They weren’t concept cars or show cars. They were dream cars. That was what Harley Earl, General Motors’ styling chief, called these blindingly bright visions of the future. That vision and its reflection, realized at GM’s Motorama, still fires the imagination. In essence, the Motorama was an all-GM car show with an emphasis on “show.” The signature setting was New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, although it traveled the country with stops in Boston, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The Motorama tour of 1956, with five days of shows in each of five cities over the course of four months, was the work of hundreds of stage hands, actors, singers, musicians, technicians, and producers, the matériel packed onto 125 tractor trailers. The cost to mount the ’56 edition of Motorama was estimated at $10 million ($79 million in today’s dollars), which is no small investment, even for the biggest, most successful company in the world.
The value of the endeavor was realized in the huge throngs who waited hours to get a glimpse of the dream cars and the production models that Earl and his minions had created. With more than two million in attendance, this was an elemental exercise in viral marketing. Earl’s own larger-than-life theatrical style was reflected in the Motorama productions, films, and displays, but those dream cars were the real draw. The Motorama was memorable for most who attended, and life-changing for at least one. Zora Arkus-Duntov went to the Waldorf in January of 1953, and so taken was he with the Corvette prototype that he wrote a letter to Chevrolet‘s R&D director, Maurice Olley, lauding the design and suggesting improvements. Soon thereafter, Olley hired him, and Arkus-Duntov moved to Detroit. He would spend nearly twenty years fostering the Corvette’s performance.
Ultimately, the Motoramas outlived their usefulness. Television advertising proved to be more cost-effective, and there also were nagging concerns about the competition. Admission to the Motorama was free, and picture taking was encouraged – a sweet deal for Ford and Chrysler operatives who only had to wait in line to get the skinny on GM’s future offerings. By 1961, the idea had run its course. The last Motoramas displayed no dream cars; the focus was on glitzed-up production models, the designs for many of which had been influenced by Motorama dream cars of earlier years.
This year, GM is sending fifteen or sixteen Motorama-era dream cars to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in recognition of the influence they’ve had on design over the years. On a sunny day in mid-May, five of them were assembled on the campus of the GM Technical Center for group and individual portraits, the subjects and the setting interrelated icons of twentieth-century design.
Sprawling across 330 acres in Warren, Michigan, the campus is a trove of perfectly maintained, mid-century architecture, the work of Eero Saarinen, whose later projects included Saint Louis’ Gateway Arch, the avian-inspired TWA terminal at JFK airport, and the main terminal of Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. Upon entering the gate, eyes immediately fall on the Firebird II parked, appropriately, on a helipad. Both the car and the slab of concrete are emblazoned with GM’s stylized Air-Transport Division logo.
When the campus was officially dedicated on May 16, 1956, the Firebird II was on hand for the occasion. Whereas 1954’s Firebird I was strictly “monoposto,” the Firebird II offered seating for four; two examples were built and survive. The fiberglass version is powered by a Whirlfire GT-304 gas turbine; the titanium one that was rolled out has no running gear but sports a real aircraft-style steering “yoke” and was designed for driverless operation on the electronic highway of the future. The Firebird I could have addressed tailgating issues with its 1000-degree-Fahrenheit exhaust, simply melting whatever might be following too closely. Firebird II was cooled by a regenerative gas turbine that made it more thermally and socially responsible than its predecessor. Earl thought of the Firebirds – Firebird III came in ’58 – as “ground-based aircraft,” and designwise, he was on the money. The canopy roof, twin jet intakes, single “stabilizer” fin, outboard fuel tank “bombs,” and hood-mounted air brakes made the Firebird II a wingless fighter jet for the whole family. Keep in mind that The Jetsons wouldn’t debut until 1962.
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 . 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.
At The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, one expects to see the most pristine examples of the restorer’s art, or, perhaps, cars in close to perfect original condition. This year, things will be different with the concours debut of the Chevrolet Biscayne, a Motorama car that has been brought back from an ignominious fate by Joe Bortz, a legendary figure in collector circles. Bortz has spent years accumulating and, in some cases, resurrecting concepts that have been cast off by their progenitors. The Biscayne, a star of the 1955 Motorama, will be displayed at Pebble Beach in a condition that can only be described as rough.
The Biscayne’s story is one of tragedy and triumph: The Chevrolet dream car, along with 1955’s La Salle II roadster, also headed for Pebble, was lying in a pile of pieces at Warhoops Auto Parts, a wrecking yard just up the road from Warren. GM had ordered many of its concept cars destroyed so the vehicles wouldn’t be on the corporation’s books as taxable corporate assets, as well as to dispatch liability issues. The Biscayne was sent to Warhoops for crushing a couple days before Christmas in 1959. The employee who brought it there was in a rush to get home for the holiday and didn’t stick around to witness the car’s demolition. In lieu of crushing, the Biscayne was cut into pieces and stacked in the yard.
Flash forward to 1988, the dream cars having spent some thirty years exposed to the elements. Mark Bortz, Joe’s son, happens upon the rubble. “The Biscayne was just a pile of fiberglass lying in the mud,” says the elder Bortz of the discovery. The roof and the doors had been cut off, the frame was MIA, and the remains of the body had warped over the years. It took Bortz’s team of fabricators three years to put the pieces back together and mount them onto a replica frame. Bortz had found archival photos of the chassis and used those as a guide. The windshield, a huge expanse of glass that wraps around and up, was a particular challenge; four were molded before an acceptable one was created.
Back at the Tech Center, four of the five dream cars are in place when a transporter rumbles in. The Biscayne is aboard, and the anticipation for its return to GM after an absence of forty-nine years is palpable. The trailer’s side doors swing open; the Biscayne is first seen in profile – it’s slung low, and the paint, while green as originally shown, seems hand brushed and doesn’t match from panel to panel. And then the unexpected happens – its small-block V-8 fires up, and the Biscayne rolls off the transporter under its own power. It’s driven into the setting, taking its rightful place among its more coddled brethren.
Bortz is determined to complete the restoration, but even in its current state, the Biscayne is a design of distinction, especially airy for a ’50s confection. It’s smaller, lower, and more delicate than one would expect. The rear deck foreshadows the simple and elegant first-generation Corvair; the car’s side scoop design predicts the ’56 Corvette‘s; and the distinctive C-pillar treatment found its way onto production Cadillacs and top-of-the line Buicks. The toothy front end, a Corvette reference, is a bit overstated, but as a whole, the Biscayne is the most real-world of all the dream cars onsite.
When the dream cars were crafted, it was an article of faith that the future was something to anticipate with optimism, rather than dread. The Motorama indicated the kind of thinking that would have you believe that possibility is limited only by imagination. The world of tomorrow was once a wonderful thing to contemplate. Let’s hope that experiencing these cars again will catalyze that positive thought. We certainly could use a dose of that kind of future right about now.
DESIGNING A MOTORAMA CAR
By Robert Cumberford
Late in 1955, I was assigned temporarily to a GM styling “body studio” directed by Herb Kadau, who had no staff. I would be his junior stylist (my official title) and sketch artist. He was to transform the 1955 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Motorama car into a formal town car suitable for attending the opera. There wasn’t that much to do:
I just had to imagine a rear compartment roof, with the driver exposed to the elements to emphasize the class privileges of the people in back.
I pinned up twenty-five or thirty variants. Nothing fancy, no color renderings, just black pencil on plain paper. One day, GM design vice president Harley Earl himself came in alone. I had seen him once or twice in the year I’d been with GM, but this was my first working contact. Earl liked a folding fabric roof I had drawn, complete with landau bars. “Lou,” he said – Earl called Kadau “Lou Kadoo,” and no one dared correct him – “what’s he thinking here?” The “he” in question was me. It was surreal. Earl would not suffer to speak to low-level people, nor should mere mortals address the great man directly. So Kadau turned and asked me. I explained, whereupon Herb/Lou turned back to Mr. Earl to repeat what I had just said.
I thought hinting at a convertible’s crossbows would be elegant. Earl agreed, had us leave off landau irons, dictated a padded black leather cover, and that was that. A wonderful, middle European draftsman, Joe Hrabach, drew it up full-size, in the process teaching me more about drafting than I had learned in years of school, and I went back to the Chevrolet studio. That roof profile showed up later on millions of early-1960s GM cars. Motorama magic: dream car to everyman in five years.