Curbside Curiosity: 1955-56 Gaylord Gladiator – Falling on the Sword

(first posted 11/4/2017)           Malcolm Bricklin and John DeLorean are well known to this audience, but do the names James and Edward Gaylord ring a bell? Probably not. Even so, the brothers Gaylord built one of the more interesting cars of its time–or more specifically, three of them.

The story starts with the brothers themselves, who had the good sense to be born into money. Their father was the inventor of the bobby pin, which made him an extremely wealthy man. His son Edward eventually stepped in to run their Chicago-based family business, known as Gayla, quite successfully. Both he and his brother, James, who operated out of Scottsdale, Arizona, had been lifelong car fanatics, having grown up with Packards, Pierce-Arrows, Stutzes and Duesenbergs gracing the family driveway.

As with many a car guy, the desire to design and bring to production a namesake vehicle (which will, of course be revolutionary) was overwhelming, but these brothers actually had the wherewithal to pursue their dream. According to the designer Alex Tremulis, he was working as chief designer at Tucker when Jim Gaylord visited him one day, proclaiming his desire to build “the ultimate sports car” and stating his intention to have Tremulis design it. Over the next five years, nothing happened as far as the car was concerned as Tremulis moved on to Kaiser-Frazer and then to Ford. There, Jim Gaylord visited him a second time, promising to build his car before mid-1955 and seeking Tremulis’s help. Because Ford took a dim view of its designers taking on freelance projects, Tremulis refused; however, he referred Gaylord to a talented freelance designer, Brooks Stevens of Milwaukee, who accepted the design assignment.

We’ll address the…well, controversial, styling a bit later, in order to concentrate on the real story here, the Gaylord’s engineering. Given the technology available in the mid-1950s, the car’s mechanicals are nothing short of amazing. The brothers wanted a high-performance chassis, but one refined enough to totally isolate noise and vibration. Jim proceeded to construct a center chassis frame of chrome and molybdenum tubes, then attached steel channel perimeters and a rigid steel platform. The interior portions of the channels were rustproofed, and all tubes and channels sealed, thus making the whole affair condensation-resistant. By comparison, the suspension looked dead conventional: coils/wishbone in front, leaf springs and a live axle in back. Even here, the brothers took things a step further; the front suspension featured rubber bushings twice the size of any other car’s, while the rear springs boasted permanent moly-disulfide lubrication and leather covers–a full decade before other manufacturers would offer no-lube chassis.

Initially, power came from a 331 cid Chrysler Hemi fitted with two four-barrel carbs. Later, GM’s Ed Cole convinced Jim Gaylord that the 365 cid, 305 hp Cadillac V8 was lighter and quieter, and the Caddy engine powered the second and third Gaylords. Jim also planned to offer an optional supercharger, but the project never reached that point. Other mechanicals included a GM Hydra-Matic transmission and power steering whose feel could be regulated via a hydraulic servo controlled by a dash-mounted knob. Specially designed VDO gauges were set into a Siamese-wood instrument panel, and a Heuer chronometer was mounted on the console.

As for the styling, the Gaylords wanted “a modern car with classic overtones”, in Jim’s words, which necessitated compromises. The first (Paris show) car, for instance, featured gigantic Lucas P-100 headlights that gave the front end the countenance of an angry insect; production models used conventional quad headlights.

It’s fair to surmise that Stevens went out of his way to keep the brothers happy despite his own judgment. The finished design shows a hint of clamshell front fenders; concave side panels;squared-off wheel wells; and freestanding wheels and tires.

Of course, there was the de rigueur wraparound windshield, and in the back were tailfins, beneath which was a bright ribbed panel that concealed a slide-out spare tire.

The piece-de-resistance, however, was the Gaylord’s retractable hardtop. Pushing a dashboard-mounted button set into motion a sole electric motor that lifted the deck lid on two struts. The top then lifted and slid into the trunk via a chain drive. It was a model of simplicity compared with Ford’s seven-motor-setup for the Skyliner.

Public showings encouraged the Gaylords, who had started taking orders from such luminaries as actors Dick Powell and Bill Holden, auto magnate Edgar Kaiser, and former Egyptian King Farouk. In the end, however, only three complete cars were built: the first show car, and two subsequent revised models.

With seemingly bright prospects, what did the Gaylord in? Production problems presented a major hurdle. For instance, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin of Fredricksburg, Germany, which had won the contract to build the cars, failed to deliver specified designs. The brothers sued L-Z, and the lawsuit caused Jim Gaylord to suffer a nervous breakdown; citing health reasons, his family eventually persuaded him to abandon the idea of building a car.

Then there was pricing. Originally projected to cost $10,000–the same as a contemporary Continental Mark II–the projected price rose quickly to $15,000, then to $17,500. That’s a lot to gamble on an unknown quantity.

Of the three Gaylord cars, the first was destroyed; the second disappeared somewhere in Europe, where it still might exist; and the third was donated to the Early American Museum in Florida, its last known home.