Jon Moss Interview - Keeper Of The Faith

Jon Moss Is Commonly Recognized As The Father Of The Impala Ss, But To Enthusiasts, His Role At GM Is Far More Important.

Jim McIlvaine Jan 1, 2002 0 Comment(s)
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While much of America buzzes over possible story lines for the next Star Wars movie or eagerly anticipates the next Metallica album, GM performance enthusiasts spend countless hours speculating on the next creation to emerge from Jon Moss' garage. Unknown to most of the general public, Jon has emerged as a cult hero among die-hard GM performance fans. Jon has achieved this status by heading a group within Chevrolet that makes the show cars we wish GM would put into regular production. Sometimes these concept vehicles, such as the Impala SS, do make it to the assembly line, while others, such as the fabled ZL1 Camaro, never make it beyond the drool-inducing prototype.

GMHTP had the opportunity to sit down with Jon at the All GM Nationals at Carlisle, Pennsylvania and ask him a few questions. We really wanted to know if his job was as cool as it seems. We were convinced however, that he would paint as boring and mundane a picture as he could (If we had the keys to the ZL1, we would too.) We did get a better understanding of who Jon is, what he does and how he ended up as GM's in-house performance guru. We also gained some insight on the future of performance in the General's lineup. With GM losing the F-Body platform and the SSR appearing to be the only new performance vehicle on the horizon, we asked Jon what GM had left to compete with Ford's impressive lineup. We also wondered if there were any attempts being made by GM to offer a legitimate contender in the exploding Sport Compact market.

Jon spoke very candidly about the competition from the blue oval crowd, as well as the game of catch-up GM is now playing in their attempt to break into a market segment dominated by the Japanese. While not all the news is good, Jon did seem confident that GM's future offerings would satisfy the demands of performance-oriented customers. Jon was reluctant to go into any detail regarding the Sigma platform, but we sensed this reluctance and the slight smirk on his face were both good indicators that the future looks brighter than he is letting on at this point.

GMHTP: What exactly is your title at General Motors and what does that mean?Moss: I am the manager of all of GM's special vehicles. What that means is I manage all the brand-driven concepts for all GM brands in North America.

GMHTP: You're credited with bringing us the Impala SS. Do you see your role as a person who brings performance cars to the masses or someone who focuses on building show cars?Moss: Let me go back a little bit. Do I push the envelope on a lot of these cars? That is true, but just to clarify; all of these projects are generated by the brands themselves. Once a year we go to them requesting projects and we take these projects and make them reality. The projects that brands give us fall in a variety of different categories, from the pace cars you see to performance vehicles, truck or car, to vehicles that are going to push the envelope and might pique customer interest to actually put them in production, like the Impala SS or the Xtreme S10 pickup truck. Those things started out as initial production-based concepts and with the response so huge from the dealer body as well as the customers, the brand teams than take it and move it forward to make it a reality. So, our role actually falls in many flavors, but our basic direction really does come from the brand team. Now we may have some influence on the design or the performance application or maybe push the envelope a little bit on a lot of these projects, but the initial thoughts come from the brand teams.

GMHTP: What can you tell us about the SSR regarding production information, engine, platform, etc.?Moss: Well I can't tell a whole lot to be honest with you. It is going to be a V8, rear-wheel drive and it is going to have the larger wheels and tires.

GMHTP: The 19s in the front and the 20s in the back?Moss: Yes. There's a couple of flavors of engines that I don't know where they've settled on. It's either going to be the 5.3 or the six liter. I don't know exactly where that all stands. It's basically the same engine with a different horsepower rating. The actual appearance of the truck is going to be very, very, very similar within polar limitations of what the actual concept car was. So, what you saw in the concept is what you're going to see in reality.

GMHTP: Would that include the push-button transmission?Moss: I don't know about that. We are looking at push-button transmissions in a couple of products. Whether we're going to take that forward with the SSR is going to be determined by the engineering platform. It may be decided now, I just don't know.

GMHTP: Have you been to any of the SSR websites that have popped up on the Internet?Moss: No, I haven't.

GMHTP: What do you think about the fact that the SSR is already so popular and it's still a long way off from being in the hands of the general public?Moss: Yeah, it's still a good 15-16 months away from being at the dealerships. As you probably know, there's still a lot of drive for the nostalgic, retro-type look. Yes, this is the retro-type look, but in a way it does have a lot of the new ingredients, the new technologies, the new engine performance, the new suspensions, the new shapes. There's still a lot of "news," but still you kind of look through a veil and it still has some kind of retro look and quite frankly I think that a lot of the people are looking for some of those niche-marketed vehicles. Look what happened to the PT Cruiser and some of these other cars that have just gone off the wall. So I think people are looking for the retro look for several reasons. One, the buying public have more money than they did 20 years ago. So there's a lot of people that can go out and buy these things. I can remember hearing two years ago, "These big car meets are going to come and go, just like a lot of things." Well, I see them doing just the opposite. There are more and more of these-it seems like and they are getting bigger and bigger. I don't know where these people have kept these cars all of these years, but I'm telling you I walk up and down these aisles and I see cars that I didn't even know existed anymore. So, I think it's very strong and it continues to be strong. Here this weekend, for instance, we've got two big events going on simultaneously-the St. Ignatius show and this show and we've taken over 100 vehicles, 50 to each show. Between the two shows, they're going to get probably 200,000 some people and several thousands of cars and it's just incredible what's going on.

GMHTP: Are you concerned that the enthusiasts might see the SSR as a replacement for the Camaro?Moss: I've heard that talk. You may see that some, but it's still a pickup truck. I don't care how you want to cut it; it's not a Camaro. Camaro is a brand that is so powerful and it stands alone by itself. The SSR will have its one little niche quite frankly. I know I've heard that talk before, "When the Camaro goes away, is this going to be its replacement?" Well yeah, it may be a stopgap for the people who want a performance-type image vehicle, that's true. But will it replace the Camaro or the Camaro name? No.

GMHTP: Will it kick the Lightning's butt?Moss: I don't know. They're running some pretty awesome horsepower in that thing, almost 400 horsepower now; I think 385 or something like that. Of course, it's a lot heavier vehicle. To be honest with you, until we get some real prototypes made to find exactly how fast it is, I don't know.

GMHTP: Would the Lightning be a target or benchmark for SSR performance?Moss: Sure, it's going to have really good performance, but I don't think its main goal is to be a drag strip winner. It's really been designed for a good, all-around driving performance vehicle, rather than something that's going to go out there and make hay with the Lightning. The Lightning is more of a purpose-built performance image vehicle. Like our Coolside II. That's more of a purpose-built straight-line vehicle that would beat the Lightning hands down.

GMHTP: Is there another product that we might see that would fill the need to beat the Lightning? There's a lot of GM guys that don't want to buy a Ford.Moss: Well, we built that SS a few years ago and we're still looking at the possibility of the SS Silverado. How were we going to do the horsepower limit? Maybe not at first, but down the road, seeing what the potential of the vehicle is, it could definitely go that way, be a head-to-head thing with the Lightning.

GMHTP: How did you get involved in cars and what brought you into the fold with GM?Moss: Well personally, I just liked General Motors products and to be honest with you, I liked Chevys basically. Although my family were General Motors owners, they owned Chevys and Buicks. When I got out of college, I worked for Oldsmobile for a short while, went in the service and then got out of the service and got a job offer from Chevy, because that's where I wanted to work. I wanted to get a Corvette quite frankly, and started at Chevrolet as a chassis designer on the board.

GMHTP: What year was that?Moss: When I went back to Chevy, it was 1966, but I started in 1963 with Oldsmobile. So I started in chassis design working on, believe it or not, Corvairs. The old "B" car, then we went to the Camaro and the Nova of that era and then I had a real hand in doing the suspension work, particularly the rear suspension for the Vega. I did a lot of work on the Vega. Then they moved me to a design engineer when they formed the new Chevette program. So, we transferred that into production and did a lot of things with that and then went to the proving grounds and worked on the new J-car platform, Cavaliers and Sunfires. I worked on that for about three years as a chassis development engineer and came back to the center as a chassis systems manager for the Grand Am, Somerset and Calais. I then came back and worked at the engineering platforms again and really resurrected the old design shack and mock up-which they said we didn't need at one time and we found out we did, and brought them back. And then about that time Runkel was forming the special vehicle group at Chevy and really pushed the envelope and got me over there. I ended up in charge of Chevy and I guess did a pretty fair job with Chevy and got a lot of notoriety with these creations. So much notoriety that when the corporation consolidated all the divisions, they thought it was really worthwhile to have a consolidated focused special vehicle group. That was about four years ago and they put me in charge of it. So I've got now a team of people in charge of the divisions that actually do what I used to do as far as the projects, and I oversee everything.

GMHTP: How many people are in that group?Moss: I've got eight people in that group right now and it may expand down the road, depending on how much more we take on. There's talk of us doing some stuff for Saab. We now have Hummer, we have Saturn now, instead of just the divisions. With Olds going away, that slows something down in that area, so we may expand a couple or three more people, but it won't be much more than that.

GMHTP: Have you considered a rematch with Ford's John Coletti?Moss: Yeah, I told him "anytime."

GMHTP: Do you think GM will pay more attention to performance enthusiasts in the future?Moss: I think there's a real push when you look at what BMW is doing through AMG programs, Mercedes and even Lexus now. I think you're always going to have a need for performance, but performance is taking a little different turn from like that big ZL1 Camaro I've got that shakes the ground. You're getting much more sophisticated performance; you're getting performance that is using all the new trick electronics and all that sort of stuff. You're still going to have the performance, but like I say, with government standards and fuel economy and emissions and stuff like that, the only way you can get around it is quite frankly, by fuel economy. Another thing is the reason you see the small cars going is because they can get a little blower and put it on there and boom, up the horsepower real quick, especially if you use superchargers. Superchargers are very easy on emissions compared to a turbo, so you see it both ways. A lot of reasons they use turbos is because of the turbo lag, because the transmissions out there can't handle all the extra horsepower. So with the turbo lag you get a little bit easier torque application to the transmission, whereas supercharger, you hit the throttle there and you've got torque, boom, right now. So that's why you see a lot of the kids with turbochargers trying to sneak past emissions.

GMHTP: Given GM's involvement with Subaru, is there a possibility that the engine in the WRX may find it's way into the Borrego or other GM production vehicles?Moss: Good question. You know, I think that the WRX is a pretty wicked little car. I've seen the ads on TV, I've never really seen one, I've never driven one, but from everybody I've talked to, it is one fine little performance vehicle. I have not heard anything coming over this way as of yet, but who knows? With GM being so global and using our other companies that we own a part of, yeah, that could be a very good possibility. The tooling is costly and to invent something all-new is very expensive, so you're going to see a lot more of this sharing of powertrains and suspension systems and parts down the road, just because the globe has gotten so smaller.

GMHTP: Is there any kind of mandate that Chevy puts out that you need to beat Ford in a horsepower war or ensure that you're at a competitive advantage in that arena, versus the other manufacturers?Moss: (laughs) I don't know if there's any mandate, but let's say this-the engineers and the people that are running the platforms pay very close attention to it. Second place doesn't win. So, yes, it's paid very close attention.

GMHTP: Can we expect great things from the Sigma platform?Moss: (hesitates) Well, I think here in the next few years, yes. That's about all I'll say on that. Yeah, we've looked at it. I think it's probably going to be one of those "global" platforms that's going to be drawn from. There are projects right now being looked at using the Sigma platform.

GMHTP: Will the SSR production version differ substantially from the prototype? I know you've talked about this a little bit in terms of different appearance items like the split windshield, the retractable top, because that might jack up the price a little bit for some people.Moss: To be honest with you, we're building the first prototype right now. We're making the first really, true engineering prototype with the top and with all these things you're talking about. Until we've gone through there and really solidified the design, you just don't know what's going to be the give-and-take on that. I know, yes, the top is important. Yes, the tailgate is important. Yes, the hood cover is important. A lot of those things as well as the styling application is important. It's going to be how this thing all gets costed out. You can say you can have everything and the price is $70,000, it's producible, but you've shrunk your customer base right down to nothing. You've got to be really cognizant. Get 'em an affordable piece out there that you're going to be able to sell some volume of and pay your investment costs.

GMHTP: Do they have an idea of what they consider to be "affordable" or a range?Moss: Well, I've heard some numbers kicked around, which I'm not at liberty to tell you right now. The features versus what they're going to be able to sell it for versus the tooling costs and investment are three ingredients that are going to be very carefully considered to make it a viable product.

GMHTP: Do they consider the other vehicles in the line-up as well, as far as where they're placing it price-wise?Moss: Well, I think this vehicle is going to be like a Corvette. It's going to be a vehicle unto itself. What are you going to bump it up against? It's not an S10 pickup; it's a totally different animal than that. Even though it is a pickup, it's not a Silverado, so it really doesn't affect that. It's not an Avalanche, so it's not going to affect that. I don't think it's got any competition to be honest with you.

GMHTP: Who on the design team should take the most credit for the SSR?Moss: Well, Ed Wellburn was the one that was the driving force on the SSR. We constructed the one you see over there. Our team actually built the first one. We're working in conjunction with other engineering teams, building the first real engineering prototype, but the design basically was dictated by Design Center. Ed Wellburn was the one that was really pushing it.

GMHTP: When was the last time you saw a concept vehicle generate this much interest from people at shows?Moss: Well, quite frankly, the last concept vehicle of that kind of nature was, if I need to say it, the PT Cruiser and the Dodge Viper, quite frankly. [Note: this interview ironically was conducted prior to the hiring of Bob Lutz as group vice president of product development.-Ed.]

GMHTP: What about GM?Moss: As far as GM? That's a tough one. That's a real tough one.

GMHTP: The Impala SS?Moss: Yeah, probably the Impala SS, but that's not really a ground-up concept vehicle like that. I'm just trying to think of an overall concept vehicle. Probably the biggest concept that had the biggest impact on the industry was, when did we do that thing in '91? The S10 Highlander. I don't know if you remember that vehicle. That was the first introduction of an access door to the extended cab. You know what happened after that, that started the "door wars," from pickup trucks to vans to everything else. It was probably one of the most significant concept car features. There's other features on that same vehicle that went into production. Look at the Avalanche. That vehicle had the drop-down glass and folding back of the cab, so what have you got, the same feature in the Avalanche. That particular concept vehicle went in two really distinct directions and had a really huge impact on the industry.

GMHTP: We understand the SSR concept was developed in a fundamentally different way than a lot of the modern computer-generated concepts, like the GTO. Can you comment on the organic lines of the SSR?Moss: As far as how it came to being?

GMHTP: More like a traditional, full-scale clay model?Moss: I don't know where you found that, but yeah, there was some computer math design, but initially there was a full-scale foam of that thing. It was basically driven off the foam model. It was shown to the strategy board and the board of directors. They said, "Wow! This is pretty neat!" We took it to a couple of shows and "Wow! This is pretty neat!" It was decided to go forward with the concept car.

GMHTP: So there was no fundamentally different way about how that car came about?Moss: Not really, not that I know of. Maybe that's something you'd want to give Ed Wellburn a call on. He would be more versed in answering that than I. From where we took it on, the actual build, it was pretty much traditional, quite frankly. From full model to reality.

GMHTP: You touched on the retro styling of the SSR earlier and the success the PT Cruiser had with that. Would that be an indication that GM might want to continue in that direction beyond the SSR?Moss: Well, there's a clich that you don't always want to look back, but yet you've got to look back because what made you great is always going to be there. You want to kind of look both ways. You want to look toward the future. We're so global and there's so much competition, you've got to be on your game constantly. But yet you've got to also look for opportunities that are going to stimulate the market that you haven't explored. Really, it's a multi-faceted thing. You've got to look forward and I'm talking three years. You know a lot of the production-based concepts that we do are like six months to a year, year and a half out. You've got those theme concepts that are anywhere from two and a half to five years out. Then you've got to look at what we're doing, like how some of our past has influenced some of the design. So, it's a give and take really with the design staff and the influence of what certain nameplates and products have had on that particular brand's market.

GMHTP: For three years, the Impala SS was the savior for a lot of guys, who either because of their own size or the size of their family needed a larger vehicle. With the Mercury Marauder on the horizon, does GM have any plans to help out guys who face the prospect of looking at a minivan or even worse, a Ford?Moss: Well, we own an Impala SS right now. I think you're going to see some performance changes in the Impala SS real soon. But as far as building another large vehicle like that, probably not. I know Mercury is taking a last hurrah with the Marauder, but I think it's kind of a swan song to be honest with you because of the government mandates, escalating fuel prices and emissions and stuff like that. It's getting more strict every time. Look at what California's trying to pass: more laws. You just gotta look at what the laws are. I'm sure if it was carte blanche and you could do whatever you wanted to, yeah you'd probably give the public exactly what they wanted. There are just too many rules and regulations that you've got to follow. I think personally, it's the last hurrah for Ford, in that arena anyway.

GMHTP: Do you have any involvement with the development of the Borrego?Moss: No, not at all.

GMHTP: Do you have any Commodores in your garage anywhere, anything of Australian descent?Moss: (chuckles) No, we had a Holden product up here, rear-wheel drive, V8 that we're looking at. It's out at the proving grounds right now as a matter of fact, but I'm not involved in it. It was shown on this year's Hot Rod Power Tour.

GMHTP: The Monaro?Moss: Yeah and it got some pretty good attention to be honest with you. As far as my involvement, I really haven't had any with it.

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Read about this interview with Jon Moss about things such as the Chevy Impala SS, Chevy SSR, and Subaru WRX at GM High Tech Per...
Jim McIlvaine Jan 1, 2002

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