The Story of Bill Collins
Creation of the Vixen
History of the Vixen 21 Motor Home: Design by Bill Collins (1932 -2023) Originally printed December 12, 2015 in “VixeNews,” predecessor to “Fox Prints”It seems appropriate to start this column with the very basics; the inspiration for what would become in time the Vixen 21. 1) We had enjoyed a very pleasant, two-week vacation in 1973 in a 26-foot GMC Motor home. This trip, with our three teenagers, took us through Yellowstone and Aspen and hooked us on this mode of traveling. 2) I have always wanted a boat large enough for cruising, but my dear wife, Nina, gets deathly seasick. 3) After five years of helping to put the DeLorean sports car enterprise together, being Director of Product Planning at AMC lacked the challenge and freedom I had enjoyed with John Delorean. On the Fourth of July weekend, 1980, the beginning of the Vixen 21 popped into my head and the first sketch was made of a rear engine, garageable motor home, featuring 30-mile per gallon fuel economy and a $40,000 price. The rear engine configuration was chosen as the only way to keep the height low enough to fit in a garage; one of my important parameters. My colleagues at AMC would have thought that I was crazy. Many evenings when I had a front wheel drive Renault R-30 or R-18 home for appraisal, I could be seen sitting on the hood with a measuring tape trying to determine how high a motor home might be with front wheel drive (FWD). The same configuration as the GMC; one of my old favorites. FWD just wasn't going to make it, so I opted for the use of a FWD power train, but placed in the rear under a permanent double bed. The Vixen 21 TD and XC transaxle is a Renault UN-l unit similar to that used in the R-30 but with the ring gear on the opposite side of the pinion so that the engine is to the rear for better servicing of the engine driven accessories. Renault promised a new automatic transmission, that would fit in the same spot as the manual 5 speed, but unfortunately it never happened. The sketch was just an idea and the next step was to flesh it out with a full-size package. But first, our wonderful new creation needed a name. On the way to Empire, on the shore of Lake Michigan, for our vacation that August of 1980, Nina and our youngest daughter, Jennifer were riding with me. I asked them, in all seriousness, to pick a name for this new vehicle and company we were about to start. Names flew out: Collins -- Pegasus -- Transtech -- Vixen! "That's it," I said to Jenny, pulling it out of the air. The logo would prove to be a little harder, but we'll save that for later. Not knowing a lot about motor homes, we started the many investigations and evaluations -- measuring dinettes in other motor homes, and every restaurant we visited -- you do get strange looks when you pull out a scale and measure the table width! The next step, we decided, was to build a full-size interior mock-up in our garage. This was the only way to really define the layout and evaluate all the variables. All American vans have an overall width less than 80 inches, since, over that width, five front and five rear clearance lamps are required. Since function was much more important than a minor cost saving, we started out with an interior width at the belt, of 80 inches, 2 inches per side of wall trim, insulation and the outer shell plus 1/2 inch per side for hardware, etc., resulted in an overall width of 85 inches. After settling on the interior width of 80 inches, it was incumbent upon us to work out the vehicle's height. Our old garage, with a swing up door, had 6 feet 4 inches (76 inches) of clearance so that was what it had to be! Based upon my past automotive experience, 8 inches of ground clearance, at design height, was picked. With a 1-inch thickness for both the roof and floor composite structure, we were left with 66 inches of headroom at the center with carpet. A "box" of this description was fabricated in the garage, using 1x 2's and corrugated cardboard for the walls. At this point, it was anticipated that the roof would go straight up (by means to be determined!) The galley area was mocked up with cardboard and fat, "felt tip" markers. A single "flip/flop" dinette seat was ordered from the Sears RV catalog. This entire area, ahead of the side door, checked out OK. We had been concerned that it might be too tight a squeeze between the rear seat and the refrigerator. At this point, our "box" was only 20 feet long and the bath was on the right hand side (the same as the GMC's!). Something was wrong. The passageway to the rear bed area "felt" too narrow and cramped at 22 inches of width. By changing the shape of the bath to be more rectangular, fore and aft, we were able to increase the aisle width to a very satisfactory 26 inches. This added 4 inches to the "box" and pushed Vixen's overall length over the 20 foot mark. At this stage, it was New Year's Eve 1980 and very cold inside our unheated garage. No further changes were made until December of 1981, when the bath moved to the left side to be on the correct side for the waste tanks. At that time, after much study, the roof was hinged on the right side with a simple air cylinder. All of the four cylinder systems and pantograph linkages were much too complicated! Having previously committed to a fuel economy goal of 30 mpg, and having established the size of our "box", the next step was to optimize the "aerodynamics" without hurting the function. A cross section was developed to provide the 80-inch interior width at the "belt" slightly curved sidewalls and roof were picked and a 1/5-clay model of a "box" was built. Thanksgiving week, 1981, the clay model went to the University of Michigan's wind tunnel with two clay modelers and me. Our goal was to evaluate all of the "controllable" shapes and appendages that contribute to aerodynamic drag. The windshield slope and front body corner radius are obvious; the taper of the body at the rear, both side view and plan view, are not so obvious. Appraisal of outside mirrors, air dams, roof A/C, etc., were all to be included. During a break, the tunnel supervisor asked me if I thought that the company designer would approve all the changes being made. I assured him, he would! (that being me!) After 100 separate runs, the optimum combination resulted in a coefficient of drag, "Cd", of a remarkably low 0.26!!! The front radii were optimized; larger radii did not reduce drag. The rear was pinched in until constrained by the corners of the double bed. Before leaving for the Bendix proving ground in South Bend, with the first full-size prototype, my "aero" consultant took one look at it and exclaimed "Bill, you didn't change anything!" In those days, in the automotive industry, only lip service was given to the aerodynamic work performed. At Bendix, an actual "Cd" of 0.29 was recorded, lower than almost any passenger car on the road today. The attention to detail and commitment to a smooth and slippery shape had paid off!!! Sometime, note the low profile, smooth side window extrusions, exclusive to Vixen, and the flat underbody, etc. The Vixen bath, it was decided, must be a full bath in spite of the small overall vehicle size. This meant providing a waterproof shell for the shower. Somewhere "out there" must exist the ideal small, compact bath. After looking at too many small boats and all of the trailers and motor homes, we were no further ahead than when we started. Conveniently, our youngest daughter, Jennifer, was working toward her college degree in industrial design at Massachusetts College of Art. Her mind was set on designing a set of "multi-functional" furniture as her senior class project. However, with a little "arm twisting," she decided to take on the Vixen bath. Now it was her turn to evaluate the world of small bathrooms! Multitudes of sketches went back and forth along with a lot of "arm waving" over the telephone. Finally, the basic configuration was approved; a unique solution! By placing the major elements on a 45-degree angle, Jenny had maximized the space inside that tight square I had given her. We have yet to find a person whose legs are too long to sit on the toilet in a 21 TD. Unfortunately, the execution in production did not live up to her award-winning design. There were too may unsightly seams and we never did find the ideal fixture, which had the "telephone" shower outlet as the faucet built into the center of a control knob. Several anecdotes come to mind during the process of developing the bath. My favorite came from Mike Pocobello of Triad, who designed the Vixen rear suspension and had designed many others in his career. The Vixen design was his first where the rear suspension upper control arm pivot was vying with a toilet for location! . . . (ED. NOTE: These comments apply only to the 21 TD bath and not the XC or SE) Now that the major shapes, exterior surfaces, and interior floor plan had been resolved, the "nitty gritty" of sourcing hundreds of components had to be addressed. Because of our small size, we had to adopt two basic philosophies: 1) We would "strive mightily" to locate existing parts before designing our own -- wherever possible and without undue compromise of the basic Vixen design. 2) Engineering sources would carry over into production, unless the cost was unrealistic. Because of my 20 years experience at Pontiac Motor Division of GMC, my major contacts were with the GM "allied" divisions and wherever possible, I tended to source with them. The only non-GM, American, manufacturer's part I can think of is the Ford clutch master cylinder. The GMC G-20 van was a natural for the independent front suspension, since it had the unequal length upper and lower control arms like most passenger cars and the load capacity required for the Vixen. GM was agreeable until they realized that I intended to cut and weld their front suspension crossmember for our wider track; that would never do. Rather than fight, we switched and tooled up our own crossmember using Kirksite dies. Use of the G-20 front suspension pretty much dictated using its front disc brakes. This, quite naturally, led to the G-20 rear brakes. The G-20 vacuum assisted, power master cylinder unit had not packaged well in V21-1, the first prototype, and so we used GM's latest creation -- an electrically driven hydraulic pump and accumulator system -- a much smaller package and independent of engine vacuum. Other GM parts include: the automotive heater and A/C system, the steering column and gear, the automatic height control compressors and height control valves. TDs and XCs had Pontiac T-100 tail lamps and early models used GM "EA" units for the bumper systems. All of the foregoing would have been high volume, production units for the 1986 model year. Having covered the major chassis components, the engine is next. It was, to me, the most interesting and challenging. My background at Pontiac and DeLorean was always associated with gasoline engines. To me, diesels were smelly and noisy; suitable only for trucks and taxis. I just didn't really want to be associated with them! However, if the Vixen 21 was to achieve its goal of 30-plus mpg at highway speed, a diesel was the only way to go. Mercedes had, by this time, made "turbo diesel" almost an "in" engine. My first contact was an old associate, Ray Prussing, who had been sales manager in Detroit Diesel and had recently formed Isuzu Diesel of North America. Ray had always kidded me that the "diesel smell" was the "smell of money." For him, that turned out to be very true! Ray convinced me to try the Isuzu 4BC-2, a 3.3 liter, four-cylinder engine, with direct injection and normally aspirated. An engine was installed in the first prototype, V 21-1, and fired up on April 7, 1983. The first drive around the block was on May 27; one of the most exciting days of my life!!! I was dying to test out the fuel economy projections we had made. On Saturday, June 11, Nina and I drove to Grayling and back. It was 85 degrees Farenheit and we had not yet installed the air conditioning. I didn't want to increase the aero drag, so we didn't dare open any windows. We were very hot, but it was worth it. The trip tank mileage was 31.8 mpg at 55 MPH!!! We had done it!! (Only the fuel crisis was disappearing!). The Isuzu 4BC-2 turned out to be a very nice engine and reasonably quiet. Its worst habit was the "odoriferous" light gray smoke that covered the neighborhood on a cold morning. "Not to worry, Bill, it's just the injector timing!" said Ray Prussing. As previously discussed the four-cylinder Isuzu 4 BC2 was a 3.3 liter diesel with direct injection. When Isuzu made their presentation for the production development program, they were very pleased and looked for our reaction. Mine was one of disbelief !!! They proposed starting production one year later than we had planned to start!! For a startup company with only one product and a limited supply of funds, their proposal was impossible. We immediately started scurrying ! A former GM friend, who was consulting with Alfa Romeo, suggested an Italian diesel, VM, built in Bologna. I immediately flew over to visit them. I was impressed by their presentation and plant tour, but also noted in their plant lobby a marine diesel with a BMW logo on it. It turned out that VM built the engine and BMW sold it as theirs. I thought that was a solid compliment for the VM engine but also sent me in search of BMW automotive diesel. BMW in Austria was interested. They had just completed an arrangement with the Ford Motor Company to supply the 2.41 diesel for a Lincoln model. This was good news since the emissions deterioration factor would already be established with the EPA. This would significantly reduce Vixen's emission testing requirements since we would not have to run the 100,000 mile durability test. (Certification of the BMW 524 TD also helped here). The other obvious bonus was the rub off of the BMW mystique and reputation. I would much rather expound on the virtues of a BMW diesel to a prospective dealer or customer than try to explain who VM in Bologna, Italy, was! We were in a time bind, though. VM was pushing us for an approval and a contract and BMW had not yet said "yes." At the last minute, BMW agreed to provide us with engines. Needless to say, this was an important breakthrough. As soon as possible, my company car became a BMW 523TD. Earlier, after picking the name, Vixen, I noted that the story about the logo would come later. With three children with Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees from art schools and a wife who had a full scholarship to Moore Institute of Art in Philadelphia, there were plenty of sketches and proposals for a corporate logo!! You can guess some of the themes, roads winding hill and dale, blue sky, mountains, etc.. So that no one's feelings would be hurt, I fiddled with the "V" from Vixen for weeks until I was happy with the proportions that we ended up with. At about the same time, we were casting about for a small advertising agency to handle PR, brochures and magazine ads. One agency came in and started their presentation with a proposal that we drop "Vixen" and use "Meridian!" No one had told them who had picked and was "married " to "Vixen." Needless to say, the rest of their presentation fell on deaf ears!! Looking back, R. J. Baker Advertising Inc. did a marvelous job with ads and brochures. Even today, almost 20 years later, they are outstanding in my opinion. Of course, they had good material to work with!!
Video – click on the title to see the movie
“The Greatest Pontiac Never Made” by Barchetta, December 29, 2023
In 1956, Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen took over as general manager. In an effort to gain sales, he shook up its engineering division, and brought in fresh talent, including engineer John Z. DeLorean. Knudsen and DeLorean subsequently worked with Bill Collins, who is mentioned several times in this video.