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From the Field
By Steve Parker

No matter where the auto show might be, they are always the most popular vehicles on display, drawing crowds of "ooh-ing" and "ahh-ing" adults and kids alike. It’s the automotive circus sideshow, where the weird and the wonderful are on display for all they’re worth and for whatever the on-lookers may think.
Leave it to America and General Motors to have created the entire concept of the, well, the concept car.
Sadly, today’s concepts are usually not quite as daring, whimsical, futuristic and fantastical as some of us might remember from our early trips to auto shows. General Motors even had a traveling exhibit called "Motorama", which kicked-off at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City in 1953 and traveled across the country until 1961.
These amazing cars of the future were hauled over the interstates by trucks which were wonders of futurism unto themselves. A few of those original trucks exist, and at least one has been restored. To car nuts, these are invaluable pieces of history. (Also for car nuts, Motorama was originally called "Transportation Unlimited", and these shows were started in 1949 in New York and Boston. The shows were not held in 1951 or ’52 due to GM’s commitments to the Korean War).
These were the cars you might remember from the covers of magazines such as "Popular Mechanics", with cover blurbs like, "It’s here now ---- the mid-engine nuclear-powered Corvette for 1962!".
And the names! Firebird, Corvette, Bonneville, Nomad, Biscayne, Impala, Corvair and so many, many more!
But as it turns out, as with so many things automotive, things have changed. Nothing, indeed, is sacred, after all.
Take the sad way General Motors is treating one of their heroes, Harley Earl.
Buick is currently running a series of TV, radio and print ads featuring some actor in a Fedora hat portraying Harley Earl. Earl, leader of the world’s first major automotive styling studio in 1927 for General Motors, and the force behind cars from what is considered the world’s first "dream" car, the 1938 Buick Y-Job, to the original Corvette, has been reduced in death to a somewhat sleazy pitchman.
The ad spots, said by some to be the worst auto advertising since the "This is not your father’s Oldsmobile" campaign (and we all know what happened to Olds --- they were right --- your father could actually buy an Oldsmobile!) seem to be doing not much more than putting more nails into Buick’s coffin.
And what a terrible, undignified way to go --- on the back of the man who opened up automotive styling and design to the universe of possibilities.
It’s the Y-Job which is thought by most to be the first "dream" car exhibited to the public, starting a trend which continues to this day, though the vehicles now are known more familiarly as "concepts".
Earl was, in all ways, singularly perfect to create the first dream car. He was born in Hollywood, CA in 1893, and when of age joined his father’s custom coach-building outfit, which was already making custom, one-of-a-kind (what’s known in the business as "one-offs") cars for movie stars.
At this time, there were more cars registered in the city of Pasadena, CA, than any other town in America. They may build ‘em in Detroit, but they thought ‘em up in Los Angeles, even then!
Earl boasted of designing a $28,000 car for comedy star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. And western icon Tom Mix had a custom Earl car complete with a real leather saddle on the roof and painted stars with his "TM" logotype all over the vehicle.
A physically and artistically intimidating man, Earl, who appeared even larger than his 6 foot 4 inch frame, always had a fresh flower in his suit jacket lapel and that famed Fedora hat riding high.
Legend says that in 1927, on the 15th tee of the Los Angeles Country Club, Earl was handed a telegram from the Big Boys at General Motors. They wanted Harley Earl to come to Detroit and head-up their new "Art and Colour Section", the auto industry’s first attempt to consolidate the then-new discipline of automotive design into one group of people dedicated to nothing but developing the automotive fashions of the future. Earl, of course, took the job.
Earl’s assignment was to design cars for each General Motors Division, which would encourage buyers to start out with a Chevy, then gradually work their way through Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile up to Cadillac, a "cradle to grave" system of sales which worked so well into the 1960s that in that decade, GM’s biggest problem was that the government was threatening to split the company up, thinking it a monopoly, owning then over 50% of the marketplace (today they’re at about 28%).
Earl did his job exceedingly well.
The 1938 Y-Job was built to evaluate public taste. The two-seater was based on a standard Buick chassis, stretched to two inches short of twenty feet, riding on coil springs. The finished car was less than five feet high at the top of the windshield. The powerplant was a 141 horsepower version of Buick's 320 cubic inch engine.
Displaying Buick's first "bombsight" hood ornament, the car featured electric doors and windows and a hidden, power-operated electric convertible top. Power-operated concealed headlights (which were originally seen on the 1937 Cord), "recessed" tail lamps (which hot rodders later called "Frenched"), flush door handles and a pop-out decklid handle, all contributed to the ultra-slippery impression. Bumpers were closely wrapped around the bodywork.
It had GM's first horizontal radiator grille. And then-unheard-of thirteen-inch wheels made the car look even longer and lower. Earl used the Y-Job "dream car" as his personal transportation and got lots of attention around Detroit that way. It was shown to the general public after W.W. II.
It has now been fully restored by GM and is being displayed at museums and shows around the country this year to celebrate Buick’s 100th anniversary. And, yes, it runs.
While earlier dream cars traditionally showed the shape of things to come, today’s concepts are generally much more conservative.
Many modern-day concept cars are actually closer to production than the manufacturers like to let on, hence, they usually are not as wild and wacky as their predecessors (though the Europeans and Asians still turn out the occasional "What the heck is that?!?!" model).
For instance, Ford this year is showing a "concept" Mustang at all the major USA auto shows. In reality, the car, which will debut in 2004 as a 2005 model (the marque’s 40th anniversary), is very close to being "locked in" to production. Ford has even announced the new Mustang will be built at a factory Ford shares with partner Mazda at Flat Rock, MI.
Near-production concepts give manufacturers a chance to instantly evaluate public reaction. At an auto show, it is not unusual for factory reps to poll the show-goers’ opinions, and hidden microphones are sometimes placed on the exhibition stands so factory big-wigs can listen to potential customer comments at their leisure. It’s a way of "clinic-ing" the car, putting it in front of a paying group of enthusiasts and potential buyers.
Very often, the concepts are not built by the car companies themselves. They simply are not set-up to do "one-offs" --- a million they can make, but one? No way. In Costa Mesa, CA, for example, a small operation of the Gaffoglio family, called Metalcrafters, creates many of the best-known concepts cars of the past two decades. They’ve included the wild helicopter-like Nissan Gobi to the original Dodge Viper. They translate the artist’s designs into steel and plastic.
What happens to concept cars after their show-y days are over?
Incredibly, most of them have been destroyed, crushed after they’ve outlived their usefulness.
Luckily, there is another family business, this one in Michigan, whose members constantly comb the junkyards near Detroit. They have found and restored many of the dream cars which were presumed lost to the ages (including one of the original Motorama transport trucks). Some they keep, some they sell back to the car companies, and some hit the show and museum circuits worldwide.
Sometimes, concept cars from the past are found in a corner of some forgotten warehouse.
This happened recently with the very first hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle ever made in America. It was an early ‘60s Chevrolet Corvair van, outfitted with the same types of fuel cells which have provided electricity for spacecraft for decades.
The concept van was eventually forgotten. But, amazingly, someone in a GM warehouse last year pulled a dusty tarpaulin off a big lump of metal, and there it was: The world’s first known fuel cell-powered vehicle. GM has restored it and found the original engineer who developed it, and now the van and its creator are a hit on the auto show circuit.
Time goes on. Dream cars have turned into concept cars. GM’s Art and Colour Section is now the Styling Department and has well over 1,000 employees. Harley Earl, sadly, is introduced to a new generation of car lovers as nothing more than a carnival barker.
But the effect these vehicles have on car lovers worldwide has never changed. It’s the future, our future, and we want it now.

About the Author
Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist living in Palm Springs, CA, where he produces and hosts automotive-related radio and TV shows) Steve Parker THE CAR NUT / THE CAR DUDE. Over 30 Years of Emmy-Award Winning Automotive Journalism on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines.