and Australia.

Before we take a closer look at the Solaris, let’s briefly acknowledge its designer. Having joined GM in 1945 after a brief stint as a Disney cartoon animator, Carl Renner was a key influencer of all of GM’s post war design. He was a team member of the original 1953 Corvette and then created the derivative 1954 Nomad concept (above), which so impressed Harley Earl that he rushed it into production for 1955.

Among his numerous contributions to GM’s design language, one the more memorable ones was the “flying roof”, here seen on a rendering from 1956. It would of course make a huge splash on the 1959 cars and the 1960 Corvair.

Here’s the work-in-progress Solaris clays in profile. The Solaris was created with two different sides, something that was not uncommon with clays, until the preferred side was chosen. But curiously, on the Solaris they were kept all the way through to its final fiberglass iterations. Presumably that’s because both approaches were considered highly effective, and as we’ll see, both sides found their way into numerous production vehicles; the Solaris was doubly influential. This is the “straight” side.

And here’s the “curved” side.

On the curved side, not only is there a decided kick up over the rear wheel, but there’s also a very obvious bulge outwards. Presumably this is the first production-oriented GM concept to have that feature, one that would become so prominent, especially on the 1965 B-Bodies and 1966 A-Bodies.

That C pillar and rear window already look so familiar.

This presumably is the finished and trimmed clay, as the windows are opaque. The front end is now much further along, although not in its final version.

Here’s rear end. I’m sure you’re already making associations to certain Pontiacs, among others, especially from those “hockey stick” tail lights..

The “straight” side.

And the curved one.

The reason Bill Mitchell included the Advance Design 4 Studio was because he wanted to convince top management of the benefits of curved side glass. He had been arguing for it for some time, to no avail, so he tasked Renner with the job to make the point. Curved side glass inherently works best with a “fuselage” side, where the curve is continued in the door. This general approach was pioneered by Virgil Exner at Chrysler, and his ’57 Imperial was the first to have the curved glass too.

Not surprisingly, top management selected the Solaris proposal.

Here’s the final fiberglass, with a dummy driver. The front end has been refined, with thin horizontal bars. Certain influence of ’61 Continental can be seen here, especially in the bladed front fenders. The Continental was a profoundly influential design, and pushed the industry into the 20th century.

The Solaris’ fender blades, and certain other front end elements in turn influenced the ’66 Toronado’s front end.

The big difference from the Conti (among others) is instead of slab sides, the Solaris has curved ones, and a horizontal crease in the middle.

I wasn’t going to start showing you all of the cars the Solaris influenced, but this was the first (1963 Pontiac; GP here).

That horizontal crease, aspects of the roof/C-pillar/rear window and the vestigial fins hark back to Pininfarina’s 1955 Florida coupe, the most influential design of the ’50s.

The 1963 full-size Pontiacs (image flipped for comparison) also pioneered those vertical and horizontal hip bulges, which were just the preview of coming GM attractions. The time frame is certainly right; the Solaris was finished in late 1961; that would be right about the time Pontiac would have been working on the ’63’s.(Note: the ’61 Pontiac already had a bit of a kick-up at the belt line, but it was pretty minor and there was no flaring out on the sides).

Pontiac wasted no time appropriating the Solaris’ elements, even if it was supposed to be used just for the ’64 A-Bodies.

The ’63 Tempest and LeMans also got the same hip treatment, but it looked a bit less organic on them.

One more year later, and the Solaris’ intended influence was on full display, as on this ’64 Pontiac Tempest four door. Curiously, the outward bulge clearly seen on the ’63s was now missing.

And there’s the coupe version too, of course. The hip rise has been modified a bit, but that was inevitable as the Solaris had many offspring to feed.

Isn’t it a curious coincidence that the two hottest cars of 1964-1965 had an almost identical belt-line/hip bump-up?

Here’s the Solaris with the fiberglass for the ’64 Buick Skylark/Special. While its influence is obvious, it’s also apparent that the Solaris’ flared side were a bit too much for the production ’64 A bodies.  But they would not go to waste.

The Olds F-85 ditched the crease for slab sides and put the trim higher, which accentuated its shoulder. That’s actually a bit retrograde, but to each their own.

The Chevelle was the plainest of the bunch, and its roof was softened a bit. But it did sport vestigial hips with a bit of outward bulge.

Was the Solaris the origin of the voluptuous hips found on so many of the ’65 GM B-Bodies? Unless someone can point me elsewhere, the obvious answer has to be yes. The vertical and horizontal expansion, accentuated by the horizontal crease here on the Pontiac, are straight from the Solaris, accentuated some, of course..

And in 1967, the Solaris’ hockey stick tail lights appeared on the Pontiac. They would stick around for a few more years.

The 1969 B-Body sedans finally nailed the way the Solaris’ “straight-side” rear door curves up just a bit to meet the C-Pillar, as well as the more voluptuous bulges of its sides. And of course the hockey stick tail lights make one more last outing.By 1971, the big GM cars had mostly moved on, although some of the Solaris’ genes could still be detected.

And the Solaris’ “curved side” rear window upkick was also on display on the various 1968 A Bodies.

Coupes as well as sedans.

I’m sure you’ll have more examples of the Solaris’ influence on other American GM cars, but let’s go overseas, as there it played perhaps its most definitive role.

click all images for full size

A few months earlier, in August of 1961, the International Studio had been given the green light to design the 1964 Opel Kapitän/Admiral/Diplomat (KAD) as well as the 1965 HD Holden. Mitchell was not happy with the initial concepts for either, which were based on the 1962 Chevy II. In this image, the two concepts for the big Opel as shown with its target, the fintail Mercedes.  We’ll get to the Holden later.

Leo Pruneau and Don Lasky, who had worked under Renner on the Solaris, were tasked with adapting the Solaris for both international projects. And as this shot of the Solaris with the Kapitän fiberglass concept (middle) and the final production Diplomat (bottom) shows, the influence was very great indeed. As in almost a dead ringer. The front end is of course different and the top end of the rear window frame is a bit more curved. FWIW, I prefer the quad headlight treatment over the production composite units. I thought they were cool at the time, but soon fatigued of them.

The fiberglass car’s front end has a nice Cadillac vibe to it.  Well, this was the very car that should/could have been turned into the Cadillac Seville, and this front end would have worked perfectly, better than the one Barry Koch and I came up with our Alter-History 1965 Seville.

Just like the Solaris, the Kapitän concept had two sides also. Did they just re-use the key fiberglass molds of the Solaris to make the Kapitän, or just remodeled the Solaris a bit?  Obviously, the production Opel used the “straight side” version, which might have been a mistake. It’s a bit to rectilinear for 1965, and Opels would soon enough sprout hips. Could have happened back in ’65.

And doesn’t Kapitän fiberglass (middle) front fender just cry out “1965 Impala”? For that matter, so do quite a few other elements, most obviously the hips and horizontal crease on its side.

And now we know just why the big Opels had so much family resemblance to GM’s A Bodies form the ’64 – ’67 era. They all stemmed from Mama Solaris.

Here’s what had been done for the new Holden up to this point (Dec.’61, Jan. ’62): three Chevy II-based clays styled by Stan Parker. At least two of them had curved side glass. But Mitchell was not satisfied, and turned Pruneau and Lasky loose with visions of Solaris dancing in their heads.

Mitchell had already moved responsibility for Holden styling back to Detroit when he was unhappy with the locally-created concept for the EH. Because the new HD Holden was still going to use the platform of the EH/EJ, it needed to be substantially narrower and a bit shorter.

Here’s what Pruneau and Lasky came up with, which obviously took more doing than re-using the Solaris body for the Opel. It’s more modest, but many of the essential Solaris elements are still on display.

Here’s the view from the rear.

The HD Holden was considered a bit too radical stylistically for the conservative Australians, and had a somewhat slow start. But they eventually got used to it, and it and its somewhat toned-down HR successor went on to become some of the most cherished classic Australian cars.

We could go on about the numerous other cars clearly influenced by the Solaris, like the 1966 Opel Kadett B.

Or the 1967 Vauxhall Viva HB.

I need to stop now. But I’m sure you’ll find others to add to the list.

Is it a coincidence that the Solaris’ styling influence was almost as (or equally) great as the 1960 Corvair, given that Carl Renner played a very big hand in that (along with Ned Nickles)? Of course not, although the Covair’s influence was primarily in Europe.

Renner was at the top of his game, but unfortunately it ended with the Solaris.

Not long after the Solaris was completed, Renner was diagnosed with a growth on his spine. Surgery resulted in the loss of the use of his two legs. Back in the good old days, a wheelchair was effectively a career-killer. GM took good care of its employees; Renner was given a consultancy until his retirement, and he apparently provided input on a number of projects. But his days as a lead designer were over.

Has there been another GM design concept since, with as much influence as the Solaris?


A hat tip to Jimmy, who linked to a Solaris article in the Australian publication Retro Autos at my 1966 Malibu sedan post. I took the ball and ran with it a bit further, as I’m wont to do.


Related reading at CC:

How the 1960 Corvair Started a Global Design Revolution

CC 1967 Chevelle Malibu Sedan: The American Big Opel