The fiberglass-bodied 1953 Buick Wildcat that starred at the 1953 Motorama should have been destroyed, per General Motors edict. But dream car collector Joseph E. Bortz somehow located that long-missing show car and restored it to its past glory.
During the 1950s, "dream cars" popped up with the frequency of the annual model change. General Motors started the whole trend with the Buick Y-Job, a Harley J. Earl design that dated back to 1938 and predicted the styling of the 1942 Buick.
By 1953, General Motors was the master at whetting the public's appetite for dream cars via its annual Motorama show. This was the first time it traveled to various cities, and it gained tremendous publicity for General Motors. Although the corporation generally referred to its futuristic show cars as "experimental automobiles," the public called them dream cars, and General Motors also did so on occasion.
Whatever the term, General Motors obliged the curious by fielding a raft of cars for the 1953 Motorama. Kicking off at New York's Waldorf Astoria on January 16, the show later toured Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Kansas City.
Best known among the cars shown in 1953 was the fiberglass-bodied two-seater Chevrolet Corvette. It made such a mark that it was in production (in small numbers) by July 1 in Chevrolet's Flint, Michigan plant. Also seen that year was the Oldsmobile Starfire, a sleek four-passenger convertible that was to lend its name and certain styling elements to production Oldsmobiles beginning in 1954.
Cadillac fielded two cars, the Orleans, a basically stock production model that was converted into a four-door hardtop, a body style that would become reality in 1955. The Cadillac LeMans, a two-passenger "sports prototype" convertible on a 115-inch wheelbase, featured fiberglass construction and carried styling that previewed the 1954 models.
Pontiac took a different approach with the Parisienne, a "town car" with a formal roofline and an open section over the chauffeur's area. Although based on the 1953 Chieftain, the 1930s body style was more a trip into the past than the future. Also seen in 1953 was the Firebird I, a jet plane on wheels that would see future renditions at subsequent shows.
Buick, of course, was not about to be left out. Its contribution was the Wildcat, a two-passenger convertible that Buick referred to as a "Trial flight in Fiberglass and steel." It was also billed as a "Prototype of future cars." And, indeed, it was both.
A special brochure handed out at the Motorama explained the philosophy behind the Wildcat: "Buick by-passes time and tradition to bring your 'dream car' closer. Buick's progressive search for finer styling and better cars for America's motorists enters a new era with presentation of the revolutionary new sports convertible -- the Wildcat -- featuring a Fiberglass body.
"Adoption of easily-molded Fiberglass for the bodies of Buick experimental models shortens the time between new styling ideas and their incorporation in cars that can be tried and tested. And presentation of these futuristic models for public view -- as in the case of the Wildcat and XP-300 -- affords an opportunity to 'pre-test' the motorists' reaction to various styling features incorporated in those cars."
For more on the styling of the Buick Wildcat, continue to the next page.
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1953 Buick Wildcat Styling
Buick hastened to point out that the 1953 Buick Wildcat was experimental, "as the name implies." A number of styling innovations were touted: "concave grille and buffer bombs integrated with a massive wrap-around front bumper, twin hood scoops that provide additional air for the carburetor, fender-top vent ports, and the slim sweepspear inset on a line from bumper to bumper.
"Separate from the body, but distinctive in its own right, the front wheel disc design features 'Roto Static' hubs that remain stationary. The functional purpose of this design is seen in the air scoop that is built in to provide additional brake cooling. Cooling of rear tires and brakes is heightened by a series of louvers in the fender panels.
"Rear deck fin lines start at the air outlet [just behind the passenger compartment], run parallel with rear fenders housing tail lights, direction signals, and gas-tank cap. Six individual bumpers -- on fenders, deck fins, and exhaust outlets -- protect the Wildcat from rear-end contact.
"In keeping with its jet-styled lines, the Wildcat is powered by the world's most advanced V-8 engine, the same record high-compression Fireball V-8 that gives the 1953 Roadmaster and Super such outstanding performance among America's finest cars.
"Converting the Wildcat's magnificent power into whip-quick getaway with perfect smoothness at every pace, Twin-Turbine Dynaflow provides this experimental Buick with the finest automatic transmission ever built for an automobile."
The Wildcat's interior featured a large "banjo" steering wheel and green leather upholstery with one-inch vertical pleats. Leather covered the doors and the double-rolls of the instrument panel.
A horizontal speedometer rode atop four circular gauges that were partly recessed into the lower roll of the panel. In the center was a foot-operated Selectronic radio, unique in that it was round (twin tail-fender antennas were automatic); to its right was the clock.
Windows and seat operated hydraulically. When the top was down, it fit neatly into a recess behind the passenger compartment. Although the top was manual, the flush-fitting fiberglass panel covering it was powered, and eliminated the need for the traditional fabric boot.
Like the later Wildcats of the 1950s, some styling elements from the Wildcat I (as it is generally called) found their way to production Buicks. For example, the Panoramic windshield debuted on the 1954s, although not in Plexiglass as on the Wildcat I. The headlight treatment looked a lot like that used on the 1953 and 1954 cars, sans the "V."
The grille and bumper design was also adapted for the 1954 models, although the vertical grille bars were convex in production and not as deep. The side-sweep was similar in spirit (if not exactly in detail) to the Wildcats of 1967-1968. Curiously, the taillight design was more akin to the 1949 Buicks than anything that would follow.
Many enthusiasts have long assumed that the Wildcat I was consigned to the scrap heap years ago. It was General Motors policy to destroy show cars after they had served their purpose -- liability insurance considerations were a concern.
Another factor was that a lot of dream cars hadn't been properly tested, and so they simply couldn't be driven on public roads. They were intended to look good under the spotlights of a car show, but often even the most basic functions were sometimes absent. Some didn't even have working engines or transmissions.
Thus, it's hardly surprising that show cars were routinely destroyed. Nonetheless, a few escaped the crusher, mainly because some insiders, generally designers and engineers, managed to sneak through "work orders" to sign out their favorite cars. General Motors didn't approve of these back door goings-on, of course, but old car fanciers are the richer for it now.
To learn more about one Wildcat that escaped its date with destiny, see the next page.
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1953 Buick Wildcat I
The 1953 Buick Wildcat I broke the general dream car rule, says Joseph E. Bortz, its owner. He points out that the Wildcat I was probably the most roadable -- and best built -- dream car to come out of the 1950s.
Everything worked, just as if it had rolled down the assembly line alongside a 1953 Roadmaster. And all parts were selected to stand up to everyday wear, says Bortz, just like a production car.
In fact, a number of production pieces were used in constructing the car. The interior door handles, for example, are from the 1953 Cadillac Eldorado; they slide horizontally to open the doors.
Thus, it's not surprising that driving the Wildcat I is "just like driving a Buick."
Joe has long been a fan of 1950s and 1960s iron. He has a real love for them, and, as such, has a unique understanding of them.
Although he started collecting classics (he still owns a beautiful Duesenberg), he decided long ago that the cars he wanted to collect are the unusual limited-production, special-bodied cars he remembers so well.
By limited production, he means those with a run of under 500 units. And what could be more special-bodied than a dream car? Joe has a bunch, the Wildcat I being a prime example.
The Wildcat I was located in Michigan. Although it hadn't been abused and had only been driven about 50 miles, it had gone through a long period of benign neglect -- paint was faded and chrome trim and leather had deteriorated badly.
It was therefore accorded a complete body-off restoration -- paint, chrome, interior, electricals. An exception was the engine, which was beautifully finished in chrome and enamel. It was excellent, so there was no need to remove it.
One of the Roto Static hubs was missing, but in the best American tradition a new one was fabricated by using part of a small Weber grille. Perhaps surprisingly, the U.S. Royal tires the Wildcat rides on are the originals.
The Wildcat I began to come together and take form again as the new paint was applied. Still, myriad details, including the interior, needed looking after before the job would be done. The final result speaks for itself.
Joe's Wildcat is now considered a 100-point car and proved it by winning a first-place award at the Antique Automobile Club of America meet in Lake Forest, Illinois, in July 1988, its first outing.
But to Joe, the Wildcat is more than a car, more even than a dream car, Ultimately, he says, it has to be considered an art form, a "gigantic bronze" of a sort. And just as the oil paintings by the masters have come to be appreciated, so, too, will the dream cars for their use of form. This Wildcat I is a priceless treasure, for there is no other.
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