[Editor’s note: This piece comes to us from car writer/collector/fine artist Wallace Wyss.]
Harley Earl was a big man, well over six-foot-six. He was not only physically imposing, but a towering figure in American automobile design. He was an early adopter of using clay to produce three-dimensional models, because as a boy he made model cars with the clay of a nearby riverbed.
From the moment he created the Art and Colour Section at GM in the late 1920s, he began exploring color and new shapes, always having show cars built to whet the public’s appetite for what was to come.
1957 Oldsmobile F88 Mk II concept. Tailfins — absent from the Mk III — were much more restrained than on period Cadillacs. Wheels may have been two piece, like those later optional on the later Pontiac Grand Prix. Barn finders clue: If it was sent back to Earl from GM, you could start your search in Palm Beach. It’s documented that he sold a previous show car there to a local dealer. Photo by author.
He would also, in a king-like fashion, appropriate what he liked to take home, sometimes putting the cars under his own name, other times giving them to friends. We wonder what his wife thought when he gave a Cadillac dream car to an actress named Marie “The Body” MacDonald.
Another view of the 1957 F88 Mk II. Apparently the car was, at different times, light blue, dark blue, and red. It presaged quad headlamps and the author swears those bumperettes reappeared on the 1970-1/2 Camaro RS. Photo by author.
One car’s fate remains something of a mystery: the 1959 Oldsmobile F88 Mk III dream car. It was last seen in the hands of Harley Earl.
Styling clay for the Oldsmobile F88 Mk II.
There had been four earlier identical versions of the first incarnation, a tease that Olds might get what Chevrolet already had — a two-seat sports car. All had concealed folding tops, and the first one was powered by a 324-cu.in. ‘Rocket’ V-8 rated at 250 hp. He gave that one to wheeler-dealer and car-company owner E.L. Cord (CEO of Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg), and took another home as a retirement perk. The only known surviving F88 was sold at auction in 2005 for $3.3 million.
The completed 1957 Oldsmobile F88 Mk II.
The first Oldsmobile F88 dream car was built for the 1954 Motorama show circuit and followed in 1957 by the Mark II version. Also on the same stage was a Cutlass fastback coupe that had the same instrument panel.
There was an unwritten rule back in those days that, after its show career was over (and with the Olds two-seaters you knew they were over because a production equivalent never followed), the cars were taken to the nearest junkyard. But ironically, the nearest junkyard – Warhoops – didn’t want the fiberglass-bodied cars because there wasn’t enough metal in them to junk.
The 1959 F88 Mk III with its top partially retracted.
What makes the Mk II more interesting than the doughy shape of the first one, is that it had quad headlamps (offered on many 1958 GM cars) and little baby tailfins. The Mark II was restyled into the Mark III, introduced in 1959, that had a few updates such as a neat rectangular grille cavity with mesh (though another version had a blacked-out grille with individual chrome Oldsmobile letters). It even had a disappearing hardtop, and in one version twin headrest nacelles similar to those featured on the Pontiac Solstice many decades later. The engine was again a ‘Rocket’ V-8. Inside, the F88 dream car used existing Oldsmobile gauges but with new housings, basically blinding the driver with chrome.
Before he retired in ’58, Earl had really championed the car, figuring it could reach more people than the Corvette. But his stodgy cohorts on the 14th floor of the GM building were skeptical. After all, the Corvette hadn’t turned a profit yet. Why pour good money after bad?
Had Oldsmobile brought the F88 to market in 1954, it would have had a few advantages over the Corvette. The Olds would have been powered by a V-8, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive. In 1953-’54, the Corvette was powered exclusively by the Fireball inline six-cylinder, mated to two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. That changed in 1955, when the Corvette received a 265-cu.in. V-8 as an option, as well as a three-speed manual transmission.
Photo showing the F88 Mk III’s original fuel injection system. This was later replaced with an easier-to-tune carburetor.
We know the Mk III went to Palm Beach, Florida, where Earl lived in retirement. We know it was sent back more than once to Michigan to fix the prototype transmission, and to have its complicated fuel injection system swapped out for a carburetor. According to automotive historian and author Michael Lamm, Earl actually drove the car until his death in 1969, at which time it was donated to NASCAR for inclusion in a planned museum. Construction of said museum wasn’t begun in a timely manner, and Earl’s successor, Bill Mitchell, eventually asked NASCAR to return the prototype to Michigan, where it was supposedly destroyed.
GM dream cars, including the 1959 Oldsmobile F88 Mk III (foreground), the 1951 Buick LeSabre (middle), and the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone (rear).
Though scant, there is perhaps a glimmer of hope that the Mk III survives, and perhaps at this very moment is gathering a fine coat of patina in some long-forgotten GM warehouse, cocooned within a time-worn car cover.
THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of 18 car histories. As a fine artist, he is accepting commissions for oil portraits of collector cars. For photo samples, write email@example.com