Dreams really can come true, when money is no object. The Gaylord grand touring sports car was the brainchild of James and Edward Gaylord, heirs to a fortune built on their father’s invention of the bobby pin. The Gaylord brothers were auto enthusiasts in the grandest sense. They mourned the passing of the great marques of the classic era; Bugatti and Delahaye, Duesenberg and Stutz. By the 1950s, modern GTs from Europe were certainly nimble and fast and poised to attack any corner. American cruisers were beautifully brash, with boundless power, isolated from the road’s harshness. Each had its appeals, each had its drawbacks. But the Gaylords wanted it all, a car with the performance to compete on the tracks at LeMans and Monaco, and still carry its occupants in comfort over the finest streets of Paris and New York. And so they set out to build the most advanced, spectacular, and what would be the most expensive luxury sports car in the world, the Gaylord Gladiator.
The Gaylord bobby pin was an ingeniously simple use of a little bit of metal. The Gladiator’s chassis was much the same thing… except bigger, and not nearly as simple. It was designed for function without mass, a heady concept in those days. Jim Gaylord conceived a tubular center structure made of the alloy chromemolybdenium which was both lightweight and robust. He added channel steel perimeters and platform to reduce vibration and absorb road noise. The rear suspension was a conventional live axle design with leaf springs, but were positioned on the frame for ideal geometry and balance to achieve optimal handling. The front suspension was a typical wishbone set up, but it had tremendous wheel travel and minimal flex. And in these days before variable ratio power steering, Jim designed a hydraulic servo unit where the driver could adjust boost via a cockpit control dial. This advanced chassis technology gave the Gladiator a combination of supple ride and tenacious grip that no 1950s car from any country at any price could boast.
Fitting its lofty status, no expense was spared on the Gladiator’s interior. The cockpit was graced with the finest leather and wood available. There were specially designed VDO gauges that used indicator needles shaped like the spear in the Gaylord emblem. Out back was a spare tire that could be easily slid out of a sub-compartment in the trunk and tipped to the pavement with minimal fuss… and without messing one’s eveningwear. Topping it all off was the world’s first electric powered retractable hardtop. Jim Gaylord designed it to be raised or lowered with the touch of a button using just one motor. Two years later Ford’s Skyliner would require seven to do the same job.
Considering all that went into a Gladiator, and given the technology of the day, tipping the scales at just under 4000lbs was quite an achievement. Absence of mass helped performance as well as handling. Power came from a Cadillac-sourced 305hp V8, but the Gladiator went from 0-60mph nearly 2 seconds quicker than an El Dorado running the very same mill.
Famed industrial designer, Brooks Stevens was hired to pen a body that evoked a modern interpretation of those 1930s classics the Gaylord brothers so revered. This was, as Don McDonald wrote in the December 1955 issue of Motor Trend, “Brooks Stevens’ dream commission, the kind of car everyone talked about but never actually made.” The Gladiator’s body was beautifully proportioned, like a big cat coiled to leap. Part of the effect came from a clamshell fender treatment and open wheel design that were meant to convey the litheness of the classic era. Nearly as striking are the formal coach roof and chrome trimmed boot. The long tail fins are less elegant, but they were almost a requirement given the tastes of the time.
Despite the nearly perfect proportions and open wheel design, the finest materials, and chassis technology that was decades ahead of its time, the Gladiator’s most striking feature is its face. The two enormous Lucas P-100 headlamps that so dominate the car were not Brooks Steven’s idea. Jim Gaylord loved the neo-classic look and insisted on them. The lights are flanked by a tall, bold egg-crate grill situated behind impossibly delicate bumpers. It brings to mind a proud steel owl clutching a freshly caught snake. Love it or hate it, once you’ve seen the Gladiator, you won’t ever forget it.
The prototype Gaylord Gladiator that debuted at the Paris international auto show in 1955 was built by Spohn of Germany. Spohn was chosen to shape the body because unlike the traditional Italian or French carrossiers, who tended to interpret the designs sent them with a liberal eye, the Germans follow designers’ instructions to the letter. In this case that included those bold headlights, which apparently were not a hit with the Paris crowd. For full scale production, Lutfschiffbau Zeppelin of Friedrichshafen, West Germany was chosen for the contract. The first production car got the Lucas lamps. By the second one, they were replaced with more conventional quadrabeams, along with more practical closed front wheel wells. The result is a less dramatic look. Whether that is better or worse is up to the viewer.
As we have said, money was no object in the development of the Gaylord. Indeed, the car was priced only after it was engineered and styled. What was originally intended to cost about $10,000, ballooned to $17,500 (nearly $200,000 today.) But it wasn’t the price that did this incredible machine in. After all, the Gaylord brothers only expected to produce 25 cars per year. When the second Gladiator was built, Jim Gaylord was unhappy with the contractor L-Z’s work. Production halted. A messy international lawsuit ensued, eventually driving Jim to a nervous breakdown. After that, his brother Edward convinced him it was time give up the dream. A sad ending for one of the most memorable cars ever made.
MotorTrend Dec 1955 Don MacDonald
Special Interest Auto Feb 1981 Richard Langworth
www.chrisinmotion.com 2009 Christopher Opfell