Concept Cars in the 1950s: Peak of American Automotive Zeal

By Harold Frost

The History Channel Magazine, 2004

Harley J. Earl was a bold figure of a man in the 1950s, 6-feet-4-inches tall, confident, aggressive, and focused, striding like a king through the corridors of General Motors in Detroit, putting his personal stamp on an American obsession – cars.

Earl was GM’s chief designer, and GM was the Big Daddy of autos and trucks, by far the world’s most successful vehicle maker. Earl’s styling choices mattered to millions of people. He could order his team to bend a piece of sheet metal a few inches this way or that, and suddenly America had a new vision of what a car could look like, and, seemingly, a fresh sense of life’s possibilities. Families made autumn pilgrimages to auto showrooms to ogle his creations and write checks for down payments.

Harley Earl’s masterpiece – the 1951 LeSabre.

Earl was born in 1893 in Los Angeles. He was a pole-vaulter at the University of Southern California and also played football, and competed at Stanford in rugby and track until an injury sent him home, ending his college career. He earned his car chops in L.A., customizing vehicles for Hollywood stars and moguls. In the 1920s, GM executives noticed his work at auto shows in New York and Chicago. His California creations were “flashier, more colorful, more imaginative” than most cars of the day, write auto scholars Michael Lamm and Dave Holls in their book “A Century of Automotive Style.”

Harley J. Earl (1893-1969)

In 1926, the president of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan, hired Earl to pump some pizzazz into the company’s products. Sloan had “long been dissatisfied” with the general appearance of automobiles, writes author Ed Cray, regarding most cars as too boxy, too high off the ground, too ungainly. Sloan admired Earl’s cardinal design principles: long and low.

At GM, Earl and his team thought boldly about the future, projecting five to 10 years ahead with their work, brainstorming, making drawings, modeling with clay. Starting in the 1930s (see sidebar) they produced many “concept cars,” also known as “dream cars,” “show cars,” and “future cars” – futuristic, hand-made, one-of-a-kind automobiles built to test new ideas in styling (and occasionally, in engineering) and to generate excitement.

Earl’s greatest creation was a sleek number named the LeSabre (pronounced “le saber”), first seen by the public in 1951. The vehicle was by no means the first concept car, but it generated a whole new level of interest in such vehicles – it launched a decade of dream car mania.

Earl spent at least $500,000 on the LeSabre, using custom parts and persnickity craftsmanship.

The design was influenced by the fighter planes of World War II and the jets of the post-war years. The name stems from the U.S. Air Force’s F-86 Sabre (“the Sabrejet”), the nation’s first swept wing fighter, which set speed records in the late 1940s.

The car was 50 inches tall compared to 64 inches for the average U.S. auto of the era. It was powered by a supercharged high-compression 335-horsepower aluminum hemi V-8, a major advance over other engines of the day. The body featured advanced materials, including magnesium and laminated aluminum. The dashboard evoked the cockpit of a jet fighter, offering, among other features, a speedometer that changed color at different speeds, and an altimeter to determine altitude. The convertible top popped up automatically when a sensor detected a drop of rain on the seat (or, perhaps, a rogue drop of Coca-Cola or other beverage).

A photograph of a plaster model of the LeSabre appeared in Motor Trend magazine in March, 1951, along with information about the car; auto enthusiasts were thrilled. The actual vehicle turned up at a GM auto show in early 1953; people lined up for blocks to get a glimpse.

Harley J. Earl had struck a chord. The American public craved more concept cars – technologically-advanced and streamlined, and, to use a slang word that came to prominence in the ’50s, cool.

America’s passion for concept cars in the 1950s was fueled by a striking expansion of the nation’s economy and heady optimism about technology.

The ’50s was a time of “nearly unimaginable consumption” in the U.S. compared to the lean years of the Great Depression and World War II, writes historian James T. Patterson. Americans had cash and hankered to buy stuff – “pent-up consumer demand,” the economists call it – and could choose from plenty of items new to the marketplace: automatic dishwashers, affordable hi-fis, home air-conditioning, LP records, Polaroid cameras, ballpoint pens, and McDonald’s hamburgers.

And TV sets. Lots of TV sets. In 1948, 172,000 American households owned televisions; by 1952 the figure was 15.3 million.

And cars. In 1945, the last year of World War II, Americans bought 69,500 new cars. (During the war, auto factories were primarily concerned with building planes, tanks, and other heavy war equipment.) In 1955, 7.9 million new cars drove off the sales lots, most of them built in the U.S.A.

The nation’s prosperity fueled giddiness about technology. Many people, writes Patterson, “talked as if there were almost nothing that American ingenuity – in science, industry, whatever – could not accomplish.” NASA’s moon program of the 1960s owes its existence, in part, to this optimism, as does America’s involvement in Vietnam, to some extent. (See here for another example of 1960s technological optimism and/or hubris.)

The first Motoramas were held in ’49 in New York and Boston. By 1953 the Motoramas were going full blast, with shows in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Kansas City, playing to 1.5 million people for a cost of $5 million, according to figures tabulated by author Bruce Berghoff.

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The star of the 1953 Motorama was the LeSabre; several other concept cars were also featured, including the Buick XP-300, the Cadillac LeMans, and the Pontiac Parisienne. A year later, the Motorama featured the Firebird I concept car, also known as the Firebird XP-21, “another Harley Earl legend,” writes Berghoff, featuring an aircraft-like design and an advanced gas-turbine engine. The Firebird disdained an ordinary steering wheel in favor of a stick control. Practical? No. Cool? Oh yeah.

In 1955, the Motorama’s new concept car was the GMC L’Universelle, a sort of minivan of the future. The 1956 stars were the Firebird II, another gas-turbine machine, and the Pontiac Club de Mer, standing just 36 inches high.

Other car companies didn’t try to compete with the Motoramas because they didn’t have as much cash to spend. Still, they produced a handful of splendid concept cars, and exhibited these on the regular auto show circuit.

At Chrysler, stylist Virgil M. Exner worked with the Italian firm Ghia on a number of vehicles, including the 1953 DeSoto Adventurer I, and the Chrysler Norseman. (The latter vehicle sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1956 with the Italian liner Andrea Doria. The accident killed dozens of people. The car is presumably still down there, but, despite explorations by divers over the years, has never been found in the tangled, swirling mess of the shipwreck.)

Ford’s most elaborate concept car during these years was the 1955 Lincoln Futura, measuring 19 feet long, built for $250,000. The machine enjoyed brief fame at auto shows but was soon forgotten, like most concept cars of the era. Then, in the mid 1960s, ABC television gave the green light to “Batman.” The producers needed a Batmobile in a matter of weeks. The Futura was wheeled out of storage in L.A. and tweaked by customizers George Barris and Dick Dean, working with Dan Dempski, Richard (Korky) Korkes, Bill Cushenbery, and Roy (Tubs) Johnson. The car became an instant legend in January, 1966, when it roared out of the Batcave on prime time TV.

Another Ford concept car was the 1961 Gyron, a two-wheeled vehicle that, in theory, would use a large gyroscope to keep itself upright as it motored along. This gyroscope was not actually available in 1961, but that was not the point. The point, said Ford, was to suggest “countless possibilities to the imagination of the industry” and encourage designers to think beyond a “rectangular object with a wheel at each corner.” This, needless to say, didn’t happen then, but the Gyron thrilled many a car-loving soul.

Thrills – show biz – styling – these were the watchwords of the GM Motoramas in the 1950s, and indeed, of the whole genre of concept cars. Nitty-gritty engineering improvements of the type practiced by Japanese and German automakers were not of paramount importance to the likes of Harley Earl. (In fact, some U.S. concept cars in those years didn’t have engines or drive trains.) In his book “The Reckoning” David Halberstam notes that the engineering of most American automobiles remained “remarkably the same” through the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. (That is, the engineering of cars actually sold to consumers). While U.S. auto engineering remained static, overseas carmakers won market share by offering modest, steady refinements.

Harley Earl abruptly lost his touch as a designer in the latter part of the 1950s, fumbling several creations, failing to find a look that clicked with the public. This, needlesss to say, was a bleak fate for a man who had been so powerful and so intimately connected with the U.S. marketplace. Earl retired in 1958 at age 65 and died in 1969.

The Motorama Era ended in 1961. General Motors pulled the plug on the shows because it got more marketing bang for its buck via TV, with Dinah Shore trilling “See the USA/In your Chevrolet” on “Bonanza,” reaching millions of people who were more interested in family station wagons than in dream machines.

When the Motoramas shut down, much of the steam came out of concept car mania. But the idea of concept cars survived. In the late 1980s the genre got a boost when Chrysler produced a memorable series of concepts including the Dodge Viper. These cars “saved the company,” writes journalist Matt DeLorenzo – they demonstrated to Wall Street and the media that the firm could still perform. Today, the production of concept cars is nothing like the ’50s, but it’s enough to keep car lovers talking. Among the dream cars that have turned heads in the 2000s are the Ford Shelby GR-1, Chevrolet Volt, Jeep Treo, GM AUTOnomy, Acura HSC, Mercedes-Benz Sports Tourer, Subaru B9SC, Saturn Curve, Chrysler Firepower, and Toyota FTX. (See sidebar for the Volvo YCC.)

While many concept cars from the ’50s have been scrapped, a few survive, preserved in museums and put on pedestals at car shows. Dave Granger of The Guild of Automotive Restorers, based in Toronto, says that interest in concept cars is “at an all-time high” and offers as evidence the sale in the early 2000s of a 1955 Mercury D-528 for $170,000, significantly more, he says, than it might have brought 10 years earlier. Joseph E. Bortz, a restaurant developer based in Illinois, owns an impressive array of concepts, including a prototype Pontiac sports car from the mid-’60s called the Banshee, built by none other than John DeLorean, who would later achieve fame, and infamy, with DeLorean Motor Car Co.

And what about the 1951 LeSabre created by Harley J. Earl? GM displays it regularly at car shows. The vehicle was housed for many years at the Alfred P. Sloan Museum in Flint, Michigan. Jeff Taylor, an official at the museum, says, “It’s one of the most interesting automobiles ever built. And it sums up a remarkable era.”

Concept Car Sidebar:
What Was the First Concept Car?

By Harold Frost

According to many automotive writers, America’s first concept car was the 1938 Buick Y-Job. Journalist Vivian M. Baulch writes, “(The Y-Job is) widely recognized as the first ‘concept’ car.” Author Edward Janicki says, “The Y-Job was the first in a parade of experimental cars.”

Michael Lamm and Jon Hart disagree.

Lamm is a respected automotive historian. Hart is a top executive at the Blackhawk Museum, a renowned automobile collection in Danville, California. They say the first concept vehicle in the U.S. was the 1933 Cadillac V-16 Aerodynamic Coupe.

Lamm and Hart agree that the Buick Y-Job is an enormously important concept car. Built by Harley Earl and his General Motors team, it was wonderfully sleek for its day, and, according to GM, introduced concealed headlamps, electrically operated windows, flush door handles, a power-operated convertible top, and concealed running boards.

But the Cadillac, also built by Earl, came first. It deserves pride of place, say Lamm and Hart.

The 1933 Cadillac V-16 Aerodynamic Coupe

It debuted at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair (also known as the Century of Progress International Exposition). GM had a large pavilion at the fair, and the Cadillac was a prime attraction, a “long, lithe” fastback, writes Lamm, that made other cars look stodgy. GM eventually built 19 copies of the vehicle for sale to the public. In its original fair incarnation, says Hart, it was “definitely a concept car” because it was “one single car, hammered out by hand, and it was GM saying to the world, ‘This is what we think will happen in the future with the automobile.’”

Concept Car Sidebar: Volvo’s YCC

By Harold Frost

The Volvo YCC, unveiled in 2004, is “one of the most exciting concept cars I’ve seen,” says designer Don Norman of the consultant company Nielsen Norman Group ( The vehicle, says Norman, shows “bold thinking about style, safety, and convenience.” (YCC stands for “Your Concept Car.”)

The vehicle’s genesis can be traced to a 2001 talk given to Volvo managers in Sweden by American consultant and author Martha Barletta (, who told the company about the formidable power held by women in the auto-buying realm.

Thus inspired, an all-woman team at Volvo freed up some money and built the YCC. They deliberately downplayed the traditional macho performance aspects of auto design and marketing – horsepower, cubic inches, 0-to-60 speed, etc. – and emphasized minimal maintenance, good visibility, ease of parking, storage solutions, and ease of entry and exit for occupants of all ages. One of the car’s most surprising and logical features is an exterior spout for adding windshield washer fluid. “The YCC gets dismissed in the industry as ‘the woman’s car,’” says Don Norman, “but I think it’s a great car and I hope Volvo takes it seriously.”