Tom Peters, Designer of the Notorious Pontiac Aztek Reveals Its 4×4 Truck Origins [Q&A]

2001 Pontiac Aztek
TFL’s vintage crossover, a 2001 Pontiac Aztek. [photo: TFL]
When it first appeared, the Pontiac Aztek was ridiculed as one of the ugliest vehicles ever put out by Detroit. That didn’t stop GM from selling them for years. And as we at TFLcar have learned after picking up our own 2001 version, the vehicle’s functional design was ahead of its time in many respects, even if, as we learned this week, it couldn’t get out of its way fast enough at a dragstrip.

We wanted to see how this, one of the original crossovers, came to life. And there’s one person to ask, Tom Peters, Director of Exterior Design for GM, the man who helped create the Aztek and then went on to design two of GM’s most iconic and beloved vehicles, the C6 and C7 Corvette and the 5th generation Camaro.

TFL: Tell us the origin story behind the Aztek.

Peters: The leadership team was looking for radical new vehicle concepts. At the time, I was director at GM’s West Coast Advanced Concept Center. One of the opportunities we saw in the market was for an active outdoor lifestyle vehicle, especially in California. In response, one of the concepts I proposed to our team was “What if you took a Camaro and a Blazer and put it in a blender?” The result was an AWD, sporty vehicle that you could carry a fair amount of gear, as well as people, we called it the ‘Bear Claw.’ At the time, I had never heard the term ‘crossover.’

TFL: I recall during the press launch for the Aztek that there was a room that looked like a mini-REI store with all this outdoor gear on display. Was there any specific piece of gear that you took inspiration from?

Peters: We took inspiration from the active, youthful customers. I remember specifically looking at The North Face, before it was a mainstream brand like it is today. I bought a jacket from them that we kept in the studio. It was black with yellow accents, and I loved how reconfigurable it was. We passed it around in the studio for inspiration, and we tried to take the same approach with the Aztek.

The original idea for the Aztek came from a mid-1990s North Face parka like this one.

TFL: What ideas did you and your team have that didn’t make it into the vehicle?

Peters: The initial Aztek ‘Bear Claw’ concept was based on an S-series full-frame platform with four-wheel drive, an off-road wheel/tire package and an aggressively styled body featuring big flared wheel arches, a low roof and a wide track. We were all excited about this concept, but a decision was made to move the production Aztek to the GMT200 minivan platform instead of the S-series truck frame. This created some serious design challenges and forced us to move away from the original design intent. For example, the cowl and roof had to be raised and the body narrowed. This caused the dash to axle dimension to be raised and moved forward while the minivans small wheels and tires forced the wheel arches to become smaller.

TFL: And any features or design elements that you look at in today’s vehicles and say to yourself, “Hey, we already did that with the Aztek in 2000.”?

Peters: There are so many more active lifestyle vehicles on the road now that are flexible and reconfigurable with unique designs. The Honda Element and Nissan Juke are some other examples of quirky designs that came after the Aztek.

TFL: How did your experience with the Aztek and the lessons learned from it help you with your work on the Corvette and Camaro?

Peters: During the development of a vehicle there are many forces that can drive redirection from the original vision. So what’s imperative is developing a strong vision and then keep it visible throughout development for everyone to focus on. Staying true to your vision is key. If I could do the Aztek over again I would have stuck with the framed, 4-wheel drive platform and the capability and proportions that went with it.

TFL: How would you like the Aztek to be remembered?

Peters: As a vehicle that was ahead of its time.