What a Concept!

When Joe Bortz was 8 years old, his father bought him a bicycle. This was no ordinary bicycle; it was a newspaper-delivery model—one with a smaller front wheel, which was necessary to accommodate a large frame-mounted basket just below the handlebars. Whether or not the bike was the elder Bortz’s idea of a subtle hint remains a mystery. Bortz never picked up a paper route, but the bike still saw plenty of use.

As a boy, Bortz was fascinated by automobiles, and he spent his afternoons riding his bike to the different dealerships in town, collecting advertising materials for the manufacturers’ current and—in some cases—upcoming models. As he grew older, the young auto enthusiast ventured farther from home, taking the bus into Chicago to see General Motors’ annual Motorama auto shows during the 1950s. It was there that Bortz first encountered the automakers’ concept cars, then called “dream cars,” and from then on he was hooked.

Bortz’s career as a collector began in the early 1960s, when, as a 20-year-old, he bought what he describes as an “old car.” He doesn’t specify the make or model and perhaps that’s the point. According to the now-72-year-old, there’s an evolutionary process that occurs with all forms of collecting, and he says that in that regard, automobiles are similar to wine. “You have to find out what you like,” he says.

By the early 1970s he had become a restaurateur in Chicago, and he was acquiring high-performance European sports cars. Bortz liked Ferraris for a while, but he grew tired of them and moved on to other vehicles. Shortly thereafter, Ferrari values skyrocketed, which left Bortz kicking himself for selling his cars when he did. The missed opportunity did impart a lesson, however, and as Bortz continued his automotive journey, he learned to look for what seemed certain to appreciate in value. A few years later, the collector heard that the Detroit Historical Society had plans to part ways with its 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special. Up until then, Bortz was certain that all of the concept cars that he had loved as a child had been destroyed. Recognizing the chance to acquire a rare piece of automotive history, Bortz contacted the museum and bought the car. “I had the expertise of growing up in that time period,” he explains, “so I had the understanding and the [car’s] impact already built into my memory.”

Bortz’s collection included six concept cars by 1988, and it was around this time when rumors began circulating that a Motorama car had managed to escape the crusher and was rusting away in the Warhoops Used Auto salvage yard in Sterling Heights, Mich., about six miles north of GM’s design center. Bortz made the trip to check it out, and once he got there and began poking around, he realized that the rumors were only partially true. In reality, four 1955 Motorama cars were wasting away among the Warhoops scrap heaps—the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Town Car, the Chevrolet Biscayne, and two variants of the Cadillac LaSalle II, a roadster and a sedan. Bortz bought them all and set out to restore them, and once news spread of the collector’s discovery and his passion for these dream cars, his phone began ringing with offers and leads for other concept cars that had escaped destruction. “I was just in the right place at the right time when these cars were beginning to be turned loose,” he says. “Everything worked in my favor; everything was aligned.”

At its height, Bortz’s concept car collection was about 40 vehicles strong, but today, he has streamlined it to what he believes are the 20 best examples. “You only have to do one thing really well in life and everything else falls into place,” he says. “The one thing that I’ve really been able to put together from zero was concept cars, and that’s something that I’m really proud of.”

Within the auto-collecting hobby, classic American concept cars represent a niche that is slowly gaining strength. A landmark sale in 2005 established a market for these one-offs, but some experts believe that market is certain to increase, since the best examples known to exist are privately owned and have never been offered for sale. Ultimately, these postwar motoring marvels recall a brief period in history when American optimism was at its greatest, but a couple of them also offer a glimpse of what American automotive excellence could have been.

In the wake of world war II, with American troops returning home to victory parades, a renewed optimism blanketed the United States. It was around this time that jet-powered airplanes began taking to the skies, and with a revitalized sense of adventure and discovery all around them, American designers began incorporating those themes into their work. No industry displayed this better than the automakers. “It was an era in time when America was the leader of the world in all sorts of design,” says Craig Jackson, the chairman and CEO of Barrett-Jackson Auction Co. “You’re never going to have another point in history like that.”

Prior to the war, American car manufacturers often competed with each other over who could build the flashiest automobile. Those rivalries were renewed during the late 1940s and early 1950s; however, effusive amounts of chrome took a backseat to more wild and innovative designs. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to show the public an elaborate, sparkling piece of automotive showmanship; the new platform was delivering the car of tomorrow—or at least a glimpse of what that car might someday look like. Leveraging America’s excitement about the future, car companies commissioned their top designers to build futuristic automobiles and staged elaborate auto shows to display them, as well as their newest production models. No one did this better than General Motors. “Hearing from firsthand experiences of people I know who came home from the war, they’d go to the auto show and see all these wild designs and concepts, and it was really inspiring for the future,” says Ian Kelleher, a specialist with RM Auctions. “It was a pretty dynamic time in American manufacturing. They tried to give people a glimpse into what auto manufacturers envisioned in the future and what could be possible.”

For about a decade, American auto manufacturers delivered a new car of the future each year. Some were fully operable, while others were static exercises in automotive design, sometimes lacking many of the necessary mechanical components that would make them functional. But that didn’t matter; and for modern-day collectors like Bortz, it still doesn’t. “You had the finest designers producing their finest work and it was unregulated,” he says. “Designers could do anything they wanted; they had free rein. They didn’t even have to make the cars profitable. The design was really all it was about.”

While most concept cars were all about design, two cars were exceptions. The 1955 LaSalle II, both the roadster and the sedan, included advancements in engine configuration that were as revolutionary for their time as some of the designs. Their V-6 engines included overhead cams, fuel injection, and other technologies that GM ultimately chose not to implement. Yet later, in the 1960s, European manufacturers incorporated those same advancements, which, from a performance standpoint, elevated European models over their American counterparts. “Had they grasped onto that,” Bortz says of GM, “the future of the automotive industry would have been different.”

Regardless of their designs or their engineering, most dream cars were ordered to be destroyed following their nationwide tours, but those orders were not always followed. Some cars survived and were hidden away in garages, sometimes by the designers themselves. Other examples were designated as permanent display pieces in the manufacturers’ respective museums, which is where they still reside. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s or later that some of the privately owned models resurfaced, but it took another 30 years before a true collector’s market was born.

When lot number 992, a 1954 Oldsmobile F-88, rolled up onto the stage during Barrett-Jackson’s annual Scottsdale auction in January 2005, Jackson had no idea what to expect. It was the first time that such a dream car was being offered for public sale. The car had an alluring history: It was one of five concepts built as part of GM’s XP-20 project; it was unveiled at the 1954 Motorama held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel; and it was rejected as a production model, in large part because Chevrolet, then the biggest producer of GM products, feared it would outshine the recently debuted Corvette. All other XP concept cars are believed to have been destroyed, and according to some stories, chief designer Harley Earl saved this model himself, gave it (or perhaps sold it) to E.L. Cord—whose holding company produced Cord, Auburn, and Duesenberg automobiles—and helped him rebuild it in Cord’s Beverly Hills garage.

“With that car that year, we were trying to tell people that we need to take a look at our own American heritage,” Jackson recalls. “For some reason, we were only enamored with European heritage. We were trying to tell people that we should value our own heritage as much as anyone else’s.”

The interested buyers in the audience clearly shared Jackson’s sentiment. After an intense bidding war, the car was sold to John S. Hendricks for $3.2 million. “It is our Mona Lisa,” Hendricks declared after the sale. “This GM dream car uniquely embodies the revolutionary design spirit of the legendary Harley Earl, the ‘da Vinci’ of Detroit. The 1954 Olds F-88 concept vehicle is, I believe, America’s finest example of rolling art to emerge from the postwar era.”

Since then, a number of American concept cars from the 1950s and early 1960s (and occasionally the early 1940s) have crossed the block through RM Auctions but none have approached the value of the F-88. A 1960 Plymouth XNR and a 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt came the closest, each selling for $935,000, while others, such as a 1954 Dodge Firearrow and a 1954 Packard Panther-Daytona roadster, have also exchanged hands for $700,000 or more.

Barrett-Jackson has sold a handful of other examples, including two 1954 Dodge Firearrows, a 1954 Pontiac Bonne­ville Special, and—most recently—a 1954 Plymouth Belmont convertible, all of which have exchanged hands for seven figures, but the F-88 is still tops (at least from a monetary standpoint). “Concept cars aren’t easy to sell because they don’t appeal to all your conventional collectors,” says RM’s Kelleher. “Some people are really enthusiastic about them and others aren’t as enthralled by them. It’s a smaller niche market.

“I think this is an area that is still underappreciated,” he continues. “There’s a strength to concept cars and they will continue to appreciate in value.”

What’s more, Kelleher says that the really exceptional examples that were built (and survive) have yet to come up for sale. He references a 224-page picture book, Cars Detroit Never Built, and declares that at least a third of the cars depicted in the book still exist but have never been sold. “You haven’t seen the top end of the market yet,” he says. “There are other cars out there in private hands from the period that are well known and well documented and when they sell, they’ll sell in excess of the prices that we’ve seen to this point.”

Finding a classic concept car, especially one in its original condition, is no easy task, but its subsequent restoration can be equally challenging. When Bortz acquired his 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special from the Detroit Historical Society in the 1970s, the car was no different than when it first rolled into the museum more than 20 years earlier. He was not as lucky when he found his 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne. The car was designed with a wraparound windshield, but what was left of that original windshield in the Michigan salvage yard was beyond repair. Bortz and his restoration team had to build a new one, and, as he recalls, they made close to 20 variations—and spent about $50,000 doing so—before they got it right. “There are a lot of mechanical things that aren’t standard,” he says of the 1950s concept cars. “If the pieces are there, you just restore them, but if the pieces aren’t there, you have to reinvent the wheel to determine how things would work.”

Ralph Marano knows all too well the trials that come with restoring a concept car. The Packard enthusiast owns every Packard concept car made, save for one—the Predictor—which is permanently displayed in the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Ind. “Some of the stuff, I scratch my head with what they did,” he says. “They didn’t care about what was under the hood. In the ’50s, it was just about putting it on the podium and making it spin around.”

Therein lies the difference between Bortz and Marano as collectors. Bortz is content to keep most of his concept cars off the road, since many were never intended for daily use. Marano, on the other hand, isn’t satisfied until a car is fully operational. In fact, he prides himself on his ability to refine a vehicle that most often was built in a haphazard way. “We’re taking our time and rounding the corners,” Marano explains. “There is a big difference in the way I’m bringing them back. It’s often twice as nice as when they debuted, and that’s because of the time frame [that we’re following] and the technology today.”

As for where these cars rank among the pantheon of classic, collectible automobiles, the answer is subjective. According to Kelleher, there’s no reason to think that a beautifully restored 1950s concept car couldn’t someday be an overall concours winner. “The hard part is having something postwar that garners as much interest and attention [as the classics], and some of these concept cars do just that,” he says. “A lot of these concept cars represent the potential to be a best-of-show winner, especially from a postwar perspective.”

Such a scenario is unlikely to occur at Pebble Beach, at least in the foreseeable future. The 1955 Lincoln Indianapolis Exclusive Study, an American machine with an Italian coachbuilt body, garnered plenty of attention on the lawn last year and ultimately drove off with the Lincoln Trophy, an award for the most dramatic Lincoln of the show. According to Chris Bock, chief judge of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, special awards like that are the only honors that concept cars currently are eligible to receive. But, he adds, that could change. “Thirty years ago at Pebble Beach we didn’t even talk about this stuff,” he says. “But now we do, so anything’s possible.”

Fittingly, that’s the ideal that these concept cars were designed to express.

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