Gaylord Gladiator

The more you read about the world's elite, you begin to realize that a lot of wealth in society has been earned through fairly innocuous means: in the Gaylord family's case, their father had invented the bobby pin.

Fast forward millions of women and hundreds of countries, and can start to see how wealth made on the back of a simple metal hair pin could add up. So much so that Mr Gaylord's sons could enjoy a steady diet of Packards, Pierce Arrows, Cadillacs, and Stutzes when growing up. Enthusiasts through and through, sons Jim and Ed eventually decided to create their own American legacy that was much more complicated than bending a little bit of wire: they wanted to make the world's best car.

I can understand why.

But the 1950s, old coachbuilt cars that were so revered by the brothers had largely fallen out of fashion, with mass produced models offering more modern styling, convenience, and features. The rich had a much smaller special order options book to indulge in, and if you wanted something truly custom, well—send your car overseas for a new body by Pininfarina.

After trying to woo former Tucker designer Alex Tremulis—the same chap who restyled the Henry J into the Allstate—the brothers settled on Brooks Stevens, a man who should need no introduction here.

Although the Gladiator may look like a simple American concept car, truth is that underneath the wild bodywork there were a number of groundbreaking features. The chrome-moly tube chassis was fully rustproofed and sealed to prevent corrosion. The suspension may have been simple coil springs and wishbones up front—and a leaf spring assembly for the back—but both ends were mounted securely in rubber bushings, with complex geometry for "maximum triangulation" as brother Jim would say. The rear leaf springs were also given a coating that never needed additional lubrication…and then covered in a durable leather cover.

The result was a "no grease" chassis built about a decade before other manufacturers.

Its list of other technological advances is equally impressive:

  • The power steering system allowed the driver to alter the amount of assist through a simple dashboard control.
  • The transmission, a General Motors Hydra-Matic, wouldn't shift unless it'd reached maximum rpm in any gear…unless it was shifted manually by the driver, a setup similar to what some hot rodders later adopted
  • Hill hold assist! The brake pressure built through a stop was only released once the driver touched the accelerator, exactly the same system that many modern cars today offer on manual, DSG, and semi-automatic transmission-equipped models.
  • Gauges were supplied in custom specification by German manufacturer VDO—complete with swords in place of needles, except for the dashboard chronometer, which was supplied by Heuer.
  • The slide-out spare tire sat in a sub-trunk and accessed through a simple panel at the rear of the car, and when the tire was in place (optional) wheel well lights helped to aid the tire change.

But the headline-grabbing feature on its debut at the 1955 Paris Motor Show was its simple retractable hard top that needed only a single electric motor to operate, and was two years ahead of Ford's complicated seven motor system developed for the Fairlane Skyliner—but 17 years behind the first folding hardtop, fitted to the Peugeot 601 Éclipse.

Its top also inspired this choice quote repeated in Special Interest Autos in February 1981 from the then-head of General Motors:

You bastards told me this couldn’t be done. So how did these idiots do it?
— Alfred P. Sloan to GM engineers, on watching the Gaylord's top in operation

The first show prototype was built in Germany by Spohn, who either didn't give the project the attention it deserved or who decided to cut corners and produce bodywork that heavily relied on lead to join panels together. It also had a Chrysler Hemi engine, which was replaced by Cadillac power for their two production cars—assembled by none other than Luftschiffbau Zeppelin of rigid airship fame.

It's easy to tell the prototype car from the production ones: the single headlamps were replaced by dual headlamps in the production version, and the fenders were fully enclosed on the production cars.

Build quality was also suspect, likely due to the Gaylord brothers' high standards, and a lawsuit filed against the German firm resulted in Jim Gaylord being committed due to a nervous breakdown—the final straw that broke the Gladiator's back in 1957.

Two Gladiators survive today—whereabouts unknown. And if you take the time to notice the beautifully-shaped doors and the delightfully-curved fenders, you can appreciate that the Gladiator was perhaps the best-designed American car since pre-war coachbuilders ruled the industry.

Its period asking price of, eventually, $17,500 confirmed it. Even though it'd roast a Cadillac Eldorado to the tune of two seconds in the quarter mile while being quieter than its domestic cousin, was unquestionably one of the best-built cars of the era, and orders had been taken by customers like Princess Grace of Monaco, the Gaylord brothers never earned the 25 pre-orders required to start production.

Automotive writer Richard M. Langworth's Special Interest Autos piece concludes with his driving impressions of the car:

It’s a helluva car, folks. Was then. Is still.
— Richard M Langworth, Special Interest Autos