When it comes to concept cars, General Motors has always been a brand willing to experiment and create some of the most unique, interesting, and truly “out there” cars to ever be built. Whether they experimented with new powertrains, distinct body designs, or even autonomous driving, these machines answered the question of “What if?” when it comes to automotive design and have left a lasting impression on our gear loving hearts.
Many of these creations came from the mind of longtime GM Head of Design Harley Earl and his willingness to create eccentric concepts as a means of testing new technologies and radical designs to trickle down amongst their production models. With many concept cars nowadays being rolling chassises rather than road-worthy vehicles, we decided to take a look at our favorite concepts from the past that were still able to drive on the road. Here are our top five:
5. 1959 Cadillac Cyclone
The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone was the last GM concept car to be designed during the tenure of Harley Earl. The car was built upon a shortened, two-seater Cadillac chassis and took many inspirations from aerospace and aviation technology, much like other GM Concept cars of the time. One of the most prominent features of the Cyclone are the dual nose-cones which housed an early “collision avoidance” system that would scan the roads ahead with radar to warn the driver of any upcoming obstacles, much like cars of today.
The Cyclone was powered by a detuned 390cid engine, which produced 325hp and 430 lb-ft of torque, that was connected to a three-speed Hydra-Matic transmission and a two-speed rear differential. We caught the Cyclone at this year’s The Elegance at Hershey where it quickly won us over and secured our fifth spot on this list.
4. 1959 Corvette Stingray
The idea for this sleek, futuristic roadster was brought about when Bill Mitchell, GM’s VP of Styling at the time, visited the Turin Auto Show in 1957 and wanted to create an American racecar similar to the Italian cars he saw on display. Mitchell recruited the help of Pete Brock and Larry Shinoda to design the car as a private project until it debuted in 1959. The Stingray was powered by a 283 c.i.d. small-block V-8 producing 315hp and only weighed 2200lbs.
After its completion, Mitchell wished to race the car, but due to a ban on manufacturer sponsored racing at the time, he was unable to have any support from GM or adorn the car with any Corvette badging, instead having to enter the car under private entry. The Stingray would go on to win an SCCA National Championship in 1960 with Dr. Dick Thompson as the driver.
After the car’s retirement from being a championship winning racecar and a show stopping concept car, it went on to become the hero car of Elvis Presley’s 1967 feature film Clambake. The 1959 Corvette Stingray heavily influenced the design of the Mako Shark Corvette Concept and eventually had several of its design elements make its way into the C2 Corvette which wore the same name, making it a historically significant car in the history of General Motors.
3. 1958 Firebird III
Perhaps the most radical looking (and driving!) car on our list, the Firebird III threw the conventional idea of a car out the window and created the ultimate, futuristic idea of ground transportation. Although the Firebird III couldn’t take off from the ground, controlling the vehicle was much more like piloting an aircraft than driving a car! Firebird III was controlled with a joystick, rather than a steering wheel, for single-handed driving, was powered by a Whirlfire GT-305 gas turbine engine producing 225 hp, and utilized ailerons that worked as airbrakes when slowing from high speeds.
The car’s iconic “double-bubble” canopy, top mounted exhaust, and massive tailfins made it stand out during its debut at the 1959 Motorama show and jumpstarted the passion of many young car enthusiasts throughout the nation, making it our third favorite car on this list.
2. 1951 GM LeSabre
When posed with the question “What could be built without limitations of fuel economy, cost, or availability of materials?” GM answered with the 1951 GM LeSabre. Inspired by aviation technology of the time, the LeSabre was powered by custom-built, supercharged V8 producing 335hp that could run on both gasoline and methanol (alcohol) for an extra boost of performance.
However, the LeSabre wasn’t only a specialized power-plant, but it also introduced several key design elements that would become iconic GM features throughout the following decades including rear tailfins, dagmar bumpers, a powered soft-top, and more. Other features that made the LeSabre unique were its onboard electric jacks that could hoist the car off the ground for changing tires, a rain sensor inside the cabin that would raise the soft top, heated seats, and its hidden dual-headlights in the nose of the car.
After its time as a show car, the LeSabre would go on to become the daily driver of Harley Earl who put over 45,000 miles on it in his lifetime, proving that his designs truly were built to be driven and enjoyed. If you want to learn more on the GM LeSabre, check out its DriveHistory Profile from earlier this year.
1. Buick Y-Job
The space at the top of our list is reserved for none other than the Buick Y-Job. Noted for being the first concept car to be built without the intent of going into production, the Y-Job is one of the most iconic creations of legendary designer Harley Earl and has a long-lasting legacy throughout General Motors. It’s exemplary body design including hidden headlights, flush doorhandles, a waterfall grille, a gunsight hood ornament, and wraparound fenders made the Y-Job look nearly alien compared to contemporary vehicles at the time, but it was a wonderful view in the future of what was to come from automotive design.
As with many of Harley Earl’s experiments in design, the Y-Job was inspired by the aviation industry at the time which is believed to be how the Y-Job earned its moniker. Some say “Y” was selected by Earl due to its use in the aviation industry denoting the most advanced prototypes, however, others believe due to many experiment prototype cars beginning with the letter “X”, Earl decided to use the next letter in the alphabet to stand out.
The Y-Job was also used by Earl as his daily driver for over 10 years during his tenure as Head of Design at GM, until it was replaced with the previously mentioned LeSabre. The Y-Job became the fourteenth car added to the National Historic Vehicle Register back in 2016 due to its historical significance as one of GM’s first concept vehicles and setting the tone for General Motors designs for the decade following its construction.
What do you think of our list? Do you have a favorite GM concept that you think we missed? Let us know in the comments!