It’s no coincidence that so many new car designs came within a few years of the end of World War II. The U.S. had endured a crippling depression, followed by a global struggle, and emerged triumphant. The period from 1945 to the early 1960s was one of unprecedented optimism and unbridled dreams. It seemed that nothing was impossible, given enough willpower and innovation. That shown through in the cars of the day.
A person who exemplified this attitude was Gordon Buehrig. Born in 1904, he is considered one of the greatest auto designers of the 20th century. Prior to the war he worked with the legendary Harley Earl at GM, before taking on the position of chief designer for Duesenberg in 1929. During his time with them, he designed such immortal classics as the Beverly Sedan, the Torpedo Phaeton, and the Derham Tourster. He lent his skills to the aircraft industry when the war began, working from 1941-45 as a designer of aircraft components.
After the war, Buehrig, inflicted with a severe case of wanderlust, spent a few years wandering from one project to the next. In 1948, he joined with the American Sports Car company, a short-lived venture which sought to enter the automotive market with innovative new vehicles. At the time, the nation was obsessed with aviation, and Buehrig was inspired to build a concept car that would draw heavily from design of fighter planes. Thus was born the 1948 TASCO prototype.
The resemblance to an aircraft is obvious upon first inspection. The canopy has a sloped-back windshield and streamlined appearance. The four wheels are sheathed in aluminum, like the ones used as landing gear. The front grille has marks on it that resemble air intakes for early jets. The two-person seating is more akin to that built for a plane than for a land-based conveyance. Perhaps most significantly, the prototype was the first automobile of any kind with a T-top roof, for which Buehrig earned a patent.
But it’s when one looks at the interior that the similarities to an aircraft become profound. The controls and gauges are unlike those of any vehicle ever meant to be used on land. A driver might get the impression that they could sail away into the wild blue yonder, simply by taxiing down a long, straight length of highway.
The prototype was presented to managers at the Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas, along with a proposal for them to manufacture it for the general public. They passed on the opportunity however, and the vehicle was eventually donated to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana, where it sits on display to this day.
Buehrig was offered a position with Ford’s design department in 1949, a job he kept until 1965. In his later years, he taught at the Art Center College of Design in California and worked on several freelance projects.
In 1968, he initiated a lawsuit against Chevrolet, which added a T-top to that year’s Corvette without giving him recognition or compensation. He was successful in the effort, and was awarded a judgment that allowed him to live the rest of his life in comfort. The great designer passed away in 1990, leaving behind a legacy that few could ever hope to match.
- Gordon Buehrig