Sunday, August 20, 2017

D-E-A-D dead: The most significant cars that definitively no longer exist

Image courtesy Chrysler.

Historically significant cars resurface all the time—found in barns, fields, subterranean caverns, even behind brick walls—quite often making news when they do. After all, their continued existence either confirms or denies decades’ worth of speculation about their continued existence and fills in those gaps in the historical record, of which there are plenty.
It’s for that reason that we automotive journalists tend to hedge our language when discussing cars that haven’t been seen for awhile. They’re often described as “missing,” “lost,” or “vanished,” vague words that simply mean we don’t have a royal clue as to their whereabouts, oftentimes because they’ve been squirreled away, because insufficient documentation of their fates exist, or because intrepid car hunters just haven’t turned over the right rock yet.
That vagueness can, in turn, lead to serious issues. How many times has a significant missing car suddenly turned up with a fuzzy provenance that the incomplete historical record can neither confirm nor deny? Disputes about the true identities of previously lost cars routinely turn into high-profile lawsuits and embarrassing situations for less-than-careful collectors.
Some cars, however, without a doubt no longer exist, returned to their constituent elements, far beyond restoration or resurrection. The historical record is unequivocal on their fates. So, let’s run down some of the most significant cars documented to have departed us.

Image courtesy Chrysler.

We’ll start with perhaps the most well-documented of them, the Chrysler Norseman. Designed in Virgil Exner’s studio and built by Ghia in 1956, the show car featured a Hemi and an A-pillarless cantilevered roof. Ghia loaded the crated car on the Andrea Doria to ship it to Chrysler, but in July of that year, the Andrea Doria sank after a collision with another ship, as detailed by David LaChance in the August 2009 issue of Hemmings Classic Car. While other artifacts from the shipwreck have since been retrieved, the Norseman remains at the bottom of the Atlantic and will never again see daylight.
According to David Bright, a diver who visited the Andrea Doria and the Norseman sometime before the mid-1990s,
The crate had disintegrated and the car was in very, very poor condition. The ocean’s salt water invaded the Norseman’s metal and most of the car is rust, corrosion and a heap of indistinguishable junk. The tires are still there and have assisted to [sic] its identification.
I have been back to the cargo area several times (it is pretty scary in the cargo hold because the ship is lying on its starboard side) and visited the Norseman on a couple other occasions…. I have not been back to this cargo site since 1994 and with all the decay that the wreck has had over the past 10 years, it is doubtful if I will (or anyone else) ever get a chance to see the remains of the Norseman again.
One footnote of import to the story of the Norseman: Several other cars—sources say eight—also accompanied the Norseman on that last voyage of the Andrea Doria. Rumors abound as to their identities, but to date no automotive historian has produced a manifest identifying those other cars.

Photo courtesy Bob Lichty.

Speaking of significant sunken vehicles, let’s take a moment to mention the one-of-a-kind gas-electric hybrid Snow Cruiser built by the Armour Institute for Technology for Admiral Richard Byrd’s third Antarctic expedition in 1939. As Bob Lichty wrote in the June 1985 issue of Special Interest Autos, the Snow Cruiser—nicknamed “Big Bertha”—made it to Antarctica with the expedition and remained behind when the expedition wrapped up.
Unfortunately, it remained behind in an ice garage on the East Ross Ice Shelf, specifically on a section of ice that broke away from the ice shelf in about late 1961. According to a survey published in the Journal of Polar Geography in 2005—based on maps, satellite photos, and aerial photos—those calvings from the ice shelf tend to break up in the Bay of Whales and thus “a number of artifacts from the bases, such as the 1939–1941 Snow Cruiser, are likely strewn along the seabed.”
There’s a slim chance the ice garage remained on the ice shelf and didn’t float away to sea in 1961, which would make the Snow Cruiser the ultimate garage find. Good luck getting it back to civilization, though.

A twin Renault Type CB Coupe de Ville. Photo courtesy RM Auctions.

One more drowned car, this one from the most famous shipwreck of them all. Reportedly the only automobile to go down with the Titanic in 1912 was a new Renault Type CB Coupe de Ville, and we know quite a bit about it, thanks to the $5,000 insurance claim that owner William Carter of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, filed with Lloyd’s of London after the shipwreck. We even know more or less where the Renault currently resides—in a cargo hold in the forward section of the ship—though, apparently, in all the trips to the Titanic nobody has entered that hold to document the current condition of the car.

Photo courtesy Ford archives.

From watery graves to fiery ends. Ford’s Rotunda, originally built for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934, later relocated to Dearborn and became one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions. That is, until the November 1962 fire that destroyed the building and nearly everything inside (Ford’s archives escaped destruction, thanks to a fire-suppression system).
While a number of production models were on display in the Rotunda at the time of the fire, at least a couple concept cars were inside as well. The Ford Gyron, designed in part by Alex Tremulis and Syd Mead, used gyroscopes to remain stable on its two wheels, while the Levacar Mach 1 dispensed with wheels altogether to ride on a cushion of air. Both went up in flames with the Rotunda.

Photo courtesy USC Libraries.

A much more devastating fire took place in March 1929 when the entire Los Angeles Auto Show—then held in a series of large tents—went up in flames, causing as much as $1.25 million (in 1929 dollars) in damage. The 320 cars that the fire destroyed likely made up the vast majority of that figure.
Of those 320 cars, perhaps the most significant was the Auburn Cabin Speedster, a one-off boattail two-door coupe that had already toured the East Coast auto shows and, according to The Old Motor, caused a sensation wherever it went due to its extreme styling. While other carmakers likely displayed what passed for prototypes at the time, the aviation-themed Cabin Speedster was a true show car built long before the Buick Y-Job and other concept cars. Whatever was left of the Cabin Speedster likely got towed to a nearby scrapyard and was written off. A replica of it has since been built.

Photo courtesy GM.

While we’re on the topic of concept cars, we can’t ignore the various Motorama and XP-numbered cars that GM scrapped over the years. Or, at least, was supposed to scrap. We know that some of those cars avoided their dates with the crusher, thanks to sympathetic junkyard owners, and others slipped out the GM styling studio’s back doors, making GM’s records on the Motorama concept cars—if they were ever to surface—suspect at best.
So, while thorough research has turned up a number of Motorama cars as “presumed scrapped”—among them the 1954 Chevrolet Corvette Nomad, the 1955 Buick Wildcat III, the 1955 Pontiac Strato-Star, and the 1958/1959 Oldsmobile F-88 Mk III—one of the few Motorama vehicles we can say with relative certainty no longer exists is the 1955 GMC L’Universelle, an unusual front-wheel-drive cargo van. Despite extensive tooling and engineering to create the XP-39 L’Universelle’s jackknife doors and behind-the-driver transverse Pontiac V-8 powertrain, SIA writers Dave Newell and Robert L. Hauser and Motorama researcher David Temple have listed the L’Universelle as scrapped.

Photo courtesy Chrysler.

True, a number of Chrysler Turbine cars still exist. Of the 50-car fleet sent around the country to gauge customer reactions to a turbine-powered car and the five prototypes that Chrysler built, nine remain in the hands of museums and collectors, according to Turbine car researcher Steve Lehto.
Exactly why the 46 cars were scrapped has become a topic of controversy, but we can at least prove they were scrapped—there’s video of the cars going into the crusher.

Photos courtesy Tucker Automobile Club of America.

Finally, much like the Turbine cars, there’re only so many Tuckers to track down, and Tucker enthusiasts can tell you where they all have ended up and exactly how many haven’t survived the decades. Of course, it isn’t quite fair to label Tuckers 1018, 1023, 1027, and 1042 as completely destroyed, given that parts from each of those cars have since been used to restore other Tuckers or to help create new Tuckers from whole cloth.
By all means, this is far from an exhaustive list—after all, even the most notable cars are subject to rust, neglect, crashes, and other acts of destruction—so we’d like to hear of other significant cars you know for sure are no longer around. Share your additions to this list (along with convincing documentation to support) in the comments below.