Buick Wildcat II, Cadillac Le Mans dream cars to join Futurliner on National Historic Vehicle Register
When Futurliner No. 10 goes on display today at the Washington Auto Show as part of its induction into the National Historic Vehicle Register, it’ll have some fitting and significant company when two GM Motorama dream cars – the 1954 Buick Wildcat II and a 1953 Cadillac Le Mans – join it on stage as the next two nominees to the National Historic Vehicle Register.
While GM’s Motoramas never featured the Futurliners, both the Motoramas and the Parade of Progress ran at roughly the same time (January 1953 through April 1956 for the Motoramas, April 1953 through July 1956 for the Parade of Progress) and contributed toward the same ultimate goal of establishing General Motors as a forward-thinking and technologically advanced carmaker. Here and there, however, a Motorama car would meet up with the Parade of Progress, usually after its initial time in the spotlight – Bruce Berghoff and George Ferris’s book on Futurliner No. 10 includes photos of an Oldsmobile F-88 leading the parade and of the Cadillac La Espada on display in the parade – and Historic Vehicle Association president Mark Gessler said he believes the Wildcat II also appeared at promotional events alongside the Futurliners.
The Wildcat I of 1953 certainly seemed sporting enough, and nearly went into production, but with the Chevrolet Corvette stealing the show that year (and reaching production), the other divisions soon began to clamor for their own lighter, lither, livelier two-seat sports car. Oldsmobile built its F-88, Pontiac its Bonneville Special, and Buick its Wildcat II. Ordered in May of 1953 under Shop Order 1940 and initially called the 4XC, the Wildcat II was to sit on a 100-inch wheelbase (two inches shorter than the Corvette’s) and be made to run and drive. To accomplish the latter, Buick installed a 322-cu.in. V-8 with quad sidedraft carburetors, a twin-turbine Dynaflow automatic transmission, and four-wheel coil-sprung suspensions on a typical channel-section frame. To make the Wildcat II stand out, Buick then wrapped the chassis with a Ned Nichols-designed roadster body featuring a severely raked wraparound windshield, flying front fenders, a disappearing soft top, the all-important VentiPorts, and rear fenders similar to those that appeared on the 1955-1956 Buicks, all rendered in fiberglass.
In its initial configuration – that is, as it appeared in press photos and at its January 1954 introduction at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, the Wildcat II even sported a couple of rather unusual features. Like its predecessor, the Wildcat II had a version of the Roto-Static hubcaps – scooped wheelcovers affixed to the hubs in order to remain stationary while the wheel turned – on its front wheels. Unlike its predecessor, the Wildcat II had its driving lamps mounted just inside its flying front fenders and its headlamps mounted to the doors, just beside the A-pillars. Within a year, it appears, Buick replaced the Roto-Statics with wire wheels and relocated the headlamps to sit next to the driving lamps. (The company also seems to have added a leaping Wildcat mascot to the hood at about the same time, even though it bears a passing resemblance to the old Lincoln greyhound mascot.)
In his book GM’s Motorama, author David Temple presents some evidence that Buick may have built a second Wildcat II – making one for its president, Harlow Curtice, and one for its general manager and vice president, Ivan Wiles. However, no second Wildcat II has appeared, nor has any documentation confirming a second example was built. At least one replica of the Wildcat II has been built.
According to Jeremy Dimick, the curator for the Buick Gallery and Research Center at the Sloan-Longway Museum, the Wildcat II remained with General Motors for the next 22 years, occasionally making appearances at dealership openings or other press events. “They weren’t terribly interested in their history back then,” he said. It was even painted gold sometime during those years, though he’s not sure why or when that happened. Since 1976, when GM donated the Wildcat II to the Sloan Museum, it’s not only been restored back to its original Electric Blue livery (though without the Roto-Statics or the Wildcat mascot) in 2000, it has also been restored to running condition over the last couple of years.
The Cadillac Le Mans that will appear at the Washington Auto Show has a somewhat more involved history. Cadillac’s presence at the 1953 Motorama included two show cars: the Orleans four-door hardtop, and the Le Mans two-door, two-seater roadster. Built on a 115-inch wheelbase and powered by a 250-hp version of the 331-cu.in. V-8, the fiberglass-bodied Le Mans predicted the front-end styling of the 1954 Cadillacs and included a power top that would automatically raise itself when a sensor detected rain.
And as it turns out, the Le Mans was one of four that Cadillac would eventually build. According to Temple, a one-off 1952 Cadillac that Harley Earl had built for a friend of his not only did its part in inspiring the Le Mans, but also may have led Earl to push for a production version and to use the Le Mans as a gauge to see whether the public would buy a two-seater Cadillac. “Though the Le Mans grabbed the attention of many during the Motorama tour, Harley Earl observed that those who would actually ‘back up their approval with a check’ showed a preference for the Orleans,” Temple wrote.
Of the four Le Manses that Cadillac built, three were built consecutively, early on in the 1953 production cycle (the first bears an engine ID number of 5300 00002), while the fourth was built for James E. “Bud” Goodman, then the CEO of Fisher Body, late in the 1953 model year. According to Temple, in 1954, GM sold the first to California-based shoe store owner Harry Karl, who had George Barris customize it; in 1985, it was destroyed in a fire. In 1953, GM sent the second Le Mans to Oklahoma to participate in the state’s Oil Progress Exposition, but nobody seems to know where it went after a scheduled stop in the Greenlease-Moore Cadillac-Chevrolet showroom in Oklahoma City. Goodman had GM restyle his Le Mans in 1959 with quad headlamps and more up-to-date fins before eventually giving it to his son, who has since sold the car back to GM for its Heritage Collection.
GM sold the third Le Mans in June 1955 to Washington, D.C.-based Cadillac dealer Floyd Akers, who had it made roadworthy (Temple wrote that the process included an all-new wiring harness as well as suspension modifications to lift it to a street-legal height), painted white, and fitted with air conditioning so his daughter could drive it in Florida. By the early 1960s, the Le Mans made its way back to D.C., where Akers displayed it in his showroom. He then sold it along with his dealership in 1977 to Coleman Cadillac, which in turn sold the Le Mans in 1989 to its current owner.
According to Holly Smith, a spokesperson for the current owner and handler of the Le Mans, the car remained hidden away until about 2008, when a local Cadillac-La Salle Car Club member tracked it down and asked the current owner to display it at a club event. It’s since appeared at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, though Smith notes that it’s never been restored – it still has the original whitewall tires, which she’s been forbidden to clean, she said – and still has its original 331-cu.in. V-8 under its hood.
“It’ll be exciting to see this car go on the register, considering that of the two left, this is the only Le Mans to remain in its original state,” she said.
If any class of cars should be instantly eligible for the National Historic Vehicle Register, it’s the various Motorama and other such dream cars that sparked imaginations and passions for the automobile during the 1950s. Indeed, Gessler said that they’re all certainly eligible, “we’re just working our way through things before we get to the rest.”
To go on the register, a vehicle must meet one of four criteria: It must be associated with an important event in automotive or American history; it must be associated with a significant person in automotive or American history; it must be distinctive based on design, engineering, craftsmanship, or aesthetic value; or it must be the first produced, last produced, or be among the most well-preserved or authentically restored surviving examples.
Selection to the register involves a complete documentation of the vehicle, including a fully referenced narrative of the vehicle’s provenance and full photography, which will then be placed in the Library of Congress. No restrictions are placed on subsequent use or sale of the vehicle.
Other vehicles already added to the National Historic Vehicle Register include CSX2287, one of the six Shelby Cobra Daytona coupes; Old Red, the first Meyers Manx dune buggy; the Tin Goose, the Tucker 48 prototype; and the last remaining World War I Cadillac. Futurliner No. 10, the Wildcat II, and the Cadillac Le Mans will all remain on display for the entirety of the Washington Auto Show.
The Washington, D.C. Auto Show will take place January 23 through February 1. For more information, visit WashingtonAutoShow.com.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Daniel Strohl.