Four years ago, I had taken a tour of the S. C. Johnson Wax Headquarters complex in Racine, Wisconsin. Designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1936, it has been on the National Registry of Historic Places since 1974. This excursion was completely free save for the cost of lunch at a small restaurant, including bus transportation from the downtown Chicago Cultural Center to Racine and back. The tour concluded at Wingspread, the former home of Herbert Fisk Johnson, Jr., then president of S. C. Johnson Company. This 14,000 square foot dwelling was also designed by Wright and built between 1938 and ’39. This was quite a fun, relaxing, educational, cultural way to spend a Sunday afternoon. This ’76 Chevrolet El Camino was in the parking lot of Wingspread. I’ll admit I was almost as excited to see it as these buildings.
Arriving at S. C. Johnson Wax Headquarters by charter bus.
Before we get too deep into this thing, I want to make it clear that the title of this essay isn’t a dig on this El Camino, or on this type of vehicle in general. I like these and have written about a handful of them over the years here at Curbside. The “wrong” in the title is more a description of how I felt after my immediate and loud reaction to seeing this one in the parking lot of Wingspread. Here we were, a bus full of Chicago-based tourists, arriving at this celebrated piece of Prairie School design created by one of the most famous architects in history, and I was spazzing out over a lime green El Camino. Don’t judge me. Also wrong was the fact that when I had returned home that evening, I discovered that I hadn’t gotten one, single shot of the exterior of Wingspread with my Canon camera, when I had at least five frames of this truck. Oops.
Obviously, I am interested in both architecture and historic sites, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there in the first place. It was my older brother who had once been serious about studying architecture in school before deciding on a different path. It was during those years, though, that I had first become aware of Wright’s aesthetic and subsequent influence on North American building design – residential, municipal, and commercial – during the middle of the last century.
Wingspread postcard image, as sourced from the internet.
Even the second house I had ever lived in, originally built in the 1940s, contained passable facsimiles of some of the elements of his work. Compared with the conventional, box-like, two-story houses of frame construction around it, our red brick house had a lower, broader stance, wide expanses of wood-framed window banks, built-in planters lining the front of the house that seemed to blend the outdoors with the interior living space, and a complex shape. Someone could have convinced me as an adolescent that our house had actually been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Before boarding the bus that day, I had anticipated a certain level of snobbery, or at least a strong sense of reserve from the other participants on this amazing architectural tour, which I would have paid for without hesitation. If I recall correctly, it had been subsidized at least in part by the S. C. Johnson Company, in conjunction with the Chicago Cultural Center. The reverse of my assumption ended up being true, with the other tourists seeming as warm and friendly as the Wisconsinites at the handful of stops we made throughout the afternoon, including at the small restaurant at which I had my first sampling of a pastry of Danish origin called a kringle, which was delicious and something I’d love to have more of for this year’s holidays.
S. C. Johnson Wax headquarters postcard image, as sourced from the internet.
After first making the rounds at the breathtakingly gorgeous Johnson Wax Headquarters, including up into its iconic tower, our bus arrived at Wingspread, pulling into the parking lot in front of one of the most highbrow examples of North American home design, with one of the most lowbrow types of vehicles I could possibly imagine sitting its parking lot. I had honestly hoped when originally drafting this essay that I was going to be able to come up with some theme that would tie in the design of the El Camino with that of Wingspread. I was hoping to write maybe about how both designs appealed to a certain, respective demographic with a specific, elevated taste common to only a select few. Or, perhaps I’d draw a parallel between the physical appearances of both things, like how the El Camino’s curvilinear GM “Colonnade” styling echoed the way that Wrightian design…
No. Absolutely not. Couldn’t do it. If this was a homework assignment with that as the theme, I would accept a Grade F on principle. The truth is that there is no way for me to find many similarities (if at all) between the automotive equivalent of a mullet haircut and one of the most beautiful residential buildings I have ever been inside. The front of Wingspread may have been antiseptically and geometrically “business up front”, but I can assure you from having taken the tour that there was no “party in the back” of that residence. The more fluid, flowing lines of the Johnson Wax Research Tower (pictured above), with its rounded corners, would rhyme more closely with the El Camino’s rounded everything, but I had seen this vehicle at Wingspread and not at Johnson Company headquarters.
Inside the main atrium of Wingspread.
Total ’76 El Camino production was about 45,000 units, which included about 5,000 Super Sport variants. Combined with its sister ship, the GMC Sprint (which usually sold in quantities roughly 10% of the comparable Chevy), GM moved just over 50,000 of these coupe utility vehicles that year. This one is finished in factory Lime Green and Antique White two-tone. The Super Sport package, RPO Z15, which this example does not have, was basically a dress-up package that included different “SS” exterior identification, sport mirrors, the ubiquitous Chevy Rally Wheels (15″ X 7″), stripes, and raised white-letter tires.
Standard power for the base model El Camino came from a 250 cubic inch six cylinder engine with 105 horsepower mated to a three-speed manual transmission. Optional engines ranged from a 140-horse, two-barrel 305-c.i. V8, two 350 V8s with either two- or four-barrel carburetors (with 145 or 165 hp, respectively), up to a top-shelf, 175-horse 400 with a four-barrel. Curb weight was right around exactly two tons, though the factory 1976 brochure lists the “model weight”, which included estimates for occupants and fuel, to be around 10% more. Sounds right to me.
There’s no rule, written or unwritten, that says that if a person likes one thing, that they’re forbidden from genuinely liking another, using advanced architecture and half-car-half-truck conveyances as the examples given in this essay. One look at my music collection, which encompasses everything from New Wave to disco, Beethoven, jazz, yacht rock, and hip-hop (and more), is proof positive that one person can like a lot of widely ranging variety with authenticity. On this particular day, however, I had only wished that I had been better able to contain my loud, visceral reaction out of excitement at spotting this El Camino from the tour bus at Wingspread. But again, why should I have been sorry? I like what I like, and this Sunday afternoon trek ended up being a win on many different levels.
Sunday, October 29, 2017.