Friday, September 1, 2017
1938 Buick Y-Job - Modern Concept Car
By David W. Temple
There was a time when any new car was an experimental or concept car such as Henry Ford’s Quadricycle and Ransom E. Olds earliest Oldsmobile in which the powertrain, starting system, steering, and suspension needed to be evaluated. However, as cars became more advanced and more common any new design was less experimental, having perhaps an engine with new manufacturing methods tested in a car with otherwise proven technology. Then along came Harley Earl who reinvented the concept car in the late 1930s, though it was simply labeled “experimental” at the time. The concept car often exhibits multiple advanced ideas and to be truly accurate the term should probably be “concepts car.”
Harley Earl’s Buick Y-Job was a radical car for its time, though not so radical as to be unappealing to the public. It is generally recognized as the first modern concept car due to the multiple advanced ideas incorporated into its overall design. In the case of the Y-Job it was built with advanced styling and advanced mechanical features, though under its hood was simply an improved version of Buick’s “Dynaflash” straight-eight which had been in use since 1931.
Harley Earl had the backing of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Earl had proven himself as a director of styling, so whatever Earl wanted he typically got. Earl also found Harlow Curtice one of the more receptive people to his ideas. Curtice became the head of the Buick Division in 1933; four years later Earl went to Curtice with a proposal for a very different kind of car – the one which became the Y-Job, and one which Earl described as a “semi-sports car.” The unique name’s origin was explained by Vince Kaptur, Sr., who was quoted in an article written by Karl Ludvigsen for the March 1974 issue of Motor Trend : “We were always working with X-cars, for experimental, and this job was one step beyond that [emphasis author’s]. We just called it the Y-Job.”
Kaptur was in charge of the car’s body engineering. Charles Chayne became the chief engineer for Buick in 1936 and his skills were put to use on the Y-Job’s mechanical systems. As for the styling of the car, Earl put George Snyder in charge of a team which included Joe Shemansky. Up to that point Snyder headed the Oldsmobile studio. He had an instinctive sense of what Earl wanted, so Snyder was moved over to another studio to focus on advanced design. According to an article by Michael Lamm published in the January/February 1997 issue of Special Interest Autos, “Art Moderne, the commercial art form that auto designers borrowed from architecture, was very much in vogue at the time. Snyder incorporated the parallelism, repeated lines and horizontality of Art Moderne in the Y-Job.”
The purpose of the Y-Job was essentially two-fold – it was a test of the acceptance of new styling ideas and to serve as Harley Earl’s personal car. However, the car’s styling led to some engineering issues which had to be worked through. The special car also got to be a test bed for Buick’s prototype Dynaflow torque converter transmission which became an option starting with the 1948 model year. In an article about experimental cars Earl referred to the Y-Job as “a composite of many ideas” and went on to illustrate their advanced nature by stating they were “ideas which for sound and logical reasons couldn’t be duplicated in volume in 1938.”
Another purpose was also served by the Y-Job – it gave Harley Earl the status he should have as the chief designer for GM. Earl was competitive, so when his contemporaries – Ed Macauley for Packard and Edsel Ford of Ford Motor Company – were out and about in their personal boat-tail speedsters, Earl had to “make do” with a production car, though modified to fit his wants. Earl, Macauley, and Edsel Ford lived near each other in Grosse Pointe, so Earl frequently saw them driving by in their special cars.
According to an article published in the May 2009 issue of the Cadillac & LaSalle Club’s publication, The Self-Starter, inspiration for the styling of the Y-Job came as the result of Harley Earl visiting his old stomping grounds at Don Lee’s distributorship in 1936. There he saw a 1934 LaSalle modified with a custom boattail speedster body it received after the car was totaled in an accident. Also there was a similarly styled car built on a 1936 Ford chassis by Frank Kurtis. Afterwards, Earl became quite fascinated with the boattail design.
The styling of the Y-Job was spectacular. Allegedly, it impressed Edsel Ford so much he offered Earl a chance to come to work for Ford Motor Company. Earl was soon appointed as Vice President in charge of Styling. Whether the two events are truly connected probably cannot be proven.
To continue reading about the Buick Y-Job purchase a copy of "The Cars of Harley Earl." Click this link or the one at top right to order through Amazon. https://www.cartechbooks.com/cars-of-harley-earl-limited-signed-edition.html