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A Brief History of Concept Cars, 1929-51

By Michael Lamm.  The concept of concept cars goes back futher than most people realize.

There’s a common misconception that concept cars began in 1938 with Harley Earl’s Buick Y-Job. I don’t think so. I’d like to mention five concept cars that pre-dated the Y-Job, and I’m sure there were even earlier examples. Here’s a quick summary.

  • The lead photo – Wikipedia, among other sources, calls the 1938 Buick Y-Job “the world’s first concept car.” Michael Lamm begs to differ. GM Design Staff photo.

cab5

  • The aluminum-bodied Auburn Cabin Speedster appeared in 1929. Lamm maintains that it fits any definition of a concept car. Not only was the Cabin Speedster eye-catching, but it foretold the future, especially with its aircraft interior and airfoil hood graphic. ACD Museum photo.

Two of what I define as concept cars appeared in 1929: the Auburn Cabin Speedster and the Lincoln LeBaron Aero Phaeton. These two cars were totally unalike, yet they did share an aircraft theme. I won’t enumerate all the details, but the Lincoln had wing-like front fenders plus a large, single tailfin. And the Auburn’s coupe-speedster body basically housed an airplane cockpit, with wicker seats and aircraft instruments. Both cars had aluminum bodies and altimeters, and both became early expressions of the aircraft and rocket themes that dominated American car design after World War II.

Lincoln 1929 LeBaron Aero phaeton

  • Another 1929 concept, the LeBaron Lincoln Aero Phaeton shared the Cabin Speedster’s aircraft theme in its wing-like front fenders and single tailfin. Photo courtesy Nethercutt Museum, Dave Holls Collection.

The next wave of concept cars arrived with the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair, formally known as the Century of Progress International Exposition. Several notable cars had their introductions there. The Packard “Car of the Dome” was one, but I don’t consider that a concept car, gorgeous as it was, because it lacked any hint of the future. To me, concept cars have to predict and, often, to influence future design and engineering.

Cadillac 1933 Aero Dynamic cpe

  • Cadillac introduced its 16-cylinder Aerodynamic coupe at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. This concept car predicted the fender and body shapes of GM cars for several years; also introduced No Draft ventilation and the steel Turret Top. GM Design Staff photos.

The 1933 Cadillac V-16 Aerodynamic coupe did just that. It foretold GM’s body shape for the next several years, and it also had subtler touches, like the recessed rear license housing, No-Draft vent wings and all-steel Turret Top.

John Tjaarda Briggs sedan

  • Another World’s Fair concept, the 1933-34 Briggs prototype had a Ford V8 in the rear and bridge-truss construction. Designed by John Tjaarda, it derived largely from his Sterkenberg sketches, done during Tjaarda’s brief stay at GM, and became the basis of the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. Photos courtesy Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library.

The Briggs Manufacturing Company’s rear-engined concept car, designed by John Tjaarda, inspired the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr’s form and some of its engineering details, like the bridge-truss body structure.

Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow 1933

  • The 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow also appeared at the Chicago World’s Fair. Designed by Phil Wright and constructed by Studebaker craftsmen, its major conceptual contribution was the “through” front fender. Five Silver Arrows were built and sold, and three survive today. Photo courtesy Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library.

A third World’s Fair concept car was the radical 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow. Phil Wright’s breakthrough design, along with the 1932 Maybach Zeppelin, introduced early versions of the “through” fender. These weren’t the first cars with through fenders, because a number of land-speed streamliners had used envelope (slab-sided) bodies in the 1920s.

Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow

  • The Silver Arrow probably owes some of its advanced appearance to the 1932 Maybach Zeppelin, with its Spohn coachwork. Lamm feels the Silver Arrow’s through fenders were more sophisticated than the Maybach’s slab-sided envelope body. Photo courtesy Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library.

But to me, the Silver Arrow introduced the through fender with much more grace and sophistication than the Maybach. Both cars inspired a handful of European coachbuilders and carmakers to offer through-fendered bodies just before World War II (e.g. the 1938 Lancia Aprilia by Pinin Farina, the 1939 BMW coupe by Touring and the Adler 2.5-liter Le Mans fastback), and Detroit made that theme universal after the war, beginning with Dutch Darrin’s 1946 Kaiser and Frazer.

Buick 1938 Y-Job

  • General Motors’ styling czar, Harley Earl, worked closely with Buick general manager Harlow Curtice to create the self-fulfilling-prophetic 1938 Buick Y-Job. Its grille and styling cues identified production Buicks for many years. And the Y-Job remained Earl’s daily driver for a decade. GM Design Staff photos.

Then, in 1938, came Harley Earl’s Y-Job. Earl headed what was then called General Motors Styling. Earl by this time had solidified his position in the corporation and especially with Buick’s general manager, Harlow Curtice. Curtice encouraged Earl to build the Y-Job, partly as a vision of Buick’s future and partly to become Earl’s private everyday driver, which the Y-Job remained well into the late 1940s.

Buick 1938 Y-Job 1

  • Harley Earl’s 1938 Buick Y-Job.

Unlike its predecessors, the Y-Job didn’t attract much public attention. Its styling, though, had a serious effect on production Buicks. Buick incorporated many of the Y-Job’s cues over the years, but I think its most influential attribute was its lowness. Earl used the Y-Job to express his ever-evolving longer/lower/wider design philosophy.

Thunderbolt retractable hardtop

  • Alex Tremulis, working at Briggs/LeBaron, designed the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt, giving it skirts over all four wheels and a retractable steel hardtop. His boss, Ralph Roberts, poses beside the car, with Roberts’ mother behind the wheel. Chrysler Archives photo.

Briggs answered the Y-Job in 1941 with the Chrysler-based Newport phaeton and Thunderbolt retractable hardtop. Briggs built six of each, which begs the question: Were these actually concept cars or were they, instead, series customs? I believe the Thunderbolt qualifies as a concept, and while many concept cars are solitary and unique, they weren’t all so. GM, for example, usually built two and often three copies of its Motorama cars, so uniqueness doesn’t really define what makes a concept vehicle.

The Thunderbolt, if indeed it was a concept car, wasn’t terribly important. Yes, it had an envelope body and a retracting metal roof, but those were fairly old news by 1941.

1941 Chrysler Newport phaeton 1

  • The 1941 Chrysler Newport phaeton didn’t really qualify as a concept car. It served mostly for parade duty and to transport dignitaries. Briggs built six Thunderbolts and six Newports. Chrysler Archives photo.

Harley Earl put forth a multitude of concept cars after the war, most of them appearing in GM’s fabulous Motorama exhibits. Motoramas traveled from coast to coast during the better part of the 1950s and into the ‘60s, and millions of Americans eagerly attended, always for free.

GM LeSabre with Harley Earl

  • To Lamm’s way of thinking, the 1951 GM LeSabre became the most influential concept car ever. Its many styling features provided DNA for the GM look throughout the 1950s, and because GM led the industry in styling, the LeSabre influenced all car design studios. The inscription on this photo, “To Bill,” probably refers to Earl’s successor, William L. Mitchell. GM Design Staff photo.

The most significant concept car from that era, at least in my view, was one of the earliest: the 1951 LeSabre. Often wrongly called the “Buick” LeSabre, this car again became Earl’s daily driver, but its true significance was that it launched so many styling advances that no other concept car even comes close. The lowness, the fins and other aircraft-inspired touches, the wraparound windshield plus a host of mechanical marvels made the LeSabre a concept car without equal. Nothing before or since has influenced the automotive industry—nor impressed the public—in the way the LeSabre did for years after its December 1950 unveiling.

Harley J Earl in LeSabre 1951

  • Harley Earl drove the LeSabre as his personal car after giving up the Y-Job. The LeSabre was powered by a supercharged, nitro-burning, aluminum, 215-cid V8, and its other technical innovations were very much in keeping with its radically futuristic appearance. GM Design Staff photo.

Earl and GM’s Motoramas gave rise to a competition among American automakers to come up with ever more impressive and expressive concepts. By today, the competition has spread worldwide, and concept cars are now a staple of every major motor show on the planet. Some concepts are more noteworthy and memorable than others, but none—again in my opinion—can hold a candle to the LeSabre. Michael Lamm ©2015.

17 responses to “A Brief History of Concept Cars, 1929-51

  1. The Pierce-Arrow/Maybach connection is just one very interesting observation in this excellent piece. Very informative and well-written .

  2. Michael Lamm’s article was of great interest to me. He made some interesting points. Technically speaking, however, all of the very first cars were concept cars. Ford’s “Quadricycle” of 1899 was a concept car. But, as cars evolved into a practical form of transportation, and as a result, got widespread use, a concept car had to reach a much higher level to qualify as such. (However, the phrase “concept car” did not exist until the latter part of the 20th century. The Y-Job was referenced simply as an experimental car.) I still believe the Buick Y-Job was the first modern concept car – the forerunner of what is now a long line of such cars. There seems to be no absolute definition of “concept car,” but after having done many years of research on them for two books (“GM’s Motorama: The Glamorous Show Cars of a Cultural Phenomenon” and “Motorama: GM’s Legendary Show and Concept Cars”) I have reached the conclusion a concept car showcases multiple styling and mechanical features not yet included on production cars. The Y-Job qualifies by this definition. Clearly it was designed with a number of advanced styling features, though it had only a few experimental mechanical features – 13-inch wheels with accompanying small brakes of an experimental design, an essentially pre-production 1940 Series 50 version displacing 248 cubic inches (though it was essentially the same straight-eight dating back to 1931), and a convertible top which when down was concealed under a lid rather than being covered by a boot. Its hidden headlights were novel for the time, but Cord got them into production first. In an article about experimental cars Earl referred to the Y-Job as “a composite of many ideas” and went on to illustrate their advanced nature by stating they were “ideas which for sound and logical reasons couldn’t be duplicated in volume in 1938.” Harley Earl’s 1951 GM Le Sabre took the concept car to a new level with its advanced styling, advanced materials, advanced construction techniques, and many advanced mechanical features such as its all-aluminum supercharged dual-fuel V-8, wrap-around windshield, built-in hydraulic jacks, etc. As best as I have been able to determine, the 1929 Lincoln Aero Phaeton did not have experimental mechanical systems, though it certainly had non-production styling. (Quite honestly, I was not at all familiar with the car, so I was surprised to see it had a tail fin!) It was definitely a show car as was the 1933 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe. My latest book states that the Y-Job is generally recognized as the first modern concept car, but every time I read or write a statement which claims something as being absolute such as describing something as “first” I have to wonder if there is some other obscure car which reached the standard one or more years earlier – perhaps a foreign model. Writing absolutes is often a hazardous duty for an author. So, was the 1929 Lincoln Aero Phaeton the first car to have a tail fin? It was certainly ahead of the 1933 Cadillac custom-built for actor Buck Jones, though his had three. However, the 1948 Cadillac was the first to have tail fins fully integrated into the lines of the car. (Wasn’t it?) The fin setup of the Aero Phaeton looks tacked on – not especially well-integrated into the car’s styling. The same goes for the Buck Jones Cadillac.

    • One more point… The Briggs Manufacturing Company’s rear-engined concept car comes closest to making Lamm’s argument, though I still support the Y-Job as being first.

      • David – Good points, but I specifically didn’t want to offer a definition of “concept car.” It’s the same quagmire as trying to define, say, “sports car, ” “dreamcar” or “showcar.” Too slippery; too many variables.

        And I agree that “first” can be a very dangerous word. I try to avoid it, and that’s one reason I mentioned that there are probably earlier concept cars that I’ve overlooked.

        However, I don’t believe a better argument can be made for calling the Y-Job a “first” than calling, say, the Auburn Cabin Speedster or Silver Arrow a “first.” They’re not, but I believe both (and likewise the others I’ve mentioned) are extremely important, each in its own way, and they all fit in the same wallet. Which concept is worth more is hard to say, but they’re all in there together, and they’re all valuable in much the same way.

  3. What a great line-up of design experiments.

    To really appreciate the advanced styling of the Cadillac, Auburn, and Silver Arrow, with the “through fenders”, one would only have to park a standard issue 1932 Ford next to them. These were the dream cars of their day.

    Thanx for the fascinating post!

  4. The Chrysler-Newport (Phaeton) was the Indianapolis 500 pace car in 1941. It was the only non-production car used.

    143hp 321c.i. straight 8

  5. Of the three pictures of the Y job, they are some differences. The door handles, hubcaps, bumpers, and radio antenna. Anyone else notice this?

  6. So, was the 1929 Lincoln Aero Phaeton the first car to have a tail fin?

    I would argue that the 1911 Marmon Wasp Indy 500 winner had a tail fin. Probably other cars in that race and races of that era.

  7. These were the concept cars that ignited the passion for what a personal car could be. What I find most remarkable is how modern exotic, and concept cars have lost the “concept” of the concept car.

  8. Howard C. Marmon should get credit for the first “concept car”. When he built his first car, steam, electrics, and gas
    were slugging it out. Norms were hard to come by, so it was difficult to break the mold. Enter Marmon, one of the best engineers ever to practice in America. Wealthy already, he had the backing of the machine shop of a manufacturer with 50 years under its belt that had no peers and exported to the Germans. His first car(1901) had a V2 engine placed under a hood in the front. It had a full pressure oil system with a drilled crank that fed the rods. An aluminum crankcase was used. It had a bevel gear axle that was shaft driven; a single plate clutch; and a selective 3 speed with reverse transmission. Spark and throttle controls were brought up to the top of the steering wheel by a hollow shaft. The frame was made of pressed steel construction. The body was cast of aluminum. The tonneau was a one piece casting, and included an integral bustle trunk. It had rear side doors with hinges(I believe a first). By 1910,
    most cars had the engine up front under a hood; a selective transmission; and a shaft drive bevel gear rear end, but
    nobody had full pressure oil, a cast aluminum body and a single plate clutch and a V engine. Chevrolet didn’t have full
    pressure oil until 1954! No other car of its era foretold the direction that the configuration of most cars would have 10 years later and isn’t that what concept cars are designed to do? I’ll save the story about Marmon’s air-cooled 707 cubic inch 1907 V8 offered for $5,000, 75 brake HP; 128inch wheelbase; 3 to 1 rear end, for later. I used The Marmon Heritage by Hanley, liberally while preparing this.

  9. Is there reference to a “Amelie de Segure Lavue” {sp} anywhere in the GM or other line up of concept artists, during the Harley Earl Years??

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