Images courtesy Barry Gremillion.
Stolen, abandoned, slated for the scrap heap: Certainly not the fate Bill Cushenberry imagined for what was to be his crowning achievement, the Silhouette II Space Coupe. Yet, for all the peril it has faced, it has survived and now appears destined for completion more than 50 years after it was conceived.
Cushenberry, a Kansas native, didn’t really make a name for himself as a car customizer until about 1960 when, having relocated to Monterey, California, he built a radical channeled 1940 he called El Matador. He then followed that with his first scratchbuilt custom, a bubbletop on a shortened Buick chassis he called the Silhouette that went on to win awards at the Grand National Roadster Show and lead Ford to invite Cushenberry to take part in its Custom Caravan.
While the Silhouette evoked the future, Cushenberry envisioned something even more advanced for its successor. As Jim Roten, Cushenberry’s associate, recalled, it was about 1963 when he and Cushenberry sat down at a booth at the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake, California, and began to sketch a low-slung custom inspired by airplanes and streamliners.
“It really captures a very narrow point in American history with so much enthusiasm,” he said in a video interview. “He wanted the car to look not so much like a car but like a jet car, so the wheels were not a prominent part of the design.”
Instead, fins and wings and uninterrupted surfaces–and a bubbletop, of course, but one far more laid back than the Silhouette’s–constituted much of the car’s design. To get the car as low as he envisioned, Cushenberry determined that it would need a Corvair drivetrain; everything else he would build from scratch using the same superleggara construction technique he employed on the Silhouette. He’d call it the Silhouette II Space Coupe; custom-car magazines ran Cushenberry’s sketches and angled to get the scoop on his progress on the car.
Cushenberry then bought a 1961 or 1962 Corvair and removed the front suspension and rear Unipac engine/transaxle assembly from the car. Connecting these he built a basic steel 2- x 4-inch frame over which he draped the aluminum body, hammered out by Michael Gale Black. Eventually, he swapped the original engine for a circa 1965 140-hp 164-cu.in. Corvair flat-six, but then sometime in the mid-Sixties–after he moved his shop from Monterey to North Hollywood, but before he could finish the car–he had some sort of dispute with the financial backers behind the project.
While Cushenberry reportedly retained some of the parts of the car, the rest–presumably seized by the backers–disappeared not long after. Cushenberry tried to locate the car so he could finish it, but to no avail and to the detriment of his career. He took some contract work afterward–including the assignment from George Barris to rework the fenders of the Lincoln Futura into the Batmobile–but he swore off high-concept scratch-built cars after losing the Silhouette II.
“He always said it was the one that got away, the one that broke his heart,” said Barry Gremillion, a Hollywood-based filmmaker who is now seeing the project through to completion and who has researched the history of the Silhouette II. Cushenberry died in 1998 without knowing what happened to the Silhouette II or to its predecessor, stolen from Cushenberry’s shop in 1983.
Gremillion said he’s tracked down a handful of people who either owned the Silhouette II or had seen it for the 30-plus years it had gone missing, but all of them were evasive or clueless about who actually owned it and how it drifted in and out of their possession. Then, in 1999, the Silhouette II appeared, derelict and nearly forgotten, on a ranch in El Cajon, California, known to those in the entertainment industry as a sort of retirement home for movie props.
Carl Green recognized the Silhouette II as soon as he saw it. Known for building hotrodded AMC Pacers and for rescuing the Rod & Custom Dream Truck, Green–a fellow Kansas native–felt compelled to rescue the Silhouette II, especially when the owner of the ranch said he intended to scrap it. Green called his long-time friend Gremillion and the two bought it from the ranch. Green and his nephew Roger then gave it a quick clean-up good enough to put the car on display at Darryl Starbird’s Rod and Custom Hall of Fame Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Not until 2007 did Green and Gremillion return the Silhouette II to Southern California to take their first whack at finishing the car according to Cushenberry’s vision. They hired a New Zealand native, Willy Newman, to straighten out and complete the body and prepare it for its bubbletop, and sent the drivetrain to Jeff Williams at California Corvair Parts.
Over the next year, the team made significant progress, but, in December 2008, Green took the body with him to Kansas to continue work on it and fell ill. Work on the project ground to a halt again. Another several years passed before Roger Green informed Gremillion that Carl Green had died and Gremillion arranged to have the body once more shipped to Southern California.
This time, Gremillion swears, he will see the car through to completion. He’s had the bubbletop blown, he’s had the body mated back to the chassis, and he’s entrusted the project to Outlaw Garage in Santa Clarita, California. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Slowly, the body is being made whole for the first time. The next phase is to install the engine and put the bubbletop on it, and we’ve talked about three or four different ways of doing the doors.”
Gremillion didn’t commit to a specific ETA, but he did say he’d like to give the Silhouette II its public debut at the same Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake where Cushenberry first sketched out his ideas for the car.