Gaylord Gladiator 1955-57 - America's Finest Sports Car?

Bobby pins? They seem so inevitable; it's funny to think someone had to sit down and invent one.  But a guy named Gaylord did just that and became a very wealthy man indeed. Mr. Gaylord’s sons Jim and Ed had gasoline in their blood, so much so, they described themselves as “autoholics.” They were inspired to spend some bobby pin money building the finest sports car America had yet seen, with quality to rival the word’s finest cars.

Jim Gaylord designed his own sturdy chassis and powered it with a fire-breathing Chrysler Hemi V-8. Apparently, he did a good job; the car is said to have handled well. Needing a designer for its bodywork, he contacted Alex Tremulis, who had gained fame as designer of the Tucker 48. Tremulis was employed by Ford at the time, so he recommended designer Brooks Stevens for the job. Stevens drew up a swanky two-tone coupe that, from its soaring fins to its cartoonish face looked like something Bruce Wayne would drive on his day off.

Built by Spohn of Germany, the first Gaylord debuted at the 1955 Paris Auto Show. Its giant headlights and exposed front wheels evoked classical automobiles of the thirties, but later cars were more conventional, incorporating standard quad headlights and full front fenders. The brothers’ plan was to build twenty-five cars per year, priced at $10,000. That figure proved wildly optimistic and was later revised to $17,500, as much as four contemporary Corvettes. Zeppelin of Germany built the second and third Gaylords with Cadillac V8s, but the brothers never reached their minimum threshold of twenty-five orders, dooming their dream of series production.

The Gladiator was well sorted, featuring hand-built quality, a spare tire that slid out on a tray, a dashboard knob that allowed the driver to dial in their preferred amount of power-steering boost, a lube-free chassis when that was unheard of, a retractable metal top and hot performance despite its hefty, two-ton bulk.

A single prototype and two “production” Gaylord Gladiators were built. Running changes meant that all three were essentially prototypes. King Farouk of Egypt and actor Dick Powell bought the two later cars. Grace Kelly and William Holden placed orders. But unfortunately, doomed by its exorbitant price and Jim Gaylord's perfectionism, the Gaylord soon copped a flat on the boulevard of broken dreams. A lawsuit with the Zeppelin company put Jim Gaylord in the hospital with a nervous breakdown. The brothers were forced to abandon the project, admitting that they hadn’t sufficiently considered production issues during the car’s development. Sadly, the Gaylord’s failure to launch mirrored the sorry lot of many dreamers who’ve dared to attempt production of their own car.

The first Gladiator was destroyed. The other two cars’ current whereabouts remains a mystery, though they were displayed for a time at the Early America Museum in Sarasota Springs, Florida, a facility that’s since been shuttered for good.

By Jim Cherry