Photos: When GM's designs ruled the road

This week's bankruptcy news brings on a bout of nostalgia for GM cars of yesteryear, from the 1938 Buick Y Job to the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray.

Jon Skillings
1 of 22 Copyright 2009 GM Corp. Used with permission, GM Media Archive

GM brands in 1925

When it became official this week that General Motors would be going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, like a lot of Americans we couldn't help but be a bit nostalgic. Along with Ford Motor, which has been less battered by the recession, the 100-year-old GM has long been a red, white, and blue institution. Its Chevrolet unit, in fact, had a hit jingle in the 1970s with the refrain "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet," that sought to identify the things Americans liked best.

So we took a tour of GM's photo archives and came up with this somewhat arbitrary showing of automotive designs from the company's heyday in the broad middle of the 20th century, before the first oil crisis and the surging presence of Japanese imports on U.S. roadways. We'll start here with a "market segmentation price ladder" of GM models from 1925: Cadillac sedan, Chevrolet touring, Pontiac coupe (first year), Buick touring, and Oldsmobile sedan.

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1927 LaSalle Roadster

The 1927 Cadillac LaSalle Roadster meets Charles Lindberg's Spirit of St. Louis airplane. The '27 LaSalle, GM says, was the first production vehicle conjured up by a professional designer--in this case, the legendary Harley Earl, whom the company had just brought on board from Hollywood, where he'd been customizing cars for the stars.

British automotive journalist Giles Chapman had this to say about the significance of GM's design efforts, in an interview Monday on Public Radio International's The World program:

"I think you can safely say that General Motors invented car design, because in 1926 they opened up a department called the Art and Colour department, and that was really the first time that they had actually decided to expend some attention on how cars looked as opposed to the design of the car underneath its metal. So that is something they brought to the entire global car industry. And that's what their success was founded on, being absolutely brilliant at that. We think of something like the 1959 Cadillac with those gigantic fins, or the '63 Corvette Sting Ray with the split rear window. They were the result of years and years of trying to create spectacular automobiles."

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1935 Chevrolet Suburban

According to GM's "Century of Innovation" Web site, 1926 was also the year that GM became the top seller of automobiles in the U.S.

But now we jump ahead a few years, to see that some of the older stylings still prevailed. This is a 1935 Chevrolet Suburban and what looks to be an advertising-friendly all-American family heading out on a road trip.

4 of 22 Copyright 2009 GM Corp. Used with permission, GM Media Archive

Pontiac Studio designers

Our tour largely sticks to vintage models from the days before computer-aided design tools became the norm. Here we see designers in GM's Pontiac Studio in 1937.
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1938 Buick Y Job

Behold the world's first concept car, according to GM: the 1938 Buick Y Job. The brainchild of Harley Earl--that's the gent behind the wheel--the two-passenger sports convertible had disappearing headlamps and the convertible top automatically hid itself behind the passenger compartment. "It was the first car developed with an eye less on commercial production than on gauging public reaction to new technologies and designs," according to GM's Century of Innovation site.
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1940 Oldsmobile

The 1940 Oldsmobile line featured the Hydra-Matic Drive, the first fully automatic transmission. A GM ad for that model year proclaims: No Clutch Pedal! A Free Unshackled Right Hand! World's Simplest, Easiest Way to Drive!
7 of 22 Copyright 2009 GM Corp. Used with permission, GM Media Archive

Scale model in clay

In about 1948, a clay modeler sculpts a scale model. At that time, the company was developing and building its new GM Technical Center--the architect was the pre-eminent Eero Saarinen--to house its burgeoning styling (formerly Art and Colour) and design teams, along with its research labs and engineering staff. Occupancy of the Technical Center began in 1953.
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1951 Buick Le Sabre

Another concept car from GM and Harley Earl was the 1951 Buick Le Sabre, which GM called a "laboratory on wheels." (That's Earl again, in the driver's seat.) Its technological features, according to GM, included "a dual gasoline and alcohol fuel system and a moisture sensor, which would raise the convertible top if it began raining when the owner was away from the car." On the design side, it borrowed some of its look from the first generation of jet fighters.
9 of 22 Copyright 2009 GM Corp. Used with permission, GM Media Archive

Motorama 1953

In 1953, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, GM kicked off a touring auto show called Motorama. (Motorama tours took place annually through the 1950s.) Dressed for a formal evening affair, unlike their more casually clad counterparts today, these women are laying hands on a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air four-door sedan.
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1954 Cadillac El Camino

One of the featured cars in the 1954 Motorama was the Cadillac El Camino concept, which set the stage for stylings in production vehicles later in the decade--consider the rear fins and the fluted side panels, for instance. It also had a fiberglass body and a 230-horsepower overhead valve V8 engine. (GM later used the El Camino name for a car-based, pickup truck-styled vehicle from Chevrolet.)
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1956 Buick Centurion Dream Car

The front seats of the two-door 1956 Buick Centurion Dream Car concept slid back automatically when the doors opened, to allow for easier entry, according to GM. But the astonishing technological element is this: the vehicle had a rear-mounted television camera that sent images to a TV screen in the dashboard, in place of the rear-view mirror. It's only now, 50 years later, that video cameras and displays have started showing up in any appreciable numbers in production vehicles to replace mirrors and give a view into blind spots. The engine: a 325-horsepower V8.
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1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket

As the name implies, the 1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket concept car was designed with rockets in mind. After all, the Space Race was a new and exciting aspect of the Eisenhower years. The Golden Rocket had a 275-horsepower V8 engine. Opening the door of the Golden Rocket caused the seat to rise slightly and swivel outward. (The roof panel rose, too.) It also featured a tilt steering wheel.
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Firebird concepts

The jet fighter and rocket ship styling trend continues with these concept Firebirds from (left to right) 1952, 1956, and 1958.
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1957 Suburban 100 Series

Design get decidedly more down-to-Earth with the 1957 Suburban 100 Series production vehicle. Still, as much as it might suggest a small schoolbus, it also gives hints of what lies four decades ahead in the era of the SUV. It was SUVs and pickup trucks that helped fuel GM's financial success just a few years ago.
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GMC 100 series

A forerunner of today's big, buff pickups was this rather modest GMC 100 series truck, also from 1957.
16 of 22 Copyright 2009 GM Corp. Used with permission, GM Media Archive

1959 Firebird III

A variation on one of the experimental Firebirds seen a few slides back is this 1959 Firebird III, captivating a Motorama crowd at the Waldorf Astoria.
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1959 Cadillac Cyclone

The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone concept had a number of futuristic tech elements, according to GM, including a radar device and, in those dual nose cones, proximity sensors, all of which would warn the driver of objects in the car's path. The doors slid out and back, just like the side doors on many of today's minivans, and the clear plastic canopy top, hinged at the rear, rose automatically when a door opened. You didn't have to open it up to talk to folks outside, though; for that there was an intercom system. Under the hood was a 325-horsepower engine.
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1959 Cadillac Eldorado

Concept cars are all well and good, but you can't run a business on them. For that you need production models like this 1959 Cadillac Eldorado--which, "with those gigantic fins" was one of the cars singled out by automotive journalist Giles Chapman as a prime example of GM's design prowess.
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1960 Chevrolet Corvair

The Chevrolet Corvair came on the scene in the 1960 model year. It was part of a crop of smaller cars from GM around that time, including--in the 1961 model year--the Buick Special, the Oldsmobile F-85, and the Pontiac Tempest. It proved controversial for GM for a number of reasons. According to Howstuffworks.com, "The problem with Corvair was a radical design that made it too costly for its original economy-car mission and too 'foreign' for its target audience. Had it not opened up an entirely new market--and almost by accident at that--Corvair wouldn't have lasted even half of the ten years it did hang on."

It didn't help matters at all that the Corvair, with its rear-mounted engine and potentially dodgy suspension, had a featured role in a landmark of consumer activism, Ralph Nader's 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed."

20 of 22 Copyright 2009 GM Corp. Used with permission, GM Media Archive

Wood buck

These men are taking measurements on a wood buck, or model, of the 1963 Chevy Impala.
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1963 Corvette

The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray is one of GM's classic designs. The Chevrolet Corvette--yet another Harley Earl concoction, in its initial version--had been around since the early 1950s. But the model was completely redesigned for the '63 Sting Ray, which was notable for, among other things, the split rear window.
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1967 Pontiac Firebird

We leave you with the 1967 Pontiac Firebird--a production model, unlike the concept Firebirds from the 1950s. Where the GM of 2009 is selling off its relatively recent Hummer brand to a Chinese company and Saturn to the Penske Automotive Group, it is planning to simply discontinue the venerable Pontiac brand by the end of 2010.

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