Design Analysis: The 1965 “Pontiac” Vivant

Herb Adams's dream car from the 1960s is way more than it seems.

Robert CumberfordwriterEvan Kleinphotographer

On the Pebble Beach Concours field two years ago, I was startled by a General Motors dream car from the '60s I could not recall ever seeing or reading about in magazines. Build quality was definitely up to the exceptional standards of GM Styling Section shops as I knew them when I worked there, but the styling was puzzling. Less "decorated" than usual for GM, it incorporated a typical '60s wedge profile, yet there was a clear reference to the fins on Franco Scaglione's three early-'50s BAT (Bertone Aerodynamica Technica) concept cars, toned down.

Long after the Concours, I learned that the obviously Pontiac-themed Vivant wasn't a GM project at all, but the private effort of one man. A supremely capable man but still only a single inspired and passionate individual who financed the whole project from his own earnings, not a corporate budget, and who did most of the work himself. That the man—Herb Adams—was a Pontiac engineer when that now-gone GM division was run by performance-oriented John DeLorean, is credited with developing Pontiac's GTO, and is often cited as "The Father of the Firebird" explains both the marque reference and whence came his engineering competence.

Whatever its origins, the styling theme is executed with true elegance, and if there are a couple of details that jar the eye, the overall design is simply superb, a slim dart intended to slip through the air with minimum resistance and maximum side-wind stability. Its complete lack of weather protection, bumpers, side rearview mirrors, and door handles is typical of dream/idea/show/concept one-offs, but that doesn't affect the Vivant's utility. Adams drove it regularly for a dozen years, so it was street legal despite the lack of provision for those items or license plates. Michigan was always easier on automobile regulation than most states, not even requiring any rearview mirrors until January 1, 1955.

Talking about his Arnolt Bristol and BAT designs, Scaglione told me he was trying to express "the sheetness of sheetmetal." I believe Adams did that even better here. He admits to being inspired by the Italian maestro when he hand-carved his initial model, as I was when those cars appeared in the '50s. But there's little that's Italian in the final design. The Vivant looks as American as it is in fact, in particular its non-circular wheel openings, a visual characteristic a tiny car could not carry off. Somehow the small Vivant looks like a bigger car, another national preference that makes sense. Making an individual car like this is still possible but vastly more difficult than it was for Adams 50-some years ago. There are too many new requirements, too many expensive elements to add, too many naysayers in positions of petty power eager to obstruct individual initiatives. This level of passion is more often diverted to hot rods that purport to be older cars, for which there was a degree of freedom we no longer have.

Pity. This is a great design.


1. The frameless windshield upper edge is a magnificent idea but completely at odds with statutory safety requirements. Originally the transparency was Plexiglas.

2. This raised square over the air cleaner, not fitting the flowing lines in any way, is a Vivant surface element that probably would not have been done by a good professional stylist.

3. The line that begins at the nose and ends, inverted, at the horizontal blade of the tail is actually a raised section about 2 inches wide, an innovation I don't remember seeing on any other car.

4. The outer edge of the twin nostrils is a perfect oval, something I tried to achieve at GM 10 years earlier than this execution, but the inner part is angled and comes to a point.

5. The headlamps are too low for most jurisdictions, but they can do their job with this positioning

6. Sweeping the plan-view line forward results in this dynamic point on the nose.

7. A soft radius around the entire opening of the twin air inlets gives the front end a sense of substance.

8. This area is simply superb, a hard line coming off of the nose disappearing into the main surface then reappearing almost immediately as the leading edge of a body-length fin.

9. Handsome wheels with eight-bolt fixation to drum brakes were an option on big Pontiacs. They're only 15 inches in diameter, giving you a sense of scale for this quite small roadster.

10. The huge exhaust pipe suggests a very big engine inside the svelte shape, which was indeed the case: a cast-off Pontiac-engineering modified unit sold for $75 as scrap.

11. Today, when body sills are regularly twisted and distorted for visual effect, it's refreshing to see a simple, straight section nicely parallel to the ground plane.

1. A blade expressing the nature of the material from which it is made really does emphasize "sheetness. "
2. Where the design mastery shows best is the way the tip of the fin is razor-sharp in one view, just a subtle break in the profile on the other side.
3. One of the nicest aspects of the bodywork is the inverse curvature of the base of the fins running the full length of the car.

1. Tip of the fins is well forward of the body's extreme length.

2. The rear cut of the very long door is surprisingly far aft, on the rear axle centerline.

3. The rake angle of the windscreen, really just a deflector. As the glass height is so low, it's functionally ideal and aesthetically acceptable.

4. This line is the one thing I think of as "wrong" on this car. It runs diagonally upward, too straight to ally with the fin profile, is at odds with the base, and intersects and disrupts the highlight along with the bodywork's widest point.

5. The wheel openings' flattened tops are a sort of '60s timestamp and very American. They work well to emphasize the length.

6. The severely upswept tail provides an excellent departure angle, but that detail doesn't matter on a low roadster as it does on an off-road 4x4.

It's almost impossible to look at the cockpit and imagine that it's a one-off private effort, most especially because of the expensive professional nameplate, the elaborate hand rails on the console sides, and the precisely framed textured metal baseplates.

1. The simplicity of the doors' inner panels is highly agreeable. No fuss, no muss, no bother.

2. The wood-rimmed steering wheel is fashionably thin-rimmed and rather good-looking.

3. The speedometer and tachometer look highly professional but are unfashionably small compared to Italian and British practice of the period.

4. No question, the "living" or "alive" nameplate is an impressive piece of work.

5. More gauges than necessary. But it was an engineer's car.

6. This textured panel ahead of the passenger is also impressive.

7. The seats look good in a show-car way but do not appear to have any ergonomic ideas applied.

8. Hard to think of this as anything but a production part.

9. The raised band on the front of the body is recapitulated as an indented band on the rear body, fading just before the trailing blade across the tail.

1. The fin profile edge is an exceptionally beautiful curve, tight at the front, constantly opening and flattening as it moves rearward.

2. The body cross section, too, moves from being very full and round at the front, gradually flattening to become almost vertical at the tip of the fin, then curling under the radius of the body-wide point at about the fin's tip.

3. The indented section at the centerline defines the tail profile.

4. The tip of the fin represents a very slight profile break in this view.

5. The under-tail sheetmetal continues quite far forward, straight across the car at the back of the rear wheel cuts.

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