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Dream Cars, Concept Cars & Engineering Exercises

The late, great automobile designer at General Motors, Harley Earl, was fond of producing engineering exercises in his GM Design Group. These one-offs were shown in automobile shows to gauge public interest, but also just as often to showoff the talents of Earl’s great design team. A number of these concept cars went on to become production models, though greatly modified for better adaptation to mass production. Some of these one-offs were completely roadworthy vehicles and were driven by Earl and other top GM executives.

Among the dream cars that made it to production are the 1953 Buick Skylark, a sporty, V-8 powered convertible with low-cut doors and racy looks that still are hot today. Raymond Loewy Design Studio produced a show car for Studebaker in 1952 that evolved into one of the best classic designs of all times, the Studebaker Starliner coupe. This car evolved into the Studebaker Hawk series of the late fifties and sixties, but none of these were as beautiful as the original concept car penned by Robert Bourke of Loewy Design.

The Chevrolet Corvette is another concept that made it into production and is still a sports car icon today. However, more concept cars were not put into production for a variety of reasons, than were used as a basis for a production car. One of these is the Oldsmobile F-88, a two-seat convertible that was shown in 1954, the year after the introduction of the “Vette.” This V-8 powered and loaded-with-options personal sports car would have competed directly with the Corvette, which in 1953-4 was powered by an anemic six-cylinder backed by a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. It is reported that Chevy executives lobbied successfully to squelch production of the sporty Olds. Of the two or three concepts made the only F-88 known to be in existence was sold at a Barrett-Jackson Auction for $3.24 millions and now resides in the Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum on a special rotating display.

The Ford Thunderbird first appeared as a concept, then as a production model in 1955. The two-seater was a response the success of the Corvette from rival Chevrolet. In 1958 the T-Bird morphed into a four-seat, personal luxury coupe and convertible and created a whole new market segment. Later entries in this niche market were the Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Riviera.

In our current automotive era the automobile shows around the world continue to be used to promote engineering and design concepts even more than they were in the classical car era. The concepts today are even more imaginative that they were in the sixties and every manufacturer has at least one on their viewing stand.