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Was a bubble-shaped GPW-based minivan the first Japanese-built vehicle exported to the United States?

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Photos courtesy Worldwide Auctioneers, except where noted.

In the mid- to late 1940s, starry-eyed inventors launched cars of tomorrow seemingly every other week, promising increased safety, better fuel mileage, and gee-whiz gadgetry. It was easy, then, to overlook the significance of Don Surles’s streamliner – the two-toned dome-roofed vehicle headed to auction later this month – as likely the first Japanese-built vehicle to land on American shores.

Surles had two big brushes with American history. As a lieutenant in the Army Air Force, the Texas native co-piloted a B-17 – The Last Straw – that landed at Pearl Harbor’s Hickam Field on December 7, 1941. Four years later, he built the Surlesmobile.

The Surlesmobile, according to Surles’s accounts and information provided by the Roaring Twenties Antique Car Museum, originated in an idea Surles had while in college in the mid-Thirties. “I began to wonder why someone hadn’t designed a more practical door that would close easily and tightly… that would open without hitting the curb or another parked car,” he told the Barksdale Observer, a military base newspaper, in November 1949. “A door you could leave open as you backed out of the garage… one that wouldn’t be in your way when you climbed in and out of the car… and above all, a door and window that would never rattle.”

So he designed a sort of clamshell retractable two-piece door, with the upper half disappearing into the car’s roof and the lower half into the floor. He envisioned the door operating electrically, at the touch of a button. As a bonus, the tracks on which the doors slid would form twin roll bars.

The design remained on paper until sometime shortly after the war when the Air Force stationed him in occupied Japan, which he considered the ideal place to build his car, “with cheap labor and skilled handicraftsmen available.” Along with Charles Muhleback, an Air Force corporal at the time, Surles bought a surplus Ford GPW – for either $229 or $339, depending on the source – and, like many a bored motor pool employee before and after them, began to modify the Ford.

They started by removing the body from the frame and extending the latter from 80 inches to 124 inches. To increase the vehicle’s stability, they swapped the shorter axleshaft on the rear axle for another longer one, increasing the track by nearly eight inches. The four-cylinder engine and transmission remained in place, though they shaved the cylinder head to boost compression, according to a brief August 1948 Popular Science article on the car.

Rather than build the streamliner’s body himself, he took his plans to Tokyo Bus Works, where the craftsmen incorporated Surles’s ideas for the door into a potato-shaped (contemporary press described it as “cigar-shaped,” but c’mon) vaguely Stout Scarab-like streamliner with plexiglas windows, a center-mount driver’s seat far rearward of the windshield – similar to the McQuay-Norris streamliners – and a pair of four-person bench seats that rolled down to form a bed.

In total, it weighed more than 4,400 pounds, though Surles claimed it could cruise at highway speeds, topping out at around 70 MPH. In his interview with the Barksdale Observer, Surles claimed he had designed an engine, “the most perfectly balanced engine ever designed,” that would deliver 16 power strokes per crankshaft revolution.

As Surles argued in a Washington Post article about the car in June 1966, the Surlesmobile’s built-in safety features – it would always land on its wheels in a rollover accident, he claimed, and nobody would be thrown from the vehicle because the doors wouldn’t pop open in accidents – would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives had they been put into production.

After returning to the States – beating Toyota to California by eight years or so – Surles went on to apply for a patent on the doors (US2651541A) and travel the country looking for carmakers to build his Surlesmobile. In a simple brochure for the vehicle, he described it as “the supreme achievement – as close to perfection as the motor car has come in luxury, comfort, and performance.”

Nothing on wheels is more dynamically designed. And with reason, for the performance of the Surlesmobile transcends any you have ever enjoyed. Handling ease, riding ease, and response are unparalleled. You really own the road when you sit at the wheel of this incomparable motor car. If you like to lead rather than follow, I suggest a closer acquaintance with the new ‘Surlesmobile.’

The Surlesmobile, like a fine home can, and should be emblematic of an owner’s taste, and of his consideration for the well-being of his guests.

Never has this ideal been so well exemplified as in the splendid motor car depicted herein.

Surles told the Barksdale Observer that he had “offers from General Motors and other corporations,” though the only proof that he conversed with any car manufacturer is a piece of correspondence between him and the Tucker Corporation in February 1948, while he was still stationed in Nagoya, Japan. In addition to the Popular Science article, the Surlesmobile also merited a brief in the April 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics; neither seemed to agree on the cost to build the car, with the latter quoting $2,000 and the former $1,000.

The Surlesmobile remained with Surles and his family even after he wound up in Falls Church, Virginia, retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. At the end of the Washington Post profile on the car, he mentioned that his wife would like to see it out of their driveway, which was all the prompting that John Dudley of Hood, Virginia, needed to drive the two hours to Falls Church to make Surles an offer on the Surlesmobile.

“Dad looked for low-production models and unusual body styles,” Dudley’s daughter, Martha, said. “He loved that car.”

Rather than recommission it for the road, Dudley put it on display as the centerpiece of his Roaring Twenties Antique Car Museum along with a claim that, within 30 days of the expiration of Surles’s patent, GM announced the clamshell station wagon tailgate. Aside from a repaint in two-tone blue over grey, Dudley left the Surlesmobile as he found it.

There it remained until recently, when Dudley’s family decided to close the museum and consign the Surlesmobile (chassis number 194501)and more than 35 other vehicles from the museum to Worldwide’s Auburn auction, the first at its new headquarters in the former location of the Kruse Museums.

Worldwide did not offer a pre-auction estimate for the Surlesmobile.

The Worldwide Auburn auction will take place August 30-31. For more information, visit