The Fifties and Sixties

Prior to World War II, automobile manufacturers kept future designs secret by limiting previews to company executives. This worked as long as styling changes crept at a glacial pace, but during the postwar boom, styling changes accelerated. With so much at stake, manufacturers soon realized the value of public showings and began a feverish competition to exhibit visionary dream cars. This gave designers valuable feedback, prepared the public for the look of cars to come and shed a glamorous halo around mundane production models.

General Motors Le Sabre

General Motors: Highway Jets

Legendary GM styling chief Harley Earl fathered the 1938 Buick Y-Job, generally acknowledged as the first dream car produced by a major manufacturer. Earl had the sleek black convertible built for his personal use but soon put it on display so designers could study reactions to its horizontal grille, low-slung stance, and disappearing top. His belief that styling is critical to sales appeal led Earl to develop the Motorama, an aggressive program of exhibiting futuristic prototypes in order to gauge public acceptance. During his reign, General Motors led the industry in the number of dream cars produced as well as in their engineering advances and elaborate presentations.

The 1953 Firebird XP-21 was the first factory prototype to feature a fighter-jet inspired bubble top, an impracticality that nonetheless became a signature feature of futuristic dream cars. Earl's radical XP-21 was a jet airplane on wheels, complete with bullet-shaped fuselage, stubby wings and tailfin, which were appropriate, as it was powered by a jet turbine engine. Earl followed that with a jet automobile the whole family could enjoy, the four-seat Firebird II of 1956, follwed by the extremely low-slung Firebird III with seven fins, gleaming metallic gold paint and a double-bubble canopy. Though much of post WWII auto design borrowed themes from jet fighters and rocket ships, General Motors Firebirds took space age chic to its limit in both styling and engineering.

Harley Earl started his career styling custom cars for Hollywood celebrities--a background that served him well when it came to promoting his futuristic prototypes. General Motors presented six extravagant Motorama shows between 1953 and 1961. The seminal 1953 Motorama introduced the fiberglass bodied Corvette, revolutionary because it was a dream car you could buy in a Chevrolet showroom. At its 1956 peak, the Motorama cost GM five million dollars to produce, required 125 trucks to move and featured a mechanical arm that swung cars over audiences as Broadway dancers performed to the sounds of a full orchestra. Public feedback was important, as guessing reaction to design statements was an inexact science at best. As Harley Earl stated, "You will never know what the industrial products of the future will be like, but the secret is to keep trying to find out . . . I would rather try crossing a river on a path of bobbing soap cakes than make predictions about the car of tomorrow. The footing would be far safer."

Though wraparound windshields, rain-sensing wipers, quadruple headlights, thin-band white sidewall tires, fiberglass construction and in-car television screens were seen first on GM dream cars, technical innovations like jet turbine engines, hands-free guidance systems, joystick steering, and flip-up bubble tops were more provocative than practical. Gas-sipping, microprocessor-controlled power plants, pollution reducing catalytic converters, airbags, or anti-lock braking systems weren't seen on dream cars but became common features of cars today. Pollution controls and safety systems might have lacked glamour to dazzle show crowds, but designers probably failed to foresee the real automotive future of government regulations and public safety concerns. Harley Earl invented the dream car, developed the greatest number and variety of prototypes, and displayed them in the most elaborate extravaganzas--all while overseeing the development of the largest line of production cars in the world.

Ford Nucleon

Ford: Flying on The Ground

Though Ford got off to a rousing start with its 1953 X100, a three-ton coupe packed with far-sighted features including built-in electric jacks, seat warmers and a telephone, its commitment to dream cars soon lagged behind General Motors. While many GM prototypes appeared to represent vehicles soon to appear in showrooms, Ford dream cars were, for the most part, inoperable fantasies called rollers due to the fact they had to be manually pushed onto display stands. Many Ford prototypes were modeled at 3/8 scale.

George Walker, who served as Ford's nineteen fifties styling chief, was a pragmatist who harbored no illusions about his primary mission, which was promoting planned obsolescence. As he put it, "We design a car to make a man unhappy with his 1957 Ford 'long about the end of 1958."

Since most of Ford's dream cars were models, the company's designers were set free to explore "blue sky" designs. The extremely cab-forward 1958 Nucleon(seen above) sported extended rear bodywork designed to isolate passengers from a nuclear reactor mounted in its trunk. Ford designers seemed obsessed with exploring contact with the road. Their 1961 Gyron balanced on two wheels by means of a gyroscope, while the 1962 Seattle-ite XXI sported six wheels. Taking this experimentation to the limit, the single-seat Leva Car dispensed with wheels entirely and glided about on a razor-thin cushion of air. The Leva Car exemplifies the unreality of Ford prototypes, as it was projected to be capable of 500 M.P.H. but lacked a braking system. While the proposed engineering aspects of many Ford prototypes were questionable, their styling was often highly original.

Ford concept cars include the Lincoln Futura, perhaps the most widely exposed dream car of all. Unlike many Ford fantasies, this angular, double-bubble cruiser with huge tailfins, hooded headlights and nearly hidden wheels was fully operational. Ford dubbed it a laboratory on wheels after spending a quarter of a million dollars to have Italian coachbuilder Ghia construct it in 1955. Iridescent fish-scale paint, a wide-mouthed grille and trunk lid gill slits give credence to designer Bill Schmidt's story that the Futura was inspired by a great white shark he saw while scuba diving in the Caribbean. By 1959, the car had out lived its usefulness; Ford sold it to Warner Brothers for a romantic comedy, It Started with a Kiss, starring Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds. The car appears as a prize won by Ford, who plays an Army sergeant stationed in Spain. Technicolor footage of the wild, shark-mouthed Lincoln driving around in picturesque Spain presents a dramatic clash of old world charm and space age design. The Futura was later sold to Hollywood car customizer George Barris who left it to rot outdoors behind his shop for several years before signing a contract to supply a working Batmobile for the 1966 Batman TV series. Barris removed the bubble top, painted the Futura glossy black with red trim, added features specified by the studio and produced an automotive icon that still draws crowds wherever it appears.

Chrysler Special

Chrysler: Italian Tailoring

When consumers spurned Chrysler's dumpy-looking postwar sedans, hot young designer Virgil Exner was hired to add desperately needed pizzazz. Exner had apprenticed under legendary designers Harley Earl and Raymond Loewy before landing the job of developing the primitive Chrysler styling department in 1949.

Inspired by his new position, Exner set to work designing a line of dream cars to be constructed by Italian coachbuilder Ghia. His first prototype was the stunning 1951 Chrysler K-310, a stylish coupe that reflected his love of sophisticated European design. Exner's dream cars were, for the most part, drivable, real-world automobiles, advanced enough to excite the public, but practical enough to be producible, thus expressing his belief that, "The big responsibility of the automobile stylist is not to predict what the automobile will look like many years from now, but to solve the more exacting problems of the model for next year." His 1954 Dodge Firearrow proved so producible that a Detroit businessman manufactured and sold over a hundred examples. Renamed Dual Ghia, the glamorous convertible became a favorite of Hollywood's famed Rat Pack. Exner focused on elegant styling features, many of which echoed classic themes. Some of his ideas have proven surprisingly durable. The 2005 Chrysler 300 features a dramatic grill strikingly similar to that of his 1951 K-310.

It's ironic that Exner specified Italian tailoring for his dream cars, given that his groundbreaking 1957 Forward Look production cars couldn't have been created anywhere but America. These tall-finned bullets had a light, angular look that suddenly made everything else on the streets look obsolete. Exner's production cars borrowed little from his dream cars, right up to the 1956 Norseman, a space-age coupe that combined innovative mechanical features with visionary styling. The Norseman dispensed with windshield pillars, leaving a cantilevered roof supported by glass. The rear window retracted into a body constructed of weight-saving aluminum and its seatbelts rewound into slots atop the transmission tunnel. Unfortunately, outside of its builders at Ghia, no one saw the innovative car, as it was lost at sea when the Andrea Doria sunk after a collision off Newfoundland.

A sneak peek at the 1957 Forward Look Chrysler production cars caused panicked General Motors stylists to scrap their nearly-completed designs for 1959 and stage a mutiny against the bloated-looking bodywork that Earl had dictated to embark on a crash program to match the crisp, lower/wider aesthetic of upcoming Chrysler, Plymouths and Dodges. It's ironic that, though the dream cars Exner designed were elegantly understated classics, his production cars were space age visions that leapt years ahead of the competition. The impact of his 1957 Chrysler line was seismic. Indeed, a case can be made that the Forward Look cars had as much effect on the 1959 General Motors designs as the company's own dream cars.

Exner finished his career as much a visionary as when he started. After retiring from Chrysler he specialized in blending classic, retro design cues with modern styling in his Stutz Blackhawk, Mercer Cobra and Bugatti one-offs--a trend that didn't appear in mainstream cars until the 1990s with such cars as Volkswagen's New Beetle, Chrysler's PT Cruiser, and Chevrolet's HHR.