Sunday, May 15, 2011

Two Cadillac Show Cars and Their Unlikely Fates

Robert Moore of Greenlease-Moore Cadillac-Chevrolet in Oklahoma City was photographed with the number two Le Mans when the car was sent there for display in the dealership's showroom in November 1953. (Author's collection)

 Text by David W. Temple
Photos as credited
How often have we heard the story of the road from glory to ruin? The biographies of many once famous people are like that. There are automobiles that have traveled this metaphorical road, too. Presented here are the stories surrounding two Cadillac show cars – both 1953 Cadillacs named Le Mans. One was a star of the GM Motorama stage, then became an obscure footnote in automotive history and finally met a disastrous, fiery end. The fate of the other is currently unclear, but what is clear is that it spent its last known days as a show car in the shadow of a bizarre and senseless tragedy.


GM personnel, Don Ahrens (seated) and James Roche, posed with the 1953 Le Mans for this publicity photo. (Author's collection)
Prologue
The General Motors Motorama was created to showcase all of the products of the giant corporation. More notably, it featured experimental or dream cars to test public reaction to new ideas. The traveling exhibition which attracted millions of people highlighted the company’s many products with elaborate displays, orchestras, and troupes of dancers who performed at half-hour intervals.
Years before their Motorama, GM hired a styling engineer who would become tremendously influential in the automotive world. His name was Harley Earl. General Motors’ rise to leadership in the area of styling during the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, can be largely credited to Earl who spent his early years in the Hollywood, California, area. His father, Jacob W. Earl, owned a carriage works business in which Harley became heavily involved. Jacob gradually placed the shop under his son’s leadership and the firm soon evolved into a highly successful custom car business.
An unnamed model is shown posing in the 1953 Le Mans at the GM Motorama in Kansas City. (H.B. Stubbs Co.collection)
Eventually, Earl gained notoriety for his customized cars which lead to the sale of his shop to Cadillac distributor and custom car builder, Don Lee, in 1919. Harley became chief designer and director of the custom department of what was now named The Don Lee Coach and Body Works. Earl’s work at Don Lee’s shop gave him access to the upper level managers of Cadillac and ultimately to a three-decade career with GM.
The metallic blue Le Mans number one made its debut at the Waldorf-Astoria in January 1953. (Author's collection)
Harley Earl brought styling to the mass-produced automobile and also created the experimental car. His first was simply called the Buick Y-Job. The car was so advanced in its styling that it appeared modern virtually a decade later. By then, two new experimental cars were in the works – the Buick XP-300 and the GM LeSabre. These were succeeded by many more such cars including four copies of the 1953 Cadillac Le Mans.

Act 1, Scene 1: Le Mans – Star of the Show
One of the attention getters at the ’53 GM Motorama was an uncharacteristically sporty, Metallic Blue (silver-blue) Cadillac dubbed Le Mans which was named after the 24-hour race held near Paris, France (in which the two Cadillac entries finished 10th and 11th in 1950). To emphasize the connection between the dream car and its namesake, the Le Mans was displayed against a large painting depicting a scene from the Le Mans road race.
The author's father attended the GM Motorama at the Civic Center in San Francisco in May 1953 and took this photo of the interior of the Le Mans. (Author's collection)
This dream car (show car one, serial number 5300 00002) was powered by a modified 331 V8 said to produce 250hp (or forty more than a stock version) at 4,500 rpm. (The 1953 Cadillac Orleans show car was assigned the first serial number of the model year; it was 5362 00001.) One of the modifications to the engine was the installation of dual four-barrel carburetors. Even with its sporty appointments, this dream car with a 115-inch wheelbase was easily recognizable as a Cadillac. Its frontal design was clearly Cadillac with its hooded headlights and “Dagmar” bumper guards and its grille and parking lamp arrangement was predictive of the style set to appear for the 1954 model year. The Le Mans also got the wraparound windshield (which was offered only on the limited production Eldorado at the time) and of course it had the obligatory tail fins resembling those of production Cadillacs.
Though it was not a true sports car, Le Mans’ sporty attributes and other features were highlighted in a press release. Among other things, the press release said, “… the Le Mans represents an ideal of motor car enthusiasts – combining elegance with power. Its silver-blue body is constructed of plastic fiberglass. The car is low – only 51 inches in height to the top of the deep-angle panoramic windshield… This three-passenger sports convertible has speed, power and roadability. The Hydra-Matic transmission has been adapted to the increased engine output. The engine is painted in a silver-blue with chrome trim to match the elegance of the car… A view of the interior from the driver’s seat provides a thrilling taste of sports car emphasis in a setting of sheer luxury. The instrument panel presents a matching series of chrome housed dials extending the width of the front compartment. Instruments include a tachometer to show engine revolutions, a speedometer, fuel gauge, radio dial, ammeter and oil pressure gauge and clock.” The silver-blue leather upholstery was embossed with the Cadillac “V” crest and the electrically adjustable seat was of the “memory” type. When the door was opened the seat automatically moved back; closing the door sent the seat back to its previous position. An Orlon top in matching silver-blue was operated with a switch or it could automatically raise itself when moisture hit a rain switch. When retracted, the top was concealed under a hinged lid.
Act 2, Scene 2: Customized
Le Mans number one, the GM Motorama show car, is the car that went to shoe store mogul, Harry Karl. Paperwork in the archives of the GM Heritage Center says that Le Mans number one was shipped to the Los Angeles Branch for the account of Clarence Dixon Cadillac, Inc. in Hollywood, California on July 7, 1954. The paperwork noted, “For H. Earl” though whether or not this car had its title actually transferred to Harley Earl is not known. Probably, the car was sold to the owner of Clarence Dixon Cadillac and then Harry Karl bought it or perhaps it was transferred to Mr. Karl via the dealership. Either way it became his in 1954.
Famed customizer, George Barris, performed a makeover of the original Le Mans for his client, Harry Karl. (Charles D. Barnette collection)
The restyled Le Mans was on the show circuit at least briefly. This advertisement was for the Sixth International Motor Revue (formerly known as the Petersen Motorama) in 1955. (Author's collection)
Karl had customizer George Barris do a restyle of the car before giving it to his ex-wife and wife-to-be again, actress Marie McDonald (who was crowned Miss New York in 1939) sometime in the latter part of 1954. The lower fender panels were altered with custom formed blue-white chrome plated steel. Trim installed between the lower chromed panels and the fiberglass body was ½-inch steel bar plated with 24-karat gold. Thirty coats of “platinum dust” sprayed over a polychromatic base sealer were applied to the body. A multi-piece custom top was formed in plexiglass and trimmed with chrome-plated steel d├ęcor. This top could be removed entirely or the forward portion removed and the rear section (which was composed of the rear window with a chrome tiara) left in place. The quarter panels received stainless steel fins and a continental kit was integrated into the deck lid. The 30-spoke wheel covers were plated in gold and chrome.
The interior was either re-dyed or reupholstered in red leather and had a number of extra gadgets installed including a television, tape recorder, radio-telephone, and a cocktail bar in the rear window sill which could be kept concealed with a cover. A current inverter was fitted to convert the 12-volt electrical system to the proper voltage to operate the TV and other devices.
The engine was repainted metallic green and according to the Motor Trend report provided 300 horsepower – fifty more than the figure quoted for the engine during the GM Motorama.
Act 3, Scene 1: Fading Stars
The reworked Le Mans was pictured on the cover of the December 1955 issue of Motor Trend. The attention the car received did little or nothing in terms of getting the actress noticed. McDonald’s second marriage to Harry Karl lasted only half as long as the first. The two divorced for the last time in 1958. According to the Internet Movie Database (www.imbd.com), she had roles in Guest in the House (1944), Living in a Big Way (1947), Tell it to the Judge (1949), Once a Thief (1950), Hit Parade of 1951 (1950), The Geisha Boy (1958), and Promises! Promises! (1963). The audience apparently did not appreciate her very much despite her physical attributes (she was nicknamed “The Body”) thus big screen acting opportunities were somewhat scarce. Numerous rumors of scandal followed her; she was married seven times including the two to Harry Karl. She eventually turned to drug and alcohol abuse and died of an overdose on October 21, 1965, at the age of 42. Her ex-husband later married actress Debbie Reynolds and managed to lose his fortune as well as hers. Harry Karl died in 1982.
Act 3, Scene 2: The final years of Le Mans number one
One of the surviving components of the original Le Mans is this button from the car's convertible top switch. (Charles D. Barnette collection)
Eventually, the Barris-built Le Mans changed ownership and was brought to Centerville, Ohio by a used car dealer and was purchased shortly thereafter by a local resident. The Le Mans was spotted on the streets of nearby Dayton from time-to-time by Cadillac-LaSalle Club (CLC) member, Bernie De Winter IV, during the 1963-64 timeframe and then disappeared until it was for sale in late 1984. Another Ohio resident, CLC member, Wayne Turner, spotted the ad in Hemmings Motor News and responded. An appointment was set to view the car in Centerville, but it was sold in partially dismantled condition to California resident, John Crowell, on December 1st before Mr. Turner could see the car. As it turned out, the seller had secured ownership of the car through a lawsuit against his former business partner who was the same person who had bought the car from the used car dealer in the ‘60s. Allegedly, a short time after the lawsuit, this former partner retreated from society and took up residence in the woods! Mr. Crowell had little time to enjoy his new acquisition. His car was unfortunately destroyed in a building fire (sparked by spontaneous combustion of hay stacked next to the building) along with five other exotic and historic cars during the early morning hours of May 14, 1985 which was nearly 32 years after its last Motorama appearance; it had been driven a mere 7,945 miles.
Only the engine and miscellaneous other parts of the once glorious show car still exist; the entire body was destroyed by the flames. (Some surviving parts were not on the car or in the building at the time of the fire.) Mr. Crowell’s insurance company settled with him and took possession of the remains. Surprisingly, Crowell still has the bill of sale which clearly identifies the car with its serial number proving it was the first Le Mans.
Epilogue
The current owner of these parts, California resident Bill Pozzi, who bought them in 1991, said he considered having a replica of the original body built if engineering drawings could be located or if another of the “stock” versions somehow became available to instead have molds made from it. (The fourth car received substantial modifications to its body in 1959.) However, in a recent interview Pozzi said he may sell these parts. Perhaps there is a Le Mans owner who would be interested in having spare parts.
The “Off Broadway” Le Mans
Act 1, Scene 1: A tour of Oklahoma
The second Le Mans appeared at Grosse Point during the Glidden Tour in September 1953. A 1909 Cadillac was photographed with the show car. (Author's collection)
The second Le Mans (serial number 5300 00003) has an unusual and largely unknown history. It was built at virtually the same time as the Motorama Le Mans. The history of this car between then and August 1953 was not uncovered, but it was probably shown across the country. This car’s build sheet in the files at the GM Heritage Center says “Cars in Company use, for use of Harley J. Earl.” The car was transferred to Earl on August 21, 1953, so he owned it for a while. Internal correspondence at the center makes reference to a Le Mans sitting in a warehouse which was titled to Earl. The correspondence authorized the car to be transferred back to the company and gave its net asset value as one dollar. The VIN is not given, but unless Earl owned two Le Mans’ (doubtful), then number two must be the subject of the memorandum. Notes also indicate Earl’s car was repainted black sometime in 1953 – definitely prior to September of the year. (All four Le Mans’ were originally painted Metallic Blue with paint code F-272-X-75276.) Le Mans number two (serial 5300 00003) was definitely repainted black by the time it appeared with four other dream cars (LeSabre, Wildcat, Starfire, and Parisienne) at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club in September of that year as part of the Glidden Tour. Incidentally, Harley Earl and Wilfred Leland, son of Cadillac’s founder Henry Leland, were in attendance. A few photos from the event still exist showing this car with others from the early 1900s including a shot of it posed with a 1909 Cadillac. In mid-October, the car was sent to Oklahoma at the request of the state’s governor, Johnston Murray, to participate in the Oil Progress Exposition. This car along with two other ’53 Motorama cars – Starfire and Wildcat I – as well as a Corvette were on display at the Oklahoma City Municipal Auditorium for two days before being driven in the Oil Progress Motorcade and on the newly completed Turner Turnpike. The Le Mans and the other cars went on to Tulsa to be displayed there.
Act 1, Scene 2: Greenlease-Moore Cadillac-Chevrolet
Le Mans number two went back to Oklahoma City to be displayed at Greenlease-Moore Cadillac-Chevrolet during the first week of November. After November 8, 1953, the car seemingly disappeared though it either went to another dealership, auto show, or simply went back to GM for testing or was placed in storage; from there it may have been sold. Some reports have claimed Le Mans number two was the car sold to Floyd Akers, a Cadillac distributor in the Washington, D.C. area. In fact, Akers received the third Le Mans. Incidentally, this car still exits.
The Rest of the Story
Additional information uncovered about the number two Le Mans only peripherally involves the car. Still, two bizarre stories are attached to it. One of the last known photographs taken of this experimental car was snapped against the backdrop of the Oklahoma state capitol building in Oklahoma City. Posing with the car was Robert T. Moore, who at that time was the vice-president and general manager of Greenlease-Moore Cadillac-Chevrolet. His millionaire partner, Robert C. Greenlease, Sr. had become one of the largest distributorships of Cadillacs and had additional dealerships in Kansas City, Tulsa, and Omaha. Unfortunately, in September 1953 he became the target of horrific kidnapping scheme that resulted in the death of his six-year old son, Bobby. (For the full details of this crime see www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/classics/bobby_greenelease/index.html.)
The roots of the crime went back a number of years. The man responsible for the crime, Carl Hall, had gone to school with the Greenlease family’s much older adopted son, thus he was familiar with the wealth of the family. Hall at one time was well off himself; he had a significant inheritance which he squandered in short order on alcohol and foolish investments. Then Hall turned to crime to support himself, though he was no more successful at that and landed in jail for robbery. Within a few weeks of completing a two-year sentence, he met by chance in a bar a 41-year old prostitute named Bonnie Heady who had managed to lose a significant sum of money, too. They proved to be two of a kind. Somehow between May and September while in a near constant alcohol-induced haze, they managed to plot the kidnapping of young Bobby Greenlease.
Their plan was remarkably simple. Heady walked into the Catholic school in Kansas City, Missouri where Bobby was, pretended to be the sister of the boy’s mother, told Sister Morand a sob-story about the mother having a heart attack and was requesting to see her son. No one doubted her and Bobby (who expressed no resistance to leaving with the stranger) was immediately being driven away by Hall and Heady. Hall drove to a secluded area and coldly shot the boy in the head. His reasoning for this heinous act was that he did not want a witness around to identify him. Bobby was buried in the backyard of Heady’s residence and a ransom note demanding $600,000 was prepared. Hall, however, was so under the influence of alcohol he could not make his instructions for delivery of the ransom clear. Several attempts to deliver the money were made over a one-week span before the drop-off succeeded. One of those given the duty of delivering the ransom was Robert Moore. Unfortunately, the Greenlease family would learn afterward that their son would never return.
After a series of bizarre events too numerous to detail here, the kidnappers were caught, but most of the ransom money was never found thanks in part to a cop gone bad. Shortly after their arrests, Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady were put on trial (which lasted just three days), found guilty on November 16th, and were both executed on December 18th.
The following August, specifically on Thursday the 26th at approximately 3:45 in the afternoon, Robert Moore walked the short distance from his second-floor office at the Greenlease-Moore dealership to an adjoining bathroom, locked the door and shot himself in the side with a 12-gauge shotgun which had been given to him as a gift the previous Christmas. Moore was rushed to the hospital, but surgery failed to save his life; he lingered for two days before succumbing to his injuries. No suicide note was left and he had no reported problems to account for his behavior. Police ruled the shooting as either a suicide or an accident. Either way, Le Mans number two was certainly repainted an appropriate color – black seems to have served as an omen.
This article was partially compiled from my book, "GM's Motorama: The Glamorous Show Cars of a Cultural Phenomenon."

4 comments:

  1. Excellent article. Maybe a reader knows the current location of Le Mans number 2. Charles D. Barnette

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  2. having this such informative blog is so helpful. thanks for posting professional detailing tips..

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  3. it's such a article to bring back us in the showcase of Heritage Cadillac cars . its a sweet memories regarding the old time and also a useful information for the Cadillac lovers.

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  4. As you know the Vintage cars are near to extinct but if the generation want to recover it so it gets again famous in the automotive world with their own worth and past value,so because of their extinction we considered it as dream cars but i really love these cars,awesome work done on the blog.However,if you want to check the Vin of your car so have a look subaru vin.

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