Carmakers, for the large part, didn’t pay much attention to design until the late Twenties … 1927, in fact, when General Motors hired the Mr. Earl, tasking him with styling the 1927 LaSalle and 1928 Cadillac.
Harley Earl, son of a Hollywood coachbuilder who designed custom vehicles for movie stars, came to GM as supervisor of the company’s new Art and Colour section, the first department of its kind in the automotive world. He led a team responsible for introducing what went on to become hallmark looks of the American automobile: classic chrome, two-tone paint, tail fins, and wrap around windshields.
Earl and his designers were not only responsible for setting current automotive trends of the day, they looked to the future by building experimental dream cars for The General’s showcase of design: their fabulous Motorama shows which ran from 1949 to 1961.
Making the rounds of major American cities, Motorama brought GM’s style experiments to local audiences. In a way, they were the granddaddy of today’s auto shows like the CIAS held every February in Toronto – introducing the latest models and showcasing cars of the future.
Most concept and experimental cars are, after making the rounds on the auto show circuit, either dismantled or shuffled off to a museum. Every now and then, though, one of them slips through the cracks, to be tucked away in a dusty corner despite company edict to the contrary.
The Oldsmobile F-88 is one such car. In 1954, Harley Earl and his team of designers presented the golden-hued beauty you see here as part of their Motorama fanfare. Sleek and modern, the achingly beautiful two-door, two-seat convertible captured the American optimism of the day and set hearts afire with its swoopy bodywork and gorgeous style.
Thing is, though, GM had – just one year prior – introduced a two-door, two-seat convertible intended to capture American optimism of the day and sets hearts a fire … the brand new Chevrolet Corvette. While folks involved at the time strenuously denied it, I firmly believe that the Corvette team were apoplectic when the Olds crew unveiled the F-88. Nothing like a bit of sibling rivalry to get people talking, eh?
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Think about it: the Corvette, billed as a halo car, was only available in white and had chicken wire stretched over its headlights. The F-88 was presented in a gorgeous shade of gold, with sleek headlamp covers and an interior straight out of science fiction. One has to appreciate the culture of GM at the time, too; each marque operated in a different silo, with Chevy viewing Olds as a competitor on the same level as Ford or Dodge.
There were four other show cars built for the 1954 Motorama events in addition to the F-88 convertible. After the event, all of them were ordered destroyed including – amid what one must imagine was intense pressure from the Corvette team – the F-88. Like all good stories, this is where events take a delicious turn.
Many stories have been told about how the F-88 managed to survive, the most widely accepted of which being that Harley Earl himself snuck the car out of GM in pieces, stuffed into non-descript wooden crates and carted off into the sunset. Officially, the car had disappeared. Off the record, though, the beautiful show car was sold to E.L. Cord – yes, that E.L. Cord who owned the Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg car company – who tucked the boxes away in a barn before eventually making their way into the hands of several different car collectors.
Then, on January 29th, 2005, a little more than fifty years after its Motorama debut, the car that wasn’t supposed to exist appeared on stage at the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. I vividly remember watching the action on television: frantic bidding, wild gestures, and some guy in a Ferrari hat no one had ever heard of.
It took just seconds for the bidding to hit half a million dollars. Near-pandemonium broke out (both at Barrett-Jackson and in my own living room) when the price reached $ 1 million. That was just the beginning, though. A bidding war erupted between a couple of well-known collectors and Mr. Ferrari Hat. When the gavel finally fell on a sale price of $ 3.24 million, the place erupted into euphoric bedlam. Several thousand kilometres away, I was pretty excited, too.
Later, the automotive community learned that the unknown Mr. Ferrari Hat was working for John Hendricks, founder of Discovery Communications and prolific collector of classic cars. Tucked away in Gateway, Colorado, Mr. Hendricks has built an incredible auto museum dedicated to preserving the history of the American automobile. Open to the public, we heartily recommend anyone visiting the area to schedule an afternoon and visit this incredible collection.
The museum curator, David Dormaier, was as generous to me with his time as he was with his stories, such as the one about Harley Earl being ribbed by Briggs Cunningham at Watkins Glen in 1951. Allegedly, good-natured ridicule about the LeSabre that Earl brought to the event as a pace car lit a fire in the designer, leading to the two-seat sports cars produced by General Motors just a few years later.
A vehicle of massive historical significance, the Oldsmobile F-88 represents what this author thinks is one of the best expressions of automotive art ever created. In an era when most concept and show cars were hollow shells made of metal and wood, the F-88 had a 324 cubic-inch V8 engine, 4-speed Hydramatic transmission, and power accessories.
Car designers continue their work today using computer modeling, graphic design programs, and a whole host of technology to create the vehicles plying our roadways. One technique still in use by some teams is the practice of clay modeling, a process where designers sculpt design ideas – and, on occasion, an entire car – out of soft clay. This allows the team to make styling changes ‘in the flesh’ and see how one alteration can affect the look of an entire car.
A great deal has changed since Harley Earl and his team created the stunning F-88 … but some elements of design remain the same. Today’s designers do use computer modeling and other advanced technologies but continue to sketch their concepts and then model them in clay, a practice started by Earl.
There is, of course, a very good chance that the legend of Oldsmobile’s beautiful F-88 being the victim of intense intercompany sibling rivalry is just that – legend. But the car itself, the auction frenzy it created in 2005, and the beautiful display today in Colorado are all very real.
Perhaps we’ll be telling similar stories about Ed Welburn and the Buick Avista fifty years from now.