Livonia, There’s Something About You

Four feral felines from Buick. 

1953 Buick Wildcat I. Image: oldconceptcars

Buick have form when it comes to concept vehicles, especially since a certain Harley Earl began such pioneering strides with 1938’s seminal Y-Job, which helped to define the Tri-shield’s design credentials. In 1949, GM’s Autorama car show was held at the Astoria Hotel in New York to promote new concept designs to a public desperate to embrace the future. Years 1953-1961 saw Motorama become a travelling show. 

For 1953, Buick introduced the Wildcat, a low slung two seat convertible with a raked back windshield and party piece hood. Hydraulically operated, the roof disappeared beneath the rear panel at the flick of a switch. Other components employing pressurised oil included seat and window movements. The bodywork was fibreglass and the hub caps Roto-Static, where the centre is stationary and the wheels rotate, à la Rolls-Royce. As with many of these creations, public reaction was favourable but in essence, the Wildcat only really previewed the new for ‘54 Buick front end.

Wildcat II unveiled in 1954, based on the Chevrolet Corvette with power derived from a supercharged V8. A clamshell hood covered this powerplant, hiding the wheels which did away with conventional fenders. The chrome bumpers contained floating driving lamps which again, Joe Public applauded but with Corvette sales struggling at the time, there was no incentive to diversify into Wildcats.

Earl’s final attempt arrived the following year with something looking considerably more production-ready – you guessed it, Wildcat III. However, this new feline seated four, maintaining a grand feeling with a 250bhp V8 but for a feline, this seemed somewhat bug-eyed. Publicity shots saw designers Ned Nickles and Harley Earl grinning by the car’s side, but apart from a smattering of forthcoming styling cues, Wildcat III was another dead end. Earl’s retirement saw the name hibernate for thirty years.

1985 gave us the first UK mobile phone call[1]. Another first that year was the first airing of Australian soap opera, Neighbours. Cancelled owing to low Sydney viewing figures, but resurrected, this Antipodean story has since stretched to almost nine thousand episodes[2]. Other notable events included the definitive location of the Titanic wreck, along with the launch of the hitherto unheard-of Microsoft Windows 1.0. Oh, and of course a new Buick Wildcat.

Buick Wildcat IV. Image: ppgpacecars

Established in 1963, the Speciality Equipment Market Association, or SEMA show became a haven for both OEM manufacturer and aftermarket exhibitors, the former often using it as an opportunity to unapologetically trial concepts. Buick’s 1985 interpretation remained consistent with its 1950s brethren, resorting to modern materials, but the name at least remained familiar – Wildcat.

With bodywork now made from carbon fibre and containing as many curves as a 1980’s Baywatch lifesaver, the Wildcat seemed equally at home outside a condominium as it would on the surface of Mars. The PPG (Pennsylvania Plate Glass) glass canopy pivoted up and outwards as a nod to the Holden Hurricane from the late 1960s and may even have inspired Zagato’s Raptor a decade later.

A rounded nose, flush lights and no place to hang a licence plate, the prominent features were the concept’s badge and windshield wiper, crawling insect-like over the glass. Apart from the name stencilled upon its side and prominent air scoops, the flanks had little visual relief as we headed rearwards to a dramatically truncated and flattened top side.

Image: motor1

Checking the rear three quarter view, you would not be alone in thinking your your eyeballs have become confused. With its mid-mounted engine (more, momentarily) exposed to the elements and inelegant tail, one could be excused into believing this to be the front end. Viewed side on this confusing concept appears more akin to a hot rod one could find at, say, the SEMA show. 

The powerhouse of this push-me-pull-you bolide first found life within the Buick Grand National and in this instance was beefed up by a tuner of note – McLaren, out of Livonia, Michigan and not to be confused with the Woking based F1 outfit. The US-based McLaren, engineers since 1969 breathed upon the GM 3.8 litre V6 and offered Buick two variants for this latest of Wildcats. One turbocharged, the other naturally aspirated. In keeping with the power dressing vibe, the Wildcat was AWD with four speed automatic transmission, a 9.1 : 1 compression ratio along with electronically programmable fuel injection. 

Outputs however remain open to conjecture. The show-car natural breather was apparently heavily restricted to allow for just 70 mph v-max with a zero-sixty time of 8.4 seconds. Allowed freedom, it pushed out 230 bhp and 245 torque. 0-60 should have been within the six second ballpark, a top speed of 157mph.

The turbo version mustered 360 bhp, 400 ft lbs, 0-60 around four seconds and 186mph top whack. Theories also exist that the turbocharged car was used for engineering along with production analysis with the show car being inoperative, which begs the question, why the restrictions? Images of test drivers reveal just how exposed they were within the glass confine. One really does expect to see a suave silver screen star or besuited astronaut about to embark on another red earthed sortie. 

Image: Motor1

Maintaining a similar theme to the Holden Hurricane, a car whose interior was a tangent away from its extrovert exterior, the Wildcat’s cockpit could have landed directly from 1986 movie hit, Top Gun. Red bucket seats trimmed in what appears thin leather with racing harnesses for your retardation. Instruments which included a rev counter arcing round to 10,000, a G-force meter, separate engine on and off buttons, an interchangeable mph/kph display, two horn presses and a digital compass. Your speed, revolutions and current gear could also be seen in the head-up display. 

A spoke-less steering wheel (in the conventional way, these being vertical) allowed unrestricted access to the circular dials which sat within an acorn-cup shaped binnacle, but potential public access was forbidden. Another feral feline then, relegated to the lairs of GM, and a forgotten eighties icon. But it didn’t stop Buick trying something new later, though – dealt with separately.

[1] Comedian Ernie Wise called Vodaphone, presumably to enquire how much the call was costing (a lot).

[2] An afternoon TV staple for 37 years, Neighbours was axed by UK’s Channel 5 in Summer 2022.


Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

6 thoughts on “Livonia, There’s Something About You”

  1. Good morning and many thanks for this wonderful overview, Andrew. The latest iteration of Wildcat remains truly intriguing in many aspects, not least in its back = front stance, as you pointed out. Wasn’t aware of this version’s dasboard / steering wheel, of which the integration seems to be somewhere between Maserati Boomerang and Citroen C4-5…

  2. It’s been many decades since, as a 10 year old, I first saw pictures of the Wildcat. It was exactly how the car of the future was supposed to look: nearly flat windshield angle, low, long and wide, and mid-engine (turbo, please). What was totally incongruous was calling it a Buick, as there appeared several epochs of evolution necessary before the floaty land yachts found on the Buick lot would look anything like this.

  3. Thanks, Andrew. Those first two Wildcats are very neat designs, except for the rears, seemingly divided into three parts by chrome mcguffins. I especially like the second, though it is an obvious reskin of the Corvette, those front wheel arches are very nice and give the car an un-american lightness, I think. The third is a bit blander, though I do rather like the feature line on the flanks – found on many cars from around that era.

    I very vaguely seem to remember being impressed by the Wildcat IV, but I couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 at the time. Car manufacturers had a knack back then of producing very convincing – or at least enticing – visions of the future that were lightyears away from what they were actually manufacturing.

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