“Your September 15 Motorama story posed the question as to the present whereabouts of the Motorama vehicles. Perhaps this picture I took in a Sterling Heights, Mich., junkyard around 1970 will add a small piece to the puzzle. I went there on a tip from a friend about a ‘weird 4-door Corvette,’ plus a 1958 Chrysler 300D he had just removed fuel-injection emblems from. Since Chrysler 300s are an interest of mine (I now own seven) I grabbed my camera and had a look.
“The car (seen in the picture) certainly appears to be the Motorama Biscayne. The only difference I can see is what appears to be a side marker light on the front fender. I regret that I did not look this car over well at all nor the one underneath it. I guess I was pre-occupied with finding that F.I. 300D. The car underneath (the first car) looks familiar and I am sure one of your readers will be able to identify it. Neither appears to have any chassis components left.
“I do not know what happened to these cars as, not finding any 300D, I never returned to the yard. I hope someone saved them!
“Thanks for a great publication. I look forward to it every week. In addition to the 300s, I have a ’64 Riviera which my dad bought new and my first car, a 1954 Ford convertible.”
Inman, South Carolina
In 1983, Gil Cunningham mailed the above letter and the black-and-white snapshot that went with it to my desk at Old Cars Weekly. A few years earlier, we met as members of the Chrysler 300 Club. That was when Gil lived in Michigan. Apparently, by 1983 he had relocated to South Carolina, but it was obvious that he still had fond memories of Michigan and some of the cars he had seen there.
We published his letter and photos, and that started a flood of reader letters about the bottom car in the photo, which was determined to be another 1955 GM dream car called the LaSalle II. At the time, it was unclear if Gil’s photo showed the LaSalle II roadster or the four-door hardtop version. In a related follow-up piece, it said that several readers had written in for the location of the Michigan junkyard, because they wanted to search for the two cars themselves.
The top car (stacked on top of the bottom car) was the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne dream car, and the first thought that flashed through my mind at the time was that it was sad that no one would ever own this unique vehicle. Little did anyone know then that now-famous dream car collector Joe Bortz would buy it.
Time-wise, Gil’s letter arrived about one year before Bortz looked me up at the first Harrah’s Automobile Collection dispersal auction. It was on the first day of the auction, the evening of Sept. 29, 1984. Bortz told me that he shared my passion for dream cars, and went on to explain that he planned to hunt down famous concept vehicles and make the investment necessary to own them and, if need be, to restore them. “They will be the Duesenbergs of the future,” he said then – a prediction he has since proven.
According to Bortz, his 1955 Biscayne began life as a super star car designed to showcase Chevy’s new 265-cid V-8. In the GM design studios, it was known as XP-37 Shop Order 2249. Well-known stylist Clare MacKichan, who headed the Chevrolet design team from 1953 to 1961, is credited with creating the Biscayne’s startlingly attractive appearance. The automaker described the modernistic four-door hardtop as “an exploration in elegance.” It indeed looked like a four-door Corvette, with its side coves and sculpted body feature lines.
The Biscayne was displayed at the 1955 Motorama, where it wowed the world with its futuristic design and advanced styling cues. Design motifs introduced on the Biscayne would influence GM cars for years. An obvious glimpse into the ’60s was the “wraparound” rear end styling that predicted the appearance of the Corvair production model. In a lesser way, the Biscayne influenced Chevy’s 1958 design with its separation of the taillight scallops.
Up front, the leading edge of the Biscayne’s fenders had a look later shared with the ’63 Buick Riviera. A Biscayne-style windshield was used across the board on all ’59 and ’60 GM cars. The Biscayne wheel cover design was said to have inspired the 1957 Chevy’s 14-inch wheel covers. Oval exhaust ports, seen on the show car’s rocker panels, became a dress-up option for ’58 Chevys.
Finished in an attractive hue called Atlantic Green, the innovative body construction featured center-opening doors without a “B” pillar for ease of entry and exits. Two years later, this design was brought to the showroom in the ’57 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. Biscayne-like interior door bolsters showed up in production line ’59 Impalas. The dream car’s body trim influenced the ’57 Chevrolet’s hood decorations. Its dashboard instrument cluster was picked up for the ’58 Chevrolet. The rear bumper was like that of ’61 and ’62 Corvettes.
GM built the Biscayne using a custom-made frame on which the front section just about matched that of a showroom Chevy. To get the car’s height down to 52.5 inches, the floor platform was like a well that dropped below frame height. An average size model standing next to the car and wearing a pillbox hat towered above its sleek roofline.
Anyone looking into the Biscayne probably thought of the stylized interior of an airplane or sporty speedboat. Up front were thin-shell bucket seats that swiveled towards the doors like an office chair. Bucket seats were also used in the rear compartment, with a storage console that doubled as an armrest between them. The upholstery was green leather with light green, textured fabric inserts. The carpets were also dyed green. The dashboard and steering wheel came from a ’55 Chevy. Everything inside was color coordinated.
By 1958, the Biscayne’s usefulness on the show car circuit was over and GM condemned it. The car was to be cut up and crushed at Warhoops Junkyard in Sterling Heights, Mich. However, the GM executive who was supposed to make sure that the car was cut up, crushed and totally obliterated was anxious to get home for Christmas. He decided not to stay to the bitter end. Harry Warholak, Sr., the owner of Warhoops, understood the special nature and historical significance of the show car. So, instead of vaporizing the Biscayne, he scattered its pieces around the yard, where they would rest for over three decades.
Occasionally, visitors to the yard would stumble upon the remains. Some of these parts seekers, such as Gil Cunningham, appreciated what the dream cars were. By that time, in the ’70s, the old-car hobby was growing and trending towards postwar car history and new magazines for collectors, filled with postwar car stories, were coming on. By the mid 1980s, the old ’50s show cars were being written about a lot, hobbyists like Gil were sending in photos they’d snapped of the cars, and collectors like Joe Bortz and Don Williams of the Blackhawk Auto Museum were starting to locate and buy existing dream cars.
Bortz publicized his treasure hunting efforts in the hobby press, and made headlines every time he purchased another dream car. This brought him many new leads. But, it wasn’t until his son Marc read a sidebar about Warhoops in an Automobile Quarterly story that the Biscayne came into his crosshairs.
Marc suggested contacting Warhoops. When they reached Harry Warholak Sr., it turned out the junkyard owner had heard of Joe Bortz and his quest for the lost dream cars. After a lengthy phone chat, Bortz was on his way to Sterling Heights. “It was a very exciting and memorable day when we excavated not one, but four 1950s concept cars from the piles of twisted metal and fiberglass heaps that day,” Bortz recalls. “The Biscayne was literally in pieces and, at that time, I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. So, I put the project aside for years and focused on other, easier restoration projects.”
After moving the Biscayne pieces around several times, Bortz consigned a friend to glue together the fiberglass body of the Biscayne back into some semblance of its original shape. Eventually, the Biscayne was back in one piece but it was still missing its chassis. At this point the project came to another temporary halt, so the Bortz Collection could pursue its other car projects.
Then one day, some 50 years after their drawing board days, GM sent Bortz the original blueprints for the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne chassis. “It was like a miracle,” says Bortz. “And we thought it was a sign that the Biscayne should be completed as a running vehicle.” Bortz had Hopperstad Customs hand-construct a chassis per the original Biscayne blueprints. Then a 265-cid Chevy engine with “correct” date coding was installed, along with a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. “It was a very time-intensive project,” Bortz recalls. “But I felt that the day that the body was placed on the chassis was a major historical event in American automotive history.”
With the Biscayne back on wheels and starting to look whole again, Bortz investigated how to restore its fiberglass body. More than a year was invested in checking that the car was “in square.” Using the original blueprints as a guide, the Biscayne was finished to a stage where it could join other GM dream cars at the corporation’s 100th Anniversary of GM Show at the GM Tech Center in 2008. “It stood its own against cars that hadn’t been nearly destroyed,” Bortz notes.
Weeks later, the Biscayne stood proud at the 2008 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in another display commemorating the 100th Anniversary of GM. It was the first time since the inception of the Pebble Beach venue that a car in totally un-restored condition would be shown along with the un-restored 1955 LaSalle roadster, but it stood on its merit for its impact on GM design.
After Pebble, Bortz realized it was time to give the Biscayne a well-deserved completed restoration. The next year was spent bringing it back to the condition it was in during its glory days at the 1955 Motorama. Every original show car detail has been carefully recreated to make the Biscayne authentic and as beautiful as it was so long ago. In a flashback to the 1955 Motorama, it was exhibited for the first time in restored condition at Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance in Michigan on July 24, 2010. About a week later, it was seen at the historically important Auto Exotica IX event in Highland Park, Ill.
Thanks to Joe Bortz and Deb Powless for help with information and photos. To contact the Bortz Auto Collection, email Debra Powless at BortzCars@gmail.com or call 847-668-2004.
Gil Cunningham’s grainy black and white snapshot from the 1970s shows the Biscayne stacked on top of the LaSalle II roadster in Warhoops junkyard in Sterling Heights, Mich. In 1983, Gil alerted the hobby that the car still survived.
Using the front section from a 1955 Chevy frame and equipped with factory blueprints of the original Biscayne frame, Hopperstad Customs Hot Rod Shop in Illinois hand-fabricated a new frame. (Bortz Auto Collection)
The body of the famous show car was fitted with some type of dolly wheels so it could be moved around, and spent time sitting outside on a rack that could also be moved around on steel “skate” wheels. (Bortz Auto Collection)
An exciting phase of the construction of any car is the body drop, but Joe Bortz considers the day the Biscayne body was lowered onto its new chassis a “significant milestone in automotive history.” (Bortz Auto Collection)
Famed GM designer Chuck Jordan (blazer) who died late in 2010 discussed the Biscayne with Joe Bortz (cap) at the 2010 Meadow Brook Concours. It was the car’s first outing in fully restored form. (Jim Rugowski photo)
The front end styling of the Biscayne was considered both extremely creative and unusual since the car was first seen at the Motorama show. (GM photo via Bortz Auto Collection)
Bortz had the Biscayne restored in stages, but when he got down to the complete restoration phase, every detail of the front end was restored or replicated to look exactly the way the car looked in 1955. (Bortz Auto Collection)
The coves on the side of the car cause many people who see the Biscayne to compare it to Corvettes of the era. A friend of Gil Cunningham told him about the “four-door Corvette” in Warhoops junkyard. (Bortz Auto Collection)
The absence of a B-pillar in a four-door hardtop car greatly eases the job of getting in and out of the vehicle. Four-door hardtops were the rage in 1955-1956, and this design showcased very innovative thinking. The Biscayne interior is aircraft inspired, and gorgeous. The 3-Way Panoramic “Astra-Dome” windshield gives better driver view by extending the glass above the normal line of vision. The upper third was tinted. (Bortz Auto Collection)
The Biscayne has two-tone green leather bucket seats with chrome trim in both the front driver’s compartment and rear passenger cabin. Carpets and door panels are also done in complementary color schemes. (John Gunnell)
In this color-faded period publicity photo released by General Motors, the female model seems to be commenting on the extreme lowness of the Biscayne’s roofline… (GM photo via Bortz Auto Collection)
The GM Motorama Dream Cars of the Fifties by Bruce Berghoff. 1995. Classic Motorbooks. Osceola, Wis.
GM’s Motorama: The Glamorous Show Cars of a Cultural Phenomenon by David W. Temple. 2006. MBI Publishing Co., Osceola, Wis.