Petersen Museum exhibiting futuristic General Motors designs from the 1950s

Dave Kunz Image
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
Cars of the future - as imagined in the 1950s - on display at Petersen
These futuristic cars were supposed to be destroyed after being exhibited, but some were secretly salvaged and later restored.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- In the middle of the 20th century, all eyes seemed to be on the future. For example, space exploration, and Walt Disney creating Tomorrowland. And the auto industry was coming up with some wild ideas about future automobiles.

"Everybody was interested in the next big thing," said Michael Bodell, chief operating officer of the Petersen Automotive Museum.

General Motors, in particular, began a traveling showcase of futuristic cars for a number of years. They called it "Motorama" - and the Petersen is highlighting it, along with a gallery of artwork from, and inspired by, the era.

"It was really a spectacle, and it was almost like the World's Fair. You know, the World's Fair used to do the same thing. And the concept of the Motorama kind of took that essence, and brought it to the U.S.," Bodell said.

From the styling studio, these futuristic concepts headed straight to the show stand. Wild glimpses of optimism for the future, and the beginnings of emerging technologies.

Most of the specific designs of the Motorama show cars never made it into showrooms, though one exception was the Chevy Corvette from the 1953 tour. It went on sale in the summer of 1953 with few changes. And the rest is history. The Corvette recently celebrated its 70th birthday.

But when you study these other concept cars, you can see elements that did end up on GM production models. And they gave the car-buying public previews of what was to be expected in that exciting future.

For example, there was a concept in the 1956 Motorama called Firebird II that looked like a spaceship on wheels. (It's not part of the current Petersen display, which is concentrated on the Motorama cars of 1953, 1954 and 1955.) The Firebird II's idea for an auto-pilot system foretold today's GM Super Cruise hands-free cruise control all these decades later. And really, the semi-autonomous driving coming soon. Except they were predicting it for 1976, so General Motors was a little optimistic about the time frame.

General Motors built dozens of Motorama show cars over the years, but they weren't really meant to be driven on public roads. They were kind of flimsy sometimes, and were only built to look good and perhaps drive at low speeds for promotional films.

So after their show duty was done, they were supposed to have all been destroyed. But a handful survived.

"A lot of it was, you know, executives and the heads of design. They would store these cars away and hide them from the crusher, essentially," said Bodell.

The cars in this exhibit are owned by collector Joe Bortz, who has had a passion for bringing them back to their former glory in painstaking authenticity, after often finding them quite dilapidated in salvage yards over the years.

These looks at the future, from the past, are on display at The Petersen at least through the end of the year.