By: A.M. Liles AIA with Stuart Hurt
Image Credit: All images copyright 2013 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.
Relying on calculations, engineers use geometric forms, satisfying our eyes through geometry and our minds through mathematics; their works are on the way to great art.
Le Corbusier, Towards an Architecture.
As mid-century ushered in both an expanding population and a demand for vehicle ownership, General Motors abruptly entered the sub-compact car market with the Chevrolet Vega, beating Ford and its still-rumored small car, the Pinto, into the public realm. In GM’s most dramatic product announcement of the 1960’s, Chairman James M. Roche boldly announced a new sub-compact in the works that would be General Motors’ ammunition to ‘counterattack the growing trend towards foreign cars’ as well as the soaring price at the pump. GM was to make bold moves to realize this small, affordable car. Code named ‘XP-887’, what was to become the Chevrolet Vega in only two years time was its first sub-compact with an aluminum engine and highly automated assembly. To offset the aggressive affordability intended for the Vega, General Motors enlisted the largest ton-mile mover of freight in the country to design a more efficient packaging for their product. Paired with the innovative intentions of the Chevrolet Vega was the Vert-A-Pac, a completely re-envisioned and more efficient mode of automotive railway transport.
The Oxford Companion to Architecture defines the modern movement as ‘the language of the revolutionary’. It was during the movement, in the late 1960’s, that General Motors arrived at an astonishing thesis regarding the cross-country rail transport of its sub-compact cars: the company could transport more product nose down and top-to-top than the conventional pair or triad of stacked single file lines; almost twice as much. In 1971, GM partnered with the Southern Pacific Railway to foster the release of the Chevrolet Vega, and the Vert-A-Pac was born. While it was the first railcar of its kind, in the spirit of efficiency and production, the frame of the Vert-A-Pac was tailored to a standard 89-foot flatcar. Yet it was within this common footprint that the team was able to carry thirty sub-compact cars as opposed to the traditional tri-level auto-rack with a capacity of only eighteen. Thirty small cars more closely aligned with the rated capacity of a railcar, allowing for less turbulent transport as well as significantly lower costs for transportation. Additionally, the team made sure that the Vert-A-Pacs could be unloaded simply with a forklift of the necessary capacity. Not only were the doors doubling as ramps, they provided security from weather, vandalism, and theft, something to which the tri-level racks were exposed. The Vert-A-Pac was a revolutionary railcar with a standard base and delivery.
The Vert-A-Pac was an entirely functional design whose operation border-lined on performance. The functionalism of the design exploited this unabashed reorientation and celebrated the efficiency and the spectacle of the dismount. Each side of the railcar was modularly designed in five equal doors hinged at the base and enclosing three ‘parking’ spaces each. The doors were equipped with sockets that accepted frame bolts installed on the chassis of the Vega, allowing the car to be held in place by its own weight. Chevrolet’s PR department summarized the innovative dismount to simply ‘hav[ing] a car that could be started and driven off the door without preparation at the unloading point’. The engine, battery, oil baffle, carburetor, and the washer fluid reservoir of the Vega were designed to accommodate both a vertical and horizontal orientation and the transition from one to the other. The team was intent on the expectant ‘parents’ being able to drive their sub-compact straight from delivery.
Sadly, the Vert-A-Pac was doomed by its own product. The Chevrolet Vega’s performance did not mirror that of the gossamer Vert-A-Pac. The Vega was riddled with issues stemming from a hurried and over-economized production and while sales were impressive the first few years, GM ceased production in six years’ time. John Z. De Lorean, Chevrolet’s division manager at the time, likened the demise of the Vega, and more importantly its design evolution, to ‘the camel which was a horse designed by committee’, and more abruptly, ‘management ineptitude’. As the Vert-A-Pac’s conception was solely for the Vega, the railcar’s lifespan ended with the Vega. The Vert-A-Pac, an innovative byproduct of modernist engineering and design, was dismantled and disappeared from the modernist lexicon.
Andrew Liles AIA LEED AP BD+C owns and operates his own architectural firm in New Orleans, Louisiana and is adjunct faculty at the Tulane School of Architecture.
Research assistance from Stuart Hurt, M/Arc 2015 Candidate, Tulane School of Architecture.
Gautreaux, Lee A. & Shell, Lloyd Wayne. “SP’s Vert-A-Pac Cars”. SP Trainline: The Official Publication of the Southern Pacific Historical and Technical Society. No. 104. Summer 2010. SPH&TS Publications. Upland, California. p. 20-28.
Goode, Patrick. The Oxford Companion to Architecture. Vol. 2: K-Z. 2009. Oxford University Press. USA.
Le Corbusier. Towards an Architecture. October 2007. Getty Publications.
Reuss, Lloyd E. “Vert-A-Pac”. The story of the Engineering Concept, Design and Development of Chevrolet’s new little car: VEGA 2300. January 1971. Public Relations Department, Chevrolet Motor Division. Detroit, Michigan. p. 38-39.
Wright, J. Patrick. On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors – John Z. DeLorean's Look Inside The Automotive Giant. Wright Enterprises. 1979.