This past March, I was lucky enough to attend one last major car shows of the year before many of the events across the country were cancelled/postpone: The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. This event, which recently completed its 25th year, is known as “the people’s Concours” for its open and engaging atmosphere between your everyday hobbyist and legends of the automotive world.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to attend Amelia, you’ll know that one of the best times of the weekend isn’t on the day of the show, but rather the night before. The time leading up to sundown on Saturday evening at the Ritz-Carlton of Amelia Island is a magical time for any automotive enthusiast. Many of the entrants for the show are already on the field, uncovered at golden hour, with only a small handful of people on the green. This short period of time provides a wonderful opportunity to see world-class cars up close in a stunning setting and it’s the must-attend unofficial event of the weekend in my book.
This year Amelia was honoring the cars of Harley Earl and had brought out many of the unique concepts cars that were built, as well as vehicles that he influenced or inspired, during his tenure as the Head of Design at General Motors. Unlike many of the concept cars built today which are built on a rolling chassis, these early concepts were constructed as fully-functioning, road-going vehicles. This was done in part to test new power and drivetrain components without the limits imposed by full-scale production, but also because it was not uncommon for Harley Earl to use these one-off creations on the road himself. He famously used the Buick Y-Job as his daily driver, as well as the 1951 GM LeSabre, which he put roughly 45,000 miles on during his tenure at General Motors!
When Harley Earl reached General Motors’ mandatory retirement age of 65 in December of 1958, he was succeeded by Bill Mitchell who became the Vice President of General Motors Styling Section. Although Bill Mitchell wanted to break away from many of the styling cues that Harley Earl had built into General Motors’ design platforms, there was one tradition that Mitchell wished to continue from his predecessor’s career: having his own custom cars built.
One of the most memorable cars that came out of this endeavor was the 1956X Buick Century. Don’t let the name fool you, this car was not your typical Buick Century. Being so high up in the company, Mitchell could order anything he wanted, and he did just that by having 225 custom finishes built specifically for his car. Several of these features included a Seminole Red painted chassis, trim made of brass, a tachometer on the dash, custom grille and fender ornaments, and much more. (You can find a more exhaustive list of the custom modifications made to the 1956X Buick Century here on OldCarsWeekly).
I was lucky enough to come upon the 1956X on the greens of Amelia Island’s Ritz-Carlton golf course that fateful Saturday evening. The golden rays of sunlight peeking between the trees brought the iconic shade of blue Bill Mitchell used to life among the car’s green surroundings. Even among the automotive royalty that stood on the field beside it, it was hard to turn away from the 1956X. It’s a car that you can spend hours with attempting to take in every detail you can, but still not see everything it has to offer.
Concept vehicles such as the 1956X Buick Century help give an insight into what designers could build as the “ultimate car” of their time. With price, materials, marketability, fuel consumption, and practically every other consumer metric thrown out of the window, designers and engineers are challenged to make the best car they can, and often it comes out as something spectacular. Albeit not as futuristic as some other concept cars of the time, the 1956X Buick Century is what happens when American builders in the 1950s took detail to the Nth degree, and it came out fantastic in the end.
Being able to see such a magnificent car in a setting such as this is something you look forward to all year round and is one of aspects of Amelia that keep me coming back year after year. I hope we can return to car show season in the near future, but until then, it’s fond memories such as these that help keep the passion alive and has me waiting for the next chance to see get up close and personal with something truly special!