Home » GM Sent Us Never-Before-Seen Sketches Of The Pontiac Aztek From Before It All Went So Wrong

GM Sent Us Never-Before-Seen Sketches Of The Pontiac Aztek From Before It All Went So Wrong

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Not much these days jolts the black lump of coal I call a heart to life. I glide through the automotive landscape surrounded by mediocrity and familiarity, all of it failing to pierce the bubble of cynicism and pretension which I present to the world. But on rare occasions something cracks the mask and the void in the middle of my chest experiences alien feelings of joy and warmth. It is impossible to maintain my façade of calculated indifference in the presence of a classic Fiat 500, or Ford Capri 2.8 injection, examples of both I encountered at the Practical Classics magazine show over the weekend. Not only was it an opportunity to get up close and personal with interesting vehicles (some of which I hope to be able to bring you here) without inclement weather messing up my hair, it was a chance for me to blow the hairspray budget for the month by buying my own bodyweight in old car literature, something else that pleases me a great deal.

This is not to wallow in nostalgia, something generally speaking I don’t have a lot of time for. Old car books and magazines are an invaluable record; not to regurgitate recent known history, because that’s tedious. What they give us is crucial insight to examine the past and understand the decisions that were made and what drove them, to learn lessons and better understand a car in its proper design context.

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That’s what makes old books about car design so valuable and why I’m willing to pay for them. More than that though, when I’m writing about a car design it’s a total crapshoot whether I’ll find appropriate or useful images on a manufacturer’s media pages. Astoundingly only General Motors really takes its design history seriously enough to properly archive it, catalog it and then make that resource available to an extremely fortunate and incredibly grateful black-clad automotive gobshite on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Sketches That Became The Pontiac Aztek

Last week I wrote about how I would implement some small tweaks to the design of the Pontiac Aztek to help the production car more palatable. As I wrote the article I emailed my contact at the GM Design Heritage Archive to ask if they had anything relating to Aztek I could use. A couple of days later a contact sheet appeared in my inbox. Would any of these be of any use? Man alive, would they ever.

What I got back was so good I thought they deserved their own article in celebration. At the risk of turning temporarily turning the site into The Aztektopian, I am ever so slightly thrilled to be able to bring you these exclusive, never-before-publishedsketches of early Pontiac Aztek design proposals. These are all unseen sketches from the initial creative phase of the design process; getting the ideas down on paper. The creative brief can be as simple as wanting to see ideas for the next version of something already in production, but in the case of the Aztek, we know at the director of GM’s West Coast Advanced Concept Center asked his team of pencil wielders to think about taking a “Camaro and a Blazer and put them in a blender”.

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The concept Aztek debuted in 1999, so given the time it takes to create a drivable concept model good enough to show in public these sketches would have been drawn around 1997. This first sketch is unsigned (always sign your sketches) so can’t be attributed to a particular person. Although interestingly it looks to be a three door, we can already see some of the themes that would make through to the original concept unscathed – the strakes, plastic cladding and bumpers in a distinct color, high indicators mounted on the corner of the hood, and a sort of structural frame enclosing the passenger cabin, made up by linking the A and C pillars together with the cant rail.

The mounting points molded in are a neat idea completely in line with a rugged lifestyle type vehicle. This one feels a bit busy and disjointed – the shapes are not totally harmonious with each other and there’s a small cheat going on where the rear windshield meets the taillights and the tailgate – the glass couldn’t actually form that shape. But that’s okay at this early stage where it’s about getting the ideas out rather than execution. Judging by the consistent color blocking and soft gradients this appears to have been done digitally. Sketching in Photoshop would have been a novelty back then because the available graphics tablets were the large touchpad and stylus variety. These were awkward to use because you had to keep your eyes on your monitor and not what your hands were doing, unlike today’s tablets that allow you draw directly onto the screen like traditional paper.

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This second sketch is by Brigid O’Kane, the designer credited with what was known as Bear Claw – the original S/T truck based idea. This pale blue sketch is much softer and more organic feeling than the first. The wheel arches are a more traditional circular shape and the overall vibe is less hard and aggressive. The cladding is present and correct but much less blocky than the previous sketch. The lighting graphic is more traditional and the grill shape is almost biological. This almost feels like a crew cab pick up with glazed bed cover on it – that whole rear three quarter section reminds me of the Aztek’s Buick sister car – the Rendezvous. This is a pencil and marker sketch – using lighter tones to block in color and then darker ones to indicate the shapes and forms of the car.

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This third sketch is much more developed and detailed – look at the amount of reflection in the light units and the amount of shading and highlighting going on. This is a lot closer to the concept we know so that suggests a main theme has been picked for further iteration and this is one of those sketches, again by Brigid O’Kane. The lower body cladding is more cohesive and prevalent – on the concept it wouldn’t surround the wheel arches or come so high up the front bumper.

But the split grill, aggressive Pontiac nostrils and large round lower lights are all here. The glazing, door handles and mirrors are now much more realistic propositions, there is an area on the front bumper for a license plate and the proportions in general are more reflective of a real car. I like the shape and position of the hood indicators on this sketch, but that corner would be hell to figure out how to stamp and integrate the shut lines for the hood and fender. The lower bumper is hollowed out to emphasize the stance and the central area, helping it look muscular without being bulky. The only part I’m not sold on is the twin horizontal lights, but even on pencil and marker sketches like this you can just draw a page of alternatives, cut them out and spray mount them over the top.

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Image from Brigid O’Kane via Hemmings

Finally these sketches have been seen before, but I’m including them here for completeness sakes. Judging by the amount of detail, this is a later sketch like the orange one above. Creating pencil, marker and pastel sketches like these is quite time intensive: this is probably a couple of days work. The more detail a sketch has, the longer it takes to do. You only do them after the initial ideation round of quick thumbnails when the chief designer has decided what he wants. I once did a front graphic Massimo really liked, and he asked me for another ten versions of it, which is the beauty of sketching digitally – it’s much quicker and more flexible, and you don’t leave the studio in the evening high as a kite on solvent fumes.

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Image from Brigid O’Kane via Hemmings

Again these are not new, but demonstrate how you can have different themes for the same car. The yellow sketch here looks like a further development of the light blue car from earlier. The one to the right is more premium, slicker look that’s not as rugged – there’s no contrasting cladding and it’s much smoother – note the lack of roof rails. The bottom sketch is a rear three quarter of view of the bigger yellow sketch above. You can see the rear bumper as we know and love it starting to appear, but it’s not so incongruous because it’s much better integrated into the rest of the cladding, rather than the slapped on item that made it onto the final car.

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Bonus Image: Aztek Clay Model

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Finally the last image is not a sketch at all, but a quarter scale clay model. In fact it’s not even that – it’s half a model standing on black felt up against a mirror. Once the initial rounds of sketches are done, the chief will usually a couple to go forward to the next stage, a physical model. Quarter or fifth scale models are used to help narrow things down to decide what will get scaled up to a full size clay. This isn’t always exactly how it happens – it’s very much dependent on the time and modeling resources available in the studio. If a chief designer is particularly impressed with a sketch he might order it to go straight to full size clay if time is short. But as we know the Aztek was a product of the GM Advanced Concept Studio, it’s possible they may not have had the equipment to make a full size clay – or knowing the way GM operated they had to get approval to proceed from Detroit based on the smaller model first. Whatever happened you can appreciate the amount of detail and standard of finish it’s possible for skilled clay modelers to achieve. They really are the unsung artisans and crafts people of the studio.

This model would have been painstakingly sculpted using hand tools, and then covered in a specialist plastic film. It’s like stuff customizers wrap cars in and can be painted to accurately resemble the in-house color palate as closely as possible. It comes in sheets that are cut to shape and then made pliable by first softening it up in a bath of warm water, before being applied and further coaxed onto the contours of the model with the aid of an industrial heat gun, similar to how I style my hair. In this photo the position of the wheels in the rear wheel arches doesn’t look ideal, but the wheels may not have been secured in place, so that alternatives could be swapped over. The shut lines on the model are created using Rinrei tape, a type of Japanese graphic tape available in a variety of widths made from rice paper. It can be curved to form bends and corners and won’t leave a residue on the model if it needs to be reapplied.

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Design is a visual discipline: nearly all the design work carried out in the studio is conducted using the old fashioned eyeball. Physical and digital models, sketches and renders are all visual properties that designers can use to make judgements, solve problems and solicit feedback. It’s exceedingly rare, except in extremely controlled circumstances as part of a media blitz on launch, that outsiders get to see how a new car is actually designed. You normally never get to see the alternative proposals or the early sketches, because no one needs to know how the sausage is made, and the OEMs in general don’t want to show you.

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When you do get to see sketches from inside the studio like these, it’s absolute gold. What takes place during the design and development of a car is often by necessity shrouded in secrecy; if the story is told at all it’s either done at the time or years after, when memories are clouded and sketches, photos and models are long lost. It’s to General Motors eternal credit they haven’t buried the story of the Aztek like an embarrassing relative never to be spoken about in polite circles. I just wish a few more car companies would follow their example regarding their own design history. It would make my job a bit easier, and a lot less expensive.

These exclusive never seen before images were kindly supplied to us by the GM Heritage Archive, who look after a priceless vault of information and make it available for media use. We would like to express our deepest thanks and appreciation for their tireless work in helping us out with these design deep dive articles. 

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Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
19 hours ago

I love automakers’ archives so much. I think I’d quit just about anything I was doing in a heartbeat and learn an entirely different language ASAP if I got an offer to work with Porsche’s. Holding one of the design models for my car that was kept in Porsche’s extra-secure Cool Old Things Room along with the early 356 sales records was easily one of the greatest moments of my life, heh. Or shoot, anywhere’s archive would be fun as hell. I love seeing the design process on stuff like this so much.

NojustNo
NojustNo
18 days ago

I feel like the Aztec would have done a lot better with a similar front end treatment to the Grand Am of the time and less boby cladding. That was the main problem with it.

This is the best one I could come up with from bing AI… https://www.bing.com/images/create/an-orange-pontiac-aztek-with-a-2001–grand-am-fron/1-6609f2e3e796479b828caa752d07d66e?id=PnofVCMuu87QzfhliMJvZw%3d%3d&view=detailv2&idpp=genimg&thId=OIG1.Qye8yQv2FJsQSJisdzyq&FORM=GCRIDP

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
21 days ago

Oh man! The stacked grille opening make so much more sense on the clay model. Now I see what they were going for and missed by a mile.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
22 days ago

I asked and received. I don’t get the huge unnecessary hood scoops but clearly GM had better looking Aztecs to chose from. But apparently designers never considered front or rear visibility in any concept

AlfaWhiz
AlfaWhiz
22 days ago

Honestly this kind of makes me like the Aztek. Probably lost a bit when turned from concept to reality (as usual), but one can’t deny that it was both ambitious and creative. Thanks for an interesting read Adrian!

Last edited 22 days ago by AlfaWhiz
67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
22 days ago

This was neat. Always fun reading your stuff Adrian.

Tom T
Tom T
22 days ago

Outstanding article! (minus some formatting errors) This is the style of genuine automotive content that was often seen on another site that I won’t mention. I pray Autopian won’t become a political clickbait TDS rage farm like that one did!

Dingus
Dingus
22 days ago

To me, Mitsubishi had what this should have been. Thought it’s more of a GTO/GT3000 blended with a wagon, they got something special. I’ve seen countless concepts over the years, but the SSU has stuck with me. I saw the SSU and the Aztek both at auto shows (back when they used to bring concepts to smaller markets). The SSU was fantastic. The Aztek concept was cool, but not nearly as good.

https://oldconceptcars.com/wp-content/uploads/mitsubishi_ssu_concept_1.jpeg

Greensoul
Greensoul
22 days ago

Whether you love or hate the Aztec, it was a leader and before it’s time. This vehicle was the prelude (sorry Honda) to the cross over segment. If the GM bean counters would have left a good concept well enough alone this would be a highly collectable vehicle for being the segment making vehicle it was. (The Ford Mustang just entered the chat, daddy of the pony cars). I’m surprised the bean counters let the detachable armrest/cooler make the cut to production. The Aztec was a wonderful opportunity killed by the accountants. When you buzz around in your new CUV, give the Aztec it’s long over due respect for what it did for the wheeled transportation industry. So typically GM, create something amazing and let the bean counters kill it. The original Chevy Volt just joined this chat too!!!

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
22 days ago
Reply to  Greensoul

Sorry the Isuzu Vehicross was presented at the Tokyo auto show in 96. Was rushed into production unchanged for 97, one year, and was better looking and still better received. BUT not really covered here so Johnny come lately Pontiac is considered new? About 2 years late. Like a younger less attractive sibling

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
21 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

True I doubt sales would have been any better if they had more to sell. I got mine after sitting a year on the dealer lot. But I love it.

Naterator
Naterator
22 days ago

GM: “We need to bland it down more, as it’s just too flashy and will scare all the senior buyers. Make it cheaper and blander. Bland, baby! Bland!”

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
22 days ago

Color palette. Palate is in your mouth, palette is what colors your clothes. Well, not yours, but most people’s.

This is an awesome article. It’s interesting to see how… Wonky looking some of those freehand sketches are.

The yellow sketch halfway down the article (after the orange one) highlights what I think is the one truly unforgivable ugliness of the Aztek. The high turn signals and low headlights should be reversed! Headlights on top. The shape can remain the same, and it’d look like a modern Cadillac.

How much work is a full-sized clay model, in person-hours?

Last edited 22 days ago by The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
21 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Damn

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
22 days ago

The first sketch confirms my suspicions from the earlier article; the W-body sedan cowl height would’ve been a better compromise choice than the U-body minivan one.

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