En Garde! Part Two

The saga continues and grows ever stranger.

Image: Hotrodmagazine/ Fabwheelsdigest

The lesser-known RK Bodyworks, based in Albany, New York was commissioned by a certain Carl Szembrot to convert this 1952 Studebaker into a LeSabre-lookalike. The top of the three taillights adorning each fin was a blue directional signal, the middle one a red stop light and the bottom one a white reversing light. The bullet nose and trim from the Studebaker were cleverly re-used to create the aft jet outlet.

Originally the car was painted in a flamingo-like pink colour – RK Bodyworks charged Mr. Szembrot US $1,800 for their work, likely a good deal less than Spohn in Germany would have demanded.

Carl Szembrot 1950 Studebaker. Image: Jalopyjournal

This Russian ZIS-112, first seen in late 1951, can hardly deny its likeness to the LeSabre although it was claimed to be designed by one Valentin Rostkov. Known as the Cyclops, the fiberglass bodied ZIS-112 was powered by an 186 Bhp V8 taken out of the ZIS-110 limousine. Three ZIS-112s were constructed between 1951 and 1955, all slightly different.

The first one was almost 6 metres long, the two others were shorter; they were all raced in several national competitions, the third ZIS-112 having a 220 Bhp version of the V8.

ZIS 112. Image: Wroom ru

Bob Metz of Shelbyville, Indiana created this LeSabre-inspired car (named LaRocket) from components of no less than 33 different vehicles. The chassis was sourced from a 1939 LaSalle, the engine a 1951 Oldsmobile rocket V8. The triangular bonnet of the old LaSalle was used to create the pointy tail of the LaRocket. The panoramic windscreen was made out of plexiglass and its frame was hand-formed by Metz.

Painted light blue with red and cream upholstery, LaRocket became a minor local celebrity and ended up on the label of Liquid Glass car polish. The director of the Liquid Glass company eventually became the owner of the LaRocket – last seen in the early 1980s, it is not known what became of the car.

Bob Metz LaRocket 1939 LaSalle. Image: Hotrodmagazine

At least one passenger coach was given the LeSabre treatment, with this bizarre result – based on a Dodge truck chassis and bodied by Belgian coach manufacturer Van Hool, spotted in 1952 in Switzerland. It had a capacity of 22 persons and was used by a Belgian tour company named Destrebecq.

1952 Van Hool bus. Image: Michael Lamm

Glen Hire and Vernon Antoine of Whittier, California were also smitten with the LeSabre and built this futuristic roadster with a body of fiberglass. Both men worked at the North American Aviation Company in the engineering department of guided missiles and jet aircraft; upon completion of their project they expressed plans for small scale production but this never came to be.

1953 Manta Ray. Image: Verne Harrison

A 1951 Studebaker was used as a base for their creation named Manta Ray; the finished article stood just 40 inches high and was powered by the standard Studebaker V8 engine. In all, it took Glen and Vernon 4200 hours to build their car – it was displayed at the 1954 Los Angeles Auto Show where it received a trophy for “Outstanding creativeness and engineering”. The Manta Ray is still alive and well today in private hands.

Joar Kristiansen. Image: B D Eriksen

The LeSabre virus spread as far as Askim in Østfold county, Norway. Joar Kristensen had a gift for mechanical work – he learned the trade by working together with his father repairing and servicing industrial sewing machines – and fell in love with the LeSabre after seeing it in a local newspaper.

Joar enthusiastically set to work, but as he recalled later: “I was especially attracted by the front of the car, and it looked fairly simple to build. The rear end I must have overlooked because that gave me a lot of problems during the build. I had to teach myself a lot of things: welding, turning and patternmaking. All body contours were hand cut and hand knocked using wooden patterns that I had to draw and turn.

Regardless of the complexities he encountered during the creation of his car, Joar did an impressive job and completed his project in 1955. Kristensens car had an aluminium body, just like the actual LeSabre. The chassis he used as a base was from an old (probably 1939) Chevrolet light truck which according to Kristensen unfortunately did not endow his creation with the ride and handling its looks suggested, but for low speed cruising it was good

Even though the building of his dream cost Kristensen a not inconsequential 12,000 Kroner it eventually ended up discarded in an Oslo breakers yard.

1954 Cramer Rocket. Image: Ultimatecarpage

Possibly the maddest LeSabre imitation – or tribute depending on your viewpoint- was the Cramer Comet of 1954. Named after its creator Tom Cramer, it was powered by an enormous V12 Allison aircraft engine with a rated output of 1350 Bhp. The Comet has survived and is currently in the private collection of
an enthusiast.

A wrecked Crosley station wagon provided the basis for Frank Mann of Los Angeles to create a cute mini-rendition of the LeSabre in 1954. Some other donor vehicles were a Ford, an Oldsmobile, a Buick and a Kaiser. In the front, what looks like basketwork were in fact metal screens, removable to allow for cleaning of the paintwork behind it.

Frank Mann sports Crossley. Image: Rik Hoving

French carrossier Esclassan displayed this special-bodied Salmson S4E at the 1955 Paris auto show. It is unclear if one or two cars were built or if the original car was facelifted at some point as there are photos in circulation that show what looks like the same car, with the same license plate, but a somewhat different frontal appearance.

H Esclassan 1955 Salmson. Image: Fabwheelsdigest

This Cadillac Sport Custom was constructed by Jack Kirsch in 1954; although the base is mostly Cadillac, Mr. Kirsch also incorporated parts of a Buick, an Oldsmobile and a Studebaker into the mix. The headlights were concealed behind flip-up grilles. A McCulloch supercharger was added to increase engine power.

Cadillac Jack Kirsch. Image via Pinterest

To conclude this parade, we are back were we started – in the GM Styling studios. The styling of the 1959 GM range would be the last over which Harley Earl would have virtually complete control; sometime during 1956 GM’s stylists were ordered by Earl to graft the LeSabre’s front end styling onto the clay model of the proposed Buick for the 1959 model year.

However, in the autumn of 1956 the lithe, finned Forward Look designs by Virgil Exner for Chrysler broke cover and the GM stylists were able to convince Earl that they should really start over with a clean sheet – and they did, with especially in the case of the 1959 Cadillac unforgettable results. Had this Buick really made it into the showrooms in 1959 we might call it unforgettable today also, but perhaps for different reasons…

1959 Buick clay proposal. Image: GM

It is difficult to appreciate the impact of the LeSabre in our current time. Nowadays we are bombarded with scores of concept cars (some barely worthy of the name, being virtually production-ready examples of a car to be introduced a few months later) on an almost weekly basis, but in 1951 it was still a significant event.

Couple this with the optimistic atmosphere after a gruelling world war, a fast improving economy and therewith prosperity – in the USA at least – and the advent of the jet age: the incentives and means for LeSabre re-creations were all present. U.S. Military personnel stationed in occupied Germany at the time especially enjoyed generous salaries which explains why many of the LeSabre inspired vehicles were built at their request.

And looking back, that early 1959 Buick proposal in the GM styling studio (ungainly as it may look to our eyes now) was perhaps not that crazy after all. At least not in the sense that an at the time only five year old, and much applauded, concept car was explored as an inspiration for a new look.

However, it quickly became evident that the differently proportioned facade of the imposing C-body proved to be an unsuitable canvas for the LeSabre’s wide, low visage so – with a little help from Chrysler’s 1957 Forward Look cars – GM wisely chose to abandon the idea.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

6 thoughts on “En Garde! Part Two”

  1. This is truly fascinating. I’ve known of the LeSabre for years and the ZIS 112 also, but never knew just how far it’s influence went. Thanks fro sharing brrrruno.

  2. Terrific stuff Bruno. The LeSabre might have been extraordinarily influential on professional and amateur coachbuilders, yet nothing like it ever made mainstream mass production, as far as I can tell. By the time that 1959 Buick proposal was made, the style was well past its sell-by date.

    As an aside, I cling onto the hope that the dramatic change in US automotive fashion between 1959 and 1961 might be repeated in Europe sometime soon and rid us of the overwrought and fussy style currently in vogue.

  3. Another Saturday and another great trip down memory lane. Though I’m not sure that I needed to be reminded of late-fifties American excess – quite un-nerving!
    I do share Daniel’s hopes – that final ’59 Buick clay proposal is so 2021……

  4. Hello bruno, I see more bullet-nose Studebaker than lesabre in the zis. Fascinatting read nevertheless.

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