In 1950s, post-war America there was an ever growing optimism for the future and a large influx of technology influencing new forms of engineering and design. As the populace made the transition from war time to peace and prosperity, there was a need for something new and exciting in the lives of everyday Americans.
Harley Earl, Head of Design at General Motors, shared this sentiment and wished to create a successor to the famous Y-Job he had envisioned 10 years prior. With Harley Earl directing the styling and Charles Chayne as the chief engineer, the rule book was tossed out the window to create the car of tomorrow to inspire the consumer of today. The team set out to produce a car that had great performance, while maintaining a comfortable driving experience, and looked like nothing else on the road.
The car that came from this exercise in experimentation was the 1951 General Motors Le Sabre Concept. The Le Sabre answered the question of “What could we build without the restrictions of fuels, costs, or availability of materials?” in the most elegant and awe inspiring way possible. Taking inspiration from new aviation technology, the Le Sabre was fitted with an aerodynamic body, wrap around windshield, tailfins, and, most famously, a unique design to replicate the air intake and exhaust of a jet aircraft. However, these “jet intakes” were not just for show, but actually served an important purpose on the Le Sabre! The front “intake” was a hidden headlight housing that revolves to reveal dual bulbs when activated and the rear “exhaust” was the central brake light of the Le Sabre to simulate the afterburner of a jet engine!
The idea behind many of the design choices of the Le Sabre was “functional styling” in which each element of the car should not only be aesthetically pleasing, but also serve a purpose. One notable aspect of this was that each of the dual tailfins contained a 20-gallon fuel tank, which opened space in the rear allowing for a usable trunk that could fit a full-size spare tire!
Wanting to test a long list of innovating ideas, GM coined the Le Sabre a “Laboratory on Wheels” that would be regularly updated to test new ideas the design and engineering teams wanted to implement without being subject to long-term development procedures typical production models had to undergo. Some of the special features of the Le Sabre included thermostatically controlled seat warmers, a rain sensor in the cabin that would automatically deploy the convertible soft top as soon as it sensed a rain drop, and several built-in hydraulic jacks that could lift the car in the event of needing to change a flat tire.
However, the Le Sabre’s innovative nature didn’t stop with mere ergonomics. The engineering team worked with a combination magnesium, aluminum, and fiberglass to craft a lightweight body matched with a chrome molybdenum steel chassis for maximum rigidity. The engineering team’s goal was to make the car as lightweight as possible while maintaining a low-profile to allow the car to stick to the road and stay even around turns.
Unlike many concept cars of today, the Le Sabre wasn’t built as a showpiece to sit on the stands of auto shows. The Le Sabre was built to drive and it needed to be fast. The Le Sabre’s power plant was a custom-built, supercharged V8 producing 335hp that could run on both gasoline and methanol (alcohol) for an extra boost of performance.
Why did the Le Sabre need to be a fully-functioning road car? It wasn’t only to test new engine, drivetrain, and braking mechanics, but also because Harley Earl was known to use GM concept cars as his personal vehicles after their life cycle as show cars, and the Le Sabre was no exception. After daily driving the Y-Job for nearly a decade, Earl made the transition to the Le Sabre for the rest of his career at GM and racked up ~45,000 miles on the one-off car.
The Le Sabre Concept is a testament to the retro-futuristic ideas of post-war America and answered the question of what could be built without limitations and a free reign on design. General Motor’s willingness to create eccentric concepts such as the Y-Job and the Le Sabre set forth the notion of creating unique test vehicles for manufacturers to test new technologies and radical designs to trickle down amongst their production models.
The Le Sabre currently resides in the GM Heritage Center Collection in Sterling Heights, Michigan amongst many other significant vehicles from General Motors’ history. We were lucky enough to have the Le Sabre Concept join us for our 2019 Drive History Conference where Jacob Gilbert, who maintains and showcases GM’s heritage cars, talked about the car’s cultural impact, how the GM Heritage Collection is preserved, and even gave a few lucky people a ride in this unique piece of automotive history.