GM’s 1950s Motorama-mobiles were mostly pretty out-there, with flamboyant fins, rocket-inspired skegs and cockpits, and other flights of wild imagination. Frankly, many of them were a bit absurd and even childish. But there were a few that were somewhat down to earth, even rather brilliant, like this 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne. Yes, its frog-eye front end is a bit of an acquired taste, but the rest of it, especially its tail end, is delightfully restrained, compact and clean, certainly more so than the production 1958 Chevrolet. The only production car that did reflect its restraint and clean lines is the 1960 Corvair, as will be seen best from a look at its other end.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any really good pictures of its rear end; this is the best that Google could do. But this is about as antithetical of a mid-50s GM rear end as it gets. Because it’s so good, it was put to use on both the 1960 Corvair as well as the 1961 Corvette, with some minor modifications, of course. And of course on the big Chevrolets too, starting in 1961. Its influence would be seen at least through 1964.
And who gets credit for such a rather radical rear end in 1955, along with the rest of the Biscayne?
28 year-old Chuck Jordan, Harley Earl’s star designer, whom Earl hired at the tender age of 22, having won the first post war Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild competition and a $4000 scholarship, with which he went to MIT. Here he is pictured with the GM Aerotrain, which he also designed in 1955.
The Biscayne was built on a 115″ wheebase, with a frame custom built to support its fiberglass body. Under its hood was a 215 hp version of Chevrolet’s new 265 CID V8, backed by a Powerglide transmission. Like many Motorama cars, these were not meant to be driven, and the Biscayne lacked a battery, operable side windows, and other aspects of what appeared to be electrical gadgets were dummys.
The suicide doors were a popular item at GM back then, although they only showed up in production on the Eldorado Brougham, although that was more like a Motorama vehicle built on a small scale.
Here’s the original Motorama brochure:
The Biscayne was scrapped, but its body cut up into four pieces was “found” by Joe Bortz’s son in 1990 in a junkyard in Detroit.it was purchased along with three other GM show cars, and eventually restored, on a chassis that had to be made from scratch, thanks to detailed drawings found in the GM archives. The full story can be found here at bortzautocollection.com. although the omission of Chuck Jordan’s name and attribution is a painful omission in Joe Bortz’s tale of the miraculous resurrection of the Biscayne. Hooniverse’s post on the Biscayne also omits Jordan’s name. Time to set the record straight.
And here is Chuck (middle) reunited with the restored Biscayne. That must have been sweet.
Jordan went on to have a stellar career at GM (and Opel), but that’s a long story for another time.
Hidden headlights and this would really have been a beauty.
That was my 1st thought, too.
Another design “flaw”, after looking at all the pictures: the front bumper ends look like they are upside down. And yet, if they were flipped, it would screw up the whole fender line/hip line, of the car.
My family had the Brookwood wagon model of the 58 Chevy. A fairly good looking car, though just about every other 58 looks a bit like a jukebox in comparison, NOT a look I’m crazy about in car styling.
A friend of mine did this Photoshop image last August using first gen Riviera fender caps.
Now that’s an improvement. It would be fun to see that version from different angles. The grille now makes perfect sense. One recalls a Barris-style Merc with Buick “teeth” . . .
wow. that does look sharp. an amazing improvement.
In Re: the headlights? The committee that put this together missed “headlight day” Surprised it didn’t have two on one side, and one on the other. Oh and even more surprised, it wasn’t made with requisite glass bubble roof so popular in 1950’s show cars.
There’s a small version of the aerotrain at the Oregon Zoo in Portland Or. Still looks modern today.
I’d never seen the rear end of the Biscayne before – not bad at all. The grille, however, looks like a comb attachment for electric hair clippers.
It is good to see that it was found and restored. It must have cost a pretty penny judging by the condition that it was in. Thanks for presenting this really nice concept car.
Assuming they didn’t find that windshield in the scrapyard with the rest of the car, I really want to know where they got that piece of glass from!
Pretty sure it was originally plexiglass and was reproduced in the same material during the car’s extensive restoration/recreation.
I was thinking, “How large are the sun visors?”
One of the biggest what-ifs in the history of the auto industry- what would 80s GM had been like if Jordan got the styling head job?
Pretty much like 1990s GM when he was the styling head…?
Some real hits, some real misses, and a whole lotta bean counted-to-death, Proctor & Gamble brand manager nonsense.
Not the greatest “what-if” I’ve ever read here.
I’ll take the house, the car not so much. Looks too much like everyone did a separate part w/o seeing what the others were doing.
The two period photos are interesting in respect to the couple. One dressed as if they are ready to head out for a night on the town while the other looks ready for picnicking.
50’s Women’s styles look so matronly now. She looks at first glace like the guy’s Mom.
Funny how frog-eyed headlights look great on the original Austin-Healey Sprite, but look terrible on the Biscayne.
If its grille had looked more like a friendly smile and less like a shaver…
I was going to say, the Biscayne’s front end looks like a Bug-Eye Sprite in a Hannibal Lecter mask.
I had that thought too. Not a friendly looking car at all!
Wish I could do Photoshopping — I’d have those headlights just as they are, but lowered at least three inches, and possibly more. The rest of the car is dandy. Love the “cross your heart” C post; so simple and direct, yet virtually never seen in production, for some reason — at least, not with the chrome applied as shown.
The glass issue is interesting. I echo Todd’s question above; I wonder over and over how such perfect one-off glass (acrylic ?) pieces are made. The ’56 Buick Centurion show car has a similar windshield. https://www.curbsideclassic.com/wp-content/comment-image/369419.jpg
The side glass is flat; Paul’s third photo of the car shows the glass down on the driver’s side, up on the passenger side. Glass is down in all other original views . . .
I wonder if that “C” pillar treatment had any influence on Mercury stylists? It’s not a direct copy, but the 60, 63, and 64 full sized Mercury 4 door hardtops have a treatment where the bottom, rear edge of the window opening sweeps up (slightly) in a curve to meet a curve of the top, rear edge of the window. The 64 Ford full sized 4 door hardtop uses the same styling cue, but not the 63.
That same sail panel has seen the light of day on so many Nissan products, it isn’t funny. Z cars, Muranos, Rogues, Leafs, B210s…
Paging Jerry Hirschberg…
An interesting and good-looking car, in spite of some overdone front end details. What are most striking are the smooth lines and the short tail / long hood proportion on a standard sized car, an attractive and ahead-of-its-time styling move in sedan design.
Joe Bortz has my admiration; he is almost singlehandedly responsible for exhuming concept cars at a time when they were just half-remembered anomalies from days past. As for Chuck Jordan; Opel Record D. Nuff said.
Yeah, another one saved from the crusher is the 1955 LaSalle Roadster. http://www.legacydiecast.com/1955-la-salle-roadster-concept—bortz-collection
. . . speaking of cars in green: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zappadong/14011073657/in/photostream/
These dream cars are blessedly free of bumpers. I don’t recall focussing on that detail, as a young admirer. Only now, in production vehicles, are we seeing the playout of this dream-borne ideal — comparable to the modern house whose stairs aren’t spoiled by handrails ? Wrap-around glass was an architectural ideal, realized by some in the ‘thirties, that seems to have influenced these postwar cars, in the period when Oldsmobile was showing its wares in the company of “modern” houses . . .
If Chuck Jordan was in fact a star designer, how could he not see all the ugly draped over this car?
His is a very hit and miss career. His name has been attached to such wide ranging designs as the 59 Cadillac, the 92 Seville, the Allante, the N-Body cars, the Olds Aurora and Intrigue, the 90s Park Avenue, and the 97 Century/Regal.
The front of the car looks so heavy handed compared with the tastefully done remainder of the car. With so much bad design from Detroit at the time, and so much apparent marketing pressure to add chrome and tacky elements, one wonders if many talented designers just went through the motions to satisfy their bosses in sales and marketing. Plus following the garish design trends in the domestic industry. As the front end treatment looks like it was prepared with less commitment to tasteful design, than the lines on the rest of the car demonstrate. Like someone (or department) unqualified affected the front design at some point.
If you look at the 52 through 54 Chevy, you’ll see it has that same (almost wall to wall) set of grille teeth. The Corvette would use a variation of that grille treatment from 53 through 59 so it’s possible that this odd front end was inspired by those cars….the Corvette more than the full size Chevy.
Only it is far more garish and clumsy that the Corvette design. Questionable design inspired by the Corvette.
While I agree the rear is the most attractive part of this design (along with the suicide doors), something really doesn’t work for me with the rear wheels. They’re poking out of the bodywork like a Dinky Toy.
This was a look that in part reflected the huge popularity of hot rods, drag racers and sports car racing in the US at the time. big, exposed rear wheels/tires was a recurring theme at GM, and shows up on numerous concepts and production cars.
Frankly, it beats the look of most production cars of the late 50s which had quite the opposite problem, and which led to Pontiac’s famous “Wide-Tread”.
Between the two, I’ll take this over a deeply recessed wheel.
Okay — maybe I can do a little “Photoshopping.” This is mostly cut-and-paste, mind you . . .
. . . and, for comparison, the original:
Tatra has a point; the designer got himself into that one, by willfully continuing the scoop into the rear wheel arch. He (and others) may have learned a lesson from that one. The solution: reduce the rear track a bit ? Hmm . . .
The front remains a bit of a muddle. The headlights, unintentionally or otherwise a retro echo (?), just can’t quite hold their own against the width of the slightly too aggressive grille; the nerf bumpers are perhaps unresolved as well. But lowering the headlights seems to lower the whole car — noticeably ?
The boys must have has so much fun with these, in any event. Try something, see how it flies — what harm ? Management was wise to permit and promote these studies, even if they had never met the public gaze. I particularly like this soft metallic green. It seems to me a Cadillac Brougham showcar, a year or two later, carried a similar color. Do I have that right ?
Ah, yes, the Biscayne. The car was at the Petersen Auto Museum last November I visited. Took a few shots, just one of the rear end -not the best photo- but I got more enthralled by the bizarre front end (and wasn’t ‘bizarre’ the theme at the Big 3 in the mid to late 50’s?).
The beast, up close.
It sure is pretty on the inside!
The rear end obviously shows elements in detail, elegance, and refinement that was later reflected in early 60s design. While the front clearly reflects current bulky and awkward 50s design.
The thin line whitewalls markedly modernize the design over the then popular wide whitewalls. In fact, the tire/wheel cover combo in the first two pics would work on a 70s era GM car.
I had never seen this car before this article, and the front end was definitely jarring- but after a few looks it’s growing on me. Kind of like a more grown-up Corvette maw. Like when Audi started to do the grille from hood to lower valance through the bumper and it looked exceedingly weird, but now that’s pretty commonplace.
Great post Paul. I have always had mixed feelings about the Biscayne. On one hand, I do like the basic overall style of the car. I too see the strong influence in the 1960 Corvair. I was never a big fan of 1950’s show cars in general as they were just too over the top for me. I always though that the Biscayne was one of the more tasteful designs.
That said, the front end styling just doesn’t do it for me. The headlights, the grille, the whole thing doesn’t work for me. It’s just an unattractive and unnecessarily busy design that doesn’t fit the rest of the car IMO. I also never warmed up the the cove on the side, but I do like the way it is carried onto the rear end. There were earlier versions of this car without the cove that were cleaner and better looking.
I also thought you might like these drawings and clays I dug up and scanned tonight. It shows some of the styling stages this Biscayne (XP-37) went though and its close relationship to the XP-41 Nomad (also shown). The clay on the bottom of this first photo shows the cars lines in it’s purest form. It’s too bad it didn’t end up looking more like it.
And here are some more, as the car eventually reaches it’s final design.
Cool pics Vince. The Biscayne’s face is a certainly one only a mother could love, but it’s interesting to see the earlier proposal – which feels ten years behind the bug-eyed toothy grin.
I’ve always wanted to see the Biscayne with the ’56 Impala front end. The Biscayne is more advanced than the Impala, but the front end is rather unfortunate.
Yep, that face would backdate the Biscayne as well. Overall though, the Impala is the more pleasing shape – just more conventional is all. Boy did GM nail their greens back then.
True. And the rest of the Imp is “older” too; I’m surprised it dates from ’56.
The Biscayne is begging for a variation of the ’59 Olds front end, which was done by Irv Rybicki, no less.
this is sharp. perhaps because i’ve been a fan of mid-50s buicks for quite some time.
Yes, the some of those earlier proposals are pretty dated, especially that front end design. The one that I thought looked the best was this proposal attached. This had the Biscaynes basic overall design but in my eyes is much cleaner. With those two round lights I see a lot of Corvair in it.
As a child, the Biscayne was my favorite show car. I begged my father to get me some serious pictures of the car, and not just the show folder (oh, if I had only kept mine). When I found out the car had been saved and restored, it definitely made me very happy. Now, someday I actually want to see the car, stand within a couple of inches of it.
Real dream, talk whoever is needed to let me sit in it.
Of all the great GM Motorama cars, my favorite is the 1954 Wildcat II. Aside from the wild styling, the idea of a little fiberglass-bodied roadster with 322 cubic inch Buick nailhead power real turns me on.
I guess today they would call it a ‘4 door coupe’.
Thanks for the images, Vince. The earliest versions show the side molding that the ’55 Pontiac sported. Those bodies exhibit yet another hooded headlight example — a bit odd, here ? It’s interesting to see wrap-around windshields rendered sans glass.
The wheels — well, the tires, anyway — seem so large, on some images of the Biscayne. The strong radial texture on the tread shoulder, seen in the pea-soup colored renderings, show up on the restored car — in homage ? Truck tires, on the Biscayne ! (It’s amazing how different each set of images is, in color; almost no two alike, in this subtle green ?)
I’ll just put this here:
I’m seeing quite a lot of the ’59 Opel Kapitan in the c pillar treatment. I’m also seeing the ‘wheel at each corner’ stance of the Corvair. I love this Biscayne, crazy bits too, and the colour is wonderful.
I can’t be the only one who sees some ’56 Corvette in the “boldly indented side panels”, albeit reversed in direction…
I like the clean style of the side as well as the rear view, but what’s with that huge space behind the front wheels? You could fit a basketball in there.
Interior is gorgeous. So is that house.
The Biscayne interior suggests an inspiration for the interior trim and colouring of the 1958-1960 Thunderbird.
More interior detailing with the windshield dogleg configuration of the 1958-1960 Thunderbird likely following GM’s Earl/Jordan Biscayne inspirations seen in this CC post. Another example of everyone looking over every other stylist’s shoulders?
This Biscayne shows the “Hofmeister Kink” seen earlier on the 1949 Cadillac 61 Fastback Sedanette and the 1951 Kaiser Dragon long predating its use by BMW.
Kaiser’s Hofmeister Kink. of 1951
The 1949 Cadillac’s “kink”, the Kaiser’s “Kink”, and the Biscayne’s “Hofmeister Kink” as used by BMW in later years.
Another example of the BMW kink, nothing is pure or unique, it seems.
To recapitulate, the Biscayne “KinK”. Or is it the GM “kink”?
I took a bunch of pictures of the Biscayne at Meadowbrook 2010; here is one of the interior.
And the engine…
And another of the interior…
And the rear end…
And the rear end again…
Nice pictures, Aaron. Good to see you around!
Eek! Eek, I say! Much eeking! From the front it looks like something that would make me drop my trowel and go directly to the garden store for a 50-pound sack of the heaviest-duty insecticide available.
Misterl had that rare ability to see the tremendous potential in young designers, Chuck Jordan just one example. Giving them their legs, encouraging unrestricted flights of pure design fancy would of course produce some bizarre details and results. But it also unleashed the creative ‘juices’ to bring out ideas and themes that could then be developed into more appealing if toned-down features.
The high-domed top was still classic Misterl era. The flanking front fenders are a first look at the theme that would lead to the ‘63 Riviera parking light nacelles. The rear is easily the most inspired part of the design and appeared as it should in production. The interior is also one of the best areas, certainly wished it has shown up in more production four door hardtops.
The rear door/C pillar and a very similar A pillar showed up on the 57 B/C body and the 59s. The side is almost a backwards 56 Corvette. I see a mix of good ideas, intriguing ideas and bad ideas. Which is pretty par for the course for any talented stylist.
I’ll agree that the rear end is interesting, and maybe pretty good. However…the rest of the car is quirky, weird and bizarre. Not a great design by any means in my book. It’s got bug-eyed headlights and is painted green. I’d grade it a “D”. And, I’d never in a million years label it as beautiful. Chrysler Corp. had some great, even outstanding, concepts throughout the 1950’s. This is not even close.
OK, I will backtrack and suggest that if this were somebody’s customized version of a factory production car, and some people seem to like it, then maybe it’s OK. But looks more than a little too amateur to me.
Aaron’s photos are priceless evidence. For me it’s a dreamboat of the first order. I’ve attempted a slight improvement to the front end; nothing else is very much out of order. The rear “bumper” molding could easily be beefed up, for a street version.
The very low fuselage, with a wide-open greenhouse that’s well proportioned, makes a sporting vehicle of a sedan in a most convincing manner. The big Chevy wheel with full horn ring is the perfect accessory. Color-coordination is thorough and appealing.
The shots with the doors open, the airy chrome-and-glass cabin enclosure beyond and a luscious interior layout, are seductive. Architects of the day were opening the house to the out-of-doors; this car and others like it were the response of similarly-forward-looking designers in the auto field. The moment was a high point in postwar design optimism.
The Biscayne goes from show car to the bare bones, stripped, big Chevy. Though could add big block V8’s.
Still working on it. How’s this; marginally better ?
As compared to the original.
And, maybe it would be nice to get rid of the garish color . . .