Sort of like the grand-daddy of GM’s concepts

1938 Buick Y-JobI guess it could be said that this is where it all started. At roughly three-quarters of a century old, the advanced-for-its-time Buick Y-Job deceptively gets away with being much older than it looks.

Although I saw a some discrepancies regarding the Y-Job’s age, General Motors has its reclusive show car classified as a 1938 which is how I will be referring to it. It is GM’s first concept car. In the sense of purpose and execution, some refer to it simply as the first concept car; the one that started it all.



What a novel idea
Before we go any further, I’d like to remind everyone what a typical new car looked like when the Y-Job debuted.

1938 Buick CoupeTo the right is a 1938 Buick coupe. Notice the tall grille, fenders that are semi-independent from the body, headlights that are independent units, the narrow fuselage-like hood and cab, fender-mounted spare, and running boards.

I’ve read that the roofs remained tall, in part, to accommodate occupants’ hats and that the cars rode high to accommodate sometimes unforgiving roads. Stylistically, the edges had been rounded and larger gaps were filled in but the design was thoroughly pre-World War II in stance and profile.

Further painting the backdrop, remember the picture above right is an example of how a new car looked. Meaning, the bulk of traffic, was mostly comprised of vehicles that were even older in appearance.

Since most people reading this likely weren’t around during these time periods, I simply thought it would be helpful to remind everyone where automotive design was when the Y-Job was made.

1938 Buick Y-Job front right

Relative to it’s chronological peers or not, there is obvious beauty and a tremendously forward-thinking approach to design. Notice there are no running boards and the fenders have been gracefully melded to the body. And that grille!

Since new roadways were an increasingly common sight, it employed smaller wheels and tires to reduce the car’s height (to 58-inches overall), the spare was stowed in the trunk, and the headlights have not only been incorporated into the bodywork but they also were hidden when not in use.

1938 Buick Y-Job front leftTo the left is a picture of the exposed headlights. I initially thought they rolled on a horizontal axis but, from what I could find, there are horizontally-split doors. They separate and pull back, then the headlight moves forward, looking as if it was fastened there all along.

There are a couple of historical accounts of where the name Y-Job came from. The most common is in reference to the aviation industry. At that time, it must have seemed as though technological advances and war were breaking out everywhere. Visual references to both were increasingly popular in daily life.

Where I’m going with this is that the letter “Y” was a designation reportedly used for cutting-edge fighter planes. Thus it was chosen for experimental cars. With regards to the “Job” part of the name, a couple of references report that Harley Earl, head of styling for GM (really the founder of styling for GM), would commonly use that word to refer to his projects. Sort of anticlimactic, no?

1938 Buick Y-Job rear leftSomething that may surprise you is that, while Mr. Earl typically gets credit for designing the Y-Job, that honor actually goes to a man not-so-famously named George Snyder.

Not to diminish Mr. Earl’s involvement, he directed the concept’s styling. But according to Detroit Dream Cars, by John Heilig, Chuck Jordan said Mr. Earl couldn’t draw. The same book stated that, instead, his innate skill was a “sense of design and could direct subtle changes that could make all the difference in a design.”

The Y-job was reportedly built on a standard 1937 Buick chassis, measured almost 20 feet long and was powered by a 320-cubic-inch, straight-8. No specifics on power output but for 1938, Buick made two engines, both straight-8s. One produced 107 HP and the other 141.

With regard to niceties, the two-seat Y-Job delivered, even including power operated windows.

1938 Buick Y-Job interior driver side

Mr. Earl actually drove the Y-Job for many years as his personal transportation. In fact, he apparently put somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 miles on it. Having seen only minor improvements (such as a wrap-around bumper and upgraded transmission), he drove it regularly until it was replaced with one of Buick’s next show cars, the 1951 LeSabre.

Many features from the Y-Job would go on to influence future designs, for decades. Buick still applies a similar waterfall style to their grilles, 75 years later. Please visit the photo gallery for many more pictures than are included above.


Continue below to the photo gallery.

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