1958 Aurora: Car-Crazy Priest Dreams of Auto Safety

In the mid-nineteen fifties, Father Alfred Juliano of Massachusetts faced a conflict. He’d won a scholarship to study auto design in a General Motors competition just after being ordained as a priest. Forced to pick between passions, he chose heavenly duties over highways. But, despite his duties as a Branford, Connecticut parish priest, Juliano's thirst for automotive design raged on. He decided to build a safety car that would save bodies when he wasn’t saving souls.

Funding his dream car with savings and contributions from parishioners, Juliano spent two years designing the Aurora and another two years building it on the frame of a wrecked '53 Buick. His car’s eccentric-looking, swoopy fiberglass body ignored any known design trends to fiercely go its own way, resulting in what some have named "the world's ugliest car.”

Aurora's safety features included:

  • Seats that swiveled backwards in an accident
  • Door guard beams
  • Roll-cage
  • Collapsible steering column
  • Cow-catcher front end to scoop up pedestrians
  • Padded dash
  • Bubble windshield curving away from passengers’ heads
  • Seat belts
  • Central driving position.

Many of the Aurora’s features were unheard of at the time, but have since become standard equipment. According to its restorer and current owner, Andy Saunders, the Aurora was crafted to a high standard. “I have never found anyone who could replicate Father Juliano’s astounding workmanship in areas like the fiberglass bodywork or that Perspex windscreen. I’ve done the best job of re-creating it I could.”

Juliano spent $30,000 building his dream car when luxury cars were going for around $5,000. After finishing it in 1957, he decided to drive his shiny new bubble-top from Massachusetts to its public introduction at Manhattan’s New Yorker Hotel. Unfortunately, after sitting idle for several years, the car’s fuel system had become clogged. Juliano struggled doggedly to complete his route as the car broke down fifteen times along the way. Though arriving hours late, the Aurora caused a sensation at its unveiling, but not in a good way. Its ungainly styling was met with reactions ranging from head scratching dismay to outright derision.

Undeterred by the reaction, Juliano was determined to enter production and sell cars. He displayed the prototype at multitple car shows, received newspaper coverage, and got it placed on a national magazine cover. Nothing helped.

Projected production costs ran high, forcing him to price his Aurora at double the cost of a new Cadillac. The high price combined with its controversial styling killed any interest. Nobody cared about safety if neighbors would point and laugh at their new ride, so orders failed to materialize. Even if he’d received orders, Juliano lacked funds to actually produce more Auroras.

Questions arose concerning Juliano's source of capital. An official investigation shed enough shade that he was forced from the priesthood. He declared bankruptcy and forfeited the Aurora to a body shop to settle unpaid bills from its construction. With his dream of improving car safety turning into a nightmare, he paid the price for introducing ideas twenty years before the world was ready to listen.

In 1993, English car builder Andy Saunders found the rotting hulk of Juliano’s Aurora sinking into a field behind the body shop where he’d left it. Saunders bought the remains and shipped them to England, where he labored heroically to resurrect the decayed ruin. Now it’s as good as new, and a fitting tribute to a dreamer who’d sacrificed everything in a doomed attempt to save lives. Unfortunately, Alfred Juliano never lived to see Saunder’s restoration of his car, he died of an aneurysm sustained while reading in a public library on a quiet New England afternoon in 1989.  

Written by Jim Cherry