After nearly twenty three years of waiting, Ed Welburn , General Motors’ vice president of design, finally had a chance to slip behind his favorite project — the Oldsmobile Aerotech — for the very first time. Welburn learned lessons designing the Aerotech that are still helping him design cars that balance aerodynamic requirements with appealing exteriors, but it wasn’t until September 24, 2010 that he learned what it was like to be behind the wheel of the record-breaking concept car.
Although the sleek, high-performance single-seater seems like the stereotypical concept car fodder dreamt up by pie-in-the-sky stylists, the Aerotech wasn’t exactly the brainchild of General Motors’ Design Staff.
Credit for the entire program is largely due to a small group of Oldsmobile engineers and managers seeking to show off a new engine while simultaneously pushing their troubled division into the limelight.
In late 1984, Oldsmobile was wrapping up development of the Quad 4, a new inline four-cylinder engine design that incorporated dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. This isn’t exactly heady technology by today’s standards, but it was relatively innovative for a four-cylinder, let alone one crafted by GM in 1984. Olds touted the engine as the perfect mixture of fuel economy and power, and the Quad 4 certainly delivered the latter. In its early 2.3-liter displacement days, the engine was capable of delivering 150 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque, eclipsing other domestic four-bangers and rivaling competitors’ V-6 offerings (Honda’s 2.5-liter V-6, for instance, was rated at 151 horsepower and 154 pound-feet in 1986).
Olds’ top officials were bullish on the Quad 4’s potential, but none more so than Ted Louckes, the division’s chief engineer and father of the Quad 4. Louckes quickly formed a group to develop the Aerotech, a so-called research vehicle designed primarily to demonstrate the Quad 4’s performance potential to consumers and engineers alike through setting a world speed record.
Aero Is King
By the time designers were informed of the Aerotech project, Louckes and company had established most of the program’s specifications. The car would consist of a slick, GM-designed carbon-fiber body riding on a modified March 84C CART chassis, similar to that used to win the Indianapolis 500 that year. Power would come from a Quad 4, of course, albeit a turbocharged, 2.0-liter variant capable of spitting out over 900 horsepower.
That mission floored Welburn, then the assistant chief designer in the Oldsmobile studio. Although he was primarily tasked with crafting the exterior for the 1988 Cutlass Supreme, Welburn was infatuated with endurance racecars — cars that bore a remarkable resemblance to what Louckes was looking for.
“I loved cars that ran at Le Mans,” Welburn told Automobile, “like the Porsche 917s, and especially the Chaparrals. I often found myself sketching such vehicles as a side while working on the W [body] cars, and the Aerotech project was my dream assignment.”
Welburn found himself sketching a number of elongated, slippery race car shapes in early 1985, but a single drawing was apparently all it took. His first Aerotech concept rendering quickly caught the eye of Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac executive design director Len Casillo, who quickly ran it up the flagpole to design director Chuck Jordan and design vice president Irv Rybicki. Both men quickly gave their approval.
“I kept telling them I had other ideas; other sketches,” Welburn chuckles. “But they were sold on the first sketch.”
After logging long hours working on the Cutlass Supreme and other production vehicles, Welburn, along with sculptor Kirk Jones, would labor on the clay models in secret at night. Although the first draft appeased Welburn’s bosses, it would need to be vetted in the wind tunnel — after all, cutting aerodynamic drag plays a large part in improving a vehicle’s top speed.
“His initial design was very good,” recalls Max Schenkel, an aerodynamicist at GM who also served as a staff engineer on the Aerotech project. “It had a lot of potential for low drag, but we needed to refine a few aspects.”
Wind tunnel testing, performed both at GM’s Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, and abroad by March’s staff, pushed the designer to round the Aerotech’s nose and refine the canopy shape, along with moving the cooling system intakes from the sides to the top of the fenders. Welburn’s original concept called for faired-in wheel wells, but Goodyear engineers expressed concern that such a design would retain heat and reduce tire life.
Arguably, Aerotech’s biggest aerodynamic trick lurks underneath its sinewy form. The car is fitted with adjustable underbody panels from bumper to bumper, which incorporate deep air channels that run the entire length of the car. This system not only created a tremendous amount of downforce, but also allowed crews to precisely dial it in for different courses.
Welburn’s original design called for a long tail, inspired by the famed Porsche 917LH, but this conflicted with Louckes’ plan for legendary Indy 500 driver A.J. Foyt to drive Aerotech to a closed course record at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A long tail may be the ultimate low-drag shape, but a short tail — coupled with a secondary pedestal spoiler — provided the proper downforce for Indy’s corners.
Track Tested, FIA Approved
While GM, March, and Foyt’s own employees were hard at work piecing together the Aerotech, plans to run the car at the Brickyard fell apart, thanks in no small part to GM’s legendary inter-brand politics and bureaucracy. Louckes’ team chose instead to make a pass at the closed-course speed record at the Fort Stockton Test Center in Texas.
Before that could happen, however, Foyt needed to shake down the car. By late 1986, construction had wrapped on the first Aerotech, which was then shipped to GM’s proving grounds in Mesa, Arizona, for preliminary testing. Foyt was a little skeptical of a car built with flamboyant bodywork and without his input, but soon found himself at home in the Aerotech at speeds up to 218 mph around Mesa’s banked oval.
“After the first shakedown runs in Mesa, Foyt was just thrilled,” Welburn recalls. “The relationship between AJ and I shifted considerably once he saw how stable the car could be.”
The success of the Mesa runs, coupled with the forced change of venue, prompted Oldsmobile to revisit Welburn’s original long-tail design. Construction of a second Aerotech was ordered at the end of 1985. Built again from a March chassis, the second car was almost a dead ringer for the first, but differed in two ways — the rear bodywork was elongated and tapered downwards, and the Batten-built single-turbo Quad 4 was replaced by a twin-turbo 2.0-liter developed with a little help from Fueling Engineering. Olds never talked specifics, but the twin-turbo Quad 4 was reportedly good for more than 1000 horsepower.
The Oldsmobile camp descended upon Fort Stockton on August 26, 1987, with Foyt’s team, FIA officials, and the requisite safety crews in tow. Initial runs with the short-tail Aerotech fell just shy of the 250.919 mph closed-course speed record held by Mercedes-Benz’s CIII-IV prototype, prompting the crews to improvise aerodynamic modifications (i.e. taping over the cabin air inlet) to eke additional speed from the car. In the meantime, Foyt hopped into the long-tail car, which had yet to be shaken down and tested on a track. After a few practice runs, he was blitzing through the flying mile at an amazing 275 mph.
The next day, Foyt made flying mile runs in both directions of the track, averaging 267.399 mph, a record that remains unbroken. Following that, Foyt switched to the short Aerotech, laying down a closed-course speed record of 257.123 mph, easily surpassing the C111-IV’s previous record.
Four More Cylinders, Five Years Later
The record breaking proved to be great exposure for Oldsmobile, and the Aerotech was used as in print ads, TV spots, and even made the rounds at various auto shows (a non-running model was fitted with a gussied-up interior for use on the show circuit). After that, however, both cars were shuffled off to a warehouse, seemingly relegated to history.
Ironically, Olds found itself with a similar situation in 1992. The division was readying a new DOHC 4.0-liter V-8 for its forthcoming Aurora luxury sedan, and to prove the engine’s mettle, the division turned once again to its streamliners. World records were again the name of the game, but this time, the Aerotechs were gunning to set new endurance speed records.
While a third running car was constructed from scratch, both short-and long-tails were dusted off and updated for their latest quest. To accommodate running 24-hours straight, the Aerotechs were blessed with enclosed headlamps, functional tail and brake lamps, and a roof-mounted flashing identification lamp. Other modifications for the endurance running included a reshaped air intake, smaller rear wheels and taller profile tires all around, a reshaped canopy, and a new monochromatic paint scheme.
Unlike the first Aerotechs, the revamped endurance cars were fitted with virtually stock engines. Modifications were restricted to revised camshafts, custom intake and exhaust systems, specialized engine tuning, and small tweaks designed to facilitate engine replacement, if so needed.
The three Aurora Aerotechs once again returned to the Fort Stockton track on September 4, 1992, and proceeded to run for eight days straight. In the process, the cars managed to set nearly 47 different speed records, including the FIA average speed record for a 10,000-kilometer run (170.761 mph) and a 25,000 kilometer journey (158.386 mph). According to Oldsmobile releases issued at the time, the eight-day run was roughly the equivalent of running 31 Indy 500 races back-to-back.
First Drive, Decades After
All three cars were driven hard, put away wet, and generally forgotten about. Although they occasionally made appearances at car shows across the country (even after Oldsmobile’s demise in 2004), the Aerotechs appeared to be forgotten — even by Welburn.
That changed in September, however, as he was walking through the design studios. One group was working on a low-drag vehicle design, and had a number of photos posted for inspiration — one of which was the original Aerotech.
“That made me smile,” Welburn noted, “but it also got me thinking. It’s one of those things; whenever I see the photographs, I just can’t believe I never had a chance to drive it. Foyt, endurance racers, and a handful of technicians were the only ones who ever did.”
Luckily, Welburn was able to make his dream come true just before jetting across the pond for the 2010 Paris motor show. After engineers pulled an Aurora Aerotech from the warehouse and inspected its various components for damage, the car was shipped to the company’s Milford proving grounds, where we joined Welburn to witness his milestone.
The Aerotech’s wild shape is certainly evident even in the worst press photos, but it’s incredibly low, long, and flowing when viewed in person. It’s also quite loud; despite the V-8 being close to stock, its open exhausts produce an amazingly coarse burble at idle, and an intimidating growl when its throttle is goosed. Despite being limited to a 61-mph top speed on the facility’s north-south straightway, Welburn had plenty of opportunity to do just that. We couldn’t help but grin at the noise, but our enjoyment paled in comparison to the toothy smile Welburn wore after prying himself from the miniscule cockpit after several laps.
“I can’t believe it,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “It’s absolutely unreal to drive. It’s so fast, and just feels so good. I wish we could have gotten it up to some decent speeds – it seems so effortless to build up speed.”
We may not be cruising around in Oldsmobiles capable of eclipsing 250 mph (or any new Oldsmobiles, for that matter), but the Aerotech project did have some influence on modern GM vehicles, particularly in aerodynamics.
“Aero is very important to me today,” Welburn notes, “and I credit that push and knowledge to being involved with Aerotech. [Many] of the fundamentals I’ve learned directly came from the opportunity to work directly with aerodynamicists.”
“Ed did spend a lot of time in the wind tunnel, and modeling the car himself,” Schenkel recalls. “That’s fairly uncommon for designer. Usually, clay modelers do this work, but his willingness to jump in and work on the car’s shape did help the job go quicker.”
Indeed, when it came time to evolve the Chevrolet Volt concept into a production vehicle, Welburn knew aero would be an important factor — and he knew just who to call for advice. Schenkel and other aerodynamicists lent a hand in optimizing the plug-in hybrid’s shape for reducing drag — an important point, considering the original concept had a drag coefficient of 0.43 cD, which is worse than that of a Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (0.36 cD).
A four-seat, five-door family car bears little resemblance to a record-breaking race car, but a number of the tricks employed in the Aerotech’s design do reappear in the Volt’s finalized form. The front corners have been rounded considerably to cut drag, while the fog lamp recesses have been exchanged in favor of a flush design.
The Volt’s sides, especially in front of the rear wheel wells, are remarkably flat; as was the case on Aerotech, this helps direct airflow over — not into — the rear wheels. Underneath the car, the Volt utilizes a set of three panels to direct air, although they’re not designed to generate downforce like those on the Oldsmobile.
Will we ever see GM demonstrate new technologies in such a wild fashion? Welburn thinks it’s important to illustrate what the automaker is working on, but thinks a vehicle rooted in reality may do the job better.
“We still have a number of internal concepts that are never shown publicly, and there is still some need to prove ourselves through motorsports, but we can showcase new technologies in actual production vehicles, like the Volt. In the new GM, our teams are able to use such creativity with every project. It’s a refreshing air of change.”