Curbside Catechism: 1957 Aurora—Sins of the Father

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It is fitting that our feature car was designed by a Roman Catholic priest; ‘catholic’ (small c), means ‘universal’, and to the best of my knowledge no design has been so universally reviled. Is it merely ugly? No. An Aztek is merely ugly. This is Anglerfish ugly. Deliverance ugly. It has a face not even Mother Theresa could have loved. It is what would have emerged from the studio of Captain Ahab had he taken up car design.

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The man behind the car, Alfred A. Juliano, was born on December 19, 1919, to Louis and Catherine Juliano of Philadelphia.  As a youth, he showed a keen interest in the arts and sciences, particularly those pertaining to automobile design; however, young Alfred decided to pursue a higher calling, and in 1932 joined the Order of the Holy Ghost Junior Seminary, in Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania, to begin his clerical studies. Meantime and somehow, a few of his sketches had come to the attention of someone at GM which, in 1938, offered him a scholarship to study with Harley Earl. Perhaps Juliano would have benefited from a long talk with Mr. Earl, but in any case, he was committed to fulfilling his ordination and staying at the seminary.

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For the next three years, Juliano taught physics and served as chaplain at Virginia’s Saint Emma Military Academy, where new professional connections led him to experts and other resources in design-related fields. And as fate would have it, his Order soon appointed Father Juliano to the post of assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Church, in Branford, Connecticut. While there, he enrolled at nearby Yale University, where he pursued both a doctorate degree in aerodynamics and his dream of designing the world’s safest car.

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After two years at the drawing board and three years of construction, Father Juliano’s Aurora Safety Car prototype was at last real. Whether by design, coincidence or indifference, the Aurora’s styling and construction distinctly recalled those of watercraft. Its 18-foot-long, 100-percent fiberglass body–perched over a largely wooden skeleton, which itself sat atop the salvaged chassis of a 1953 Buick Roadmaster–was advertised as impervious to dents and corrosion. It was topped with a gigantic, transparent-plastic greenhouse (literally) that provided a nearly 360-degree view (albeit quite a distorted one). The headliner was fitted with metallic sunshades that blocked out the rays but were likely to cook the cabin on a hot, sunny day, one reason why Juliano planned to offer air conditioning as standard equipment.

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The car’s bulging windshield, which resembled the head of a B-movie space alien, was designed to reduce head injuries by increasing the distance between it and the car’s occupants; in the pre-airbag era, it was probably as good a solution as was available. And in all fairness to Father Juliano and his prototype, the Aurora presaged several safety features that would eventually be included in virtually all modern cars, among them seat belts, a padded instrument panel with recessed gauges, side-impact bars, an integrated roll cage, and a collapsible steering column. The Aurora’s four occupants sat in individual captain’s chairs that they could could swivel 180-degrees in the event of an impending collision. Switch controlled, frame-mounted hydraulic jacks provided assistance when changing a tire, a la Citroën DS.

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The spare tire was mounted on a platform ahead of the radiator in order to enhance front-impact protection, and could be lowered to the ground via a switch on the dashboard. The front end itself was essentially a huge, foam-stuffed bumper that was designed to scoop up inattentive pedestrians without injuring them. At least in theory.

Despite its innovative protective features, it is no surprise that today the Aurora is remembered for its looks.  It tops lists of the world’s ugliest cars with the same consistency that Chinese Cresteds win ugly dog contests. Although the undulating surfaces and body-by-Rubbermaid were meant to increase the fiberglass body’s rigidity, Father Juliano apparently liked what he saw; he was quoted in several interviews as saying that (the American people) “won’t pay for safety, but they will pay for style.” And pay they would have to, since the Aurora’s projected price was $15,000–some $2,000 more than the ne plus ultra Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.

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On November 11, 1957, Father Juliano drove his prototype for the first time, starting out for a midtown Manhattan hotel, the first stop on what was to be a 120-city press tour. According to automotive journalist Michael Lamm, the Aurora’s maiden voyage was somewhat less than triumphant:

             On its way from Branford (Connecticut) to Manhattan, the Aurora broke down no fewer than 15 times. It had to be towed to seven different garages and repair shops along the way. Why? Because during the three years that Father Juliano was building the Aurora’s huge, curvilinear fiberglass body, the car’s engine hadn’t once been started. In those three years, water got into the gas tank and, on the trip to Manhattan, rust clogged the fuel line. No sooner would Father Juliano clear out the rust flakes than the fuel system would stop up again.”

Father Juliano called the hotel manager to say he was running a bit late and that the intro, originally set for 8 A.M., would probably take place closer to noon. Most of the assembled reporters waited until early afternoon before heading back to their offices. Around 3 P.M., Juliano called the hotel again, this time from Harlem, to report a dead battery and a further delay. Finally, about an hour later, he arrived at the hotel with the Aurora, but by that time the assembled press corps had dwindled to a TV crew and two print reporters.

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Subjecting already cynical reporters to an over eight-hour wait does not exactly set the stage for favorable reporting, and the press coverage was predictably unkind. “Dream Car Arrives from Connecticut After Nightmare of Breakdown”, headlined the next day’s The New York Times. The Bridgeport Post  led with “Auto Built by Priest for Safety Perils Traffic”. Neither paper went into much detail about the car’s many new safety features, but they spared neither words nor photos when it came to its unusual appearance.

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Things went downhill from there. Inevitably, the Catholic church and the IRS (and perhaps a couple of grudge-holding reporters) began scrutinizing Father Juliano’s finances following the Aurora’s disastrous debut. Like many Catholic priests, Reverend Juliano was bound by a vow of poverty, and quickly spent the small amount of money he did have. To keep things running, he began hitting up his parishioners and the community at large for donations and, in 1956, formed Custom Automobile Corporation of America to shield himself him from responsibility for prototype-related debt. It was a smart move; the cost of building the thing wound up topping $30,000.

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Juliano started telling reporters that his troubles had been instigated by General Motors, and compared himself to Preston Tucker, another automotive visionary whose dream was extinguished early on. And then came the rumors that began circulating around Bridgeport that Father Juliano had actually spent only a small share of donations on the Aurora and pocketed the rest.

In September 1958, Alfred Juliano left the Order of the Holy Ghost following a testy confrontation with his religious superiors. In the end, the church and IRS investigations found no evidence of fraud or theft; in fact, Juliano was indeed impoverished and eventually filed bankruptcy. The Aurora prototype went  to a Cheshire, Connecticut auto body shop as partial compensation for unpaid bills. In December 1988, Rev. Alfred A. Juliano suffered a brain hemorrhage. He died three months later, on March 2, 1989. However, the Aurora’s story doesn’t end there.

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Andy Saunders is a Poole, England-based artist, author, and auto restorer and customizer whose creations have won multiple awards and accolades on several continents. In 1993, Mr. Saunders encountered his first glimpse of the Aurora in a book about dream cars and became fascinated with it. After years of detective work, Mr. Saunders finally tracked down the Aurora through an old photo of a Connecticut repair shop. He promptly contacted the shop’s owner, who agreed to sell him the car for $1,500, and Saunders began arranging its shipment to England.

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The car arrived in a decrepit-bordering-on-hopeless condition–it had been left to the elements for 30-plus years, after all–but Mr. Saunders committed to its restoration, and after several years of hard work, the car had been restored to its original fiberglass glory. Then, in 2005, came a call from England’s very prestigious Goodwood Festival of Speed, inviting Mr. Saunders to display his meticulously restored Aurora. He accepted, and has since arranged for his car to be featured at several museums worldwide. It remains a prized member of Mr. Saunders’ personal collection to this day.

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The Aurora, like the Tucker before it, predicted many safety features decades before mainstream vehicles featured them. And say what you will about his car’s looks, you’ve got to give Father Juliano props for being so selflessly devoted to building it.

Can I get an Amen?

Special thanks to Andy Saunders, several of whose photos appear in this article with his permission. I recommend a visit to www.andysaunders.net to car lovers everywhere as a great place to spend some time.