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Harley Earl’s Buick Y-Job signaled the dawn of a new automotive era

Buick Y-Job on the road

Change in the realm of automobile design can be hard to take. If too extreme, it can turn people off entirely. Too subtle, and it is largely unnoticed and unremarked upon. Finding the proverbial sweet spot that piques public interest without scaring off consumers has always been a moving target. In 1937, Harley Earl and his team at General Motors Art & Colour hit it squarely when they created the Buick Y-Job, one of the first modern concept vehicles.

Given the era’s standard definitions of what a car could and should be, public expectation left little room for flair or stylistic panache. This was doubly true in a country still pulling itself out of the Great Depression. Yet this economic and social disaster afforded the opportunity for a fresh start and hope for what the future might hold.

By bringing a revolutionary design aesthetic to the American automobile via European styling cues as well as ideas cribbed from the art world, in the Y-Job and beyond, Earl and his team sought to transcend utilitarian transport. Greater thought would be given to a car’s styling, design and, most crucially, pre-production planning. Rather than simply relying on drawings and schematics, Earl used full-scale three-dimensional clay models to get a true feel for each successive car’s overall effect. Using this approach, his team could make subtle adjustments.

Buick Y-Job rear 3/4
Buick Y-Job front

Earl’s idea—car design as a functioning laboratory in which different concepts could be tested in practice rather than simply in theory—led to one of his greatest early achievements. Not only would the Y-Job (so named as it was seen to go beyond the world of the various X-cars) showcase a number of advancements in automotive styling, it also possessed several modernized mechanical features unseen on any car, production or otherwise, up to that point.

With its gorgeous, swooping lines, boattail rear end and prominent stance, the Y-Job cut an impressive figure. With its hidden headlights, wraparound bumpers, lack of running boards, 13-inch wheels and horizontal grille, the Y-Job’s front end and profile looked like nothing else at the time. Adding to this its low-slung body, impressive 208-inch length and 74-inch width, the Y-Job represented a design ideal based around the car being lower, longer and wider than anything else then available.

Mechanically, it featured a prototype Dynaflow torque-converter transmission (something that wouldn’t become an option until 1948), power steering and electric power windows and top. Taken together, this amounted to a revolutionary advancement in automotive design, yet it retained the basic idea of what a car could and should be. In other words, Earl and his team incorporated enough change to be considered forward thinking, without putting people off with an overly radical appearance.

Buick Y-Job profile
Casey Maxon

While it would be some time before all of the styling and mechanical innovations present on the Y-Job would find their way into standard vehicle production, it did serve as something of a reference for the 1942 Buicks. After making a splash on the car show circuit in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Y-Job served as Earl’s daily transportation for a number of years. Imagine the sight of such a massive, majestic automobile cruising among the drabber designs of the day.

By the 1950s, more of the Y-Job’s elements had crept into GM production vehicles. Today, the car resides at the GM Design Center and looks very much the product of another era, yet it still impresses. With its inclusion on the National Historic Vehicle Register in 2016, the Y-Job’s influence is assured for generations to come.