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What a Concept!

Shaun Tolson

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.

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