AND CONCEPTS IN METAL AND PLASTIC
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. Its the
automotive circus sideshow, where the weird and the wonderful
are on display for all theyre 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, todays 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 GMs commitments to the
These were the cars you might remember from the covers of
magazines such as "Popular Mechanics", with cover
blurbs like, "Its 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,
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 worlds first major automotive
styling studio in 1927 for General Motors, and the force behind
cars from what is considered the worlds 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 fathers 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 Buicks
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.
Its 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 fathers custom coach-building outfit,
which was already making custom, one-of-a-kind (whats
known in the business as "one-offs") cars for movie
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 industrys 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.
Earls 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, GMs 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 theyre
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
Buicks 100th anniversary. And, yes, it runs.
While earlier dream cars traditionally showed the shape of
things to come, todays concepts are generally much more
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 marques
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
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. Its 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. Theyve included the wild
helicopter-like Nissan Gobi to the original Dodge Viper. They
translate the artists 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
theyve 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
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 worlds
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. GMs
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
But the effect these vehicles have on car lovers worldwide
has never changed. Its 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.