A more down-to-earth design gestalt is seen in the Cadillac Le Mans, which dates from the 1953 Motorama. Four were built, nominally to commemorate the strong showing of Cunningham-prepped Cadillacs in the 1950 24-hour race of the same name. The Le Mans is a beautifully proportioned roadster built on a 115-inch wheelbase. It features such Cadillac design cues as pointed "dagmar" bumpers, a wraparound windshield, and, of course, fins.
The Le Mans on hand was updated in 1959 with a new engine, quad headlights, and new fins inspired by the Eldorado Brougham (see sidebar). This is the same car that had a cameo role in the 1978 film The Buddy Holly Story, wherein Gary Busey, as Holly, is so charged by his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that he buys the Le Mans right off the showroom floor. While this calls for a suspension of disbelief, the beauty of the car transcends time, space, and plausibility.
Later in the day, the Le Mans is installed in the lobby of the Design Center building, behind glass and on terrazzo floors, the jewel in a perfect setting. The car has tiny mirrors; Earl had an aversion to appurtenances that would break the fine line that his designers had custom-tailored. It's pointed out that the car's accelerator and brake pedals are oversize, a nod to Earl's big feet - yet another element of bespoke design.
When Chuck Jordan, a designer and graduate of MIT, first arrived at General Motors, he was originally relegated to drafting earthmovers, trucks, and trains. He showed his flair with the 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier, a pickup truck with carlike trim and accoutrements that presaged the Chevrolet El Camino and the Ford Ranchero. Jordan's Motorama project, the Buick Centurion, would be the first passenger car of his career, and it was a sensational debut.
First seen on the 1956 Motorama circuit, the Centurion predicted both the 1959-60 Buick and Chevrolet's folded fins, as well as the 1971-73 boattail Buick Riviera; the side color sweep found its way onto production 1957 Buicks. From the front, the design offers a recessed grille flanked by headlights in chromed, tunneled nacelles. The front end's forklift look might have been a holdover from Jordan's work in the heavy-equipment field, but overall, the Centurion makes a bold, fresh statement.
The car is also notable for its numerous innovations, including a rearview camera that was activated when the car was shifted into reverse, its image displayed on a dash-mounted TV screen. The automatic transmission's PRNDL selection is on the steering-wheel hub by way of a dial, as on a radio or a TV set - or the current Jaguar XF. Speaking of radios, the Centurion's is mounted on a protruding pod that is joined to the steering column and projects into the interior. Passengers riding under the full-length transparent roof, even before the advent of global warming, still had to deal with the vicissitudes of the greenhouse effect, and air-conditioning was included to deal with that toasty reality. Front seats slide forward to afford rear-seat passengers ease of entry; the seatbacks are fully chromed. One can only imagine what the glare factor, abetted by the transparent roof, would have been on a sunny day. With a digital clock and power headrests, the Centurion is a dreams-come-true car.
Another early Motorama roadster is the Buick Wildcat II from 1954, a Corvette derivative meant to address Earl's concern that each division mount a challenge to the incursions of MG, Jaguar, and Alfa Romeo. Only Chevrolet would answer with a production car, but Buick's response was notable. The Wildcat II looks forward and back at the same time, offering advanced design with overt reference to the classic era. Open front wheel housings topped by "flying wing" fenders and exposed (but chromed to a fare-thee-well) suspension pieces recall sporting cars of the 1920s and '30s. The rear deck design with nerf-style vertical bumpers predicts the '58 Corvette, while the fin treatment would find a place on production '56 Buicks, sans the inlaid trio of chevronlike lenses on top. The clamshell hood is raised to reveal a 322-cubic-inch V-8 fed by four carburetors, in deference to which four of the six trademark Buick "VentiPorts" are actually quasifunctional. Painted a brilliant bright blue and set off by a white leather interior, the Wildcat II is still a stunner.