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Harley Earl’s vision of the future, the Buick Y-Job, added to National Historic Vehicle Register

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Photos courtesy GM Media.

Most show cars make a big splash on their introduction, maybe tour the country or a few different countries for a year or so, then descend into warehouse purgatory until they become old enough to be trotted out as heritage vehicles or until some rich collector ponies up enough cash for them. Not the Buick Y-Job, which had cachet enough to remain in the public eye for years and impact enough to earn a spot on the National Historic Vehicle Register almost 80 years later.

Contrary to GM’s claims, the Y-Job was neither the world’s first concept car nor GM’s. Historians point variously to the the 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow, the 1933 Cadillac V-16 Aerodynamic Coupe, the 1929 Auburn Cabin Speedster, and even to Henry Leland’s 1905 Cadillac Model H “Osceola” coupe – among other cars built to show advanced concepts in auto design to the public – as early examples of concept cars. The Y-Job, in essence, was built to blow all those other cars out of the water.

According to most accounts of the Y-Job’s origin – including Terry Dunham and Lawrence Gustin’s in The Buick: A Complete History – it came about when Harlow Curtice first met with Harley Earl in 1934. Curtice, recently hired as Buick’s general manager, wanted to make the brand more appealing to younger, more stylistically inclined folks like Earl, so he asked the head of GM’s Art and Colour section to “design me a Buick you would like to own yourself.” After a few years of well-received production cars with Earl designs, Curtice then decided to fund a one-off advanced concept car.

1938 Buick Y-Job Concept

The idea wasn’t at all Curtice’s, though. As Michael Lamm wrote in Special Interest Autos #157, January/February 1997, Earl felt compelled to design and build a statement car for a number of reasons. In part, he wanted to show GM board members that his department could do more than just gussy up cars – that styling, particularly under Earl’s leadership, should serve as a basic building block of automobile design and development. In part, he wanted to prevent the upcoming 1938 Lincoln Zephyr from upstaging GM. And in part, he wanted his own personal car, something like Edsel Ford’s series of personal hot rods and proto-Continentals or Ed Macauley’s perennially restyled boattail Packard – something “he could show off or ‘wear’ the way he wore tailored Palm Beach suits, pastel shirts, and bright ties,” as Lamm wrote.

The resulting design – penned by former Oldsmobile studio head George Snyder and Joe Shemansky then modeled in clay by  Jock Park – came about in the first half of 1938. It depicted a low, long, and wide boattail two-seater in a convertible bodystyle but with a hard boot to cover the lowered top and to give the car a roadster appearance. Art Moderne touches firmly planted it in the era while the lack of running boards, the elongated fenders and the horizontal grille gave it a forward-looking appearance.

Fabrication duties fell to Vince Kaptur Sr., who completed the car the following year with engineering guidance from Charles Chayne. They started with a production-line 1938 Buick Century chassis and bumped the straight-eight from 141 horsepower to 200. To get the car lower, Chayne replaced the 15-inch wheels with 13-inch finned units, and to get it to stop he installed pneumatic “aircraft-style” brakes. Kaptur then built the body entirely in steel, incorporating hideaway headlamps, an asymmetric instrument panel, an electric-hydraulic power top, power windows and a host of little touches like the hidden trunk release handle, flush door handles, and an early bombsight hood ornament.

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The Y-Job – so called because Y represented “one step beyond” the X-prefixed cars that GM had previously worked on, according to Kaptur – debuted in December 1939 as “The Car of the Future,” though the pending war dampened GM’s anticipated enthusiasm for the car. (According to David Temple’s “The Cars of Harley Earl,” the Y-Job’s design did attract the attention of at least one person: Edsel Ford reportedly offered Earl a job at Ford after seeing it.) Nevertheless, Earl regularly drove it, though he ended up putting more miles on it in the latter half of the 1940s, during which he had a number of minor stylistic changes made to the car, including wraparound 1942 Buick bumpers instead of the original one-off bumpers, fender skirts over the rear wheels, pushbuttons instead of the flush door handles, and hydraulic brakes instead of the pneumatics. The original column-shifted three-speed eventually gave way to a Hydra-Matic, though the high-compression straight-eight remained throughout the modifications.

As the Y-Job aged – and as its innovations found their ways onto and into production-line Buicks, thus rendering the concept not so futuristic – Earl looked to replace it with another forward-looking car, the 1951 XP-8 Le Sabre. Other than some time in a GM warehouse, it has remained in the public spotlight ever since – first at the Sloan Museum in Flint, then at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, and since 1993 with the GM Design Center in Warren, Michigan.

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Added to the National Historic Vehicle Register earlier this week, the Y-Job represents the first register vehicle documented in the Historic Vehicle Association’s HVA National Laboratory at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Selection to the register involves a complete documentation of the vehicle, including a fully referenced narrative of the vehicle’s provenance and full photography, which will then be placed in the Library of Congress. No restrictions are placed on subsequent use or sale of the vehicle.

For more information about the National Historic Vehicle Register, visit