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July 30, 2008

Motorama Showcars 1955

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A couple of days ago I introduced the topic of General Motors' Motorama show that toured the country in the 1950s. From 1954 to 1956 special Motorama show cars were interesting because many of them had the potential to be produced, yet they weren't the sort of thinly-disguised ready-for-production jobs we find in recent automobile shows.

Show cars for 1954 were treated in the link above and some for 1956 were discussed here. The present posting deals with 1955 Motorama cars, the most interesting set, in my opinion.


Chevrolet Biscayne
The Biscayne is a neat, semi-compact that was counter to the Detroit trend of the time for longer, lower, wider and bigger standard cars. Besides its "package" (car-speak for a set of key dimensions and characteristics), it has some interesting and odd features.

Bring a show car, it has no visible front-end protection. In the 50s, most cars had big, solid, chrome-plated bumpers that were hung in front of the body shell. Nowadays, the bumper is typically a steel beam hidden behind a plastic material painted body-color; the effect is similar to the front of the Biscayne. But the Biscayne's front end is metal (or probably fiberglass pretending to be steel) with no hidden beams and several projections just waiting to be damaged.

The windshield is wrapped in two directions (see the posting on 1956 for a little more about this), an extension of a wraparound style fad introduced by GM on earlier show cars and that was found on their entire line of '55 cars.

The Biscayne is what was termed at the time a "four-door hardtop" -- no center ("B") roof post and no door framing around the side windows -- what a convertible would look like if it had a steel roof and didn't convert. This style was introduced on some 1955 GM production cars. What is interesting is that the rear doors are hinged at the rear and not on the center post as is nearly standard for four-door vehicles, making them what are called "suicide doors." Actually, four-door convertibles had rear-hinged rear doors up through the 1930s and they even appeared on Lincoln Continentals introduced in the 1961 model year. This feature might be present because it would have been too troublesome to engineer and fabricate doorpost-hinging for a mere show car.

And yes, that bug-eye headlight treatment is a little odd.

LaSalle II roadster
LaSalle II sedan
Apology for the quality of the lower photo, but it's the best I could locate on the Web for this car.

The LaSalle was one of GM's "companion cars" -- brands launched around the end of the 1920s to offer more products for their basic brand dealers to sell. It was the most successful of the lot, a stylish, lower-priced companion to the Cadillac that was built for the 1927-1940 model years. That success statement might not be strictly true because another companion brand was Pontiac, originally sold by Oakland dealers. But the plug got pulled on Oakland, and Pontiac forged on alone, no longer a companion car as LaSalle always was. Other General Motors companion brands were Marquette (Buick) and Viking (Oldsmobile).

Two LaSalle show cars were built for the 1955 Motorama. This led some car buff magazine writers to speculate that GM might be intending to re-introduce the LaSalle brand. Alas, that was not to be.

The show cars have a LaSalle look in that the grilles borrow part of the grille motif found on the 1940 LaSalles, the last ones built. That motif is vertical slots with rounded upper and lower ends, though the slots curve under on the show cars and their bottom ends are a little hard to see in the photos. That's about it for styling cues, but they were strong enough to convey the brand to the many Motorama attendees who could remember LaSalles from 15 years earlier.

I find the sedan far more interesting than the roadster version. The body is quite similar to that of the Biscayne, yet there are differences. A minor difference is the "C" or rear roof pillar. I don't have good photos or, better yet, detailed measurements to work with. But it looks like the LaSalle's passenger compartment is slightly longer from the trailing edge of the rear door to the rear of the car. This would be expected if the cars had been destined for production because the LaSalle would have sold at the boundary of the upper-middle and lower-upper price ranges, whereas the Biscayne might have been a low-priced car. The important difference is in the treatment of the body sides. During the 50s and 60s most Detroit cars grew wider and had "shoulders." By that I mean the passenger compartment, as measured between the side windows, was noticeably narrower than the overall width of the car at the same point. Put another way, the top of the fenders stood away from the window glass. This might have been simply a downwards roll, as can be seen on the Biscayne. But by the 1960s some cars featured a kind of shelf between the windows and the top fold of the fenders, a shelf that might be as much as three inches wide. The LaSalle's body, on the other hand, drops down directly from the side windows and there is no ridge or any kind of other fender break at the C pillar. I recall this being mentioned by a car buff magazine at the time, and I haven't forgotten the point. By the late 1960s, GM began using the "fenderless" side treatment (think original Oldsmobile Toronado), and it has been used by other manufacturers as well. But it wasn't picked up in the aftermath of the 1955 Motorama aside from one exception: the 1960 Plymouth Valiant.

Oldsmobile Delta 88
The Olds Delta 88 show car was a plausible standard sized production car. Like some other 1954-56 Motorama cars, it features a rounded look -- a style favored by GM styling V.P. Harley Earl for much of his career. Front protection seems iffy (vulnerable headlights, fog lights and fender-front sheet metal) and those shiny wheel well inner surfaces would be mud-bait and difficult to keep clean, a problem similar to that found for some 1954 Motorama show cars. Oldsmobiles from the late 40s onward tended to sport an uncluttered style, and this show car is no exception -- especially if the two-tone paint scheme and chrome-plated separators on the sides can be ignored. In summary, a pleasant, though bland, design.

Pontiac Strato Star
I couldn't locate a decent photo of the Strato Star on the Web, so this brochure cover art will have to do. Here is another standard-sized car with too much wheel well interior showing. Unlike the Olds, it isn't bland. Rather, it has several styling oddities that detract from an already mediocre basic shape.

The strangest feature is the windsplits on the roof that, as they continue towards the rear, become taller and taller, ending as body extensions bearing the tail lights. These windsplits also serve as backlight (rear window) dividers, creating a three-segment wraparound. Three-segment backlights were found on 1949-vintage hardtop convertibles and high-end GM sedans for 1950. As glass-forming technology improved, wraparound backlights became one-piece affairs. But Earl apparently liked the segmented backlights as well as the "cute" idea of using windsplits to define the break lines. This theme was used on the 1954 Pontiac Strato Streak Motorama car and later on GM's production "B" bodies for the 1957 model year where the design flopped.

The sides of the Strato Star also feature windsplits. The ones at the rear are nondescript: logical, but almost cliché-like. The ones curving around the body from the headlights into the front doors offer a little visual interest to otherwise bland sides. However, in combination with the raised forms on the hood that conform to the headlight radii, they serve to emphasize the dull, heavy-looking design of the top of the front fender. I think the car would have looked a lot better had the headlights been placed in the usual position at the top corners of the front end. This would have led to a more conventional looking car, perhaps, but a car with a crisper, lighter look.

On the other hand, sometimes you just have to try out ideas on life-size show cars to see how well they work. So, instead of being a styling failure, the Strato Star might be considered a success to the extent that it kept some really poor concepts away from the assembly line and showrooms.



posted by Donald at July 30, 2008


I see you posted a picture of a '55 Olds. Thanks.

The Olds were good cars up until around '73. My father had a '70 Delta 88 (black interior). It was a good car. It was fast too.

The 50's and 60's had cool cars. From '73 until the early 90's, Detroit cars generally sucked. Now Detroit cars are good again.

Posted by: kurt9 on July 30, 2008 11:33 AM

I loved these "Dream Cars", as they were often called. Remember the Ford versions? The only one I can recall the name of was the XM500, or XL500. They came around on trucks to the dealers in my home town, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We'd ride our bikes across town to see them after school and on the weekends. My dad, a longtime GM guy, was so impressed he bought a '56 Mercury 4 door hardtop, white with yellow top and sides, black and white interior. It was the worst lemon he ever owned. He went back to Pontiac the very next year with a pink on white four door hardtop. That thing was really fast and ate '57 Chevys for breakfast. These are fun posts!

Posted by: Terry Butler on July 30, 2008 9:33 PM

Wowee, was there ever a sexier time in car design -- at least in the glitzy Vegas way -- than '50s Detroit? Such a lot of gaudy outgoing confidence and brio. Love these postings - I feel like I'm learning about a brand new (for me) art form, and from a terrific teaacher.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 31, 2008 10:56 AM

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