Monday, January 6, 2020

1985 Buick Wildcat
A Unique Blend of Art and Engineering

For 1985, Buick revived the name Wildcat for its sleek V-6 powered concept car. The label, Wildcat, was a familiar one to Buick enthusiasts; it appeared on three GM dream cars of the 1950s and from 1962-1970 was the name of the division’s sporty full-sized car. This rendition of the Wildcat was highly advanced – both in terms of its mechanical systems and aerodynamic styling – when it was first introduced. The 1985 Wildcat’s styling retains a futuristic look even 32 years after its debut.
Chuck Jordan
In 1982, the fourth Wildcat concept vehicle project was assigned to GM Design Staff with the direction of creating a car with specific mechanical appeal to emphasize Buick’s reputation for high-tech powertrains. A design that displayed its “mechanical guts” the way a motorcycle presents its engine for all to see and appreciate was a key goal. The director of design then at GM Design Staff, Chuck Jordan, described the Wildcat as a unique blend of art and engineering, of flowing sculptured surfaces punctuated by exposed mechanical elements. Jordan was quoted in a December 1985 Motor Trend article detailing the Wildcat as saying, “This was one of the best and toughest style jobs I’ve ever been on. It was a concept that Buick brought to us – to highlight a new high-technology engine with some of the mechanical appeal that a fine motorcycle has. We said, ‘That’s neat. We really ought to do that.’” What finally emerged from the drawing boards was spectacular and left a remarkable first impression on management types. As Jordan explained, “Whenever we can get [the executives] to come in and think it’s going the wrong way, think the front is where the back is, then we know we’ve succeeded.”

The result of three years work that left executives initially confused about where the front and back ends of the car were really located was a mid-engine car powered with a 230hp, 24-valve V-6 displacing 231 cubic inches (3.8 liters); it sat exposed behind the passenger compartment – a work of art and a precision mechanical device for all to see and appreciate. William L. Porter, who served as the chief designer of Buick Design Studio Number 1 at the time said, “Usually, our designs have minimized the mechanical elements. This notion of featuring mechanical components as part of the exterior design was a fresh idea, a dynamite idea for a concept car!”

The profile of the 1985 Wildcat was unique for the time with its long rear deck, short nose, and tinted clear bubble-like roof. “In designing the Wildcat, we were after a new design direction – a milestone car”, said Jordan. He pointed out that “there is no break in the line where the transparent part of the canopy meets the carbon fiber body.” The transparent canopy was not a new idea; it would have been called a bubbletop in the 1950s and 1960s, but this version looked futuristic rather than anachronistic. Technical breakthroughs in joining the transparent surfaces with the body were necessary to successfully achieve the desired look.

Just like the 1938 Buick Y-Job created by GM’s first styling chief, Harley Earl, nearly a half-century earlier, the Wildcat represented a laboratory on wheels. This concept car was a showcase of engineering innovation, including the high-tech V-6 engine with dual overhead camshafts (DOHC), field-programmable sequential-port fuel injection (SFI), and a performance version of Buick’s computer controlled coil ignition. Bore and stroke measured 3.8x 3.4 inches and peak horsepower was reached at 6,000rpm. Torque was rated at 245 ft.-lb. at 4,000rpm. Precise adjustments of the rate of fuel flow from inside the car were made possible with the SFI setup. The induction system incorporated runners for power and response while the Computer Controlled Coil Ignition (C3I) used an electronic control module in place of a standard distributor and ignition coil. Precise ignition spark was provided by the C3I system by taking into account variable factors such as engine speed, spark advance, air flow, coolant temperature, and detonation. This setup was calibrated to function at up to 13,000rpm though redline was initially set at 6,000rpm. According to Joseph M. Negri, who was manager of Buick Special Products at the time, the Wildcat’s engine was “the logical extension of our work” because the division had a strong reputation on the highways and race tracks (such as Indy) for technical leadership in V-6 engines.

Furthermore, the advanced vehicle featured full-time four-wheel drive, four-wheel disc brakes, independent suspension, anti-lock braking system, and a cockpit full of electronic instrumentation. The primary instruments – the tachometer, oil pressure, battery, fuel level, and coolant temperature – were placed in the stationary hub of the steering wheel. A cathode ray tube (CRT) displayed information on G-forces during a turn, horsepower and torque, spark function, percent of tire slippage, low air pressure warning for each tire, and oil pressure. At the time, CRT systems required a relatively lengthy warm-up period, so the Wildcat’s CRT filaments began the process as soon as the driver touched the door release. By 1990, a CRT touch screen was offered in the new Oldsmobile Trofeo.

The Wildcat lacked conventional doors, but rather the solenoid-actuated canopy pivoted at the front end of the car. The metallic gray interior was the work of several designers including Brian Baker, Nelly Toledo, and Corwin Hanson. In a phone interview with the author many years ago, Chuck Jordan said of the Wildcat’s systems that, “Buick was big on electronics. This is illustrated by the dash, steering wheel, and heads-up display. We pulled out every trick we could, but knew some would fall by the wayside.” Even so, “It was exciting because it wasn’t a typical Buick,” he added.

The fourth Buick show car to wear the Wildcat name did not greatly influence the look of the division’s forthcoming production cars, but served as a showcase for its high-tech V-6 engine which became the basis of the high-performance Buick Grand National and Turbo Regal of the 1980s. As Chuck Jordan explained its purpose, “It showed Buick had some ‘spark!’” The venerable 3.8 liter V-6, with its beginnings in the early 1960s, remained in production though 2008, though with only two valves per cylinder for the duration.