PEEK INSIDE THE HIDDEN, IRREPLACEABLE CONCEPT CAR COLLECTION OF JOE BORTZ
The man and mystery behind this one-of-a-kind collection and one-of-a-kind-cars.
June 26, 2018
Joe Bortz first saw General Motors’ Motorama “dream cars” as a boy in Chicago. This was back in the mid-’50s, when GM’s annual cavalcade of futuristic concepts was traversing the country, wowing consumers with fantasies of Jet Age design and technology. Only 11 years old, Bortz journeyed alone for hours, on a streetcar and a bus, to reach the International Amphitheatre.
The crowds at the exhibition were profound, but he pushed in, hoping to catch a glimpse of the outrageous vehicles from GM’s five brands: Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac. “I just wanted to see the cars,” says Bortz, a retired 76-year-old biochemist and restauranteur. “The idea that I could ever touch one, the idea that I could ever sit in one, the idea that I could ever be driven in one, let alone the idea that I could ever own one, was like thinking, “Well, maybe if I play my cards right, in a year from now, I could be an astronaut.’ You know, it was just unthinkable”.
When an obsession is strong enough, the unthinkable can occur. Bortz now possesses what is likely the world’s most important collection of American concept cars. His curated cache of about a dozen brazen vehicles, mainly from the 1950s, represents, for him, the epitome of a golden era in automotive invention.
“My collection is a weave. No one thread is the most important in a weave,” he says as he walks us around the top-secret (hence the limited photography) Chicagoland garage housing his hoard, nearly every one painstakingly restored, fueled up and drivable. “There’s continuity to it. And there’s an exclusivity to that.”
This statement is even more poignant because none of these cars should exist. “The rule for concept cars, especially at General Motors, was that the designers knew that they were designing their best piece of work, unrestricted by government regulations,” Bortz says. “And they also knew that their best piece of work was going to be destroyed.”
After being displayed, all concepts were supposed to be sent to the crusher. But when termination time came, some designers or engineers asked to have the car secretly assigned to them. “The bosses would say, ‘OK, but put it somewhere, and I don’t want to hear about this car for 25 years,” Bortz says. “Well, when I started in the mid-’70s, these cars started appearing. And I started getting calls. ‘You’re the guy that collects concept cars?”
Each car in the collection has a unique acquisition story. The 1960 Pontiac X-400 is supercharged, quad-carbed convertible with power-retracting front seats and a rain-sensing top. Bortz’s first concept car, it was a referral from a friend of a friend. The purchase worked out because the seller was also in the restaurant business, “We bonded over that,” Bortz says.
The 1953 Pontiac Parisienne Town Car is a bizarre, formal, chauffeur-driven two-door with an open driver’s compartment. Bortz bought it sight unseen from a paranoiac in New York who wouldn’t let Bortz visit his home or garage—or even reveal the car’s location. “So, I bought this car at LaGuardia Airport,” Bortz says in his matter-of-fact way. “I flew in, sat down with the guy for a half-hour. He brought the title,
I brought a cashier’s check. He told the shipper where his garage was. I never knew.”
A quartet of top Motorama cars—a jet fighter-like 1955 LaSalle II Roadster, a quasi-French 1955 LaSalle II Sedan, a restrained and suicide-doored 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne sedan and an outrageously overwrought 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Town Car (no longer in Bortz’s collection)—was discovered by Bortz’s son in a Detroit-area junkyard in the late ’80s. The cars were alleged to have been destroyed there in 1958, but rumors persisted. “They wouldn’t let anyone in. Guys had flown over with helicopters trying to see if they could see the cars,” Bortz says.
His son cold-called the owner to confirm something special was present. Bortz visited, was shown one car (“As I recall, it had a small tree growing from the hood.”) and was quoted an outrageous price. “I told the guy, ‘Everybody knows I pay too much for these cars,’” Bortz says. “‘But that’s too much.’ And he goes, ‘That’s too much for four cars?’ I go, ‘Four cars? You showed me one car. What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Oh, it slipped my mind to show you the other three.’” Bortz purchased the full set.
The 1955 Chrysler Ghia Falcon was Mopar’s Hemi-powered, two-seat, luxury roadster, meant to challenge the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird. Chrysler hired Italian coachbuilder Ghia to craft its concept bodies, so when they arrived in America, they were hit with a hefty import duty. Chrysler made a deal with U.S. Customs: “If they brought the car in, showed it and took it out of the country within, say, 24 months, there’d be no duty,” Bortz says. “So all these Ghia cars ended up in
Hawaii, which wasn’t a state then. Or in South America. We got one out of Paris. One or two ended up in Cuba.”
The 1966 Duesenberg Model D is a baroque, ultra-luxury sedan designed by former Chrysler design head Virgil Exner. It was acquired only through decades of effort. “I approached the owner about buying it, and he said, ‘Joe, it’s your car in my garage. Call me next year.’ I called him next year. He says, ‘Oh, you know, I’m going to be really busy. Call me next year.’” This went on for decades until a divorce spurred a sale. “So, I was 30 years old when I first saw the car,” Bortz says. “And I got it when I was 60.”
Bortz’s patience isn’t based on some preternatural tolerance—it’s strategic. “You have to be ready to sit on it and watch it and wait for it,” he says. “Because it’s not like a ’57 Chevy where if the guy is not going to give you the price you want, you can say, ‘I’ll just go look for another one.’ It’s one opportunity, one chance.”
His 1964 Pontiac XP833 Banshee demonstrates this maxim. The lithe, V8-powered, two-seat convertible was spearheaded by John DeLorean when he ran Pontiac. It was intended to compete with the Mustang, but given its high output and low weight, it was seen by GM leadership as a potential rival for the Corvette and quashed. Bortz discovered that the car was owned by Bill Collins, a former Pontiac engineer, and began his standard press. “Call twice a year, get friendly, have conversation.”
This went on for years, with no movement from an increasingly crotchety Collins—until one evening, he called Bortz out of the blue and said he wanted to sell the car. They came to an agreement on price, and Collins asked when he’d be able to retrieve it from his home garage. Bortz suggested within two weeks. Collins insisted he come before morning.
Bortz drove through the night. Collins walked him out to a tiny garage. “I could see just the tip of the nose, and it’s piled up with blankets. So, I go, ‘Can I take a look at it?’” Bortz says. “He goes, ‘Either you want it or you don’t.’ My policy was, I don’t argue. So, I just go, ‘Sure. Let’s do the paperwork.’”
They went into Collins’ dining room and signed the documents, and Bortz handed over a check. “But I’m still being polite,” Bortz says. “And I say, ‘Is it OK now if I look at the car?’ And Collins says, gruffly, ‘It’s your car. What are you asking me for?’”
Walking around Bortz’s garage, all of this trouble and lunacy seems worth it. Not just because the cars are intensely valuable, which they are; a 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special similar to Bortz’s recently sold for $3.3 million. But because they’re amazing relics, chimerical exemplars of blinding American optimism. And expressive and essential works of art.
Bortz has slowed down collecting, but he has dreams to round out his hoard. “The premier, single most valuable concept car is probably the Buick Le Sabre,” he says. “That was done right after the war by Harley Earl. It’s pretty magnificent. I guess if there was one I could still have, it might be the Buick Le Sabre.”
“Piece By Piece” was originally published in the 5/21/18 issue of Autoweek.