Thursday, June 12, 2014

What Were They Thinking?: 1959 Buick Grille Proposal

The late 1950s marked a crisis point for General Motors styling.  Its long-time leader, Harley Earl, was nearing retirement and, perhaps coincidently, running out of ideas.  As I state in my e-book "Automobile Styling: From Evolution to Fashion":

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The tepid public response to GM’s 1957 senior line resulted in a set of garish, panic-induced 1958 facelifts that a younger Earl likely would not have tolerated.  My belief is that Earl’s success from the end of the 1920s to the mid-1950s was based on his ability to formulate a valid concept of styling evolution. ...

Earl’s real problem by 1956 or thereabouts was that he could not think of any valid new evolutionary styling path.  And he could not do so because no such path existed.  So he floundered, not being able to deal with a directionless styling environment.

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A number of garish, bloated styling proposals were prepared for the 1959 model year.  The story goes that some young stylists spotted a lot full of not-yet-announced 1957 Chrysler Corporation cars that were lithe and gorgeous, in marked contrast to the ponderous proposed 1959 GM designs.  Earl being off in Europe at the time, the styling staff essentially revolted and a crash effort was made to have the restyled 1959 GM line competitive with Chrysler's.  GM styling for 1957 and 1958 was largely finalized and could not be changed in mid-1957 when the Chrysler cars were seen.

One of those curious proposals under Earl's direction involved putting a version of the front of his famed 1951 LeSabre dream car on the 1959 Buick.  This seems bizarre for at least two reasons.  In the first place, the LeSabre's front was an awkward piece of styling, its elements ill-suited to one another.  Secondly, the LeSabre was an extremely low car, much lower than a big Buick sedan, and whatever charm the LeSabre had was lost on the differently proportioned target.


Views of 1958 Buicks
This design was pretty well locked in when the events mentioned above took place.  The basic shape was rather heavy-looking due to some large-radius rounding.  Chrome accents were too abundant, questionably styled, and often poorly sited.  Altogether, an unfortunate design.

LeSable-faced proposal for the 1959 Buick: Special-Interest Autos magazine page
Special-Interest Autos, when Michael Lamm was editing and writing, was a great source for American styling lore.  This page from its October 1991 issue shows a version of the LeSabre front grafted onto a Buick clay model.

LeSabre head-on view
Here is the front of the LeSabre for comparison.

Publicity photo of LeSabre mock-up
I include this image to show the entire LeSabre.  The car itself still exists in GM's possession.

1959 Buick Invictas
Finally, here is what 1959 Buicks finally looked like.  Not a great design, but as we've seen, it might have been far worse.

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