Legendary automotive designer Harley Earl had a compulsion to outdo his rivals. In 1938, his Buick Y-Job, often considered to be the first true concept car, set the tone for automotive design in the immediate prewar years. Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the Y-Job, now seven years old, began to feel dated to Earl; his response was the 1951 GM Le Sabre concept, a car that innovated everything from style through construction through the implementation of technology in the automobile.
From the beginning, the Le Sabre was conceived as Harley Earl’s personal automobile, and Earl held a (generally accurate) belief that if he liked something, the American public would also like it. Influenced by the dawn of the jet age, and more specifically by the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre fighter, Earl envisioned a car that would blend aircraft styling and functionality with more traditional automotive design. In other words, it wasn’t enough for the concept to look like a jet; because Earl had every intention of using the Le Sabre as his personal automobile, it had to function well as an automobile, too. Befitting the designer’s flamboyant nature, it also needed to be equipped with the latest gadgetry, perhaps prompting other designers to ponder why they hadn’t thought of the idea first.
Earl had appointed Edward E. Glowacke to oversee the Special Automobile Design studio, which gave him (some) oversight on the creation of the Le Sabre. Glowacke can be directly attributed with some of the car’s styling elements, such as the pointed bumper “bullets,” the jet-intake-like oval grille, and the car’s aircraft-like cockpit. GM engineer Charlie Chayne was tasked with creating the car’s V-8 engine and drivetrain, and for such an exceptional concept car, no ordinary engine would do. Not only would it need to be powerful enough to satisfy Earl’s expectations, but it would also need to be compact (and short) enough to fit with the designer’s long and low motif.
Chayne’s choice was a newly designed cast-aluminum 215-cu.in. V-8, which was also fitted to the Le Sabre’s sister car, the Buick XP-300. For duty beneath the Le Sabre’s front fenders, the engine received a rather unique dual-carburetor setup; one would feed gasoline, supplying power for steady-state cruising, while the second would add methanol to the mix to enhance output during hard acceleration. To further increase the power, the engine (which utilized cast-aluminum hemispherical cylinder heads) also incorporated a Roots-type supercharger pushing 18.2 PSI of boost, and the result was an impressive 335 horsepower and 381 pound-feet of torque.
Underneath, the car was just as advanced. For reasons of packaging, Chayne moved the transmission (originally a Buick Dynaflow, but later a GM Hydra-Matic) to the rear of the car, also improving weight distribution. The De Dion rear was suspended via a transverse leaf spring and shock absorber arrangement, but the front suspension used a rather unconventional setup. Instead of coil springs and dampers or even torsion bars, the Le Sabre used a pivot rod embedded in a solid rubber cylinder, encased in steel. The rubber acted as a spring, and the motion was controlled with the use of conventional shock absorbers. The setup worked reasonably well, until the rubber inside the cylinder began to dry and crack; at that point Chayne substituted a more conventional torsion bar front suspension in the Le Sabre.
As innovative as the unseen parts of the car were, it was the Le Sabre’s exterior styling that captivated auto show audiences. Up front, the car’s most prominent features were the wraparound windshield (the first on a GM automobile) and the aircraft fuselage-inspired snout, capped with a large oval grill. No headlamps were visible in this design, but at the flip of a switch, the grille swiveled to reveal them. At the rear of the Le Sabre, dual tail fins rose high above the decklid, and the jet aircraft theme was prominently displayed with an oversize central taillamp, meant to evoke the image of a lit afterburner. The tail fins were more than a design touch; also borrowing from aircraft design, each one held a rubberized fuel bladder, one to store gasoline and the second to hold methanol.
Even the body itself broke new ground, as it used cast magnesium body panels in conjunction with an aluminum honeycomb floor and steel panels (riding on a boxed steel frame). The entire cowl was crafted from cast magnesium, as was the hood and the decklid; given the expanses of the panels, ribs were cast into both to add strength and rigidity. Doors and front fender valences were also made of cast magnesium, and in some areas the material is up to a quarter-inch thick.
Befitting a car this ambitious, the convertible top was power operated, relying on electric motors to raise or lower it. The console between the seats also contained a moisture sensor, and when rain was detected, the top automatically lifted itself into position, followed by the windows. It’s said that the Le Sabre never failed to attract a crowd when the weather turned nasty, and onlookers marveled at this bit of futuristic technology. Had a tire gone flat on the Le Sabre, it’s likely that spectators would have been equally impressed with the car’s four hydraulic jacks, which allowed the driver to raise any corner of the car to facilitate tire changing.
Any resemblance between the Le Sabre’s cockpit and that of a jet aircraft was purely intentional, as the concept was meant to be as cutting-edge as a fighter jet. The driver’s seat was power adjustable, and both driver and passenger enjoyed heated seats. Below the dashboard, the cruise control knob allowed the driver to select the desired speed via a rotating dial. A conventional speedometer wouldn't do, so a digital gauge was chosen, and to allow for various lighting conditions, its brightness could be adjusted via a rheostat. Though the Le Sabre wasn't actually designed to fly, Glowacke even thought to include both a compass and an altimeter in the dashboard, one more nod to the car’s aircraft influence.
The Le Sabre never saw production, but it did foreshadow numerous automotive design trends to come. Tailfins would soon become all the rage in Detroit, while the low beltline and hidden convertible top would appear on the semi-custom 1953 Oldsmobile 98 Fiesta convertible, the 1953 Cadillac Eldorado convertible and the 1953 Buick Skylark convertible. Depending upon the source, Earl either drove the car for several years after its show circuit tour, or all the way up to his 1958 retirement, putting an estimated 45,000 miles on the concept. Today it remains in the GM Heritage Center collection.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Kurt Ernst.
Five years prior to the October, 1959, introduction of the Corvair that would become the Motor Trend magazine Car of the Year for 1960, Chevrolet produced a 'Corvair' show car for display at the 1954 Motorama.
Earlier, in January of 1953, the first Corvette show car was introduced to the public at Motorama, in New York City. It was such a hit with the public that it was put into production only 6 months later, in June, 1953.
Subsequent to the introduction of the Corvette, Harley Earl, vice-president of General Motors styling, put his team to work on three new show cars for the 1954 Motorama. The trio consisted of a car based on the standard Corvette roadster (with the roll up windows and bolt-on hard top that would see production in '56), a stunning Nomad wagon which led to the production version introduced in 1955, and the beautiful fastback coupe as seen in the artist's rendering at right. This one was named "Corvair."
Based on the production Corvette, the Corvair show car featured a fastback roof that swept back to form a distinctive arch shaped recess in the license plate area.
Sadly, the Corvette Corvair was eventually destroyed. Had it survived, it undoubtedly would occupy a place of honor in the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
General Motors Design sketch and press photos courtesy of Wayne Ellwood.
When Tulsa authorities pulled the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that had come to be known as Miss Belvedere from a sealed concrete time capsule after 50 years, revealing a zero-mileage car caked with mud and shot through with rust, it immediately became the most notorious 1957 Plymouth Belvedere on the planet. Notorious, however, does not always translate to valuable or desirable, and as a result, Miss Belvedere sits largely forgotten on the floor of a New Jersey warehouse, unwanted by just about everybody.
The hype surrounding the retrieval of Miss Belvedere, as the car became known, was inescapable in the summer of 2007. Just about every media outlet from CNN to the Podunk Times covered the speculation about the Belvedere’s condition, whether it would start up on command after being pulled from its sarcophagus, who would get the car, and what they would do with it. Boyd Coddington, then at (or at least near) the peak of his popularity, was even on hand for its unveiling that June, but as the layers of plastic wrapped around the car to protect it from moisture damage and oxidation were peeled back, it quickly became evident that water had flooded the vault during the Belvedere’s subterranean sentence, covered it in a mud mixed with all the chemicals that had leaked out of the car over the decades, and possibly destroyed it. Looking to put a positive spin on the debacle, the Tulsa Historical Society displayed the car alongside other relics from the time capsule in a temporary exhibit, and visitors came in respectable numbers to see the car in person.
When the car was buried in 1957, Tulsa residents were given a chance to win the car by correctly guessing the population of the city in 2007. The man who had come closest to guessing the actual population of 382,457 was Raymond Humbertson, who had died in 1979. His wife had also died by then, so ownership of the car went to an older sister named Catherine, but at age 93 her days of driving (or taking physical possession of a rusted 1957 Plymouth) were behind her. Catherine’s younger sister, LeVeda, then age 85, was also named as an owner, but LeVeda died in November 2010. That leaves three actual owners of Miss Belvedere today: Catherine, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday (and still has a rusty Schlitz beer can, pulled from Miss Belvedere’s trunk); her nephew, Robert Carney; and his sister, M.C. Kesner.
Carney, in turn, handed Miss Belvedere over to Dwight Foster of Ultra One, a New Jersey manufacturer of a rust-removing chemical that’s claimed to be safe for the surfaces (like paint) beneath the oxidation. In November 2007, with the approval of the car’s owners, Miss Belvedere was shrink-wrapped and shipped to Ultra One’s warehouse in Hackettstown to begin a process of de-rusting and preservation. At first, it was believed that Miss Belvedere’s engine could be saved and restored to run again, and that her lights could be wired to provide a dramatic touch for display. Foster even procured a 1957 Plymouth Savoy as a donor car, and work began in earnest. Miss Belvedere’s leaf springs, which had long since rusted through in the acidic water of the time capsule, were replaced with donor springs from the Savoy. The Ultra One process removed a significant amount of the car’s exterior rust, and in 2009 pictures began to circulate showing Miss Belvedere in a superficial state of preservation.
Shortly after those images circulated, however, Miss Belvedere dropped off the public’s collective radar, and classic car enthusiasts were left wondering what had become of the wayward Plymouth. When the New York Times caught up with Foster in 2010, they described Miss Belvedere as “more rust than bucket” and quoted Foster as saying that the offer to de-rust the car was a promotional stunt. Late last year, news surfaced that Foster, with Carney’s permission, was attempting to donate the car to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. While it’s known as “America’s attic,” Smithsonian representatives told Foster that they do not see it as “America’s garage,” and the offer was rebuffed, leaving Foster in continued possession of the car. The city of Tulsa also turned down Foster’s request to send it back home for public display, noting that the cost to retrieve a rusted and useless car from an old tomb (and, presumably, the giant letdown experienced collectively by the town) still left a bitter taste in some residents’ mouths.
As Miss Belvedere sits today, its condition remains largely unchanged since 2009, with all of the reasonable preservation work done that could be done. From a distance, the car almost looks presentable, but up close it becomes evident that the damage is irreversible. Foster compares the car’s frame to papier mâché, admitting that “there are spots I could put my hand through if I’m not careful.” Utilizing the frame from the donor Plymouth Savoy would be an option if Miss Belvedere were stronger, but the car’s sheetmetal is in equally poor condition, especially in the rear. While the exterior has been cleaned, the interior of the body is still caked with mud, and as Foster said, “this is actually shoring up the body panels.” The car’s laminated safety glass is damaged beyond repair after water seeped between the glass and plastic layers during the car’s years in storage. While the steering was functional at first, the steering box is “melted inside,” the result of years of corrosion, and none of its electrical systems are even close to functioning. Even transporting the car to another location would be a major undertaking, given Miss Belvedere’s fragile condition.
Foster admits that he has somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 invested in Miss Belvedere’s preservation, but he’s equally clear that the car is still the property of Robert Carney, his sister and their aunt Catherine. While Carney did not respond to our request for comment, his sister, M.C., did, and said that she would like to see the car returned to Oklahoma for permanent display. With little interest from the city of Tulsa, that’s not likely to happen, but Foster remains hopeful that another museum will show interest in the car. The Smithsonian is clearly off the list of potential museums willing to take possession, but Foster is hoping that the AACA Museum (or a similar institution) has an interest in the car, which exists in an odd void between collector car and historical artifact. As a vintage car, its value is minimal, but as a slice of mid-century Americana, Miss Belvedere is potentially invaluable, particularly if displayed with the other rusted relics from the Tulsa time capsule.
Until Foster finds a museum or other sympathetic caretaker willing to embrace Miss Belvedere, however, it sits in a corner of the Ultra One warehouse, free from its watery tomb but no less trapped in time and place.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Kurt Ernst.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, Americans were hungry for affordable and reliable transportation. While major automakers quickly realized that compact cars had massive potential, they simply weren’t profitable, and a potentially large section of the automotive market was left open for smaller, more entrepreneurial manufacturers. One of these companies, Playboy, promised to deliver affordable, economical and fun transportation to the masses, and had it swung for a base hit instead of an out-of-the-park home run, it may have succeeded.
Founded in Buffalo, New York, by Louis Horwitz, Charles Thomas, and Norman Richardson, Playboy was built on the idea that at war’s end, family budgets would be tight and gasoline would continue to be scarce and expensive. Sensing the opportunity to build and sell a compact car that, like the Ford Model T, would be both inexpensive to purchase and affordable to own, the trio pooled $50,000 of their own money and created a single prototype automobile, a rear-engine convertible with a folding cloth top.
That experience alone should have convinced the group that automobile manufacturing was a far more complex endeavor than they were equipped to undertake. Of the three, only Thomas had prior automotive engineering experience; Horwitz was a Packard dealer, while Richardson was the operator of a service station. Though both Horwitz and Richardson had business experience, neither had the ability to comprehend how difficult it would be to proceed from building a prototype to building an automotive empire.
As the January-February 1975 issue of Special Interest Autos explained, the reaction to the Playboy prototype, shown at Buffalo’s Hotel Statler in the fall of 1946, didn’t help to temper the group’s expectations. Instead, public support of the concept convinced them that such a vehicle would be a commercial success, and Thomas went back to the drafting table to design a vehicle with a conventional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout that could easily be mass produced. Understanding the group’s manufacturing limitations, Thomas sought to develop a car that could be assembled primarily from off-the-shelf parts, and his final design favored function over form. Thomas was no stylist, and the Playboy that entered limited production was, by most standards of the day, an oddly shaped automobile.
It was, however, innovative, featuring slab-sided styling with low-mounted headlamps and taillamps that would become mainstream with the introduction of the 1949 Ford lineup. The Playboy, advertised at just $985, also featured a unique folding steel top that promised to deliver the open-air enjoyment of a convertible with the practicality and security of a coupe, making it “an ideal car for motoring in all weather and all climates.” Even the car’s front suspension was unlike anything else on the market at the time, using a single upper control arm; a horizontally mounted coil spring (which served as a lower control arm); and a vertical tubular shock that attached to the subframe and to spring hangers welded to the upper control arm. Playboy described this as an “independent suspension” with “rigid axles,” while the rear suspension of all Playboys built (except for the initial prototype) used a live axle. Early cars used a coil spring rear suspension, but later production switched to semi-elliptical leaf springs.
Power came from a variety of third-party sourced engines, including four-cylinder models from Continental, Hercules, and later Willys. Both the Continental and Hercules engines were initially designed for stationary use under constant loads, so adaptation to an automotive environment proved problematic. Overheating was common, and components such as pistons, piston rings and carburetors failed prematurely. The Willys engine, which reportedly cost just $3 more per unit, solved these issues, but didn’t enter into consideration until late in the Playboy’s production.
Production, in this case, is a relative term, as only 97 dealer demonstrators were ever built, each one assembled by hand in a cramped North Tonawanda factory once used by coachbuilder Brunn & Company. Based on public reaction, Horwitz, Thomas, and Richardson believed they could produce 1,000 Playboys during 1947, ramping this up to 100,000 in the company’s second year. Doing so would require far more capital than the trio had access to, so Horwitz devised a plan to raise money that would ultimately prove to be the firm’s undoing. Instead of approaching banks for loans, Horwitz believed that selling dealer franchises, at a cost of $1,000 per 20,000 resident of the sales area, would allow the company to establish itself before a public stock offering could be floated to raise the rest of the $20 million that Thomas estimated was needed.
To some degree, Horwitz’s plan worked, at least in the beginning. The group had little trouble signing on franchisees, as astute dealers recognized the need for an affordable compact car, particularly one as versatile as the Playboy appeared to be. To further create buzz about the car, Horwitz hired Shores-Reyes, a Hollywood promotion agency, to write exciting advertising copy (that may have overstated the car’s capabilities). Even without proof of performance or a tour of the Playboy factory, dealers signed on, and the money raised selling franchises went to build additional Playboy dealer demonstrator models. The group was so confident in its plan to begin mass production that the tooling needed for automation was ordered shortly before 17 million shares of common stock (priced at $1 each) were offered to the public.
On June 18, 1948, Wall Street broker Walter Tellier went public with the company’s stock offering, but shortly afterward, news of Preston Tucker’s investigation by the SEC broke, causing potential Playboy backers to get cold feet. Looking to salvage something out of his involvement with the company, Tellier tried to broker a deal for the sale of Playboy to Kaiser-Frazer, which insisted that its own dealers get distribution of the Playboy. Angered at the prospect of abandoning its own dealer network and dismayed by the amount offered by Kaiser-Frazer, Horwitz rejected the offer. Wealthy dealers pledged financial support, but the funding was too little, too late, and two weeks after the stock hit the market, Horwitz filed for bankruptcy. Less than two years later, the courts auctioned off Playboy’s assets, still held at the North Tonawanda plant, and the company was no more.
Though it would take decades for most domestic manufacturers to produce a profitable-yet-affordable compact car, the Playboy, perhaps, foretold the arrival of brands like Volkswagen, Toyota, Datsun, and Honda on these shores. Its strategy of outsourcing major components is now widely embraced by automakers the world over, few of which have the resources and expertise to develop every major component on their own. Even the folding hardtop (which, to be clear, the Playboy did not pioneer) later saw use on cars like the Ford Skyliner, the Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder and the Mazda Miata.
Had Playboy been better funded, some believe the product was innovative enough that it could have been a success. Before the plant was shuttered, Playboy even produced a pair of station wagons that raised a considerable amount of interest among dealers, but would have required even firmer financial footing to produce. Critics insist that the proposed $985 selling price wasn’t realistic, and that a profitable selling price would have put the cost of the Playboy within $100 of a base Ford model. The Playboy had its faults, as well: The roof reportedly leaked at the seams, raising or lowering it required two people, and the generous amount of undercoating used was more to hide crude welds between frame and body (and to provide a degree of sound deadening) than it was to prevent rust. In time, all of these issues could have been worked out, but time was something that Playboy simply didn’t have on its side.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily, written by Kurt Ernst.
Wherever lies the line between coachbuilt car and custom car, between handcrafted work of rolling art and aesthetically altered automobile, rock star James Hetfield and custom car builder Rick Dore have obliterated it with their latest car, and in the process captured the Goodguys Custom of the Year award.
Hetfield, front man for the long-lived heavy metal group Metallica, has long been known for his taste in high-end custom cars. A member of the Beatniks car club, Hetfield’s customs have progressed over the last decade or so from a simple chopped 1936 Ford to a radical chrome-bedecked 1936 Auburn Speedster to the Voodoo Priest, his chopped and V-12-powered 1937 Lincoln Zephyr that took the World’s Most Beautiful Custom award at the 2012 Sacramento Autorama.
For his latest custom, though, Hetfield went beyond merely modifying an existing car. Designed with Rick Dore, who handled the customizing work on Voodoo Priest, the car may have started out with the chassis of a 1948 Jaguar Mk 4 and some renderings inspired by the Art Deco era of European coachbuilding. Specifically, some have pointed to the work of Figoni et Falaschi and Letourneur et Marchand as influences on the car’s styling, but Hetfield has said that it’s meant to combine the best of European coachbuilding design and American custom car design from about the same era. “We started out with a left-hand-drive Jaguar, [but] we couldn’t get what we wanted out of it so we just kept drawing,” Hetfield told the Contra Costa Times.
To shape the body, Hetfield and Dore turned to famed panelbeaters Marcel and Luc De Lay to form it out of aluminum by hand and from scratch, a task they reportedly accomplished in the span of six months. “The fact that [the De Lays] started with an 8-by-10 drawing and ended up with a complete car is a testament to the ability of the human mind and hands,” Hetfield said in a Goodguys press release. “It still blows people’s minds when they ask what body we started with and we say ‘steel sheets.’”
About all that remained of the original Jaguar chassis after the build were the outer frame rails, which now supported a 375-hp Ford 302-cu.in. V-8 and Ford C4 automatic transmission. Airbags front and rear connect the Mustang II-style independent front suspension and four-link 9-inch rear axle to the frame, and GM discs front and Ford Explorer discs rear stop the car.
While the Black Pearl debuted at last year’s Grand National Roadster Show wearing not a lick of paint and still sans a number of details, it re-emerged earlier this year wearing Daryl Hollenback-sprayed black paint, a Ron Mangus interior, and Wheelsmith Fabrications wheels with custom brass center caps.
To win the Custom of the Year award at this past weekend’s Goodguys show in Pleasanton, California, the Black Pearl beat out a few other customs, including the 1939 Lincoln Zephyr of John Fleming of Asher, Oklahoma; the 1955 Cadillac of Brandon Penserini of American Canyon, California; the 1956 Packard Caribbean of Mike and Rita Gardner of Livermore, California; and the 1951 Ford Victoria of Mark and Kelly Skipper of Fresno, California.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily, written by Daniel Strohl.
In the process of a vehicle build, its common for the end result to not be quite what you were shooting for in the beginning. Harold and Ruth Wiley intended on having their 1939 Buick Special built into a daily driver–something clean and well-built with no intention to be shown.
The Wileys took their new project down to the crew at Kindig-It Design in Salt Lake City, Utah. Previously, Dave Kindig and his team built a 1949 Chevy truck for the Wileys so they knew the built would be top notch.
Over the next 8 months, the Buick turned into a stunning driver. Loaded with an LS2 engine, backed with a GM 4L65-E. The LS engine was topped with Weiand Intake, custom Kindig-It air inlet tube and air cleaner as well as valve covers and belt system by Billet Specialties. Sprayed with a custom mix of PPG’s Mineral Gray and Pearl White, the sheet metal was left largely stock.
Custom wide white Michelin tires were wrapped around one-off Intro Design 17×8 wheels. Kindig-It custom built center caps to finish the look. The front end suspension is loaded with a Total Cost Involved (TCI) custom IFS and Wilwood disc brakes. Out back, a Currie Enterprises Ford 9-inch is located by a TCI four-link suspension, also loaded with Wilwood disc brakes.
Images Courtesy Of: Hot Rod & Restoration
The car may not have been destined for the show circuit before it was built but “Grand Dutchess” (as it was named) was just too gorgeous to not show off. Kindig-It borrowed the car to showcase the car’s chassis back in 2010. The car has won multiple awards over the year. In 2011, the Grand Dutchess was crowned America’s Most Beautiful Street Rod at the Goodguys’ West Coast Nationals. More recently, the car received the Utah’s Finest award at the Utah AutoRama held on March 21-23 at the South Towne Expo Center in Salt Lake City. Plans don’t always work how we expect them. Often times though, things work out better in the end.
Article courtesy of Rod Authority, written by Jake Headlee.