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GM’s 1950s Motorama Masterpieces Predicted Our Present

Looking back at some of the company’s historic show cars…
From 1949 to 1961, General Motors’ legendary design chief, Harley Earl, staged Motorama shows as glitzy visions of the future. Foreshadowing today’s auto show season, GM’s extravaganzas were respites from cold weather and repositories of hot bodies.
“All of the GM Motorama cars were designed to dazzle people. They said, ‘This is what we’re going to do in the future!’” explains automotive historian Ken Gross. “The designs still have presence.”
Here are five of the most important:
1953: GM LeSabre (*Shown above)
I get misty every time I see the LeSabre with its low profile, straked side mouldings, complex hood curves and mint green paint. Built as Harley Earl’s personal car, it foreshadowed late-’50s Cadillacs plus the iconic fin tail trim on 1957 Chevrolets. A rotating hidden headlight, rain-sensing power top, and heated seats were all to come on later cars. Even more special were the supercharged V8 engine and integrated electric lifting jacks for changing tires.
1953: Chevrolet Corvette
The first Corvette debuted on January 17, 1953, at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. Designed as an American alternative to European roadsters, it sported a fibreglass body with a toothy chrome grille and side curtains. A 150-horsepower inline-six-cylinder engine and two-speed automatic transmission were not exactly the stuff of legends, running 0-100 km/h in 11.5 seconds. But the car was gradually refined and amply powered to become a global icon.
1956: Buick Centurion
The two-tone red and white styling of the Centurion was pretty dramatic, especially with its Plexiglas roof and large inset headlights, but that’s not why it was significant. Cars in the 1950s didn’t have rearview cameras, but look closely at the rear rocket pod and you’ll see this one did. It also had an interior inspired by aircraft, with a video screen in the dash. A 325-horsepower V8 engine is just metal within the cake.
1959: Cadillac Cyclone
One of the last cars Earl designed, the low-slung Cyclone was inspired by rockets of the ’50s and sported sharp fins that would soon debut on production Cadillacs. In a prediction of today’s safety tech, those nose cones housed radar sensors for the collision avoidance systems. Power sliding doors and a silver-coated bubble-top canopy for UV protection are enduring features. A throaty V8 engine and independent suspension backed up the sporty style.
1959: GM Firebird III
Styles were evolving from the wrap-around curves of the ’50s to the sharp creases of the ’60s. The Firebird’s fibreglass body, tested in GM’s wind tunnel, sported a double-bubble canopy, seven short wings, and air drag brakes that deployed from the bodysides. Continuing the aircraft theme, it was driven by a 225-horsepower turbine engine. Steering was by a joystick between the seats. An ultrasonic key signalled the doors to open, while an auto guidance system helped avoid accidents. The future had arrived.
To learn more about the bigger-than-life personality of the man behind these gems, read the new book Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit, by William Knoedelseder.

CASEY WILLIAMS is a contributing writer for He contributes to the New York-based LGBT magazine Metrosource and the Chicago Tribune. He and his husband live in Indianapolis, where Williams contributes videos and reviews to, the area’s PBS/NPR station.

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