Chevrolet introduced a concept
car for the 1967 show season that was clearly Corvair-derived, though it was not promoted as such. It was the radical Astro
I, and nearly 40 years later, it still remains one of the most innovative Dream Cars ever to come from General Motors.
The Astro I was designed under
the direction of GM Vice President of Design, Bill
Mitchell, with the actual work being led by Larry
Shinoda. The first thing that showgoers noticed about the red and black two-seater was how
low to the ground it was, with an overall height of just 35.5 inches.
Up front, the nose design of the
bright red Astro was quite similar to the Mako
Shark show car, and also predicted the 1968 production Corvette, though on a smaller scale. Twin rectangular
grilles were set in a V’d nose section, while hidden pop-up headlamps were located on the leading edge of the hood section,
just above the grilles. A small hatch was located on the hood surface to facilitate access to the master cylinder, windshield
washer tank and the battery. A three-element periscope was used in lieu of a rear view mirror. It gave the driver a wider
field of view and compensated for the lack of rear glass.
The rear of the Astro I actually
resembled a design one might find on a Can-Am of the era. Pop-up panels provided air braking when needed and air extractors
on the rear deck vented engine compartment heat. A recessed license plate housing was trimmed in chrome and set in the middle
of the tail panel. A large lip that merged the quarter panels and deck framed the tail panel itself. Simulated vents, located
on the tail panel directly behind the wheels hid the small, slotted tail lamps.
Without a doubt, the Astro I’s
most unusual feature was its method of allowing passengers in and out. With such a low overall height, conventional doors
were not going to work. Instead, Mitchell’s team went with a wild clamshell entry system that really made the show car
crowd stop and take notice. The entire body aft of the windshield was one piece and tilted up and back with a large screw
mechanism. At the same time, the two bucket seats lifted out of their normal positions to aid getting in and out. Once the
driver and passenger were seated and strapped in, the clamshell would close and they would be lowered into their normal semi-reclined
seating position. Once inside, the driver was presented with a variety of aircraft-inspired design cues, ranging from the
"head-to-toe" bucket seats, the control pod to the left of the driver and the twin handgrips that replaced the conventional
steering wheel. Very little was conventional about the Astro I.
The Astro I also sported a complete
four-wheel independent suspension system. Custom control arms were used at all four corners, as were disc brakes and custom
magnesium eight bolt wheels, which featured removable outer rims available in a variety of widths. The two-seater was fitted
with 5.5-inch wide wheels in the front and 7-inch wide wheels in the rear. Prototype Goodyear redline tires were used.
Due to its very low profile, a
conventional V8 engine could not be used, so a Corvair powerplant ended up in the one-off machine. Chevy engineers came up
with a very special variant of the air-cooled, horizontally-opposed six-cylinder. New cylinder heads were designed for the
larger engine. They featured a belt driven, SOHC valve train, hemispherical combustion chambers and inclined valves. The carburetion
came from a pair of prototype GM three-barrel, inline carburetors that used Weber internals. The castings were designed to
place the carburetor barrels right over the ports, giving the air-fuel mixture a straight shot at the valves.
Although it was never a runner,
the 1967 Astro I was a huge hit for Chevrolet and for GM Styling. Show goers were simply astounded by the two-seaters proportions.
It seemed impossible to them that a closed car less than three feet high could actually accommodate passengers-until the clamshell
entry system was revealed. The Chevy Astro I is still owned by GM and was completely restored several years ago. Now it is
part of the GM
Heritage Center Collection. Though the Astro I was
never intended as a production car, it nonetheless features a variety of innovations that have yet to reach the marketplace,
all packaged in a design that looks very modern-even today. As it did 41 years ago, at its debut at the 1967 New York Auto
Show, it still has no problem blowing away present-day car enthusiasts.