The strike at General Motors is now grinding into its fourth week and 34 GM plants are now idle.
It’s the company’s longest strike since 2007. While we wait and hope for a swift and ideally harmonious resolution, let’s take a moment to remember a happier time in the company’s history. The time it stunned America and the world with the world’s first proper concept car: the Buick Y-Job.
Now over 80 years old, it’s impossible to overstate this masterpiece.
Before the Y-Job, it was easy to see that the new-fangled motor car had evolved out of the horsedrawn carriage. After it, everything changed. Let’s find out how:
Before it, in order to enable it to be horseless, motivated and legal, the carriage carry-over that you sat in was bounded by running boards and cycle wings to shield the wheels, its vertical forward screen overseeing the bonneted enclosure that contained the puffing, combusting and exhausting device that did for the horse.
And in the valleys between bonnet and wings were mounted your horseless carriage’s headlights, often large enough to look heart-tuggingly baleful. For example, this 1935 Buick Series 60 Club Sedan.
And then came the 1938 Buick Y-Job. It was dramatically long (17ft), wide and low – a startling, futuristic two-fingered salute to the tall, narrow and gangling cars of the day.
The Y-Job’s wheel housings blended into bonnet and boot. The running boards had vanished and the headlamps with them, their lenses secreted in pods flanking a neat, landscape-format grille.
The Buick’s bumpers were styled slices of wraparound sculpture rather than slender chromed girders, and its flanks were decorated with slim chrome strips subtly suggesting motion.
The Y-Job had the presence of a skyscraper, a gunsight bonnet emblem and, as a flamboyant final touch, a folding roof that powered away at the touch of a switch. In 1938.
Propelled by a 141bhp 5.2-litre straight eight, the Y-Job is almost as famous for being the personal transport of its flamboyant creator, Harley J Earl (pictured), as it is for being the very first concept car.
Earl put 25,000 miles on the Y-Job as head of General Motors’ so-called Art and Colour section, which was created by GM’s visionary boss Alfred P Sloan in partial reaction to criticism from fellow automobile tycoon Walter P Chrysler, whose barbs speared the 1929 Buicks deeply enough to lose GM 50,000 sales.
The Beauty Parlor
Sloan recognised the importance of design well before most of his engineering-oriented colleagues, who scathingly labelled Earl’s department the Beauty Parlour and its staff the Pretty Picture Boys.
But the ambitious, tall and charismatic Earl prevailed, eventually becoming a vice-president and a prime mover in GM’s elevation to the largest company in the world. He introduced clay as a medium for modelling cars, along with the wraparound windscreen, two-tone paint, tail fins and, with Sloan, the annual model-year change.
And, of course, the concept car, the Y-Job being a live, rolling market research tool that previewed sculptural treatments and features for showroom models. The Y-Job’s rear wings and lamps subsequently appeared on the 1948 Cadillac Sixty Special, and the powered, hidden headlights were picked up by any number of makers, as was the retracting roof.
And the form of the Y-Job itself emerged in large part in the post-war Buick Roadmaster. It probably would have emerged earlier but for the insurmountable need to win World War Two, GM’s factories and resources largely turned over toward that aim.
Why ‘Y’? Because it was one letter ahead of the ‘X’ label often given to experimental cars, and because ‘Y’ was used for the prototype fighter planes whose shapes would have a huge influence on American car design over the next three decades.
The idea of previewing automotive styles was as radical as the inspiration riding aboard the Y-Job’s gargantuan 126in (3200mm) wheelbase, and influenced the way cars are created to this day.