Thursday, June 9, 2011

1955 Chevrolet Biscayne

From Riches to Rags to Riches
Text by David W. Temple
Photos from author’s archives except as credited
There was a time when General Motors was the unquestioned leader of the automotive industry. Throughout the 1950s, GM dominated automobile sales in this country with a nearly 50 percent market share by the middle of the decade.
One of their successful marketing techniques during this era was the GM Motorama, a traveling extravaganza with venues in major cities across the country. Its goal was to bring attention to the company’s many and varied divisions (such as AC, Allison Engines, Frigidaire, etc.) to, of course, stimulate sales. Through free admission, Broadway-style stage shows, and – most memorably – experimental vehicles typically called, “dream cars” (“concept cars” in today’s vernacular), millions of people were attracted to the great spectacle held consecutively from 1953 to 1956 as well as previously in 1949 (as “Transportation Unlimited”) and 1950 (“Mid-Century Motorama”), as well as again in 1959, and 1961. The years from 1953 to 1956, however, are the most noteworthy thanks to dream cars and prototypes such as the GM LeSabre, Cadillac Le Mans, the Buick Wildcat series, the first Chevy Corvette, the turbine-powered GM Firebird I, II, and III, plus many more.
The Biscayne at a GM Motorama along with other show cars
One of the myriad of fiberglass-bodied dream cars shown during the heyday of the GM Motorama was the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne. At its inception, the Biscayne was simply dubbed XP-37 (XP presumably meaning experimental prototype), S.O. 2249 (S.O. meaning “shop order”). The project – as all such projects – proceeded under the leadership of Harley J. Earl. Earl, who was GM’s first vice president of design. Those who mastered the art of styling the automobile through Earl’s philosophy were the ones charged with the responsibility for advanced projects such as the dream cars of the GM Motorama. In the case of the Biscayne, Clare MacKichan (pronounced MacKeekan) who headed the Chevy Studio from 1953-61 was charged with the design. Each car created for the touring exhibition had its own theme and purpose. In the case of the XP-37 it was an “exploration in elegance” as expressed in GM-produced literature about the car. The metallic green four-passenger, pillarless four-door hardtop featured side coves and “suicide” doors; it was the only Chevrolet dream car of the GM Motorama to have these features. The side coves which wrapped around the back of the Biscayne would be seen on the following year’s Corvette though reversed from that of the Biscayne. Several other features such as the taillight panel design would eventually be found on the 1961-62 Corvette. A so-called “Stratospheric” wraparound windshield curved upward into the roof; its upper portion was tinted to reduce glare from the sun. Its basic shape was adopted for the 1959-60 GM cars. (This is what the GM Motorama dream cars were meant to do – reveal features to be seen in the immediate future or indicate what could be found on GM cars some years away. Designing them pushed GM’s stylists to think ahead or outside the box as the saying goes. These cars tested the public’s reaction to new ideas as well as familiarized them with advanced styling ideas.) In an era when chrome was used to establish status, the elegant Biscayne’s comparatively minimal chrome trim must have been surprising to many.
The custom-built air cleaner was recovered from the salvage yard, but the original engine was gone.
Underneath the Biscayne’s fiberglass hood, resided a 215 horsepower version of the new Chevrolet “Turbo-Fire” V-8, which in its stock form produced up to 180hp (with a four-barrel carb). The Biscayne’s modified Turbo-Fire engine had a high-lift camshaft, dual exhausts, and a four-barrel carburetor to boost its output; the 215hp rating suggested to the public there was more performance to be had in a Chevrolet in the near future. A two-speed Powerglide was mated to the high-performance engine. Despite all the hype about the Biscayne’s engine, the show car was a “pushmobile.”
Interior features included thin-shell front and rear bucket seats; the front ones swiveled outward. The rear seats were separated with a small console that served as a storage area and arm rest. Seats were trimmed with chrome and covered in green leather.
When the dream cars were no longer considered especially dreamy some higher-ups within the GM hierarchy ordered certain cars to be scrapped. The Biscayne was among the group ordered scrapped. It was transported to Warhoops Used Auto & Truck Parts in Sterling Heights, Michigan, along with at least three other Motorama cars. Two of the cars were cut apart; two were left in tact. The once carefully maintained and gleaming Biscayne was badly butchered.
In 1989, Joe’s son, Marc, read a contemporary magazine article about the cars of the GM Motorama which at its conclusion mentioned the persistent rumor that some of the cars lay within the confines of the Warhoops salvage yard. He mentioned this tantalizing claim to his father and suggested calling the salvage yard. Joe’s reply to the proposal was, “If those cars were ever there, they would be gone by now.” Marc, undeterred, made the call. He introduced himself and inquired about the Motorama cars. The man on the other end of the phone, Harry Warholak, Sr., recognized the name “Bortz” and asked if he was related to the guy who collected such cars. (At that time, Joe already owned the 1953 Buick Wildcat and other show cars.) When Marc confirmed that fact, Warholak invited Joe to call. Ultimately their phone conversations resulted in the elder Bortz purchasing the Biscayne as well as two other 1955 dream cars, the LaSalle II roadster and the LaSalle II sedan along with the 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Town Car.
The Biscayne and LaSalle II roadster were cut into several pieces at Warhoops. (Gil Cunningham)
Unfortunately, the Biscayne was cut apart into so many pieces it appeared to be hopelessly beyond restoration. The mostly custom-fabricated frame and the engine were long lost. The body – cut into ten sections – and trim (much of it having been dug out of the ground) along with the other three dream cars were loaded for transport back to Joe’s warehouse near Chicago. Over a span of two decades, fate intervened in a series of fortuitous ways making possible the seemingly impossible task of restoring the Biscayne. As Mr. Bortz summarized the restoration, “The Biscayne was saved by accident and in increments.”
A couple of the major elements of good luck were the discovery of photographs of the Biscayne’s original chassis and Joe’s association with famed street rod builder, Kerry Hopperstead. Hopperstead was absolutely certain he could recreate the chassis for the show car from the GM photographs. Using the known dimension of the wheel size (15 inches as revealed by the wheel covers) for the Biscayne, the photos, and the construction details of the underside of the body, Hopperstead was able to deduce the dimensions and shape for the box-section frame. The frontal section, however, was a simple matter as it was a production 1955 Chevrolet type so a donor car was acquired for that. When the chassis was completed the Biscayne’s body was lowered onto it, but a new problem became very apparent – the body which had been reassembled some years earlier was “out of square” as evidenced by the positioning of the wheels relative to the wheel openings. The body had to be cut apart again!
The Biscayne under restoration at Martino's shop (Marty Martino)
Next, Bortz went to Mel Francis, to “square” the body and to fabricate a new roof panel. (The original panel was badly warped.) Even with the issues posed by the chassis and body solved, came a number of additional hurdles. One of those was the front windshield; the original was gone. Its compound curves made the task of fabricating another major challenge. Bortz estimates that 20 attempts failed before a successful effort was achieved. Other parts which had to be fabricated included one of the cast brass wheel covers, the right rear door skin, the rear bumperettes, and most of the interior. Two more experts were given the challenge of solving these and other issues.
Joe’s personal restorer for the past four decades has been the renowned Fran Roxas, considered to be one of the best if not the best restorers of American classic cars in the United States. Fran assisted Joe in being an overseer of the entire project as well as making many components for the car which were missing.
Marty Martino became another link in the long chain of events leading to the final steps of the Biscayne’s restoration. Joe approached him with the proposal to work on the Biscayne after seeing his impressive recreation of another GM Motorama car, the 1956 Pontiac Club de Mer. Marty’s tasks included detailing the car’s undercarriage and engine compartment, making its windows operable, and essentially recreating its interior. All of this was done within a 14 ½ month period often working 14-hour days.
Much of the interior had to be refabricated including the seats. (Marty Martino)
As originally built, the electric window switches were nonfunctional. The position of the windows could be changed only by removing the door panels, loosening some bolts, placing the windows up or down as desired, tightening the bolts again, and reinstalling the door panels. After some experimentation Marty was able to make the front windows functional via electric motors from an early-70s Cadillac, but the geometry of the rear doors made impractical doing the same for those windows.
New front and rear seats were constructed as was a rear console based almost completely upon factory photographs. A fragment of one seat frame was amongst the parts recovered from Warhoops and it was useful in recreating the external frame surrounding the seats. Amazingly, traces of the original upholstery material remained in the Biscayne. New leather of the same grain and color was obtained through Bill Hirsch Automotive Products.
Marty was also responsible for recreating from photographs the complete set of instruments just like the nonfunctional originals (including the 110mph speedometer). A structural brace behind the dash left no room for such things as a speedometer cable. However, a set of modern gauges was mounted inside the glove box to monitor oil pressure and coolant temperature.
Photo by Marty Martino
Painting the Biscayne was left to the accomplished staff of Page Customs. Using a spectrophotometer allowed for matching the custom-mixed color dubbed by someone within GM as “Atlantic Green,” though this time with RM Diamont urethane clear coat/base coat.
Finally in 2010, the completed Biscayne was ready to be shown and the venue for its first outing as such was The Concours d’Elegance of America at Meadowbrook attended by designers from the past including Chuck Jordan (now deceased) and Wayne Cherry, both former heads of GM Design. Also in attendance was the current leader of GM Design, Ed Welburn.
After a long, expensive, and meticulous effort spanning 22 years and a half-century after being butchered, the Biscayne in every detail is again the impressive show car it was in 1955.
Author’s note: For a much more detailed accounting of the Chevrolet Biscayne’s history including its recovery from Warhoops and restoration, read the author’s article about the car in the April 2011 issue of Collectible Automobile. To read about all of the dream cars of the GM Motorama purchase a copy of the author’s new book, “Motorama: GM's Legendary Show & Concept Cars,” here: