General Motors 1955 Biscayne Motorama concept

Collector Joe Bortz: restoring dreams

There's all kinds of classic car collectors. Some specialize in old-timey, brass-era cars. Others prefer Corvettes, while still others like muscle cars. British sports cars have dedicated fans, as do finned 1950s American iron. Collector Joe Bortz stands alone by specializing in peak-era Detroit concept cars.

Concept, or "dream" cars as they were then called, reached their apogee during America's optimistic boom years of the 1950s. Detroit's Big Three automakers competed to show the most dazzling one of-a-kind cars as art pieces—demonstrating what designers could do given free reign, utterly unrestricted by production considerations.

Once Detroit’s dream cars had finished their time in the spotlight, having been publicized and trotted out to shows for a year or two, manufacturers viewed them as a liabilities and either destroyed them (GM & Ford) or sold them to overseas buyers in order to avoid import duties due to their Italian coach work (Chrysler). According to Joe Bortz, this was understandably hard on their creators, "A designer would go into the executive's office and cry, literally break down and cry. It was like telling Rembrandt, “We're going to destroy a few of your paintings.” The executive, sometimes GM's chairman himself, might soften and let the designer take the car home on one stipulation: "I don't want to hear about it for 25 years."

Chevrolet's 1955 Biscayne Motorama dream car wasn’t one of the fortunate few that were taken home by a designer. Bortz found it rotting outdoors in a Michigan junkyard after being cut in half in 1959 and sitting outside in Michigan weather for nearly half a century. After a lengthy restoration, it debuted at Meadow Brook Concours d'Elegance. The Biscayne was one dream car that truly merited resurrection, as it exemplifies General Motors' legendary design chief Harley Earl at the height of his powers, while its styling cues later turned up on Corvettes and Corvairs. Now, it's enjoying a second life as a show star that’s currently on display at Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum

While the stylish future predicted by concepts like the Biscayne never actually came to pass, it's nonetheless valuable to see what designers of the of the period could do when freed to create art for art's sake. By pursuing his passion for collecting these unique expressions of our industrial age, Joe Bortz has preserved invaluable American cultural history for us all to enjoy.

By Jim Cherry