(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groundbreaking research about the Solaris and, with GM’s copyright permission, was able to access rare and previously unpublished images of the concept.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 Shannons.com 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
You forgot one. That front is just different enough to emphasize that Ford tweaked it a little. It has the kickup and the crease, too.
I didn’t forget it. I made it quite clear that there were undoubtedly many other cars influenced by it, but I didn’t have time or space to list them all. The Torino’s front end is a good example though. By that time, hips were ubiquitous.
I thought the same thing. An awful lot of Fords of the 1970-72 era seemed cribbed from GM styling – Bunkie Knudsen’s brief tenure surely contributed to this.
BTW, this short-lived Torino was a really attractive car in the right body style, and the 4 door hardtop may be it.
That’s what my 1970 Torino Brougham looked like–same color, same black vinyl top. The headlights were behind vacuum-operated covers, though. Hard to believe the car could be traced back to the lowly Falcon!
Wow! I’ve been reading magazines and books and websites on this subject since 1954, and never saw this concept before. Thanks for bringing it to full attention.
GM’s Brazilian Opala also echoed the left side.
Opel Rekord 1965
I shouldn’t have fallen as far down into this rabbit hole as I found myself, as I am in the office after all. But I love pieces like this. It’s just a deep enough dive to inspire plenty of referring back to it as other examples of Solaris influenced designs pop up.
Paul, I love your deep dives into automotive body design. Having grown up with annual body style changes, without any background or context, I always wondered how decisions got made about styling changes from year to year.
Now I see how they are the result of a review of styling exercises (and liberal “borrowing” from other successful designs). And corporate politics.
I see so much of the back end of Dad’s 68 Catalina in these designs. But I also see the turn-in at the bottom of the wheel openings on the 69 Impala. So that’s where those details came from-a design study from 1961. I wonder what the designs on the computers of the automotive stylists of today will look like in a few years, when we see them on the road.
A very elegant design study. I’m always impressed with the amount of effort and precision that GM invested in its design process. Obviously, other manufacturers did too, but IMHO nobody did it like GM in those days. The proof is in the scope of their worldwide influence. So many beautiful models from the General in the 60’s!
Wow, I have to comment on the 1956 Flying Roof drawing by Renner before I even finish the rest of the article. This thing is full of “previews of coming attractions” – I see the tail fins of the 59 Pontiac and the grille of the 61 Pontiac, as well as the “skegs” of the 61 Cadillac. There is surely more.
So many things from this study. The 1969 B body Chevrolet with its unusual oval wheel openings, and even the front end of the 1964 Oldsmobile 88 and 98.
The beltline of the 1969-70 B body sedans was the first thing I saw from the straight side. There is even a lot of the Dodge Dart Swinger in that earliest picture of the curved side in clay, particularly in the lower body sculpting and wheel opening shapes.
And I will forever wonder what led to the 1964 Chevrolet A body losing every bit of sharpness and crispness that shows up in the roof of the BOP versions. The 1964 A body cars was one of the few times the Oldsmobile was vying for most beautiful of a 4 contestant contest, Pontiac being the only other real threat that year.
Thanks for such an informative article. Lots of good design here–and those 1963 Pontiacs raised my pulse rate significantly..
Solaris is such a perfect name in the era of the space race it’s a wonder how it didn’t end up on a production vehicle at GM, let alone somewhere else. Shades of the Oldsmobile Antares some 40 years earlier, it would seem.
GM’s diaspora spread the influence quickly. It’s very obvious that Leo Pruneau adopted much of the Solaris ‘curved’ side styling for both the HB Viva shown and, even more so, his subsequent FD Victor when he was assigned to Vauxhall. The early clays for the FD even had the blade front ( see http://vauxpedianet.uk2sitebuilder.com/vauxhall-fd-94000—victor-vx490-ventora ).
The straight lined KAD A is handsome too, though I agree four headlights on the mock-up look better still than the final version (so familiar from my old Matchbox model). In that respect I’m glad they went with the Canadian spec. headlights on the FD.
The FD Victor was a great car especially in 3300 form which was popular here, fitting the Cresta powertrain was a master stroke, nothing else on the market went that well in that size car.
I always thought the 1963 Victor FC was the first British car with curved side-glass. It had the “blade” front end too, but not the curved hips.
The FC also looks rather like the Holden HD around the cabin (and pre-dated it in introduction by a year). Perhaps there’s another connection there.
No question about it; the FC has the Solaris’ influence, from the bladed fenders to the curved glass. I meant to include it; I even had a picture downloaded, then I got distracted and forgot it.
As I said, you all will fill in the blanks.
One design element in the Solaris that propagated to the 1964 GM intermediates (and several of the foreign examples pictured here) was the relatively flat windshield with its lower corners forming arcs rather than sharp angles. The change to a more curved windshield for 1968 (with a base behind the raised rear edge of the hood, to accommodate the “hiding” windshield wipers) was a major factor in making the 1964-67 cars look instantly antiquated.
Oh yes the designs are very farmiliar on the GM cars we had here the new 64 Vauxhall Velox dad bought which was replaced with the facelift Holden HR model, the HD had other issues the HR adressed other than the ‘radical’ styling most of the hanging panels and a lot of the body sections were not vented adequately leading to shocking rust problems in humid climates like coastal Australia and New Zealand, we expect cars to last longer than that model did.
This is a stunning design. If it were painted and trimmed and I saw it at the street, it sould scream “GM” at me without having a cue of its brand, though Opel KAD is through my eyes the car that ended up most similar.
Thanks for sharing this, Paul. I had never seen this prototype.
Great stuff, as always from Paul when he gets tempted by a rabbit hole.
As others have mentioned, various Vauxhalls – FC, FD, HB but also the Cortina Mk3 and maybe event he Hillman Hunter/Sunbeam Arrow.
The Solaris was a really attractive shape. To my eyes nicer than what ended up as the 1964 GM intermediates. I can just imagine how extra gorgeous the Vista Cruiser/Sport Wagon variants would have been. Although it’s pretty much the Kapitan, that extended kidney-cutter front end does wonders for the proportions.
This is the best article I’ve read detailing the design origins of the 1960’s generation of GM cars. Thank you for your in depth research and analysis, I learned a great deal.
I would note the kick-up on the top of the rear fender-line without the bulge on the sides is the influence of the 1956-’57 Continental Mark II. It appeared on so many of these subsequent GM lines as well as very successfully on the Mustang.
Great job going even further than Shannon’s did with this concept. I see so many GM 60’s designs in the Solaris. MST definitely the bigger Opels seem to have been the closest to the concept car. I do see a bit of 65 Impala in the Opel Diplomat; always have. So much so, that as a kid, I took one of my Matchbox Opel Diplomats( I had three) and painted six round taillights on the back, Impala trim on the rocker and lower rear 1/4’s, painted four round headlights and to me, it passed as a 65 Impala sedan on my village layout.
I call them Fu Manchu taillights.
Fascinating post. Never knew of this Solaris concept. It’s like listening to a song demo, but for a whole double album. Thank you for the education, in the best CC tradition!
I think AMC must have taken a shine to it. It reminded me of the Matador coupe in this photo.
thought the same
As an aside having mentioned the Chevy II, has anyone else noticed how it predicted the first Riviera a year later? The side crease and fender/door section view is basically the same. GM could do that in 1962-3, launch a successful cheap car and the next year launch a successful pricey dream car with so many of the same styling cues. 20-odd years later they couldn’t and when they tried it didn’t go well.
I can see design influences on the Vauxhall victor fc,fd and to a lesser extent the fe (around the rear door area) and of course the Cresta PC is very close
Excellent read Paul! I hadn’t seen the Solaris before you article and it i quite astonishing how influential it was. I can see so many other cars that drew from this concept. I agree with Don’s comments above, that this was a really very attractive car, and in many ways more attractive than the 1964 A-bodies. It certainly was a more advanced design in my eyes. I also really like the look of that Kapitän fiberglass concept. The quad round lights looked a lot better than what reached production.
The rear doors look like a direct fit for a Vauxhall Ventora.
EXCELLENT article Paul. I love to hear about the design processes of the big 3. Have you ever done a writeup of the ’61 Lincoln, and it’s ensuing decades of influence? I’d love to read that one, as I have one of Engle’s ’67 C-bodies.
Carl Renner was an extraordinary designer and influenced many cars beyond those mentioned in this article. The artwork shown here was done for the opening of a new civic building in Detroit around 1951. Beyond the beauty of this design parts of which showed up in the ‘54-‘55 GM redesigns, the background artwork and dress and facial expression of the driver say something about the depth of Renner’s creativity.
Quite some trip, this. Wonderful.
For mine, the Kapitan protoype is the best of the lot.
The HD protos are a bit dull, but the final HD doesn’t work either. Hoiked up on its springs for local roads, too narrow-tracked on the old-model underpinnings, blank-faced and too narrow to carry off this swoopy style generally – makes the front blades too prominent as they’re not far enough apart – the effect is pretty dour and boxy, rather than low and happening. Add to that the severe panel rust problems they soon got, and they weren’t liked.
Incidentally, the Hastily Revised (HR) that followed was liked better and the bad rust problem was greatly reduced, but apart from something like a top-line Premier wagon in perfect nick, they aren’t much cherished. (And if you ever drove one, with that wide body on top of the billycart track with silly 13 inch crossplies, you’d understand other reasons for the lack of cherishment: their handling was awful).
Thanks, Paul. Like many here, this was a surprising and great find.
What a smart move to work with a sedan as the concept, because over the years so many coupe concepts haven’t translated well into four doors. Reminds me of something Lee Clow, the legendary Chiat/Day creative director told me. He’d always have his teams solve for the print ad concept first, before moving on to TV, because print ads are the hardest to get right.