Detroit vs the Customizers
Harley Earl and the LeSabres
Gasoline (Sweden): March, 2016
Detroit vs the Customizers II
Harley Earl and the LeSabre’s
By Sondre Kvipt Kustomrama
“Who’s copying whom” was the subject of our last Kustomrama Korner. While
customizers all over the US claimed that Detroitstylists
copied ideas from the
customizers, the Detroitstylists
answered that they didn’t pay much attention to what the
customizers were up to. Ken Fermoyle, the spokesman for the designers in Detroit even
suggested that the copying often ran the other way. Ken was right about the last part.
Let’s have a look at the most copied concept car of all time!
Styling as an organized staff activity, was first undertaken in the automobile industry by General
Motors in the late 1920s. Up until then, engineers had dominated the whole design. In 1965
Alfred Sloan Jr., President of GM, said that since 1928, “ styling and engineering in cooperation
have evolved together in a continuous interaction that brought the modern General Motors
style. ” So what happened in the late 1920s? Harley Earl happened! In 1927 Harley Earl was
hired by Alfred as a styling engineer for GM. Harley created and became head of the “Art and
Colour Section” of General Motors shortly after he had been hired. A department that grew from
50 people in 1927 to about 1,100 in 1957.
Earl Automobile Works
Jacob William Earl was a woodworker and lumberjack from Cadillac, Michigan. Jacob’s wife was
from California, and in 1889 she convinced her husband about moving West. The same year
Jacob opened up the Earl Carriage Works in Los Angeles. At his shop, Earl built and repaired
carriages and wagons. In 1893 Jacob had a son, named Harley Jefferson. Harley
worked in the shop after school, and wound up study engineering at Stanford University. At the
time, Jacob had started making bodies and simple accessories for automobiles, so in 1908 he
renamed his shop Earl Automobile Works. As the movie industry boomed in the Valley, Earl
Automobile Works specialized in customizing automobiles for rich movie stars and industry
executives that settled down in Hollywood. Harley dropped out of Stanford to work for his father,
who gradually placed the shop under his son’s leadership. Harley took care of business, and the
little shop went on to produce about 300 custom bodies a year, making it one of the six largest
builders of custom bodies in the United States. Harley’s shop did bodywork and customizing for
Cadillac distributor and custom car builder Don Lee. Lee’s shop was less than a block away
from Earls Automobile Works. In July of 1919 Don Lee decided to buy Earl’s shop, making Don
Lee Coach and Body Works the largest plant of its kind west of Chicago. 26 years old Harley
Earl became chief designer and director of the custom department of the new company. Lee’s
intentions was to turn out the very best coach work obtainable anywhere in his new plant. To
achieve this he sent Harley to New York and Europe yearly so he could study the latest styling
GM Art and Colour Section
The first year, Don Lee Coach and Body Works produced hundreds of custom cars. Harley
developed a unique way of working. In addition to showing drawings of his design proposals to
customers, he also built fullscale
clay models of the cars. Harley has been quoted saying, “A
picture is worth a thousand words, but a model is worth a thousand pictures.” Modeling
concepts in clay was something as revolutionary as the moving assembly line for automobile
production, and like the moving assembly line, it spread to automakers everywhere. Working for
Don Lee, Harley got access to upperlevel
managers of Cadillac. Late in 1925 he was hired to
do some design work for a new model called LaSalle. Harley boarded a train to Detroit in
January 1926. A year later he was hired as a styling engineer for GM. At GM, Harley created
and became head of the “Art and Colour Section”. Harley and Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the President
of GM, both recognized that styling could be a great sales tool. The department began with
about 50 people. By 1957 it was known as the GM Styling Department, consisting of about
Harley’s department made General Motors the first automaker in the industry to make styling an
organized staff activity. In 1965 Alfred P. Sloan Jr., published a book named “My Years With
General Motors,” according to that book, “ Since 1928, styling and engineering in the corporation
have evolved together in a continuous interaction that brought about the modern General
Motors style. ” Prior to Harley’s “Art and Colour Section”, the engineer dominated the whole
design. In 1954 Alfred said: “ My primary purpose for twentyeight
years has been to lengthen
and lower the American automobile. ”
Harley’s “Art and Colour Section” became GM Styling in 1937. The first assignment of the new
division was to create the first experimental car at GM. The assignment resulted in a futuristic
creation called the Buick YJob.
was introduced in 1938, featuring advanced features
such as hidden headlights, a horizontal grille, wraparound bumpers, a prototype “Dynaflow”
transmission, electric power windows, an electric top, power steering, 13inch
wheels, and no running boards. It was very low for the time, and from the ground to its peak it
measured only 58inches.
The length stretched 208 inches! Lower and longer!
Four photos of the YJob
were published in Dan Post’s Original Blue Book of Custom Restyling
from 1944. Dan’s books are the earliest known published pieces on customizing, and the YJob
is presented as a SportCustom
by GM Experimental Styling Section.
In 1940 Harley advanced to become Vice President of General Motors, and the YJob
his personal transportation for years. By 1946, the YJob
had been basis for so many designs
that it was decided to retire it. It was time to build a successor! Harley and his team had so
many ideas, that it was decided to build two cars, the XP8
and the XP9.
LeSabre, while the XP9
became the Buick XP300.
The LeSabre did not have a specific
association with any GM brands, so in the end it became the General Motors LeSabre. A newly
created studio dubbed Special Automobile Design immediately began the styling of the
LeSabre. Aircrafts and boats served as sources of inspiration for Harley Earl when the LeSabre
and the XP300
were designed. Both cars were decided to build as low as possible, forcing
them to be twopassenger
convertibles, so necessary mechanical parts could be placed ahead
and behind the passenger space. The wheelbase measured 115 inches. 13 inch wheels helped
lower the car, and it stood only 50 inches high with the top on. 10 inches higher than a Ford
GT40. GM designer Ed Glowacke contributed a lot to the aviation theme on the LeSabre,
designing the oval grille, the dagmar bumper bullets, the gullwing bumpers, and the interior with
gauges. Most of the body panels on the LeSabre were lightweight cast
magnesium or aluminum. The LeSabre and the XP300
were the first cars to have wraparound
windshields. The windshields were also tinted, another Harley Earl innovation. The oval grille up
front was not a grille, but a door that supported closeset
headlights. When the headlight switch
was turned on, the door moved inward, rotated 180 degrees, and then moved outward with two
headlights turned on. The interior featured two electrically heated black leather covered bucket
seats. A console divided the seats. The console featured a chronograph, radio controls, and a
rain sensor that automatically raised the top in case it started to rain while the car was parked
with the top down. The convertible top retracted into a well that was covered by a pivoting lid,
and it has been said that Harley liked to park the car with the top down, especially if there was
strong possibilities of rain in the forecast.
A photo of Harley Earl with a clay model of the LeSabre. According to Harley, “A picture is worth
a thousand words, but a model is worth a thousand pictures.” Harley’s unique approach of
modeling concepts in clay was something as revolutionary as the moving assembly line for
automobile production, and like the moving assembly line, it spread to automakers everywhere.
Photo courtesy of General Motors.
Harley’s LeSabre was powered by an experimental supercharged aluminum 215ci
aircraft type BendixEclipse
carburetors feed the fuel supply. One carburetor received
premium gasoline from an aircraft type fuel cell installed in the left quarter panel, the other ran
methanol from a fuel cell in the right quarter panel. The gas filler doors were hidden on the
inboard side of the fins, within the chrome molding. The driveline and suspension was very
experimental, and it featured a rear mounted torque converter that ran a generator and a
hydraulic pump. The hydraulic pump ran four built in jacks, one on each corner, to raise the car
A rear mounted torque converter ran a generator and a hydraulic pump. The hydraulic pump ran
four built in jacks, one on each corner, to raise the car when needed. Photo courtesy of General
The LeSabre was the first of the two concept cars to be shown to the public, as the December
1950 issue of Life magazine featured the car using photography of the mockup. The XP300
was shown at the Chicago Auto Show in February of 1951. It was not quite completed at the
time. Both cars were later shown to members of the press at the GM Proving Grounds several
months later. The formal approval of the LeSabre and the XP300
projects happened in May
1951. Earl drove the LeSabre in the 1951 Watkins Glen raceday
parade, and it was also sent to
the Paris Salon auto show, inside a special aluminum container. Abroad, General Dwight D.
Eisenhover had the opportunity to take a ride in the experimental dream car that flabbergasted
thousands of Europeans.
The LeSabre clay model was featured on the cover of Motor Trend March 1951. The story
inside did also only show photos of the clay model. The first clay model photo was printed in the
December 1950 issue of Life magazine, so it is possible that the first LeSabre lookalikes could
have been started as early as 1950.
Two drawn LeSabre’s were featured on the cover of Science and Mechanics April 1951.
another widely copied GM concept car, was shown at the Chicago Auto Show in
February of 1951. It was not quite completed at the time. Photo courtesy of GM.
In 1953 the LeSabre and the XP300
were shown at the GM Motorama tour. By then the
LeSabre had been updated with new wheels, deleted fender skirts, and additional air intakes
and outlets to improve engine compartment cooling. As with the YJob,
Harley drove the
LeSabre frequently, and he put about 45,000 miles on the car.
By 1953 the LeSabre had been updated with new wheels, deleted fender skirts, and additional
air intakes and outlets to improve engine compartment cooling.
While the LeSabre greatly influenced car design, the XP300
had little influences. In the book
GM’s Motorama by David W. Temple, retired GM stylist and vice president Chuck Jordan
explains the impact of the LeSabre: “ The LeSabre had dramatic proportions and shape. The
LeSabre really knocked us for a loop. It represented Harley Earl’s design philosophy and it
influenced all of us? it was a very exciting car. We knew we had to go all out. ”
After the LeSabre was shown, letters of praise regarding the car started to pour into General
Motors. Even Dwight D. Eisenhover wrote Harley Earl to tell him how impressed he was with the
low slung sports car. The demand for the LeSabre was high in the early 1950s, and as General
Motors had no plans for production of the car, auto manufacturers, body shops and mechanics
all over the world started to build their interpretations of Harley’s revolutionary sport custom.
One of the earliest LeSabre inspired cars I have found was built in Russia in 1951. The same
year as Harley’s concept car hit the show circuit. The Russian automaker ZIS, who is known for
cars, decided to build their own version of the LeSabre in 1951. The
was a twoseater
roadster designed by Valentine Rostkov. Valentine’s concept featured
a center mounted headlight, and it became known as the Cyclops. The overall body design of
looks like a LeSabre without the fins. As it’s cousin across the sea, it featured a
wraparound windshield. With the center mounted headlight, it looks like a combination of a
Studebaker and the LeSabre. The Cyclops ran a ZIS V8 engine, and was used in several
Russian auto races. When it left the factory it was 6 meter long, and it weighed 2450 kg. During
its racing days, the length was shortened to reduce the weight.
The Russian automaker ZIS is known for building Packardlooking
cars. In 1951, only months
after the LeSabre was shown to the public, they built a twoseater
roadster called ZIS112.
Russian concept car had one center mounted headlight, and it became known as the Cyclops.
The George Barris of Ravensburg
Like James Bond in Octopussy we’ll move from Russia to Germany. My research so far shows
that Germany holds the world record when it comes to knocking out LeSabre inspired custom
creations. In 1920, one year after Don Lee had bought Earls Automobile Works in Hollywood,
Hermann Spohn and Josef Eiwanger formed a coachwork company in Ravensburg, Southern
Germany called “Karosseriebau Hermann Spohn”. In the early days it was a body repair shop,
and Josef and Hermann were equal partners. In 1923 Spohn passed away. Eiwanger was more
into building custom bodies than straightening bent fenders, so it didn’t take long before the
company was focusing on the coachwork part of the business. Eiwanger gained fame with his
Steyr and Maybach creations in the 1930s, and the company became
the favored coachbuilder for Maybach. Einwanger acted as Spohn’s chief body designer and
engineer. During World War II the French forces occupied Bavaria, and they forced Spohn to
build French Army Vehicles. Josef Eiwanger Sr. retired during WWII, and in 1945 Josef
Eiwanger Jr., was put in charge of Spohn by occupying French forces. Karosseriebau Hermann
Spohn became one of those rare European coachbuilders who managed to survive World War
II, but after the War, the once prominent name was forgotten. After the German currency reform
of 1948, Spohn returned to build custom bodies. Having a hard time finding customers with
money to spend on coachbuilt cars, American soldiers on occupation duty in Germany came to
Spohn’s rescue in the late 1940s and early 1950s. American GI’s would have Spohn customize
the cars they had brought with them on their tours of European duty. Uncle Sam paid the
shipping of the cars both ways back then. The result was a new era for Spohn, and Joseph
became known as “Joe” to his US customers. In 1974 Special Interest Autos magazine did an
article on Spohn named “Germany’s Kustom King.” Michael Lamm and Erik Eckermann
interviewed Joe about his career for the magazine, and according to them Joe developed a “box
of toys” that his customers could play with. The box consisted of preconceived items and
themes: lamps, bezels, handles, grille treatments, moldings, spinners, bumpers, the shapes of
decklids, fins, hoods, roofs and interiors. Any of them could be adapted to a variety of cars. The
“box of toys” approach explains why so many Spohn customs share specific features and why
the individual components sometimes don’t mix and match too well aesthetically. Many of the
designs in the box were inspired by recent American concept cars, such as the LeSabre, the
and the 1953 Lincoln X100.
A full custom body by Spohn, would cost anywhere
from $3000 to $7000.
Major Jack T. Chandler’s 1941 Ford was featured in Speed Age October 1952, and it is the first
LeSabre inspired Spohn custom we have found in print. Jack’s Ford had to be done around
While the front of Major Chandler’s Ford looks like a narrowed Buick XP300, the
rear resembles the LeSabre. The body structure on the car was made of welded tubular steel.
The bumpers were handformed.
According to the article in Speed Age, Chandler designed the
Robert Mooselli’s Spohn Custom was shown alongside several Barris Kustoms creations at the
1952 Petersen Motorama in Los Angeles, in November of 1952. Photos from the collection of
Three photos of Robert Mooselli’s Spohn Custom that I bought on eBay several years ago.
According to Hop Up and Motor Life January 1954, a complete, brand new 1948 Mercury
chassis was bought from Ford Motor Company in Belgium at a cost of $1,100. The body was
built entirely at Spohn’s shop for an additional $6,000. The original owner of the car is unknown,
but Mooselli bought it off an Army captain for $3,800. The rear end on the car resembles the
LeSabre, and as the LeSabre, the exhaust is also routed through the rear bumper. Photos from
the collection of Sondre Kvipt.
A color photo of Mooselli’s Spohn Custom was featured on the cover of Hop Up and Motor Life
January 1954. The text on the cover stated that “Germans Invade Custom Car Field.”
Back in 2010 I got an email from Wayne Graefen of Kerville, Texas. Wayne had found my list of
LeSabre inspired customs on Kustomrama, and he was wondering if I had any info of an old
Spohn Custom he remembered from his childhood days in South suburban Chicago. Wayne
had taken three photos of it as it sat in 1965 that he sent me. The rear end of the car in the
photos looks like so many other Spohn customs, with its LeSabre inspired fins, taillights,
handmade bumpers and center back up light. Photo courtesy of Wayne Graefen
After Wayne had mailed me, I started a weekly column featuring LeSabre lookalikes, to create
some attention around the subject. I also created a lost and found story for the lost Palos Park
Spohn. A year later, in 2011, the car was located at an auction in California. Wayne registered
for the auction, and July 12, 2011 he finally became the owner of his long lost dream car.
Wayne still owns the car, and October last year it was sent to Manns Restoration in Missouri for
an awaited restoration. Photo courtesy of Wayne Graefen
Nickolas M. Staranick’s 1947 Buick is the only Spohn custom I have been able to locate so far
with a LeSabre inspired front end design. Of the Spohn custom builds that we know of, Nickolas’
Buick is the one that that is closest to Harley Earl’s LeSabre. The only known photo of this car
appeared in Motor Trend May 1954. Photo courtesy of Motor Trend Magazine
So far, my list of LeSabre inspired Spohn Customs contains about 15 vehicles. New cars keeps
popping up, making me wonder how many that were actually built? The latest addition, seen
here, arrived in my mailbox in December of 2015. Steve Jackson of Decatur, Illinois sent the
photos, as he is looking for his uncle’s old Spohn custom, photographed here in 1956. Photo
courtesy of Steve Jackson.
French coachbuilder Henri Esclassan built three LeSabre inspired convertibles, using chassis
from the French automobile Salmson as foundation for the builds. According to Henri’s
grandson, Patrice Esclassan Davoine, Henri built the cars around 1950 1951.
Patrice sent me these photos of the cars from Henri’s private photo album. Photo courtesy of
Patrice Esclassan Davoine.
The most wacky LeSabre lookalike I have come across so far was built in Belgia in 1952.
Michael Lamm came across this Van Hool bodied bus on a vacation in Switzerland in 1952 or
1953. The build was based on a Dodge. Photo courtesy of Michael Lamm.
The Manta Ray
One of the better known LeSabre inspired cars built in the US was a fiberglass bodied sport
custom called the Manta Ray. The Manta Ray was designed and built by Glen Hire and Vernon
Antoine of Whittier, California. At the time, Glen and Vernon worked for the North American
Aviation Company, in the engineering and design department of the guided missile and jet
aircraft division. Two years ago I got an email from Vernon’s grandson, Paul Clark, who could
tell me that his grandpa also did some design work for Henry Kaiser of the Kaiser automobile. In
addition to the Manta Ray, Vernon also built numerous cars, planes and boats during his life?
“ All had a space age flair for their time! ”
The Manta Ray was built on a modified 1951 Studebaker chassis, and it featured a handmade
fiberglass body, with an overall design similar to Harley Earl’s LeSabre. While the LeSabre was
fit with a “fake” grille that housed the headlights on the car, the Manta Ray featured a huge
missile looking spinner up front. Front bumpers similar, to the LeSabre, were built from Hudson
parts. The rear of the car featured 3 Lincoln headlights, and 3 exhaust pipes that were routed
through the bumpers. The appearance of the car was more important than the performance for
Glen and Vernon, so they kept the Studebaker chassis and V8 engine alone. Once completed
the Manta Ray stood 40 inches high, had a 112 inch wheelbase, and weighed 1000 pounds.
Vernon and Glen had plans for a small scale production of the car. The car never made it into
production, but it made it into a handful of magazines. After taking home some prestigious
awards at shows with the car, Glen and Vernon sold the Manta Ray to Leading Los Angeles
auto dealer Bob Yeakel.
After selling the Manta Ray, it quickly fell off the face of the earth. In 2008 I did a Featured Story
on the car on Kustomrama. I was fascinated by the look of the futuristic car, and I did my best
trying to find out what had happened to it. A photo of the car appeared in Custom Cars Annual
from 1955, after that the trace went cold. Everyone I talked to thought it was lost, so I published
what I had been able to find out about the car on Kustomrama, hoping someone would swallow
my bait. In March of 2009 I received an email from D.E. Lacer of Junction City, Kansas. Mr
Lacer could tell me that the car was still around, located in a barn in Junction City. “Wow!!”
Reading that email is the closest thing to a barn find experience I have ever been! D.E. told me
that his dad, L.L. Lacer, also known locally as Peanuts, bought the car in 1959. At the time it
was located in Topeka, Kansas, and he traded it for a 1952 Morris, a 1952 Volkswagen, and a
1953 Packard. The news about the car being found went worldwide, and it didn’t take long
before Hemmings picked it up and helped me spread the word. Since then the car has been
taken out of storage, cleaned up and made driveable again. It appeared in an episode of Wayne
Carini’s TV show Chasing Classic Cars in 2014, and in March of 2016 it will be shown at the
Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
Two photos of the Manta Ray taken in April of 1953. Gene Harrison sent me these photos in
2013. His uncle Verne Harrison had taken them 60 years prior. Gene had no idea why his uncle
took the photos, but he believes he was just passing by as the futuristic car stood parked next to
the road. The front end design of the Manta Ray is very similar to the LeSabre, but instead of
the “fake” grille that housed the headlights, the Manta Ray featured a huge missile looking
spinner up front. Front bumpers similar, to the LeSabre, were built from Hudson parts. The rear
of the car featured three Lincoln taillights, and three exhaust outlets routed through the bumper.
Photo courtesy of Gene Harrison.
This is where my research ended in 2008, when I first tried to find out about the whereabouts of
the Manta Ray. A photo of the car appeared in Trend Books’ Custom Cars 1955 Annual, in a
story about car insurances! According to the story, the Manta Ray would qualify for premium
insurance rate. That’s all it had to say about Glen and Vernon’s head turner.
The Manta Ray as it sat when D.E. Lacer emailed me in 2009. The long lost Manta Ray had
resurfaced! Photo courtesy of D.E. Lacer.
In August of 2012 the Lacer family brought the Manta Ray to ER Detailing for a full detail job.
This photo is taken during the clean up. Photo courtesy of ER Detailing.
A photo of D.E. Lacer with the Manta Ray. Photo courtesy of D.E. Lacer.
Average Joes and Plain Janes
So far, the cars we have seen were built by companies that were trying to take advantage of the
big demand Harley Earl’s LeSabre made in the market. In Germany, one of the few
coachbuilders that survived World War II was actually able to extend their existence with half a
decade thanks to a handful of experimental cars such as the LeSabre and the Buick XP300.
you weren’t an American soldier on occupation duty in Germany, you could either write a letter
to GM telling them how much you wanted a LeSabre, hoping they would put the car into
production, or you could build one yourself! Many went for the second option.
One of the earliest noncommercial
LeSabre inspired customs I have found was built in Albany,
New York late in 1951. After reading several magazine devoted to sports cars, Carl Szembrot
decided that he wanted a custom! He brought his 1950 Studebaker convertible to R. K. Body
Works telling them what he was after. Carl wanted a rear end inspired by the LeSabre, featuring
high fender fins with three flush mounted tail lights on each side. The rear end was extended 28
inches, housing a bullet nose from another Studebaker in the centre. Red lights were mounted
in the rear nosepiece to make it glow at night. February 13, 1952 The Knickerboxer News ran a
story about Carl and his Studebaker, the headline of the story read “ Car with 2 Front Ends
Attracts Attention. ” After that, LeSabre inspired customs from all over the US pops up in hot rod,
custom and general auto magazines. So far, I have found oneoffs
built in Florida,
Pennsylvania, Omaha, Indiana, Detroit and California. The builds are based on everything from
Crosley station wagons to 1954 Cadillacs. Nothing lasts forever, and by the mid 1950s, the
demand for LeSabre inspired customs seems to be decreasing. Another era was over for
Spohn, and in 1957 they closed their doors for good!
Carl Szembrot’s 1950 Studebaker of Albany, New York is one of the earliest USbuilt
inspired customs I have found. The build was started late in 1951, and it took a couple of
months to complete. February 13, 1952 the Knickerboxer News ran a story on the car stating
that “Car With 2 Front Ends Attracts Attention”.
This was the first photo I saw of Carl Szembrot’s Studebaker. Daniel A. Fox bought the remains
of the car in 2013. He knew the car had been displayed at the 1952 New York International
Motor Sports Show, so he emailed me asking if I had any information on it. I didn’t, so we ran it
in the Kustomrama Lost & Found section. A month later, Carl was identified and located. 91
years old he was still living in the Albany area. Since then Daniel’s email address has stopped
working, but last we spoke he was planning to rebuild the Albany LeSabre. Photo courtesy of
Daniel A. Fox
The LaRocket is a LeSabre inspired custom built by Shelbyville, Indiana customizer Bob Metz.
Built on a 1939 LaSalle chassis, the body consisted of hand made panels blended into 1939
LaSalle, 1941 Oldsmobile and 1949 Buick hoods and fenders. The bumpers were Cadillac, and
the side trim came from a 1953 Buick. Bob’s LaRocket was featured in Rod & Custom
September 1954, after winning awards at the Indianapolis Auto Show. Bob would go on to
become a respected custom builder, working his magic on both the Rod & Custom Dream Truck
and the Barris Kustoms built Golden Sahara. The car was last seen in the early 1980s, but I
received a couple of tips regarding the whereabouts of the car, and we’re currently trying to hunt
Max Fleischer’s 1955 Cadillac was restyled by Cadillac Body Service in Detroit. Max’s Cadillac
is one of many LeSabre inspired US built customs that would pop up in American magazines in
the early and mid 1950s. This article comes from Trend Books Customs Cars 1957 Annual.
Would you believe me if I told you we had a LeSabre lookalike in Norway as well in the 1950s?
While old automobile magazines from the US has been my primary source of information
researching LeSabre inspired customs, I found the most interesting creation of them all in a
copy of “Toyotaekspressen”
from june 2007 A
Norwegian magazine sent out to Toyota
owners. The story was about Joar Kristiansen from Askim, Norway, and his brand new Toyota
Prius, but it also contained three photos of an automobile that Joar built in the mid 1950s.
Joar Kristiansen’s LeSabre sport custom was built in Askim, Norway between 1953 and 1955. A
body structure made from tiron,
angle iron, and wood was fabricated on top of a 1939 Ford
chassis. The structure was then covered with aluminum panels. Completed in 1955 Joar’s
LeSabre was a crowd pleaser everywhere it went. The first version was painted a light metallic
blue, but it was repainted several times after that. Photo from the collection of Joar Kristiansen,
courtesy of Gunnar Halstvedt.
Joar was born and raised in Askim, a little town in Østfold county. He was known around town
as a real “Gyro Gearlosse”. He loved mechanical work, finding new ways to solve technical
issues. Joar’s father worked at Askim Gummivarefabrikk, repairing sewing machines. In 1946,
the same year as GM decided to retire their YJob
and build the LeSabre, Joar became an
apprentice at Askim Gummivarefabrikk, working with his dad. He went on to become a
mechanic at the factory, spending the next 48 years there. After returning from military service in
1952, Joar was aching for a car. Reading about all kinds of American made automobiles in
magazines and newspapers, there was one specific car Joar couldn’t get out of his mind? Harley
Earl’s LeSabre! A small black and white photo of the car that ended up on the garage wall as
template for his first car in 1953.
A 1939 Ford delivery was located at a junkyard in Arvika, Sweden. The engine was gone, and
the old car had tipped over, but Joar decided to buy the chassis for his build. The chassis was
weathered and rusted, but Joar sand blasted and fixed it up. A huge 95 horsepower engine from
a 1930s truck was found on a barn in Skiptvet. There were several cars in Askim in the 1950s,
that were built into sports cars. A fellow named Trygve Westbye built a couple of them, and he
might have been the first one as well. In additional to Harley Earl, Trygve Westbye was a huge
inspiration for Joar when he built the LeSabre, and he became a technical consultant for Joar
during the build. With help from Joar, the barn find engine was overhauled and installed in the
As mentioned before, Alfred P. Sloan’s primary purpose while working at GM, was to lengthen
and lower the American automobile. The body on Joar’s car had to be low as well, and as the
height couldn’t exceed 95 cm, plus the height of the windshield, the frame was kicked up about
the height of the frame, to lower the car. While Harley Earl’s LeSabre featured a Magnesium
and Aluminum body, Joar’s LeSabre ran an aluminum body. 1.25 mm aluminum panels were
used to cover the body structure that Joar had made from tiron,
angle iron, and wood. “Stordahl
Karosserifabrikk” guided Joar through the build. The front bumper was a modified Willys bumper
that was cut and bent. The Ed Glowacke designed oval grille surround was replicated in brass
that Joar chromed. The fake grille that covered the headlights was polished aluminum that Joar
casted after a wooden model. The cockpit was upholstered in bright red vinyl, and it featured
dash gauges came from a 1939 Packard. Technical features included a gas filler cap, that was
push button operated from the driver seat, and an air pressure controlled hand brake, also
operated from the dash. A red lamp in the dash indicated that the handbrake was on. In order to
loosen the brake, you had to push the button until the lamp shut. When Joar took the roadster to
the vehicle licensing department to get it approved for use on the street, one of the guys
working at the department took the car for a spin. He was away for a long time, and according to
rumors he was spotted on the side of the road with the car having problems. He had supposedly
pushed one of the many buttons on the dash, activating the hand brake. Not knowing how to
loosen it, he had to push all of the buttons until he hit the right one. A cover, hiding the back up
light in the rear of the car, was also the subject of many funny stories in Askim.
The build was completed in 1955. Joar got it through the vehicle inspection department, and it
received Norwegian license plates. The first version was painted a light metallic blue, but it was
repainted several times after that. Joar’s LeSabre was a crowd pleaser everywhere he took it. In
1957 an interview with Joar was posted in the company magazine for Askim Gummivarefabrikk.
During the interview, Joar told the journalist that he was so fed up with all the attention from the
car, that he almost regret building it. In 2007 he told the journalist from Toyotaekspressen
he used the car for some years, before he got tired of it: “The handling wasn’t all that, having the
heavy engine, rear wheel drive, and leaf springs front and back, so I sold it off for 2000 kroner.”
The car changed hands several times after that, and according to JanOdd
Jakobsen it was a
regular at Youngstorget in Oslo around 19651967.
In Oslo, Joar’s sport custom was known as
“Lynvingen”. While Harley Earl’s LeSabre ended up in safe storage at the GM Heritage Center,
Joar’s lookalike ended its days at the dump in Oslo!
A photo of Joar with the LeSabre. In 1957 Joar told a journalist that he was so fed up with all the
attention from the car, that he almost regret building it. Photo from the collection of Joar
Kristiansen, courtesy of Gunnar Halstvedt
A profile shot of Joar’s LeSabre. Around 19651967
the car was a regular at Youngstorget in
Oslo. In Oslo, the car was known as “Lynvingen.” Unfortunately, it ended its days at the dump in
Oslo. Photo from the collection of Joar Kristiansen, courtesy of Gunnar Halstvedt
This story has been in the works since 2008. It is far from done, but it wouldn’t have been
anywhere close to where it is today without contributions and research by Michael Lamm, Erik
Eckermann, Wayne Graefen, Geoffrey Hacker, David W. Temple, Hemmings, D.E. Lacer,
Patrice Esclassan Davoine, Gunnar Halstvedt and Askim Historielag.