Thursday, January 3, 2013

The world's first concept car--Harley Earl's 1938 Buick Y-Job. BUICK WEEK

It’s easy to look at the Harley Earl-designed 1938 Buick Y-Job today and dismiss it as just another neat old car. But put it in the context of 1938, and you’ll realize that it is one of the most radical, influential cars of all time.

Cars back then were much different. They had tall, narrow bodies. There wasn’t much room across, but there was plenty of headroom to accommodate the hats people liked to wear. There were running boards and fenders that attached beyond the body. This is one of the reasons they were so narrow inside. Headlights typically were housed in big pods over the fenders. Taillights were an afterthought—tacked unceremoniously to the back. Wheels were usually 16-inches in diameter or better. The roads were getting better by the late 30s, but people still placed value on the ground clearance the larger wheels provided.

When you look at the Y-Job, you realize it was nothing like that. It was long, low, wide. No back seat. No running boards. 13-inch wheels. Intricate detail work like the grille and chrome along the sides. Not only were the headlights integrated into the fenders, but they were hidden behind doors. Hidden headlights—are you kidding me?

The Y-Job is credited as the first concept car. It was never produced beyond this one example, but many of the styling elements were used on other General Motors cars down the road. For example, the iconic shape of the Buick waterfall grille first appeared on the Y-Job, and it is still utilized on Buicks to this day. The taillight shape morphed into the P-38 aircraft-inspired units that appeared on the ’48 Cadillac. The hidden headlights and top mechanism eventually found their ways into the Corvette. All of these exciting ideas, and they all debuted on the Y-Job.

The money and man-hours consumed to build the Y-Job were unlimited. So you might think that General Motors would have kept it under lock and key and only displayed it behind a velvet rope. Well, this is where the legend of the Y-Job, as well as its creator, really starts to come into play.

Harley Earl is possibly the most influential car designer in history. As the head of the “Art and Colour” section of General Motors, Earl made an enormous impact of the automobile business. Before Earl, styling was not high on the list of priorities of everyday people when buying a new car. People wanted something that would serve their basic needs for as long as possible. Earl made vehicles into something people wanted to be seen in. Suddenly, they aspired to get the newest, most attractive models. Cars were no longer a lifeless appliance. They had life, passion, and status.

So much influence had Earl that he actually used the Y-Job as his personal transportation. He designed it to gauge interest in the styling ideas that were built into it, and he learned what people thought by putting the car on the road. Earl drove the car for several years, making subtle changes along the way.

Eventually, the Y-Job left Earl’s garage and was replaced by the space-aged LeSabre concept of 1952. The Y-Job sort of languished in the catacombs of GM until it was refurbished in the early 1990s. Today, the Y-Job is a crown jewel in the GM Heritage Collection, and occasionally makes an appearance at a concourse or other significant car gathering. The one-of-a-kind masterpiece has more than 25,000 original miles, and is proudly displayed with much of the original wear and patina that reminds you of Earl’s daily commute 70-years ago.

When I had the privilege of seeing the Y-Job in the Heritage Center, it was like shaking hands with a celebrity. There are so many elements of so many great cars over the years that can be directly traced to the Y-Job, it is far more than just some neat old car. It wasn’t just a footnote in history. It helped write the book. I consider it one of the greatest cars of all time.


  1. This is really amazing, even today's automobile industry did not build this kind of outlook and as far as I know only Morgan Motor Company (UK) is doing something like that.

  2. the only buick besides the 63-65 Riviera that I ever liked. [well, your 74 is pretty cool... :) ] thanx for the post and photos on this car.

  3. Hey guys, gotta check this one! Just amazing! Can we have some more on such kinds?