Engineering Mules and Spy Shot Machines

bout ten years ago I had the privilege of taking a trip behind the securely guarded gates of the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. No, it wasn’t a Chrysler trip on that blustery winter week in ‘98 but stay with me for a minute ‘cause we’ll get back to Mopars soon. The objective of the visit was to shoot a bunch of engineering mule cars for a story I was writing for Hot Rod magazine called “Beyond the Toy Box”.
The story title was a play on GM’s so called Toy Box. Run by all around good guy Jon Moss, the Toy Box was a huge converted warehouse where hopped up production models were hatched then shown to the automotive press – and usually forgotten soon after.
Toy Box projects included cars like 454- and 502-powered Corvettes and Camaros – all at a time when big blocks were strictly truck-only stuff. Now these cars were cool but to my eye, they were flawed by street rod-ish paint and graphics that actually distracted attention away from the whole point of each car as an engineering exercise.
My feeling was that a 502 rat motor stuffed into a late model Camaro – by factory engineers no less - was special enough. Even if it didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of making production, it didn’t need a coat of hot pink paint with green stripes to get the message across. Loud, goofy paint jobs detracted from these mega-powered what-if machines and gave them an amateurish vibe – sort of like painting racing stripes on a Northrop B-2 stealth bomber.

And so for the Beyond the Toy Box story I sidestepped Jon’s collection of look-at-me what-if cars and got in touch with more behind-the-scenes types from the GM Powertrain Division. Led around on that winter day by Wes Yokum (a GM employee since 1955) our trip beyond the Toy Box revealed amazing creatures like an ’89 Caprice with a BMW V12 stuffed under the hood, a Citation X11 with two V6 engines, a Chevy Corsica with a transverse mounted Chevy small block V8 and an IROC Z Camaro with four wheel steering.

The thing that set these amazing cars apart from Moss’s Toy Box machines was that they were true engineering exercises, built to test the feasibility of new technologies and innovations for possible inclusion on future production line offerings. These cars weren’t much to look at but their beauty shone from the inside out. Best of all, they were not meant to be seen by the public.

When they put the four-wheel-steer Camaro up on a lift so Scott “Kill Shot” Kileen could photograph the special Dana 44 rear axle (with S-15 pickup truck steering knuckles and an electronic steering rack grafted on) there was plenty of surface rust and obvious evidence this car was driven hard for weeks and weeks on the Milford test track and perhaps even on public roads.
Same thing with the BMW V12-powered Caprice. A uniform coat of road grime and numerous paint chips served as mute testimony to thousands of miles of real world driving. The point of this car was to allow the GM engineers to evaluate the world’s first drive-by-wire throttle control – as pioneered on the BMW 750iL.They told me a brand new Bimmer was purchased so its 5-liter V12 could be yanked and transplanted into the Caprice. The rest of the car was unceremoniously disposed of via the on-site crusher. The observations gathered during testing no doubt played a role in GM’s inclusion of drive-by-wire technology nearly a decade later on the all-new ’97 C5 Corvette.