In our continuing series taking a look at General Motors “Dream Cars” of the 1950s, we spotlight GM’s one-of-a-kind “rolling laboratory,” the first gas-turbine-powered “rocket car” and a Buick with features decades ahead of its time.
1951 GM Le Sabre
Facts And Legends: It’s as if GM told their head of design, Harley Earl, to take every futuristic automotive idea he ever had and put it into one vehicle. Taking its name and styling influences from the Air Force’s F-86 Sabre fighter jets, the original Le Sabre—a nameplate eventually adopted by Buick in 1959—was billed as a “rolling laboratory” for GM construction ideas and technological innovation. Some figures estimated a cost of anywhere from $500,000 to a million dollars to produce what many considered the most influential GM concept car of the 20th century.
The La Sabre was a test bed for radical new types of materials, most of which turned out to be too expensive to ever use in production cars. The La Sabre’s body was made of cast magnesium panels and hand-formed aluminum. After Motorama, Earl used the dream car as his everyday vehicle, putting 45,000 miles on the odometer to prove its roadworthiness.
Claim To Fame: Its wrap-around windshield, sweeping tailfins, jet-like rear nozzle and front grille that concealed two headlights made Le Sabre a Motorama standout. Under its sleek exterior, Le Sabre contained many other advanced features such as a 12-volt electrical system (other cars of the era were only 6-volt); dual, rear-fender fuel tanks for gasoline and methanol; and a moisture activated convertible top that would raise if it began raining while the owner was away from the car.
Where To See It: After serving as the personal automobile of Harley Earl, the original, pale green, 1951 Le Sabre eventually became part of GM’s North American Heritage Collection and still occasionally appears at car shows.
1953 GM XP-21 Firebird I
Facts And Legends: GM had been exploring the practical and economic feasibility of gas-turbine-powered car engines since the 1930s. But it wasn’t until the 1954 Motorama that the company rolled out a prototype that actually worked. With a look inspired by the most advanced fighter jet of the 1950s—the Douglas Aircraft Company’s F4D tailless fighter jet—the 300 horsepower XP-21 Firebird featured a bullet-shaped, fiberglass fuselage, single-seat bubbletop cockpit and aircraft-style wing flaps for braking at high speeds.
Claim To Fame: The first of three Firebird concept vehicles to debut during GM’s Motorama years, the XP-21 was also the first gas-turbine-powered vehicle built and tested in the U.S. A miniature version of the XP-21 sits atop the Harley J. Earl Trophy given every year to the winner of the Daytona 500.
Where To See It: The XP-21 Firebird I is now part of the GM’s North American Heritage Collection.
1956 Buick Centurion
Facts And Legends: An automotive brainchild of Buick designer Chuck Jordan, the 1956 Centurion concept car was an aerodynamic, four-passenger coupe with a 325 horsepower, V8 engine, fiberglass body and a glass bubbletop.
Claim To Fame: In addition to the wing-like fenders that would be seen on later Chevrolets and Buick models, the Centurion featured other notable advancements such as a gear-selection dial in the center of the steering wheel and front seats that automatically slid back when the doors were opened for easy passenger entry. To allow more legroom for the driver, the Centurion’s steering column was located in the center of the dash by way of a cantilever suspended steering wheel (similar to the controls in an airplane). But arguably the most visionary factory add-on—even if it was only an inoperative concept in 1956—was a dashboard-mounted television screen and rear backup camera.
Where To See It: After its Motorama debut, the Sloan Longway Buick Automotive Gallery and Research Center in Flint, Michigan, acquired the Centurion in 1963. Since then, the vehicle has been showcased there and occasionally makes appearances at concours events around the country.