Restorer resurrects classic concept cars, symbols of Detroit’s might
Almost accidentally, Joe Bortz became the custodian of a fleet of forgotten automotive masterpieces. Along the way, he became an expert on General Motors Co.’s history and a staunch believer in its future.
The retired Chicago biochemist and restaurateur is a self-described automotive archeologist, rescuing classic concept cars from junkyards and forgotten warehouses.
“The world’s finest designers did their best work in Detroit in the 1950s and ‘60s,” Bortz said. “A century from now, these cars will be recognized as the Picassos and Rembrandts of their time.”
Bortz used hand shovels to carefully excavate the chassis of four historic 1955 GM concept cars from a Sterling Heights, Mich., junkyard.
He retrieved a 1954 cockpit-canopied Pontiac Bonneville Special when the Detroit Historical Society lost interest in the Corvette-style two-seat sports car.
Bortz rescued a fleet of five behemoth Futurliner buses GM created to carry its Parade of Progress extravaganzas across the country in the 1940s and ‘50s. They were slated to be sliced into pieces to create seats for a restaurant.
He also found two 1950s-era concepts, built for Chrysler by renowned Italian design house Ghia, that were sold to owners in France and Norway when Chrysler no longer wanted them.
It’s all part of Bortz’s mission to save the most beautiful and influential concept cars Detroit automakers built in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Concept cars are like butterflies: admired for their beauty but short-lived. Automakers spend millions of dollars to create concept cars. They reap publicity worth millions more if the cars strike a chord with the public.
Car companies often lose interest when a concept car has finished its tour of the auto-show circuit, however.
The design and technology showpieces quickly metamorphose from high-profile stars into yesterday’s news.
They’re frequently warehoused and sometimes destroyed or sold when the automaker no longer wants to pay for their storage.
“The bean counters don’t care about history,” Bortz said. He has spent nearly 30 years finding, researching and restoring concept cars, most from GM, but some from Ford, Chrysler and American Motors.
“These cars are the American psyche of the 1950s and ‘60s,” Bortz said. “They should be available to historians to figure out what we were all about. After World War II, the cars got big and flamboyant. The colors were conservative in good economic times. They became bright and lively during recessions.”
The recession of 1958 pushed GM to the brink. The company decided to scrap four Motorama concepts: the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne, the Cadillac Brougham Town Car, and the LaSalle sedan and roadster.
They were taken to Warhoops Auto Parts in Sterling Heights. The owner, Harry Warholak Sr., was told to destroy them.
He couldn’t bring himself to do it, so he fulfilled the letter of the instruction by chopping each into four pieces. He saved the scraps for 30 years. In 1988, he met Bortz, whom Warholak believed would show the cars the respect they were due.
Bortz has restored about 30 concepts. He owns half and placed the remainder with collectors and museums that care for them.
“The story of these cars is emblematic of the story of Detroit and of General Motors,” Bortz said. “They were stars, then they fell on hard times and were almost lost. Now they’re coming back.”
Bortz’s collecting has brought him close to GM. He has spoken at designers’ retirements and nearly joined the company’s board in the 1990s.
“I’ll be standing in line to buy the first share of GM stock when it goes on sale later this year,” he said.
Bortz’s current project is restoring another of GM’s 1955 Motorama cars, a LaSalle roadster. The show car had no drivetrain, but Bortz plans to take the 55-year-old luxury convertible into the 21st century by fitting it with a hybrid gasoline-electric power plant.
He aims to have both La Salles restored and ready for the Detroit-area Concours d’Elegance of America in 2012.
He’s looking for a wide range of other ‘50s-era concepts, particularly the 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 roadster, a Motorama car shrouded in mystery.
It’s certain only that one 1954 F-88 exists, but persistent rumors say GM built two or even three copies. Bortz welcomes information from anyone who knows where to find concept cars from the 1950s and ‘60s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phelan writes for the Detroit Free Press/McClatchy.