Ghost in the machine: Plexiglass Pontiac sedan was cutting edge in 1939, and still pretty cool today
General Motors created the Pontiac Ghost for the 1939 New York World's Fair. (May 30, 2011)
Perhaps the most interesting of these cars are two Pontiacs bodied in clear Plexiglass in 1939 and 1940. The first, and only known survivor, will be offered at RM Auctions sale in Plymouth, Mich., on July 30. For auction information, visit bit.ly/iIuYb4.
General Motors collaborated with chemical company Rohm & Haas in 1939 to build a clear plastic car for the 1939 New York World's Fair, to complement the "Highways and Horizons" pavilion designed by Norman Bel Geddes. Pontiac supplied drawings of a 1939 DeLuxe Six four-door sedan to Rohm & Hass, which constructed a clear plastic replica of the body shell and fit it on a real chassis. Imagine the "Visible Man" model popular in the 1960s, with all his internal organs on view, and you get the idea.
The structural metal underneath the body shell was given a copper wash and the hardware was chrome-plated. All the rubber moldings were white, as were the running boards, the U.S. Royal tires, and the drivetrain. The effect is eerie and vaguely disturbing, as if you can see something that you aren't meant to.
Rohm & Hass discovered Plexiglas when they were working on laminated glass techniques. Engineers discovered it could be heated over wooden bucks and would take the shape beneath it, hardening as it cooled. The invention was timely: World War II loomed and Plexiglas would soon be pressed into service for aircraft canopies, noses and gun turrets. After the war, its strength, and the ability to form and color it, would make it part of everyday life — both at home and in the auto industry.
This car was originally built as a 1939 six-cylinder Pontiac De Luxe sedan — an "A" body shared with Chevrolet and Buick. It was returned to the factory to have the front clip updated to a 1940 model for the next year's World's Fair, the rear remaining the same for both years. At the same time, a Plexiglas 8-cylinder Pontiac Torpedo four-door sedan was built for the 1940 Golden Gate Exposition, on the bigger "C" body, which was shared with Cadillac, LaSalle and Buick. After the two shows closed, both cars toured Pontiac dealerships nationwide. The GM Heritage Center has a large number of photos of them at their various appearances.
The fate of the Torpedo Eight is unknown today, but the car being sold at auction ended up at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and kept there until 1947. After that, it belonged to a number of Pontiac dealers and made a celebrated appearance at the first Pontiac-Oakland Club International meeting in 1973, when it was sold to private owners.
Chicago's Joe Bortz, of the Bortz Auto Collection, (bortzautocollection.com) is probably the premier expert on American dream cars, having saved dozens from the scrapyard in the past 40 years. Manufacturers almost never gave dream cars VIN numbers or titles, so they can't be licensed or driven on public roads.
In the Pontiac Ghost's case, "You (also) can't drive it because the contact points will cause stress cracks in the body. It's a miracle it got this far in 72 years," he said.
Bortz says that the plastic has been treated over the years to remain as clear as it is. "Plastic yellows from the outside from oxidation. It's what ages us humans and also what causes rust on metal. It's a slow process with plastic, as the outer layer yellows. Preservation is like skin peeling, which is how it has been saved."
Bortz is delighted at what the Ghost Pontiac represents in historical and artistic terms.
"This car is a spot-on display of the evolutionary process — how it makes things happen," he said. "It's made for a museum, where the point is to show the evolution of clear plastic, and satisfy the curiosity of the public.
I think you'll see several museums fighting over this car to get something you can't see anywhere else. You can boil all collecting down to one thing: I have it and you don't. What museums are looking for is the one and only — and this is it."
Notable concept cars
Before World War II WW2, some dream cars looked familiar – GM's 1938 Y-Job roadster gave styling cues to post-war Buicks. Still other pre-war experimental cars were production vehicles constructed from unfamiliar materials. For example, the 1954 Chevrolet Corvette-based fiberglass Nomad Sportwagon, 10 stainless steel sedans built by Ford in 1936, and the extraordinary 1939-40 "Ghost" see-through Pontiacs.
Dream cars have sold at auction for remarkable prices — $429,000 would have bought you the 1954 Mercury XM-800 in January 2010. But the 1954 Pontiac Bonneville concept sold for $3.02 million in 2006, and 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 roadster for $3.24 million in 2005.
Some concept cars, like the 1950-55 Chrysler Ghias, were as elegant as a Dior gown, some were as Lady Gaga as the 1953 Ford XL-500, 1954 FX Atmos and 1955 Lincoln Futura, but they were all a guess into the future — and weren't we all supposed to be flying jet cars by the year 2000, anyway?
— Paul Duchene