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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.