From the earliest years of the car industry, manufacturers had been producing elegant custom coachwork designs for wealthy patrons, but mass-market autos were an entirely different matter — functional, unimaginative wagon bodies were cobbled on to whatever chassis happened to be rolling off the production line and aesthetic appeal was low on the agenda.
The Buick Y-Job broke the mould. It was the first-ever concept car — that is, a prototype designed specifically for the purpose of gauging consumer reaction.
Alfred Sloan, the far-sighted head of GM, realizing that style and buick-y-jobmass-market production were not mutually exclusive, set up the Art and Color Section of GM (later to morph into the Styling Department) with Harley J Earl at its helm.
Earl was the son of a wagon builder who had branched out into custom-built car bodies for the Hollywood film industry. He had made a name for himself by designing the hugely successful La Salle for Cadillac in 1927. Having been invited to join the GM team as designer-in-chief, he went on to become a vice-president of the company.
The Y-Job was Earl’s first design for GM. Based on a stretched version of a standard Buick chassis, it was a streamlined two-seater sports car with numerous trend-setting features: electric windows, power-operated hidden headlamps and recessed tail lights; power-operated soft top; wraparound bumpers, flush door handles and seamless hood and fenders; the horizontal grille that was to become such a distinctive feature of Buick autos.
After the Y-Job had been shown around America to widespread acclaim, Earl used it as his own daily car and could regularly be seen driving it through the streets of Detroit.
The Buick Y-Job is a truly iconic 20th century American design. It is on display at GM’s Design Centre in Warren, Michigan as part of the GM heritage collection.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
5.2 l (320 cid) Straight Eight
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Harley Earl supposedly called his car Y-Job because experimental cars were habitually designated with an X; he simply went to the next letter of the alphabet.