Buick have form when it comes to concept vehicles, especially since a certain Harley Earl began such pioneering strides with 1938’s seminal Y-Job, which helped to define the Tri-shield’s design credentials. In 1949, GM’s Autorama car show was held at the Astoria Hotel in New York to promote new concept designs to a public desperate to embrace the future. Years 1953-1961 saw Motorama become a travelling show.
For 1953, Buick introduced the Wildcat, a low slung two seat convertible with a raked back windshield and party piece hood. Hydraulically operated, the roof disappeared beneath the rear panel at the flick of a switch. Other components employing pressurised oil included seat and window movements. The bodywork was fibreglass and the hub caps Roto-Static, where the centre is stationary and the wheels rotate, à la Rolls-Royce. As with many of these creations, public reaction was favourable but in essence, the Wildcat only really previewed the new for ‘54 Buick front end.
Wildcat II unveiled in 1954, based on the Chevrolet Corvette with power derived from a supercharged V8. A clamshell hood covered this powerplant, hiding the wheels which did away with conventional fenders. The chrome bumpers contained floating driving lamps which again, Joe Public applauded but with Corvette sales struggling at the time, there was no incentive to diversify into Wildcats.
Earl’s final attempt arrived the following year with something looking considerably more production-ready – you guessed it, Wildcat III. However, this new feline seated four, maintaining a grand feeling with a 250bhp V8 but for a feline, this seemed somewhat bug-eyed. Publicity shots saw designers Ned Nickles and Harley Earl grinning by the car’s side, but apart from a smattering of forthcoming styling cues, Wildcat III was another dead end. Earl’s retirement saw the name hibernate for thirty years.
Pretty much every history of automotive tailfins establishes the Harley Earl-led field trip of GM designers in 1940 to see the then-secret P-38, then jumps right on ahead to 1948, when the newly restyled Cadillac debuted, tailfins and all. Franklin Q. Hershey often gets a nod, and that’s about all most people care to dig into it.
Were they to dig a little further, though, they might discover a more meandering development path for the tailfin, one that nearly placed the feature onto Vauxhall’s postwar cars instead of Cadillac’s.
The story of the tailfin—at least, as it appeared on postwar production American automobiles and not on the odd custom car or land-speed racer—does indeed begin with that field trip to Selfridge Field near Detroit, where Earl pulled some strings to get his studio chiefs a good look at the twin-boom Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a plane designed specifically as an interceptor. And indeed, as Michael Lamm and Dave Holls noted in A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design, the P-38 proved plenty inspiring.
Pretty much every history of automotive tailfins establishes the Harley Earl-led field trip of GM designers in 1940 to see the then-secret P-38, then jumps right on ahead to 1948, when the newly restyled Cadillac debuted, tailfins and all.
The designers got all excited about the P-38, especially since they could see its twin tails as extensions of a car’s rear fenders. They went back to their studios and started doing sketches of cars with tailfins. The P-38 also prompted other aircraft motifs: Plexiglas canopies, various types of air intakes, grille spinners and bumper bullets.
Among those who Earl invited: Bill Mitchell; Ned Nickles; and Hershey, who returned from a stint in Europe the year before to head the Cadillac advanced studio. Hershey reportedly became fascinated with the tailfin idea before moving on to other projects and, eventually, going back overseas to serve in the Navy during the war.As William Knoedelseder wrote in FINS: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit, Hershey saw nature and poetry in those fins.
’63 coupe and ’64 convertible created by and for GM styling leaders
The 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray convertible built for Harley Earl and the ’64 Corvette Sting Ray coupe created for his successor, Bill Mitchell, will be offered as a single lot at Mecum Auctions’ Kissimmee, Florida, sale scheduled for January 3-13, 2019.
“This is a singularly historic offering of two of the most significant one-off Corvettes in the model’s history, owned and driven by the two most influential and fascinating figures of the automotive design industry,” Mecum Auctions said in revealing the consignment.
The Styling Section, and Art and Colour Studio at General Motors were created, and headed by Harley Earl (1893-1969). From the late 1920s, and on into the 1950s Harley Earl headed the design evolution at GM. It was under Earl’s guidance that the utilitarian design of early automobiles evolved into rolling Art of the 30s, 40s, and 50s cars we love today.
The first car done in the Art and Colour Studio under Earl’s direction was for Lawrence Fisher (Body by Fisher). Earl asked for a 1927 LaSalle chassis on which he would build his design. The car would be of advanced design in that the chassis was lowered 4”. The design was aggressive, but not loud, the posts were much thinner than usual, and the windshield was two piece and formed a slight V. There was concern that the thin posts would not be strong enough, so the entire car was made of steel rather than the wood frame construction that was typical of the time. The interior wood decor was a work of art. When the project was nearing completion Earl was asked “What will we call it”? Earl thought for a moment…. Pauline Frederick, a popular stage and film star of the day, was starring in a show called Madam X, Earl had seen the show the night before, and dined with the young Starlet after the show. He said we’ll call it the Madam X
A recent edition of Jay Leno’s Garage featuring the Buick Y Job reminded of how lucky it was to have been up close to this ground breaking car.
The Buick Y-Job was the auto industry’s first concept car, produced by Buick in 1938. Designed by Harley J. Earl, the car had power-operated hidden headlamps, a “gunsight” hood ornament, electric windows, wraparound bumpers, flush door handles, and prefigured styling cues used by Buick until the 1950s and the vertical waterfall grille design still used by Buick today. It used a Buick Super chassis, indicated by the word “Super” located above the rear license plate. (read the full article here at Wikipedia)
The Y Job is one of the few cars that I have on display at home.
I’m a great lover of the designs of Harley J Earl, having seen a number of the cars up close at the GM Heritage Centre I have even more respect for his work.These are some pictures that I took during my birthday visit
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There is a great article here from Rod Authority by Jake Headlee on Earl and his impact on automotive design.
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