Joe Bortzs 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne
Motor Trend Classic readers know Joe Bortz. He’s the Chicago-based restaurant mogul and car collector who has been buying and restoring concept cars from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s for nearly four decades. I’ve been fortunate enough to drive five of Bortz’s cars and write about them for Classic. His 1953 Buick Wildcat I and 1954 Pontiac Bonneville-Special GM Motorama cars were on the cover of Issue 5. His 1955 Chrysler Falcon, 1957 Chrysler Diablo and 1966 Duesenberg Model D, all Ghia-built Virgil Exner designs, were in this summer’s Issue 10.
All Motorama cars would have been crushed or drawn-and-quartered, if not for the crafty purveyors of Warhoops, the junkyard about 10 miles north of GM’s Tech Center, where the concepts — “dream cars” in ’50s vernacular — were to be destroyed.; All except the ’54 Bonneville; Bortz proudly calls the Pontiac the “most original” concept extant. It was titled to a GM employee after it made the showcar rounds, and Bortz bought it from that employee 30-some years ago.
The Buick Wildcat wasn’t so lucky. Bortz’s long-time car handler, Paul Peterlin, told me in 2006 that he could find only three of the car’s original roto-static hubcaps (they remain steady, the Buick logo stays upright as the wheels turn). A fabricator took two years to make the fourth out of a Weber grill cover.
That’s the way one- or two-off dream cars are restored. There are no parts cars, although many production pieces can be used. The Wildcat and Bonneville-Special are powered by production Buick and Pontiac engines, and the Chrysler Falcon and Dart have production Hemis.
Same with Bortz’s latest re-creation, the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne. It was designed to show off Chevy’s new small block, and it’s now powered by a 265 cubic-inch V-8 from a vintage production car. Warhoops had to cut the Biscayne into three parts; the top and front clip were in separate pieces. Bortz’s son found the car at Warhoops in 1988. It wasn’t until GM sent original blueprints for the car in ’96 that Bortz had Hopperstad Custom of Belvidere, Illinois, begin restoration. They had to build a chassis for the fiberglass body, and add structure inside.
It looks great.
The Motorama Biscayne is far from the most handsome concept ever built. The bugeye headlamps point skyward when the hood is opened, of course, while the denture-like maw below it lacks the cuteness of the Austin-Healey Sprite that debuted three years later. The Biscayne’s side scallops hint at the ’56 Corvette’s, though they’re reversed and run from the front door back.
The 2+2 four-door hardtop (the ’55 Buicks and Oldsmobiles introduced this bodystyle, but Chevy wouldn’t get it until ’56) has frameless suicide doors, one particular area where Hopperstad had to add structure. While the Biscayne has a front-mounted V-8, its tail also hints at the 1960 Corvair.
Bortz showed the reconstructed, but unrestored Biscayne at the Pebble Beach Concours a couple of summers ago. Last weekend, he unveiled the fully restored, mint green-on-mint green Biscayne at the Concours d’Elegance of America, at Oakland, Michigan’s Meadow Brook. He called his display a “mini-Motorama,” featuring the Buick Wildcat I, Pontiac Bonneville-Special and 1953 Pontiac Parisienne.
Ed Welburn, the sixth and current GM design chief, was pretty excited to see the 55-year-old Chevy, and he showed his weakness for Buick, asking Bortz if he could sit in the Wildcat. Welburn is busy getting GM design in order. He’s made great strides with Buick by referring to its past — especially its early ’50s heyday — without going retro. The Chevy Cruze owes nothing, as far as I can see, to the Motorama Biscayne. Except, as analyst Jim Hall pointed out to me, this: it’s a semi-premium compact Chevy. There’s nothing in the Biscayne’s design that suggests the compacts Detroit would introduce in the following decade should be priced below full-size deluxe models.
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