What a Concept!

  • Shaun Tolson

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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