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A Collector Gives Concept Cars a Second Life


Published: June 25, 2004

ETTORE BUGATTI built just six Type 41 Royales about 70 years ago, making the car one of the rarest and most highly sought-after vehicles for collectors. But that's still too common for Joe Bortz, who over the past 30 years has acquired some two dozen one-of-a-kind concept cars — notable not only for their rarity, but also because they were never intended to survive.

"A collector is really about one-upmanship; I have it; you don't," said Mr. Bortz, a nightclub and restaurant developer from Highland Park, Ill. "Guys who collect '57 Chevys, they argue about things like, `I got the clock.' With these cars, when you have it restored, you've got the only one."

Originally created to fuel the collective fantasies of a generation anxious to forget the olive-drabness of World War II, the cars that Mr. Bortz collects are one-off, custom-built vehicles that lived short, surreal lives on display at auto shows in the 1950's and 1960's. Some are familiar names — Bonneville, Wildcat, Parisienne — in the guise of mass-produced models that assumed the concepts' identities, even if the production car little resembled the concept design.

Rarity is only part of what inspired Mr. Bortz to assemble what is among the more esoteric automotive collections in the world. He views his quest as an effort to save and restore important works of art. "Visually, these are the finest artwork of the finest design period in America," he said.

While it may be a stretch to call the cars art, they have had a profound effect on automotive aesthetics. The idea that a dramatic but somewhat dysfunctional auto could inspire a shift in taste is credited to Harley Earl, the General Motors designer who is also credited with the first tail fin. He created the idea of building a "car of the future" to sell his radical design ideas to both the public and G.M. executives. The Buick Y-Job, recognized as the original concept car, was rolled out on the 1940 auto show circuit, and Mr. Earl drove it as his personal car during the war.

The low-slung Y-Job made the chrome-laden Buicks that emerged in the 1950's look tame. A two-seat convertible with a huge, straight-8 engine, the car had extravagant fenders housing foldaway head lamps, a blunt, wide nose and a long, pointed streamlined rear. More concept cars followed, culminating with G.M.'s traveling Motorama show, extravaganzas of chrome and horsepower that began in 1953 and toured major cities annually until 1961.

But the concept cars' time in the spotlight, either on tour with the Motorama or at major auto shows, was brief. G.M. routinely scrapped most of them soon after they left the stage. "It was really crazy to be destroying those cars," said Kip Wasenko, chief designer at Cadillac who created contemporary concept cars like the '99 Cadillac Evoq.

According to automotive legend, the cars were taken to Warhoops Used Auto and Truck Parts in Sterling, Mich., a few miles from G.M.'s technical center. The policy, Mr. Bortz said, was to take them to the junkyard and watch them be cut up and crushed. Or at least that's what was supposed to happen. He had already begun his collection and had acquired about a dozen cars by the mid-1980's, when his son, Mark, called the yard after reading about it in a magazine. The owner, Harry Warholak, said, "I've got something you want to see."

Mr. Bortz said the Mr. Warholak showed him the '56 Cadillac Eldorado concept, which most thought had long been crushed. "It was a major coup," Mr. Bortz said. "Eventually, I bought four cars."

Or at least pieces of four cars — as it turned out, the yard had cut up the concept cars, but for some reason didn't finish them off in the crusher. Which left it for Mr. Bortz to have his restoration shop carefully piece each one back together. The bodies were fiberglass, a relatively easy material to glue, compared with rebuilding a steel body, but recreating them and restoring the interior was still painstaking.

Other models were easier to come by. Despite the official policy of destroying the cars, a favored design sometimes found an internal champion. After the success of the Chevrolet Corvette, John DeLorean, the Pontiac general manager, had a prototype sports car built. Called the Banshee, it failed to get approval for production. But rather than see it destroyed, the chief engineer, Bill Collins, had it stored in a trailer, where it stayed for years. Today the Banshee is a highlight of the Bortz collection.

"I have favorites for different reasons," said Mr. Bortz, who won't say how much he has spent buying and restoring his collection, for which he is trying to find a permanent home. "The Buick Wildcat is one of the most dramatic, along with the '57 Dart Diablo," he said. "But the most fun to drive is the Banshee. It's on a 90-inch wheelbase and has a 450-horsepower engine."

Indeed, while concept cars aren't known for their functionality, the early versions were often mounted on production chassis, making them fully driveable. The Y-Job, for example, was constructed on the chassis of a 1937 Buick with a straight-8 engine.

Under Mr. Earl, G.M. produced more concept cars than did any other automaker, but Ford and Chrysler produced them, too.

Today, Mr. Bortz has more competition collecting concepts. Indeed, Ford recently auctioned off 51 of its concepts, including a Ghia Focus that sold for $1,107,500. G.M. recently opened a new Heritage center in Warren, Mich., which puts about 100 concept cars on limited public display to organized groups and individuals doing research. Chrysler, meanwhile, shows its concepts at its company museum in Auburn Hills, Mich. That museum is open to the public.

Larry Faloon, a former G.M. designer who is now a consultant to the Heritage collection, said that Mr. Bortz "took on a rare assignment for himself when nobody else was interested."

Mr. Bortz is still searching out concept cars. He recently acquired a Pontiac Monte Carlo that included the original engine built by the hot-rodder Mickey Thompson. But he still hasn't found one elusive Olds F88 concept car built in the mid-1950's. "It's out there, but I don't know where," he said. "But it'll show up someday."