When clever engineering and great design join forces, the result will at least be memorable. But even an innovative product isn't guaranteed sales success, as proven by the Vixen 21's trip from the Detroit Auto Show to bankruptcy in just three short years.
I wasn't aware of the Vixen's existence. So imagine my surprise when, on my way from New York City to Bar Harbor, Maine, I stumbled upon this thing while stopping to pour a fair amount of premium into the excellent Cadillac CTS-V I was driving:
While most people were taking pictures of the Kennebunk Service Plaza's plastic moose, I was trying to act casual while lurking around somebody's RV in an otherwise empty parking lot.
The November 2014 issue of Hemmings Classic Car contains with William Collins, the mastermind behind the Vixen. Collins made a name for himself as an engineer at GM running "Project 77," also known as the full-size B-body and C-body redesign of 1977. In the name of fuel economy, Collins and his team successfully downsized and light-weighted GM's best-selling cars, without sacrificing performance. That's when John DeLorean, who had also had a stellar career at GM, lured Collins over to his newly launched sports car company.
Collins worked on the packaging and layout of the car that became famous for its stainless steel body and Giorgetto Giugario styling, with the first DMC-12 prototype completed in late 1976. DeLorean almost moved his nascent car company's production line to Puerto Rico; eventually, the automaker ended up using a factory in Ireland, :
John was always looking for someone to pay the bill ... we never had any money. He chose Ireland, but I was unhappy because I knew that we would have to do the rest of the engineering in Europe. We approached Porsche, but the timeline and costs didn't work. I wanted to set up our own engineering in Coventry, but John was speaking with Colin Chapman at Lotus. They had similar egos and bonded.
Collins left DMC in 1979, three years before the DMC-12 entered production. He took a short detour to AMC-Renault, which was good for one thing: It inspired Collins to engineer a motorhome with a compact drivetrain, using a clean sheet approach. And having worked at the top before, he also knew how to find money for such a venture.
Many hours of wind-tunnel testing, plastic model stress analysis and computer finite-element modeling later, the Vixen 21 was ready. Being just 76 inches tall, this motorhome could fit into a standard garage, but a pneumatically-operated cathedral roof made for a six-and-a-half fo0t ceiling when needed. With its flat underside, this motorhome was also extremely aerodynamic, with a Cd of .295, and BMW's M21 six-cylinder turbodiesel returned great fuel economy. Incidentally, that same engine was used in the 1984-85 Lincoln Continental, as well as the Bertone Freeclimber, of all things.
To be exact, the BMW diesel, paired with a five-speed Renault transaxle and the Vixen's smooth fiberglass body, was good for 30 MPG at 55 MPH. Other parts borrowed from major OEMs included Cadillac's automatic-leveling ride control system, a Ford clutch master cylinder, VDO gauges and the suspension from GM's G20 vans. Built in Pontiac, Michigan, the Vixen 21 TD was introduced at the 1986 Detroit Auto Show. It was everything a motorhome had never been before.
Things took a downward turn from there. Vixen's second product was the XC, a nine-seater that ditched the kitchen and bath in an attempt to be a modern alternative to the luxury limousine. That's when the executive board pushed for an even fancier model, one with a permanently extended roof. The resulting SE ditched the diesel in favor of GM-sourced, California-compliant 3.8-liter V6 gas engine and 4-speed auto. Needless to say, this model would no longer fit in a standard garage.
The story of the "driver's RV" came to a halt in 1989. In total, only 578 examples were built.