Taking influence to unprecedented heights.
Like the Buick Y-job that went before it, the 1951 LeSabre concept car was a GM testbed for both technology and stylistic ideas. The low-slung roadster, bodied in aluminium and magnesium, was the first to have the panoramic windshield that would be a defining feature on virtually all American cars from the mid- to late fifties. Its overall look is best described as jet age on wheels.
LeSabre also used the first application of GM’s 215 cubic inch (3.5 litre) aluminium V8 which would later find its way into a variety of cars, both in the USA and Europe – although in the LeSabre’s case the engine was supercharged and capable of running on both regular fuel and methanol. Harley Earl was known to use the car regularly on his commute for many years, covering no less than 45,000 miles in the process.
Concept cars were and are used to gauge the public’s response to new styling and engineering ideas, and in many cases certain styling aspects are incorporated (although most often in severely diluted form) into production vehicles. The looks of the LeSabre however made such an impact on the public that it spawned a number of not always flattering copies in tribute to its styling, to an extent never seen before or since; the stern of the LeSabre in particular seemingly being especially popular to emulate.
A substantial percentage of these were the work of German coachbuilder Spohn; based in Ravensburg, who had produced some unique, futuristic bodies for Maybach (Zeppelin), Bugatti and Mercedes-Benz prior to the second world war. After the war the erstwhile prestigious company was in dire financial straits and therefore jumped at the chance of work to keep the Deutschmarks and Dollars flowing.
In the early to mid-fifties a number of American GI’s stationed in West Germany and making good money in the process approached Spohn to restyle their cars – in some cases already a decade old – in the image of the LeSabre that had made such an impression on them. It is indicative of how desperate for cash this venerable coachbuilder now was that it did not perceive it as beneath its dignity to blatantly copy styling elements from another company.
Others handy with metalworking, cutting and welding decided to take the job on themselves. Internally at GM during the latter period of Harley Earl’s leadership of the styling studio, serious plans were considered to put the LeSabre’s face on the 1959 Buick production model. Even behind the iron curtain, the LeSabre had not gone unnoticed, nor as we shall see, could a bus builder resist temptation.
Major Jack T. Chandler of the U.S. Air Force and stationed in occupied West Germany approached Spohn to modify his 1941 Ford to his own specification – the rear being a straight copy of the LeSabre’s, and the front along the lines of another Buick concept car, the XP-300. In late 1952 the car was delivered to Major Chandler.
A report on the car in the magazine Speed Age noted that all body parts were hand-formed and that the fit and finish were remarkably smooth; at least it appears that impoverished as they may have been, Spohn still delivered quality work. Another Ford-based Spohn product, in this case a 1940 model, was also completed in 1952 and delivered to an unknown owner. Named Palos, it has survived to this day.
Another U.S. Airforce officer, Major Ralph W. Angel, had brought a car of a more recent vintage to the Spohn coachworks: a 1950 Chevrolet. Again the rear styling is heavily inspired by the LeSabre, but the frontal styling recalls a concept car of a competitor – the 1953 Ford X-100. The car had a removable padded top and the interior was fully upholstered in leather, with a radio built in the front seat dividing armrest. Spohn’s bill amounted to US $4,500; upon his return to the USA Mr. Angel took the car with him but decided to sell it because it attracted too much attention.
A 1952 Pontiac was the base for another LeSabre-isation by Spohn on an almost new car. Originally commissioned by a U.S. Colonel, the stern received the by now familiar treatment although the front styling was quite unlike the LeSabre. Interestingly, likely due to the virtual unavailability of stainless steel and the high cost of chrome in postwar Germany, the brightwork on this car consisted of highly polished aluminium.
The last Spohn creation presented here -and these are by no means all of them – is U.S. Army lieutenant Arthur Cooper’s 1941 Packard. Christened the Cooper Comet, the car had a novel sliding glass roof over the front seat. At the front, the styling bears no relation to GM’s 1951 showstopper but at the rear it is pure LeSabre once again. Painted light grey metallic and with a build cost of around US $7,000, the Cooper Comet last surfaced in 1974 but its current whereabouts are unknown.
The concluding part will follow shortly.