The tale of the Buick Wildcats

Buick pioneered the very concept of the concept car with the 1938 Y-Job, which predicted design ideas for Buicks into the early 1950s. Thus, it was a true concept or “idea” car, not a doctored-up pre-production prototype of a model already slated for production, as is commonly seen today. In 1949, General Motors made concept cars a public attraction with its Autorama show at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and then the traveling Motorama show from 1953 to 1961.

For the 1953 Motorama, Buick debuted the captivating Wildcat, a low-slung, two-seat convertible with a raked-back wraparound windshield and a hydraulically operated top that disappeared beneath a rear panel. Like Chevy’s Corvette in the same show, the Wildcat featured a body made from fiberglass.

Buick Wildcat I
Buick Wildcat I Katrina Wittkamp
Joseph Bortz with the 1953 Buick Wildcat I concept
Joseph Bortz with the 1953 Buick Wildcat I concept Katrina Wittkamp

The Wildcat was a drivable car, powered by Buick’s then-new 322 cid V-8 engine and using a Dynaflow automatic transmission. For a unique look when in motion, Roto-Static hubcaps remained stationary while the wheels turned (similar to Rolls-Royce center caps today). Luxury features included hydraulically operated windows and seats.

The Wildcat stirred public interest, but in the end did little more than preview 1954 Buick front-end design. The car subsequently went to one of its designers, and later languished in the hands of another collector, according to Joseph Bortz, who added the car to his collection of concept vehicles in the mid 1980s. Bortz had the Wildcat restored and has displayed it at the Pebble Beach, Meadowbrook, and Geneva Concours d’ Elegance events. The Wildcat also joined Buick’s concept car reunion at the 1993 EyesOn Design show in Detroit.

1954 Wildcat II – and Its Evil Twin

For the 1954 Motorama, Buick veered deeper into sports car territory with the Wildcat II. Built on a Corvette chassis, the Wildcat II looked wild indeed. Instead of front fenders, a full-width clamshell hood covered the wheels when closed. “Floating” driving lights were mounted on the chrome bumper.

Also using a fiberglass body, the two-seat Wildcat II was powered by a supercharged Buick V-8. With Corvette sales struggling, however, Buick had little incentive to consider producing such a car. Today, the original Wildcat II resides in the Sloan Museum’s Buick Gallery in Flint, MI. It also has a twin in Phoenix, AZ, built and driven by Buick super fan Ken Mitson.

“I love Buicks,” said Mitson, whose devotion to the brand started when he bought a new Riviera in 1966, and whose collection includes a 1973 Riviera Stage 1, a 1963 Riviera, and others. “After I finished restoring a trailer queen 1953 Skylark, I wanted a driver, something for vintage rallies.”

Ken Mitson with his Wildcat II clone
Ken Mitson with his Wildcat II clone Ron Will

The car he wanted was a Wildcat II, and after an eight-year build, he had one. Although Mitson’s Wildcat II is an identical copy of the original, he said he took “poetic license” with the powertrain and chassis to make his car a hoot to drive.

“Since I restore cars and have built racecars, I said, ‘I could build one of those,’” said Mitson, whose finished Wildcat II clone was featured at the 2013 SEMA show in Las Vegas.

Marvin Compton, whose Creative Concepts in Mesa, AZ built the car’s body, was permitted to bring equipment into the Sloan’s Buick Gallery to digitize the original Wildcat II and get precise dimensions and form, according to Mitson. Starting with a 1954 Corvette frame and body tub, as Buick did for the original Wildcat II, Mitson spent a year building his Wildcat II clone’s chassis.

For modern handling and braking, he adapted suspension from a late-1980s Corvette, which required much modification, since the Vette had a four-inch wider track than the Wildcat II. Under the hood, Mitson mixed old school with new school, using a 1966 Buick 425 cid V-8 built by Dyer’s Top Rods but fed by an electronic fuel injection system custom-made by Imagine Injection. The system hides beneath a vintage Hilborn injection setup, which houses only the throttle bodies. Electronic ignition components are hidden in a distributor, and the engine is teamed with a Borg-Warner T-10 4-speed manual transmission. Mitson pegs horsepower at 450. “That’s plenty,” he said.

Wildcat III

The last of the three Wildcat concepts designed under renowned GM design chief Harley Earl, the four-seat 1955 Wildcat III, looked production-ready, yet this car mainly served to preview styling cues of the 1956 Buicks. Under the fiberglass hood was a 280-hp V-8.

But was Buick considering a more radical front end for its 1956 production cars? Recently, the Division released photos of a Wildcat III clay model that company spokesman Stuart Fowle said had not been shown before. The designers at one point were toying with a “bug-eyed” look, with headlights moved further inboard from the fenders.

“Since the final form of the concept previewed so much of the 1956 Buick production models, it’s interesting to see how different it could have been,” Fowle said.

The Wildcat III was presumed destroyed. The Wildcat name adorned Buick production models in the 1960s and was used on other concepts in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Private” Wildcat Concept

At 38, Marc Senger is too young to remember the original Wildcat concept cars from the 1950s, but recollections of his grandfather’s Buicks, including T-Type performance models, still linger.

“What I remember about those cars was their smooth power and coddling interiors,” said Senger, creative director for consumer product design firm “11” in Boston. (The company name was inspired by the 1984 movie “This is Spinal Tap.”)

As a side project in 2013, Senger, who studied car design, conjured a 21st century Wildcat. With clear inspiration from the Wildcat II, his renderings of coupe and roadster versions show a long, low stance with a modern, aggressive version of the open-wheel front end. There’s also a strong hint of the 1971 “boattail” Riviera in his Wildcat concept’s profile. Senger’s concept even proposes a radical powertrain, a straight-eight with supercharging and turbocharging. It’s fun to dream.

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