My English 101 teacher said every good story needs a memorable beginning as well as a surprise ending, and we will begin this story just before World War II. A gentleman whose presence was as large as his size and his talent was making his mark at General Motors. He was hired to make design at General Motors not just a job of the engineer or some artist, but to make it an entire department with a philosophy, a plan and an army of people to execute the plan as a unified image for General Motors. He started showing his talents after being hired on at GM at the Cadillac-LaSalle Division. Just before the war, he decided that the way to show the power and talent of the newly-formed department fully under his control was to make its full presence known at the Buick Division and to build the first “dream car” – the . His thought was to show that GM was a visionary corporation and not just the biggest automobile manufacturer of the time. The Y-Job was his canvas and it immediately received world acclaim. Of course, this man known to every collector of American car culture, Mr. Harley Earl, is undoubtedly the most famous automobile executive in the 20th Century.
Harley Earl’s plan of continuing on with other dream cars (today known as concept cars) was interrupted with World War II. However, immediately after the war, he again put his plan to work and produced the LeSabre that not only received world acclaim but also toured the world’s automotive shows in its first couple of years. It immediately became obvious to all the divisions at General Motors that they needed a “dream car”, for not only was it the vision of the future, but it was a fantastic sales tool for selling the current year’s product.
Harley Earl allowed the other divisions at General Motors to develop their dream cars under his supervision but he had a “hands on” attitude for the dream cars that were produced by Buick. In the 1980s it was told to me by more than one person who worked with Harley Earl that his favorite concept and the one that he had the most personal input on was the 1953 Buick Wildcat I. He realized that the pre-war Y-Job and the post-war LeSabre was not to his entire satisfaction, so the Buick Wildcat I which followed, received his daily and sometimes hourly input with the crew of designers that were producing the car at the GM design center.
In the summer of 1953 I was eleven years old and I guess the kids grew up a little faster then because my parents allowed me to take the Fullerton Ave. trolley bus to Halsted and then the Halsted bus down to the International Amphitheatre (about a 45-minute ride). Even then, the neighborhood around the Amphitheatre was not the best, but once inside the building at the annual auto show it was magic and I can remember that day and that moment when I saw the 1953 Buick Wildcat I on a turntable. It was like no other car that was ever produced. I say this with great qualification; because at the age of eleven I had read every book, magazine and advertisement on cars since I was five years old and I believed I was an expert on judging design. The 1953 Buick Wildcat possessed me with its clean flowing form and this became a “Kodak Moment” in my mind forever. Let me be honest with you, I would like to tell you that I had dreams of owning the car at the age of eleven but that would not be truthful because such a thought was beyond reality or any dream that I would ever have had at that time. Five years from that “Kodak Moment” at age sixteen I purchased my first collector car, a non-running 1928 Chevrolet Landau coupe. Along with help from my friend Al Gartzman, we towed it home with my dad’s , with a two-inch-thick rope about 15’ long from Lombard, Illinois to the north side of Chicago – about 20 miles. No tow truck, no flat bed, no trailer or enclosed transport truck, just a 15’ foot rope and I might add that we towed it home during rush hour. I guess you could say that by that time I had the true car collector syndrome: mountains of automotive enthusiasm numbing the intelligence of the brain. They tell me that is the pre-requisite for anybody who has a collection of more than three cars.
That takes us to the second point of the important two elements of a story – the surprise ending. We fast-forward to 1988 after I had acquired three or four concept cars. I received a call from a well-known car collector/dealer who said that he had a concept car in somewhat dilapidated condition that he thought he was going to restore and realized that he was never going to get to it. He wanted to know if I was interested. When I traveled the 300-400 miles to see the car I found that he was being very honest. The car was very dilapidated, but I had also seen the car in all its glory in 1953 on the turntable and the picture was still in my mind. I had no choice but to pay the price and take the car home.
It was about this time that I met Dave Holls, the vice president of GM design and he was only too happy to help with advising on the restoration process and even in getting original factory pictures, blueprints and source information for the meticulous resurrection that was to follow. It was also at about this time that I became friends with Frank Peiler, publisher of Collectible Automobile magazine, who decided to cover the entire restoration process from beginning to end and when it was done to publish it in Collectible Automobile, December 1, 1988, Volume 5, Number 4. The restoration was a body-off-the-chassis with every single part removed, overhauled and painted before assembly.
I would like to tell you all about the restoration and the new friends that I acquired during the restoration process but that is a long, long story. But one chapter of the restoration process does stand out. One of the features of the 1953 Buick Wildcat I was that it had “roto-static” hubcaps. This meant that the hubcap did not rotate with the wheel but was stationary with an air scoop vent on the front edge of the hubcaps to create a constant air flow over the brake drums. When I got the car, the only part that was missing was one of the front hubcaps. When the restoration process was started, I contacted a gentleman in Detroit who was known for his small parts fabrication. I had to send him the one hubcap in my possession. The right and left hubcaps were mirror images of each other and it was not just a matter of taking a casting or form of the hubcap because it had to be the mirror image of the other side. The fabricator was given the one hubcap that I had at the beginning of the restoration process. A month or two before the car was to be completed I remembered that I had never heard from this fabricator in Detroit about the hubcap for the entire year and a half that it took to restore the car. I phoned him and asked him what the status was and he said he never got started because he was always looking for a starting form that would give him a leg up in terms of its starting shape, rather than beginning with a flat piece of sheet metal. I explained to him the urgency of the situation that the car would be completed in six to eight weeks and he needed to get started. I thought for sure that the hubcap would be the holdup at the end of the restoration process.
Surprisingly, about three weeks after my phone call, I received a box in the mail and opened it up. There were two front hubcaps for the Wildcat I, the right side, the left side fully chromed with the Buick letters on both. I called up the fabricator to thank him and asked him why all of a sudden he got the job done so quickly. This is what he told me, “Joe, I am a bachelor and I live in a little condo with a balcony. I have one of those little midget Weber grills because I only cook for myself. Shortly after your call I was cooking a hamburger one evening on the Weber grill and as I picked up the lid I realized that the diameter and the arched shape were almost identical to the one hubcap you had sent. I immediately took it to the shop and got so enthused that the Weber grill top was almost the perfect shape and diameter that I continued to work on it to make the form perfect, cut the letters that said Buick and sent all the pieces for both the right and the left side out to the plater. When they came back I assembled everything and immediately sent it to you”. My response was, “it has been almost two years since I sent you the one hubcap and I don’t remember if I sent you the right side or the left side. Which side is the Weber hubcap and which side is the original”? There was a long pause and then he said, “I am not going to tell you”. So, to this day when you see the Buick Wildcat I, I want you to know that I couldn’t tell the difference and you won’t be able to tell the difference, but one side is the original Buick Wildcat I hubcap and the other was born as the top of a Weber grill.
So, there you have the two parts of a good story according to my English 101 teacher, the “beginning” Mr. Harley Earl, the most remembered name in American automotive history in the 20th Century. The “surprise ending”, the eleven-year-old Joe Bortz ending up being the keeper of that fantastic sculpture in his adult years. I guess if I could talk to that English 101 teacher now I would be able to tell her that good stories not only have a memorable beginning and a surprise ending but that some of them have a really big, big surprise, but you won’t get any complaints from me.