Car of the Week: 1951 Buick XP-300 concept

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Story by John Gunnell;
photos by Al Rogers

There was a time when the people who ran automobile companies were genuine automotive enthusiasts. Charles A. Chayne, Harley J. Earl and Ned F. Nickles were three of those enthusiasts whose passion for beautiful cars led to the creation of the Buick XP-300 (originally labeled XP-9), a true dream machine.

The year was 1951, a time when it was hard to imagine a 16-foot-long convertible that glided only 6-1/2 inches above the ground. Part sports car and part space ship, the car had an “electric shaver” grille, a wraparound windshield, a tri-finned tail with the electric radio antenna protruding from the center fin and flashy side trim that would have looked right at home on Buck Rogers’ interplanetary cruiser. It even had push-button power seats and windows!

Chayne, in addition to working as Buick chief engineer, was a pioneer American car collector. More than a decade earlier, he and design chief Harley Earl had teamed up to create the first “car of the future,” which was brought to life as the 1938-’39 Buick Y-Job. In overall concept, the Y-Job and the XP-300 are virtually the same; the ’50s dream car was just a more modern interpretation from the sketchpad of Nickles, a self-taught car designer of enormous talent.

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In a wonderful series of articles in the Wrightstown (Wis.) Area Spirit, automotive historian Tom Collins traced how Nickles — a paper mill worker in Kaukauna, Wis. — saw a story about Earl, the Y-Job and other GM cars in Life magazine. According to Collins, “Nickles took the bold step of packing up some sketches with a cover letter and sending them to Harley Earl at General Motors.”
Nickles was hired to work at GM in 1941. One of the first projects Nickles worked on was the stillborn Chevrolet Cadet compact car. In 1949, he was credited with crafting the company’s trademark “porthole” decorations, which originated as holes punched into the hood of his own ’48 Roadmaster convertible (Nickels was always a bit of a hot rodder and sports car fanatic). The XP-300 was one of his next achievements, followed by the Buick sweepspear and the Buick Skylark. By 1954, Nickles himself was featured in a Life magazine article!

Before leaving Buick in 1951 to move up the GM ladder, Chayne approved construction of the XP-300 and a companion dream car called the LeSabre. Both cars shared styling motifs and pioneered the wraparound windshield, although overall the LeSabre was a little more of a rocket ship. With its lemon-sucker grille and upswept tail fins, the silver-blue LeSabre was truly futuristic, but it was not as pretty as the cleaner-styled, white XP-300.

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According to Buick historian Larry R. Gustin, the LeSabre reflected the thinking of Harley Earl, who drove it frequently and put many miles on it, while the XP-300 characterized Chayne’s idea of what future Buicks should look like. The front end design of the car actually previewed the 1954 Buick. Chayne was also responsible for the engineering of both dream cars. In “The Buick: A Complete History” (Automobile Quarterly, 2004), Gustin quotes Chayne talking about the difficulty in engineering very low-slung cars and explaining how the two ’51 dream cars were green-lighted for both far out styling and engineering.

The two cars shared common mechanical make-ups including the use of a supercharged 335-hp aluminum V-8 that burned a methanol-gasoline fuel — talk about futuristic! This in an era when production Buicks were still straight-eight powered. Both cars stressed Earl’s love of long, low, sleek and heavily stylized designs and the use of bright metal trim, which he had a taste for even when it became passé. Both Buick dream cars had heat-treated aluminum bodies.

The use of aluminum body panels reduced the overall weight of the XP-300 to 3,100 lbs. This was important, because the body and frame structure were welded as a solid unit and the many push-button power accessories—including the rear convertible window—were heavy and added extra pounds. The car also used wider and heavier brake drums that required two sets of brake shoes at each wheel. The rear brakes were also mounted inboard on the drive shafts, flanking the rear differential. The weight reduction achieved by using aluminum was very necessary.

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The XP-300’s beauty and innovation went beneath its aluminum skin. Four hydraulic jacks were hidden under the body work and elevated either the driver or passenger side of the car. Upon shutting the doors, steel bars hydraulically slid out so that the car was more rigid, as these bars completed the rollcage-like framework within the body.

Over the years it has been well publicized that Earl tooled around in the LeSabre just as if it was his personal car, but Chayne used the XP-300, too. Chayne reported that he attained a top speed of 110 mph in the car, which bears his initials on the trim panels at each front fender. A number of years ago, an Old Cars Weekly reader submitted photos of an early-1950s Glidden Tour that included a stop in the Detroit area where the XP-300 and several other GM Motorama show cars were displayed for the antique and classic car tourers to enjoy. No doubt Chayne was involved in arranging this display and he may have drove the XP-300 himself. Both of the “future cars” were made for PR use.

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Both Buick dream machines received good exposure locally and nationally. Detroit-area newspaper photos showed the XP-300 being loaded into a brand-new, stainless-steel Fruehauf trailer that carried the slogan, “Smart Buy’s Buick” and the caption for the photo said the car was going off to shows around the country with $1 million worth of insurance coverage. According to Gustin, Ralph Watts of the Detroit News was one writer who went to a “breakfast for brass” promotion at the GM proving ground late in 1951. It was he who reported that Chayne and GM president Charles Wilson drove the car 110 mph, and he also wrote that Buick general manager Ivan Wiles then took it up to 140 mph.

For the record, it was in 1952 that the cars hit the auto shows nationwide. Both of them were popular attractions with attendees. This legacy continues today with the XP-300 being one of five Buick dream cars among the many other classic cars exhibited at the Sloan Museum in Flint, Mich.

See the XP-300:
Sloan Museum
1221 E. Kearsley St.
Flint, MI 48503
810-237-3450
www.sloanlongway.org

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