Standing in a grungy old industrial building in Detroit, I had just been given a glimpse of a brilliant automotive future. Barely nineteen, I'd been probationally employed by General Motors for only a month or so when we newcomers in the Styling Section orientation studio were allowed to see one of the "dream cars" intended for the 1955 Motorama show. That car was the La Salle II roadster, and the man telling us about it was Charles Chayne, GM's engineering vice president. I was deeply impressed by the little sports car, its V-6 engine, and the conversation I had with Chayne, owner of a Bugatti Royale. At that time, only Lancia had ever made a V-6. It was used in the Aurelia sedan and its GT derivatives, one of which had, incredibly, won the grueling Targa Florio open road race, defeating all-out racing sports cars. It was an exciting moment, one I've never forgotten.
Standing in a grungy old garage in Highwood, Illinois, I gazed for the first time in fifty-eight years at that same Motorama car, lovingly and accurately resurrected from chunks of scrap found in a Michigan junkyard. The little La Salle was as appealing as it was the only other time I'd seen it, but now it represented a dismal past that had seen its huge potential cast aside. It stands today as a signpost to the many wrong turns that led to the bankruptcy of what was in 1955 the largest business entity in the entire world. The La Salle II symbolizes all that went wrong with the expansive dreams that I -- and most of the other 165 million then-living Americans -- held at that time.
In his excellent 800-page 1993 social history, The Fifties, David Halberstam summed up what happened to our American automobile industry when superficial styling changes were superimposed on essentially unchanging platform architectures that had been defined in the mid-1930s: "The industry's engineers were largely idle, as their skills were ignored. Thus, during a time when the American car industry might have lengthened its technological lead on foreign competitors, it failed to do so." Amen. Lengthen its lead? Our industry fell behind, far behind, and it's still lagging rivals all over the world, including countries that didn't -- couldn't -- make cars at all in 1954.
I now see the failure to develop the initiative represented by the two La Salle concepts -- there was a wonderfully promising La Salle II four-door sedan at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan in January 1955 as well -- as the critical point that led to the near-extinction of the American automotive industry in 2008. As Robert Frost noted in his 1916 poem, "The Road Not Taken," choosing one path at the point of divergence excludes the other. "And that has made all the difference," Frost concluded.
Perhaps the last really important technical-leadership innovation embraced by GM was the brave decision to add an independent front suspension to the ladder-type chassis frames of all its divisional makes for 1934. In the depths of the Depression, the firm chose to undertake a change that cost an enormous amount of money at the lowest point in the nation's economic history -- not a single bank was open in the United States in March 1933 when the decision was made -- simply in order to improve the dynamic qualities of its products. "It seems to me we can't afford not to do it," was the summation by Charles Kettering, the man who had introduced electric starters in 1912.
The 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS chassis can be quite accurately detailed with the same words you'd use to describe a 1934 Cadillac (La Salle's "companion brand" at the time). Apart from disc brakes, everything is about the same: live rear axle, coil- spring IFS, worm steering gear, V-8 engine, etc. But the never-developed La Salle IIs -- with their intended one-horsepower-per-cubic-inch aluminum V-6 engine, de Dion rear axle, unitized body/chassis structure, and compact size -- are exactly what was needed throughout the long, painful decline of GM. Yes, the shift to a rear-engine layout for the Chevrolet small car of 1960 and the adoption of front-wheel drive for the Oldsmobile Toronado and the Cadillac Eldorado in the 1960s were interesting and in some cases important, but they had nothing to do with leadership or innovation. Others had introduced and perfected those techniques long before.
That we can see the La Salle II roadster today (and the La Salle II sedan in another couple of years) is due to the efforts of Joe Bortz, a passionately enthusiastic and slightly eccentric car collector who has made an enormous commitment to finding and restoring significant one-off concept, dream, and show cars. His eclectic fleet over the years has included Ferraris (he had two California Spyders at the same time), '50s customs, many GM Motorama models, even at one time five of the twelve huge GM Futurliner buses made in the '50s. He has bought, restored, and sold a number of others and is constantly searching for more forgotten significant vehicles.
When Bortz acquired the remaining elements of this roadster, the front end had been sawed off the car, the rear-hinged doors and the hood were missing, only the bottom part of the instrument panel remained, and the wraparound windshield frame was twisted into a pretzel. It wasn't an easy revival, given that pieces had to be made from scratch, but there were quite a few fortunate survivors, the aluminum-wheel-cum-brake drums for example. And the "brass boob" bumpers -- dubbed Dagmars in reference to a well-endowed TV personality of that era -- were intact, as were the vertical slot frames that evoked the catwalk air inlets of the canceled 1941 La Salle production models. Looking at the roadster today, it's hard to see any discrepancies, although the steering wheel is a bit suspect. Bortz has benefited from access to many original GM Styling working drawings, a result of the respect that many retired GM stylists hold for his quest to retain the work they did long ago. He did not hold back in making the car as close to original as possible, even spending $25,000 to replate chrome parts on the underside of the car.
The La Salle II roadster's body design was the work of the late Carl Renner, one of Harley J. Earl's favorite stylists. Renner so appreciated Bortz's unending quest for dream-car memorabilia that he gave him the original rendering of the car. Bortz says he was dumbfounded when he discovered that the illustration Renner gave him was not a copy. But there was no such thing as a color Xerox when the La Salle was executed, and it was no photographic reproduction. Bortz had it framed and will no doubt exhibit it when the roadster is presented to the public for the first time in half a century or more at the Amelia Island concours this year.
Probably the existing sports car closest to the La Salle roadster in 1955 was the Austin-Healey 100, the first of what collectors today call "Big Healeys." It had a 90-hp, 2660-cubic-centimeter four-cylinder engine and a wheelbase of just 90 inches and was actually much smaller overall than today's Mazda Miata. The La Salle sat on a 99.9-inch wheelbase and was intended to have a 2.5-liter engine making 152 hp. It looks, and is, tiny by contemporary standards. Entry is facilitated by the rear-hinged "suicide" doors, but Bortz warned that neither the windshield frame nor the steering wheel would bear any weight and asked that they not be touched. I'm neither as slim nor as flexible as I was when the car was new in 1955, but armed with a half-century's experience in climbing into the cockpits of small, light airplanes that won't support any weight on secondary structures, I managed to slip into the spacious cockpit with just a hand on the seatback for support. I quickly discovered that the windshield header fell below my eyeline. So much for practicality. On the other hand, I have about the same relationship with the seating and windshield in a 1953-62 C1 Corvette, itself directly patterned on the Jaguar XK120.