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The wild 1980s Pontiac Stinger nailed the future of car design

It was just a concept, and Pontiac is now defunct. But the Pontiac Stinger’s ideas live on 30 years later.

The wild 1980s Pontiac Stinger nailed the future of car design
[Photo: General Motors LLC]

Back in 1989, most cars were still boxy. To be premium was to add leather and power windows. Sedans were king, and aspired to match the suits everyone still wore to work. For adventure, you bought a sports car like the Pontiac Trans Am, or perhaps a Jeep Wrangler. #Vanlife was not a thing.

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[Photo: General Motors LLC]
And then, from an impulse buried deep in societal consciousness, an audacious concept emerged from General Motors. It was the Pontiac Stinger, a sport utility vehicle designed for beach adventures. Admittedly, I’d never seen the Stinger before its promo video was unearthed by Digg last week, and the Pontiac brand has long been defunct. But now? I’m in love. Despite never going into production, the Stinger predicted a whole sector of the vehicle market to come, based around exploring and experience.

The Stinger was a two-door, four-seat car that was purpose-designed for beach goers—something like a street legal dune buggy. Carbon fiber paneling housed an open air, calf-height hole in the doors, revealing a bit of the driver’s skin like a bikini. You could put a window in this panel for rainy days, but Pontiac’s designers also mocked up a narrow “travel case and refreshment cooler” that slipped right inside the hole. That skinny cooler popped right out to set up with your picnic. Meanwhile, windows wrapped all the way over your head into the t-top roof, and they were removable to create a convertible feel.

[Photo: General Motors LLC]
Inside, the car was completely kitted out for sports and leisure. The interior featured a slick integrated tool kit hidden inside the dash paneling, a dust buster (yep! Dyson wasn’t making vacuums yet!), a garden hose (which sounds hilarious, but would be handy for rinsing off beach gear), and a matching stove and folding picnic bench that popped out of the back like a spare tire. Wetsuit material bucket seats weren’t afraid to get wet, even though they featured smart, electronic memory adjustments and drawer storage underneath. Finally, the rear seats could pop up 15 inches, allowing the people in the back to poke their heads out. It looks quite unsafe if the vehicle were in motion. Also, fun.

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[Photo: General Motors LLC]
The Stinger was bold for 1989, and perhaps even laughable. But it also presaged the modern era of adventure vehicles we have today—an era that’s rich with experimentation, and still seems to be in its infancy.

[Photo: General Motors LLC]
Looking at the Stinger, I see a portrait of today’s highly considered sport utility market, which bakes all sorts of small creature comforts into cars for people who enjoy the outdoors. Ford’s  recently redesigned Bronco crossover features a marine package, which coats the interior to be so waterproof that you can literally hose the inside down to clean it. And its Maverick, a mini pickup truck, has a bed designed for flexible, hackable storage—it can hold a bike, surfboard, or a Home Depot run with equal comfort.

[Photo: General Motors LLC]
You can even see hints of the Stinger in the Cybertruck, which Tesla plans to sell with accessories like a tent kit and an integrated grill system that plugs into its battery to let you cook breakfast. Or examine the eBussy, which is like an Inspector Gadget car that you can kit out to be a camping van or a pickup truck. These vehicles aren’t just selling an illusion of freedom; they’re literally designed around, and can be customized for, an active lifestyle. They want to go out and get dirty with you. Meanwhile, the options General Motors has today are more typical crossovers with bike racks. The exception is its Hummer EV, which starts at a daunting $100,000. It features some decent camping accessories, including wheel well storage boxes, a similar t-top roof to the Stinger, and four wheels capable of turning 10-degrees to “crabwalk” around a tree stump or into a tight parking spot. And yet, as a friend summed up so well, “can you imagine wearing a plaid shirt in a Hummer EV?” (I can’t.)

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[Photo: General Motors LLC]
Meanwhile, the Pontiac Stinger is an adventurous, come-as-you are machine. It was never released, of course. But let’s not allow that to damper our spirits about the design. Do me a favor and picture this little machine as a four-wheel-drive EV. It gets even more storage with a “frunk” where the combustion engine would otherwise be—which would create the perfect spot for a big fold-out solar panel to soak up some rays.

General Motors, you could do worse than bringing the Stinger back to life. It’s rad.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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