Curbside Classic: 1961 Buick LeSabre Two-Door Hardtop – Harley Earl’s Bubbletop Has Its Last Flight

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(first posted 6/18/2014)    Where does design inspiration come from? In the case of Harley Earl, GM’s legendary design chief from 1927 through 1958, after WW2 it most often came from aviation. The jet age had arrived, starting with military jet fighters, the icons of those upward-looking times. Earl became the leading exponent in transposing their powerful imagery of wings, tails, air intakes, afterburners and plexiglass canopies unto the family chariot. Most of those features were gone or muted for the slimmed-down, cleaned-up 1961 GM cars, the last ones designed under Earl’s watch, but his beloved bubbletop still crowned them, for the last time. It was the end of an era, in more ways than one.

Cadillac 1948 and P-38image:

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning’s twin tails were the inspiration for the 1948 Cadillac’s fins, the first of their kind to grace a production automobile. Small as they were, they were the beginning of something big that soon became the dominant design theme during the fifties, culminating in the final blowout on the ’59 Cadillac. This unattributed rendering with the P-38 also shows a number of advanced Cadillac design concepts, which in addition to their fins also show other aeronautical influence, especially in their greenhouses, literally. Perhaps that’s the origin of the term, as Earl and his designers sought to bring the dubious virtues of the plexiglass fighter bubble canopy to mainstream cars.

Buick 1949 roadmaster riviera

GM’s 1949 C-Bodies were the first regular production two-door hardtops, like this Buick Roadmaster Riviera. At this point, there wasn’t all that much “bubble” in it yet, although the three-piece wraparound rear window was a good start.

Buick 1951 Roadmaster Riviera

By 1951, the glass-to-steel ratio had increased significantly, as seen on this Buick. The bubble was coming into its own.

Chevrolet 1955 bel air

From 1955 -1957, it was GM’s smaller B-bodies that carried the next evolution of Earl’s bubble proudly, as the C-Bodies explored some other hardtop design themes. In 1958, all the GM cars took a bubble break. But then 1958 was hardly a stellar year for GM design.

Earl firebirds

But Earl’s love for the bubble was not yet fully realized. His series of Firebirds were the ultimate expression of putting a jet fighter on the streets of America, and were even turbine powered. Sadly, there were no actual afterburners, although sun burns were standard equipment. All the Harrison GM air conditioning in the world couldn’t have made these a comfortable place to be in the Arizona summer sun.

Buick 1956 XP-301

The quest for the one true bubble wasn’t just limited to the Firebirds, which were obviously pretty far out there. The 1956 Buick Centurion XP-301 envisioned the whole family sitting frying under plexiglass.

1956 Buick Centurion. W56HV_BU003

Hopefully always within near proximity to a cool swimming pool. What a contrast to the heavily-enclosed small-windowed Brougham coupes soon to come. It seems that America didn’t really want to ride in a bubble after all. But that was still some years off.

Buick 1959 Invicta 2-door Hardtop_2

In the meantime, GM’s radical 1959 cars like this Buick gave Earl’s beloved bubble, fins, afterburners and other aircraft-inspired design accoutrements a fitting blow-out. Strictly speaking, Earl didn’t actually instigate these ’59s, as they were started while he was on his annual Europe trip in the summer of 1956, in response to the design team spotting some radical pre-production ’57 Chryslers in a storage lot. It was a bit of a palace revolt, but Earl quickly bought in, and nurtured them to completion. And perhaps in a nod to the Big Man, they really are the ultimate expression of his jet-age sensibilities.

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After the admitted excesses of the finned ’59-’60 cars, GM went on a crash diet for the new 1961s. The all shed inches in length (although not by the means that this one did), width, and typically lost some 200 lbs. This LeSabre is five inches shorter than a 1960. They weren’t truly downsized, as often has been said of them, as they still rode on the same wheelbases as before (123″), and interior space was actually improved, thanks to revisions in the frames and taller roofs. Yes, the ’61 bubble had been inflated a bit upwards, to improve headroom. Heresy. And it does make the rest of the car look smaller.


Buick 1961 frame

The 1961 Buicks were substantially revised under their bodies too, with the biggest change being a new rear suspension that ditched the torque tube, a feature seen on every Buick since 1907. Interestingly, Buick used a single large transverse rear muffler, which meant there were no dual exhausts to be had. Buick ditched the perimeter frame they used in ’59-’60, and switched to its variation of GM’s X-Frame that used heavily reinforced sill in the body to compensate for the lack of side rails.

Buick’s “Nailhead” V8s were on tap to feed Buick’s exclusive Turbine Drive automatic, which afforded hydraulic “downshifts”, thanks to a variable-pitch stator in the torque convertor, without any abrupt mechanical gear change. The LeSabre used a 364 cubic inch version; a 250 hp unit with high compression but two barrel carb was standard; a low compression 235 hp economy version was optional, as was the 300hp four-barrel version. The Invicta and Electra came standard with the larger 401 cubic inch block, with 325 hp. But let’s get back to what’s on the surface.

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A common mistake, one that I’ve made myself in the past, is to attribute these lighter and cleaner ’61 GM cars to Bill Mitchell’s direction. Earl didn’t retire as VP of Design until December of 1958, when he hit the mandatory retirement age of 65. The design work on the ’61 models was by then well under way, and Earl still oversaw it, and provided direction, although undoubtedly Bill Mitchell’s influence was on the rise.

Earl made some key decisions on the ’61, such as not eliminating the fins on the Cadillac. He specifically fussed over the replacement design for the panoramic “wraparound” windshield, with its awkward ”dog leg”, that had been such a trademark of his late-fifties designs.

Cadillac 1959 Brougham

This problem was first resolved for the 1959 Eldorado Brougham, which foreshadowed future GM design directions thanks to its hand-made body by Pininfarina, which allowed shorter lead times. Here’s how the process is described in this write-up of the ’61 Cadillac design process. (howstuffworks,com):

“We wanted something new,” recalls Holls, “but couldn’t get anything that satisfied Earl until we did the Brougham windshield. He told us, ‘You can’t just end it at the bottom of the pillar. You’ve got to something different. Do a little circle do something else there.’

“He didn’t want the windshield to look like Chrysler’s or anybody else’s. He wanted that little curve, that switchback where it went into the belt; that was Mr. Earl’s touch. The Brougham also had a 60-degree rake to the glass, which was very fast for that time. And then when we finally got that windshield right, he said, ‘Oh my God that’s more beautiful than the wraparound!'”

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The result was very pleasing, and the 1960 Corvair was the first regular production car to use it. It was one of the many design details that were part of this major transition from the Earl Era to the Mitchell Era.

Buick Riviera 1963 bk

Which didn’t really begin until 1963, and was reflected most fully in the ’63 Buick Riviera. Mitchell was not inspired by airplanes; he drew much of his inspiration from classic European cars as well as the deep ocean, for his shark-inspired Corvettes.


Buick 1962 Le sabre

Undoubtedly, the loss of the bubble on all of the 1962 hardtops (except for the ’62 Bel Air) in favor of the formal coupe roof was the first major step in that (Mitchell) direction, as well as a further clean up that ditched the last vestiges of flight-simulation. And there’s no question that the changes, subtle as they are, make the ’62’s look decidedly more earthbound than the ’61s. Which is a bit ironic, as the space age was rally just getting under way. Frankly, the ’62 is a duller car in almost every way, the victim of a change in leadership and design inspirations.

Buick 1962 Invicta Conv_DV_08_CC_06

This Mitchell-led purge of Earl jet-age paraphernalia was particularly obvious in places like the ’62 Buick’s rear end.

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At the end of that long flat deck, some very Earl-esque details were still very much on display on the ’61.

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I suppose it’s debatable if these flamboyant hooded tail lights are jet-inspired or not. But they clearly seem to belong to the Earl era.

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Earl had a long tradition of being particularly closely associated with Buick, and used Buicks for most of his signature show cars, like the ur-dream car Y-Job, as well as its spiritual successor, the 1951 LeSabre. And it all ended here, literally.

Buick 1961 Full Size Prestige-10-11

We arrived in the US just weeks before the 1961 GM cars came out. And I was smitten, to say the least. The walls in my bedroom were soon covered with 1961 ads and brochure pictures, although I don’t remember this particular one. Is it the cliffs above Black’s Beach in La Jolla? I rather favored the Pontiac over the Olds and Buick, but was an equal opportunity GM lover at the time. Chrysler was in a very strange place at the time, and the Fords were just stodgy, except for the T-Bird.

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Finding this very original ’61 Le Sabre in a bank parking lot the other day was highly gratifying. I’ve always wanted to write up the ’61 GM cars, as they left such a deep impression on my young mind. And it being a white Buick hardtop was icing on the cake.

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In the summer of 1961 we were on vacation in the Rockies, in our pudgy old ’54 Ford. On a climb of the Twin Sisters, we met some other German-speakers, a Jewish couple that had fled in 1939. They were childless; he was a dentist and she was an artist. And when we got to the parking lot, what did they head towards? A gleaming white ’61 Buick hardtop, an Invicta, if I remember correctly. I had the thought “maybe not having children was the key to driving something like this”.

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Probably largely true, as we would have broiled in the back seat of one of these, driving two days across Iowa and Nebraska in the summer sun, with the windows closed except for a tiny crack, as my father was draftophobic. Without air conditioning, obviously. But the vistas of the Rockies would have been unparalleled, except in a convertible.

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No, this was just about the ultimate Not-Niedermeyermobile, what with its husky big V8. And no three-on-the trees here; Buick graced every full-sized car with its automatic as standard equipment, at least through 1962.

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I tried to get a decent shot of the “Mirrormagic” instrument cluster. The gauges are all reflected on an adjustable mirror; the adjusting wheel is barely visible on its right side.

Buick 1961 dash

Here’s a cleaner shot, with the adjustment wheel quite visible.

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For good measure, here’s a shot of the Mirrormagic unit itself.


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Frankly, the ’62 Buick front end is also pretty dull compared to the ’61. There’s even a final appearance of a Earl’s beloved Dagmar bumper to complement the spear-shaped fender blade, although it has noticeably shrunk since its heyday; a B cup instead of a DD. Come to think of it, maybe airplanes weren’t the only design inspiration Earl drew on.

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And this badge alone deserves a moment to savor it. Note how the sweep on the bottom of the “S” reflects the sweep of that chrome trim below it.

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Although toned down from Buick’s wild ’59 grille, this one does portend the styling direction Buick front ends would take over the next few years. Solid, with a touch of understated style. Not terribly inspired, though, but less confused than the ’61 Olds, in any case.

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This car has had an unfortunate run in with a solid object, which looks to have been some time ago.

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What’s a bit odd is that I found this Buick sitting in the same exact bank parking spot as where I found one of my other more unusual finds, a 1976 Dodge Royal Monaco, almost five years ago. And it was in somewhat similar original condition, with plenty of patina. Same owner?

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This one is working up some nice patterns and colors, especially on its long, flat sweeping rear deck.

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The oft-touched and stressed area around the gas filler door shows the effects of over a half century of fill-ups.

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The lichen seems to be feeding on the decaying rubber.

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But stepping back a bit, all the magic of GM’s 1961 cars is still intact especially on this side. Harley Earl’s last few years at the helm must have been challenging ones, as his powers and influence were waning, trying to adapt to the changing demands and tastes of the times. But then Mitchell went through similar challenges at the end of his career, having to downsize cars for a new era too.

Buick 1961 In_the_Cloudscomposite image by Dan Moran

But Earl’s bubble, which in ’61 was a bit too tall and about to burst, enjoyed a final outing, a fitting tribute to the man who essentially created the modern design studio and brought the jet age into America’s garages.


Related reading:

Buick’s Nailhead V8 and the Possible Source of its Unusual Valve Arrangement

GM’s X Frame: An X-Ray Look

1961 Buick LeSabre Sedan CC