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« Fact for the Day | Main | Motorama 1956 Show Cars »

July 27, 2008

Motorama Class of 1954

Donald Pitttenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

When General Motors dominated the American car market it had plenty of spare cash to devote to public relations activities such as its Motorama show, an extravaganza that traveled to some of the larger cities around the country back in the 1950s.

Besides its current production cars, GM also included a set of show cars for display. A few show cars were slightly customized production models such as the Pontiac Parisienne of 1953. Others were far-out experimental jobs such as the gas turbine powered Firebird of the same year.

Nowadays, show cars that don't fall into the categories just mentioned tend to be slightly disguised versions of cars intended for production in the near future, the idea being to get the buying public acquainted with and accustomed to features that might seem radical at first.

The GM Motoramas for 1954, 1955 and to a lesser extent 1956 featured show cars that explored styling appropriate for production yet that were not like cars actually planned for production. At most, future production cars might borrow the shape of windows, tail fins and the like.

What makes GM show cars for those years especially interesting to me is that while they were definitely "futuristic" in the context of their time, one could easily imagine most of them driving local streets and highways. Ford show cars of that era tended to be much wilder and impractical for everyday use.

I think the 1955 crop of Motorama show cars was the best, but will start with 1954 to set the scene. Reports on 1955 and 1956 will follow presently. Not all the show cars are mentioned; for example, early Corvette body variations.


Buick Wildcat II
The Wildcat looks like it might have been based on the Corvette Chassis. Well, the windshield and passenger compartment look Corvette-like. The flaired front fender openings and free-standing headlight housings are features we would term Retro, a concept largely foreign to Fifties American automobile styling. Those front fenders and exposed front wheels would be impractical for daily driving: Think of mud and road grime splashing behind the wheels, much of it caking that lovely contrasting surface in the front wheel wells.

Cadillac El Camino
The Motoramas never visited Seattle, so the El Camino was the only Motorama show car I saw in person when new; in 1955 it toured Cadillac dealerships around the country including a local one. The tail fins are similar to those used by Cadillacs a few years later. The top of the passenger compartment is interesting because its windshield and backlight (designer-speak for rear window) are similar in the way they wrap around. Wrap-around windshields and backlights were one of the major styling fads of the Fifties, General Motors leading the pack. The show cars of this era exhibit as many practical variations on the wraparound theme as stylists could come up with. Other wraparound ideas might have been considered, but anything really radical probably couldn't be built; as it was, production wraparounds tested glass manufacturers' limits.

Oldsmobile Cutlass
Oldsmobile later used the name Cutlass on production cars for many years, but this Olds Cutlass was the first. Its front wheel cutouts are not as radical as the Wildcat's, but road grime would still be visible and hard to clean off. The roof curves to a point at the rear (in plan-view), a form of boat-tail style. Also note that the backlight is shielded by horizontal louvers. And like the El Camino it sports fins, a styling fad of the mid-late 50s (though the 1948 Cadillac got there first in what now seems a very modest way).

Oldsmobile F-88
Like the Buick Wildcat II, the Olds F-88 seems to be a Chevrolet Corvette derivation. A pleasing looking car, it strikes me as being the result of overworked stylists saying "Oh hell, let's just take a Corvette and slap on a bunch of Oldsmobile styling cues!" Those cues were mostly the grille and the kinked chrome piece behind the door.

Pontiac Bonneville Special
Another sports car and another exploration of similar windshield and backlight wrap-arounding. The El Camino's windshield and backlight featured angled roof support posts, but the Bonneville's are vertical. The side windows curve into the roof and pivot upwards when the doors open to allow entry or exit. The little humps over the front and rear wheels are styling touches and not likely functional. They also serve to make the car look stumpy rather than sleek, not a very 1950s trait. This was still the Pontiac Silver Streak era, so two sets of chrome "streaks" can be seen on the hood.

Pontiac Strato Streak
The body of this experimental sedan has a rounded theme, something GM styling chief Harley Earl favored during his final years at the helm, a period where many observers believe he had lost his formerly magic touch. Of interest is the top, which is close to what some GM production cars sported for the 1957 model year. Note especially that the backlight is split into three parts by windsplits coming off the roof, a definite 1957 preview. Unfortunately for GM, three-segment backlights struck people as retrograde, harking back to rear window treatments of 1950.



posted by Donald at July 27, 2008


Oh god, how breathtaking! I have a thing for 1959 Cadillacs, but these are fantastic. Keep it coming.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on July 27, 2008 11:18 PM

Yeah, mama! That's some real De-troit iron! I grew up on those cars and those fantasies -- good times. Thanks, and looking forward to more such.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 28, 2008 1:52 AM

I wonder if kids today eye cars the way us alte cacas (oldies) did back in the fifties? The Caddie, the Buick, the Olds: each had slight differences within the basic GM body type, but differences that made each distinctly recognizable to a kid back then. The Caddie with its front bumper "tits," and rear tail fins; the Buick with its overall roundness and three "airholes"; the Olds that was always the sleekest, most streamlined of GM's stable. And I haven't even mentioned Pontiac's distinctive front hood ornamentation or those beautiful two toned pastel Chevys.
Some things really were better back then.

Posted by: ricpic on July 28, 2008 9:39 AM

That Cutlass looks like a lamprey. Scarey.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 28, 2008 8:05 PM

I have heard that the 1955 Oldsmobile was a very good looking car. Perhaps you can post a picture of it.

Posted by: kurt9 on July 29, 2008 7:15 PM

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