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Media post: How concept cars began

In 1939, General Motors, surprised the automotive industry when they were the first major manufacturer to formally unveil a car that was not in actual production, or even in the planning stages.  The car was a futuristic new design and was dubbed the “Y-Job.”

The Y-Job was the brainchild of Harley Earl, General Motor’s Chief of Design. It was styled with a long, narrow hood that had four chrome exhaust pipes snaking into the front fenders. In the rear was a classic “boattail.” Boattails were a popular design feature of some of the most elite cars of the 1930s.

Harley wanted the Y-job to be the utlimate car of the future. Toward that end, he pushed the General Motors design team relentlessly to come up with styling and mechanical features that hadn’t been seen or even imagined before. According to former employees, the design process so arduous and frustrating at times that they began calling it the “Why job.”

Completed in late 1938, the Y-job boasted a long list of firsts that included a power-operated soft top, power windows, push-button outer door handles, retractable headlights and front fenders that flowed back through the doors. Between its broad horizontal grille and tapered tail, the car stretched more than 17 feet yet stood only 58 inches high at the top of the windshield.

At some point in the design process, Harley discussed with GM executive Alfred Sloan and Harlow Curtice the idea of giving the Y-job a broader purpose, of using it to test styling concepts with consumers well in advance of production. Earl’s theory was that most car buyers didn’t know exactly what they wanted until they saw it sitting in front of them; that’s why millions of them packed the auto shows every year. But if the Y-job “cars of the future” toured the show circuit, Earl reasoned, the company could log their reactions before it spent millions of dollars retooling factories to build a car that the public might reject.

Harley’s plan was for the Y-job to make its official debut during the 1939 New York Auto Show at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. As our subject matter expert at Zeigler Chrysler (Kalamazoo, MI) explained that as part of that PR campaign, the company published a historic 32-page booklet, Modes and Motors, illustrated in the art deco style, which traced the evolution of art through human history—from the first cave painting in Spain to the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans, from the Dark Ages to the Italian Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution.

The introductory passage reads like something that might have written more than half a century later: “Art in industry is entirely new. Only in recent years has the interest of manufacturer and user alike been expanded from the mere question of “does it work?” to include “how should it look?”

The Y-job was exhibited at the New York Auto Show, but its debut turned out to be its swan song as well. After the show, Harley shipped the car to his home in Grosse Pointe and began driving it to and from work every day.

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