Story and photo by Bill Vance
Click image to enlarge
In 1926, General Motors lured away Harley Earl from his Hollywood, California job as auto stylist to the stars. He was contracted to style Cadillac’s new 1927 LaSalle, a lower priced “companion car” to celebrate Cadillac’s 25th anniversary. The LaSalle was so successful that General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., hired Earl to establish GM’s Art and Colour Section. It formalized automobile styling in the industry, and Art and Colour became GM’s Styling Department in 1937.
Earl soon began making a significant impact at GM. His styling ideas complemented Sloan’s evolving concept of the annual model change, and would strongly influence the shape of American cars. In the mid-1930s Earl conceived a “dream car” to demonstrate his thoughts, and test public opinion on future automobile styling. His 1938 Buick Y-Job was the result.
The Y-Job was almost 6,096 mm (20 ft) long, had 13-inch wheels for a sleek silhouette, a low, wide grille, fenders extending into the doors, and wraparound bumpers. There was a prominent “power dome” hood, and no running boards. These features would influence GM cars for many years, as well as the rest of the industry because GM was seen as the styling leader. The Y-Job was Earl’s personal car for several years.
After the Second World War II Earl decided it was time for a new dream car to not only project future styling, but to test advanced engineering concepts. This endeavour ended up as two cars: the Buick LeSabre styled by Earl, and the Buick XP-300 under the styling direction of Buick’s chief engineer Charles Chayne.
As well as being show cars at GM’s annual Motorama road show and abroad, they were personal transportation for Earl and Chayne. Chayne’s XP-300 was much closer to Buick’s contemporary or imminent styling, while Earl’s Le Sabre was more daring in predicting styling for the next 10 to 15 years.
Both were long and low (about 1,270 mm; 50 in. high), and shared the same running gear. The LeSabre’s jet aircraft-influenced styling featured a small, oval, pod-type grille mounted high, front and centre. It rotated horizontally 180 degrees and did a fancy dance to reveal two close-set headlamps. A rectangular, jet plane type air intake was below this grille, flanked by a massive two-piece bumper with protuberant “Dagmars,” named for a well-endowed television actress.
Earl’s beloved “Panamoric” wraparound windshield added a dramatic touch. Functional rear fender air scoops cooled the finned inboard drum brakes, and provided ventilation for the 12-volt battery. The rear was dominated by large tailfins which housed the taillamps and backup lights in their trailing edges. Through-the-bumper exhaust outlets were used, and a big, chromed central “spinner” contained the stoplight which glowed like the afterburner of a jet fighter.
The LeSabre used light metals extensively. The rear deck lid, door panels and cowl were magnesium. The rest of the body was aluminum. Overall weight was approximately 1,361 kg (3,000 lb). The wheelbase was 2,921 mm (115 in.), and overall length, 5,080 mm (200 in.)
There were power seats and windows, and a rain sensor that automatically raised the convertible top at the first drops of rain. In keeping with the aircraft motif, the instrument panel featured a full complement of gauges, including a tachometer, fuel pressure gauge, oil pressure and temperature gauges, and an altimeter and compass. A hydraulic jack at each corner facilitated tire changing.
Under the skin the LeSabre was equally advanced, having technology that stands up well more than 50 years later. It was powered by a 3.5 litre (215 cu in.) pushrod V8 with aluminum block and heads, cross-bolted main bearings, and a 10.0:1 compression ratio with hemispherical combustion chambers. It had two carburetors and a Roots-type supercharger said to produce a startlingly high boost pressure of 29.5 pounds per square inch. Peak horsepower was claimed to be 335 @ 5500 rpm from the 249 kg (550 lb) engine, an outstanding power to weight ratio of only 1.64 lb per horsepower.
The V8 used a combination of high test gasoline and methyl alcohol carried in separate rubber tanks inside the rear fenders. Under low power demand the engine ran on gasoline fed through one carburetor. When higher power was requested the second, or alcohol carburetor, kicked in, providing a mixture of gasoline and alcohol for detonation control.
It had a Dynaflow transmission, later replaced by a Hydra-Matic, that was combined with the magnesium rear axle to form a transaxle unit. Front suspension was by A-arms and rubber in torsion, while at the rear was a de Dion axle suspended by a single leaf spring at each end.
Of the many concept cars that Buick would build over the years, starting with the 1938 Y-Job, the 1951 LeSabre was probably the most significant. It heralded the end of the so-called “teardrop” shaped fastback cars of the ’40s and early ’50s, exemplified by GM’s “Torpedo” backs, and post-war Hudsons and Nashes.
With the bold and daring LeSabre, Earl set a direction in automobile styling that would endure into the 1960s. As with the Y-Job, he drove the LeSabre as his personal car, rolling up more than 80,000 km (50,000 miles) before retiring it to GM’s museum.