1955 GMC LÚniverselle

Bean counters pulled the pin on V8-powered van

GMC’s V8-powered, front-wheel drive van is the star of the fourth instalment in our Motorama series of dream cars.

Yes, a van. And a mini-van at that. 

It was front wheel drive, too and GM called it the L’Universelle.

It was both innovative and practical for its time. 

If you had been at GM’s Motorama extravaganza, which travelled the United States in 1955, you would have seen this unique van. 

It was sponsored by the GMC truck division, who wanted to expand their reach into car-like trucks, and was styled by Charles Jordan. 

He would eventually become GM’s global styling boss.

The van’s innovative aspect came from its front wheel drive layout attached to a mid-mounted 287 cubic inch Pontiac V8 engine, joined to a HydraMatic transmission. 

The whole power train was turned 180 degrees in order to drive the front wheels.

Back then GMC engineers were sceptical about front wheel drive so they bought an old US Army surplus Jeep and disconnected the rear axle. 

After driving the Jeep around for a few weeks the engineers found that they liked the layout so much they patented the idea of a front drive van.

The practical part of the van was its low floor and load height (thanks to front wheel drive) and its fold up side and rear doors which split in the middle. 

The split meant that the doors took up very little space when opened and could be closed easily by one person.

The impractical aspect was the V8 engine’s placement behind the driver.

This led to the radiator being connected to a roof mounted air scoop in order for it to receive an adequate air supply, which was boosted by twin fans.

The details of this complicated arrangement can be seen in the patent application below.

The L’Universelle was a big hit at the Motorama, so much so that it almost went into production. 

GMC went so far as to buy a metal stamping press that could create its roof in one pressing.

Then the bean counters did the sums and it was discovered that a production version would cost more than a Cadillac to build, because the complicated front drive V8 layout would be unique and could not be amortised across other cars. 

The L’Universelle went into storage and was then destroyed. 

Its overall shape was later reflected in the rear-engine Greenbrier van which was based on the Corvair platform.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos.com.au

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