What is a concept car? There are many answers to that question. In some ways, it’s a marketing ploy. Automakers wish to gauge public reaction to style changes and features, before investing large sums of cash in bringing them to the assembly line. In other ways, it’s an engineering experiment, an attempt to figure out if ideas that look great on paper will be just as wonderful in reality. In yet another way, they’re a form of artistic expression, a means by which a vision goes from being an idea to something tangible.
The 1938 Buick Y-Job was all of those things, plus something else. It’s the concept car, the very first vehicle built for all of the reasons above, and it occupies a very special place in automotive history.
Shaped Like Today’s Big Box Stores
If there’s a single word to describe most cars that were built in the 1930s, then that word is “boxy.” Windshields were mounted at almost 90 degree angles. Grilles were upright as well. Bumpers were massive affairs, and headlights were as large as many modern searchlights are today. Pose a bathing suit beauty on the hood of one of these monstrosities and the effect would be an unappealing clash of divergent forms and shapes. We should still try that at some point though, just to be sure.
Harley Earl, who was head of GM’s design department at the time, wanted to shake things up. He envisioned a vehicle that was long, low, and sleek, that purred like a kitten and was easy on the eyes. In short, he pictured a car that, unlike anything else of its time, could be described as having sex appeal.
The First “Sexy” Car
To that end, he broke with a number of traditional design approaches. The Y-Job had 13-inch tires, absurdly small by the standards of the time. It also had a straight-eight engine under its hood, which would normally make it a powerhouse of torque. But Earl purposely had it built with a low compression ratio of 6.35:1. This gave it a horsepower rating of 141, which is quite small given its 5.2-liter displacement.
But there was a method behind Earl’s madness. When you spread that modest amount of power over so many cylinders, you get a quiet, smooth-running engine, vastly different from the loud, cranky behemoths of the time. Even by today’s standards, the Y-Job’s power plant has a remarkably understated tone, nearly silent. It won’t win any drag races, but then again it wasn’t meant to; it’s about style and comfort, not speed.
Like Whiskey vs. Wine
To truly appreciate how groundbreaking the Y-Job was, you have to view it alongside another vehicle of the time, say a 1940 Packard. Now the Packard is a great machine, but it’s squarish, imposing profile is as different from the Y-Job as a shot of Tennessee moonshine is from a glass of vintage wine. It has power but no subtlety, kick but no genteelness.
Compare those qualities to the Buick’s integrated fenders and hood, the way its soft top disappears into an invisible compartment, even how the exterior handles are flush with the skin of the door. It has an air of refinement about it that, for the late 1930s, was nothing short of revolutionary.
Earl loved his creation so much that he used it as daily transportation for years, eventually putting 25,000 miles on it. It was restored in the early 1990s by Dale Jacobsen, who’s in charge of GM’s fleet of heritage and concept vehicles. Reports are that it’s still driven on occasion, and runs as well as when Harley Earl used it for his daily work commute over seven decades ago.