Henry Ford may have popularized the American car, but it was legendary General Motors Designer Harley Earl who, through his concepts, made it sexy. One example — the Corvette's twin brother, the Oldsmobile F-88 — was so desirable, Earl secretly crated the entire concept car out of GM and shipped it, piece-by-piece, to his friend and former competitor.
What do a 1950s Oldsmobile concept car and a Cadillac from a Johnny Cash song have in common? They both left the factory one piece at a time.
Today, the 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 concept car — a one-time star of General Motors' glitzy Motoramas — sits, silent and spotless, atop a rotating platter in the Gateway Auto Museum in Gateway, Colo. It is the out-of-the-way museum's crown jewel, and with its last price tag a staggering $3.24 million, it's easy to see why.
John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel and owner of the museum and surrounding adventure resort, set the auto purchase price record when he bought the F-88, the only one left of two, at the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction in Scottsdale, Ariz. in 2005.
How it got to that auction is a story fit for a Hollywood script — not surprising considering designer Harley J. Earl's Hollywood connections. So many striking features of modern automotive — and consumer electronics — design, showboating and sales come from Earl's innovations: Clay modeling, auto shows, planned obsolescence, the concept car.
Back in the 1950s, when the General still commanded America, Earl was at the apogee of a grand career. Together with GM CEO Alfred P. Sloan, the former Hollywood custom car builder had taken Henry Ford's practical, but stodgy vision of American roads covered with utilitarian black vehicles and turned it on its head.
"In the mid-‘50s, if you asked anybody who was anybody in the auto industry, they'd say Harley was the dominant figure at GM at the time," said Richard Earl, an automotive historian and Earl's youngest grandson.
Earl had an eye for aesthetics, and injected swooping curves and bold embellishments to objects that had up to that point been, more or less, appliances. Having caught the eye of Cadillac coachbuilder Lawrence Fisher, Earl ended up designing the 1927 LaSalle. Anti-art car resistance from tradition-minded execs soon melted away as Sloan embraced Earl's flamboyant style, putting him in charge of GM's new Art and Color Section.
Within a decade, Earl's team had created the world's first concept car, the 1938 Buick Y-Job. Ten years later, concept cars were part of GM's burgeoning Motoramas, the precursors to modern auto shows. Earl was in charge, and his reign was adorned by space age snouts, ever-rising tail fins, bullet-like chrome and glass protrusions and glittering, mouthy grilles.
Along with a series of rocket- and Batmobile-like Firebirds, spaceship Buicks and the now famous Chevrolet Corvette, the F-88 took its place as the latest of GM's sparkling "dream cars." Built on a Corvette chassis, the F-88 got the new 324 c.i. Oldsmobile Rocket V8, mated to a four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission and a limited-slip 3.55:1 Corvette axle. GM engineers fiddled with the engine configuration, but eventually got the horsepower up to a respectable 250 — not bad for the relatively light fiberglass-bodied car in the 1950s.
In the Gateway Auto Museum, you can look at the F-88 and a '58 Corvette simultaneously — the similarities are striking. But the Corvette doesn't have the distinctive Oldsmobile catfish mouth grille, the edgy spaceship fins, or the retractable hardtop the F-88 wears. (Records indicate that the automatic hardtop was a constant source of engineering woe.)
According to documents available at the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich., the car crisscrossed the county to feature in tours and promotions after its 1954 Motorama debut at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. During those years, it was painted, repainted, stripped, repainted again, refitted and improved bit by bit.
One day it would be white for a Shriners event, the next, restored to its original gold hue. Axles, interior cloth, tires, arm rests and exhaust systems came and went. One order calls for a re-jetting of the car's Rochester carburetor. Another tells engineers to throw in a six-pack manifold. Records also reveal that a second F-88 — a red one — existed for Earl's personal use. What happened to that one is a mystery. The most common story is that it caught on fire, but it could have ended up in the crusher, too.
Christo Datini, lead archivist at the Heritage Center, said rumor has it that the F-88 was intended to be on par with the Corvette, but never went into production because the Chevrolet Division didn't want the competition. Neither he nor anyone else can confirm the tale, but Datini doesn't care. He's secure in his knowledge that he has one of the coolest jobs imaginable. ("Yeah, Harley Earl's 1951 LeSabre concept in a showroom about 20 yards from where I'm sitting.") At any rate, the F-88's brilliant make for the market fizzled and the show car faded into obscurity.
"Typically what happened with those show cars from the ‘50s — after they outlived their usefulness — they were sent to scrap," said Datini.
So the F-88 should have been relegated to a slag heap not far from GM's Technical Center, but the General's paper trail peters out after about 1959.
While a number of tall tales exist regarding the car's history -= one says that someone drove the car to Earl's home in West Palm Beach, Florida — the most believable, document-supported one, and the one Hendricks has written on the display at his museum, is that Earl had the car boxed up in pieces and shipped to his friend E.L. Cord in California. (As you may know, E.L. Cord was the gentleman who presided over flapper-vintage supercar companies Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg at the height of their fame.)
The crated parts came with detailed blueprints and letters still with the car today. No one knows what Cord had planned for the car — whether he wanted to use it as the basis for a new car company or simply drive it around L.A.
After Cord's death, the stack of crates containing the disassembled F-88 changed hands several times. According to what a retired GM exec and the sons and grandsons of some of the disassembled car's previous owners told the automotive editors at How Stuff Works nearly a decade ago, it didn't fetch a lot of money back then. But in the late '70s, the box pile transitioned from the Hollywood crowd to the private collector network.
When Lon Krueger, owner of Sun Valley Classics in Tempe, Ariz. bought the car in 1980, it had been partially assembled after being traded for some Duesenberg parts. He didn't begin restoring the car to its Motorama spleandor until 1988, and even then going was slow. Krueger told How Stuff Works that blueprints and instructions were tucked into crates here and there, and that some of the parts had deteriorated. The completed F-88 was sold at Barrett-Jackson in 1991.
The car on display in Gateway is most likely the original Motorama showpiece, but there's still some doubt. Some say that the crated up parts could have been spares. Who knows?
Fritz Myer, an old car nut lucky enough to have gotten a job keeping Hendricks' cars shiny, said that an unidentified GM old-timer came to the museum one day wanting to know about a black notebook that was supposed to have been with the crated up F-88. Neither Myer nor Hendricks had any idea what the guy was talking about.
It became another piece in the mysterious and incomplete puzzle of the car's history.
Benjamin Preston is a journalist and car enthusiast who has written for Petersen's 4Wheel & Offroad , The Santa Barbara Independent and on his personal blog . He's currently Associate Editor of the Telluride Daily Planet .
Photo Credit: Benjamin Preston, GM Heritage Center, GM