The Cold War Was Once Fought With Bonkers Concept Cars

It’s not widely known, but for a very brief period in the early 1950s, the Cold War was being fought with massive, bulbous slabs of cyclopean automotive futurism: the first concept cars. Before the Space Race got started, America and the Soviet Union squared off behind panoramic windshields and huge steering wheels. Let’s meet these first Cold Warriors.

America arguably invented the whole idea of the concept car way back in 1938, with Harley Earl’s Y-Job. After World War II, American carmakers were getting back on their feet, and General Motors was ready to show off again.


What GM showed off in 1951 was another Harley Earl creation, the LeSabre. Like the Y-Job, this was built on an existing GM chassis and had a dramatically designed body, one that would set the template for GM design vocabulary well into the 1950s.

It was decidedly aircraft-inspired, with aircraft instrumentation and a front end designed like a jet engine. The car was a testbed for a lot of experimental materials and techniques, like an aluminum body (some sources say cast magnesium was used) and a wraparound windshield, the first of its kind and a real engineering ass-pain for Lilley-Owens-Ford glass company.

The Soviet concept car, the first of its kind for the USSR, was built by the ZIS factory, which was later renamed to ZIL, the maker of those big Soviet state limousines everyone loves.


The ZIS-112 was clearly inspired by the LeSabre, replicating the cyclopean look of the car pretty directly, even down to the then-revolutionary wraparound windshield.

The car was huge and heavy, 18 feet long and weighing around 5400 lbs. Later in its life it would be modified for racing, and those modifications largely involved shortening the hell out of it and shedding some of that weight.


Yet its 140 horsepower V8 couldn’t really compare to the relatively advanced LeSabre’s supercharged V8.


According to Hemmings, the LeSabre’s engine used some pretty novel tech for its time:

For duty beneath the Le Sabre’s front fenders, the engine received a rather unique dual-carburetor setup; one would feed gasoline, supplying power for steady-state cruising, while the second would add methanol to the mix to enhance output during hard acceleration.

To further increase the power, the engine (which utilized cast-aluminum hemispherical cylinder heads) also incorporated a Roots-type supercharger pushing 18.2 PSI of boost, and the result was an impressive 335 horsepower and 381 pound-feet of torque.


Damn. I think America wins the engine battle here.


Later in life, the ZIL-112 became a racecar, while the LeSabre went on to be driven as a personal car by Harley Earl for around 40,000 miles. Earl even loaned the car to General Dwight Eisenhower when he was NATO commander in Paris. Was he just taunting the Soviets and their ZIS?

Based on the dramatic similarity of the Soviet car to the American one, I can’t help but think that, on some level, the ZIS-112 was built to show the world that whatever America could do, the Soviet Union could do, too.


And that includes making wonderfully overdone massive concept cars.

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)