Cab-forward Design Saved Chrysler and Reshaped Urban Cars

Revolutionary layout rose to fame in the 1990s thanks to the North-American automaker and still has strong influence

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Automotive production has developed over the decades followed by a huge contrast: it’s filled with procedures and standards of all types, and yet it’s susceptible to have all that changed at any time. The station wagon body style, for instance, had its clientele stolen by minivans and those lost it to crossovers just as quickly. More recently, electric propulsion is improving quickly enough to limit internal combustion engines to performance cars soon. In the 1990s, paradigms were shifted in yet another way.

Cab forward design has usually been applied to trucks. For them, it consists of placing the cabin above the front axle to increase the available cargo area and, at the same time, locating it between the axles for a better weight distribution. This solution never went to cars because it’d take a toll on design, considering our beauty standards, and because having the engine up front helps create the wedge-shaped front fascia that reduces aerodynamic drag. However, none of that means the concept couldn’t be used.

First things first

While the AMC Pacer is considered the first cab-forward car, the concept rose to fame thanks to Chrysler. In the 1980s, the latter was having a prosper time because of the K cars’ success, but they’d need a complete replacement by the end of the decade, especially because Japanese cars and the Ford Taurus were making competition tough. Besides that, the US economy went into recession in 1987 and the maker accumulated debt from buying AMC and Lamborghini. Things had become grim once again.

Ironically, the two acquired companies ended up helping Chrysler develop its latest project. It was based on AMC’s Eagle Premier because of its mechanical qualities while the external design, which Chrysler wanted to be entirely new, was heavily inspired on the Portofino Concept created with Lamborghini and presented in 1987. The LH platform went to the market in 1993 through tree all-new car models: Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid and Eagle Vision. All of them boasting cab-forward design.

What’s so good about cab forward?

As the name anticipates, the cabin moves relative to the rest of the car. On the pictures above, the green lines indicate that the windshield’s base moves from a point in length behind the wheels to almost half their diameter. Besides that, the red lines show A-pillars sloped to a point that their projection falls in front of the wheels. Later developments would also include displacing both axles to the corners of the body. All those changes provided much more internal room without the need of larger external size.

In short, Chrysler managed to enlarge the cabin by making it move toward the car’s two other compartments, mostly the engine’s. As if improved habitability wasn’t enough, these models’ appearance represented a big change compared to their predecessors because every proportion was different and they already featured 1990s visual trends such as wedge-shaped front, smooth sheetmetal, less chrome trim and tall rear. While their sales weren’t earth-shattering, they did greatly recover their maker’s image.

There’s still room for improvement!

The LH sedans received the second generation in 1998 with a brand reshuffle whose biggest change was replacing the Eagle Vision with the Chrysler 300M. As already mentioned, the cab-forward concept was improved by what can be technically named decreasing front and rear overhangs (the distance between each axle and the body’s respective end). Besides further enlarging the cabin, this change made the cars more stable and reduced their turning radius, both crucial to make them easier to maneuver.

Chrysler’s initial intention was to offer the LH cars under every brand it had at the moment, but that was quickly changed: the Plymouth sedan, which would be named Accolade, never made it to the production lines. And since the three were lauded for their internal room, the company decided to go the other way and invest in higher price ranges: in both generations, the Chrysler brand had exclusive models with a longer wheelbase and upscale trim. One was the LHS, which had a firmer, more European ride.

Give people what they want

Once people had time to live with cab-forward cars and to effectively use their advantages, the maker decided to extend the concept to the rest of the lineup. After being introduced as a concept car in 1991, the Neon reached production three years later as an entry-level variation of the cab forward design — in this case, conceptual innovation was limited to keep production cost down, which was essential in the category. That decision made it very competitive in many countries over around eleven years.

In the midsize segment, the JA platform spawned three “cloud cars”: Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus and Plymouth Breeze. Cab-forward style appeared once again through a front fascia larger in width than length, both overhangs short, sloping A and C-pillars and 108 inches of wheelbase. The JA models would go through many changes over the years: Chrysler added the Sebring convertible in 1996, the lineup was redesigned in 2000, and some models were renamed to accomodate the Diamond-Star coupés.

What happened next?

Chrysler helped present cab-forward design to the automotive market. Other makers quickly began to apply it to models of all body styles, sizes and prices, fully disseminating the concept. In nowadays, only performance-oriented cars preserve long front fascias because they’re considered a symbol of mechanical power. The North-American maker would only go into financial trouble again in the financial crisis of 2008, when it was acquired by the Fiat group. Now it’s working with an entirely different lineup.

Sources

  • 1993–1997 Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision, and Chrysler Concorde, New Yorker, and LHS — allpar.com
  • What could have been: Chrysler originally intended the LH platform as front-, rear-, and all-wheel drive — hemmings.com
  • Allen, M. & Dunne, J. (1992, October). America Goes International. Popular Mechanics, 37–38. Retrieved from books.google.com

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.