GM's Motorama displays ignited millions of automotive passions, and the heat can still be felt in 2005


Throughout the 1950s, the grandest expressions of General Motors' visions of the automobile's future routinely went on display at the corporation's Motorama shows. But once out of the spotlight, GM's "dream cars" were supposed to be destroyed.
This two-seat 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 survived that fate and is the epitome of styling and forward thinking. Fiberglass-bodied and Corvette-sized, it is powered by a hopped-up 324-ci V8 producing 250 horsepower. The power flows through a four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission and a Corvette 3.55:1 rear axle.
Designed by noted GM stylist Harley Earl, this historical survivor is fully documented and represents a significant part of automotive history.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1954 Oldsmobile F-88 Concept
Years Produced:1954
Number Produced:5
Original List Price:not for sale
SCM Valuation:$1,000,000-$3,000,000
Tune Up Cost:$250
Distributor Caps:$32
Chassis Number Location:n/a
Engine Number Location:block above water pump
Club Info:Oldsmobile Club of America, P.O. Box 80318, Lansing, MI 48908
Investment Grade:A

The SCM analysis: This 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 Concept sold for $3,240,000 at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction, held Jan. 25-30, 2005.
If there was one surprise in Arizona this year, one sale that stood out above all others, it had to be the Olds F-88 concept. Though the booming declaration of “world record price” over the P.A. system at Barrett-Jackson is nothing if not monotonous, this truly was a record, the highest price paid for any car sold at this auction in any of its 34 years.
What’s better is that the winning bid shocked nearly everyone in attendance-including the seller.
Before we get too carried away here, however, we should put this sale amount in perspective. Across town, a rival auction company sold two cars in the same price range, a 1962 Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato for $2,695,000 and a 1934 Duesenberg Model J convertible coupe for $2,750,000.
But what sets the price of the F-88 apart, and makes it significant, is the era this concept car is from, and what it says about a new generation of American collectors.
As one of GM’s concept cars from the Motorama era of the 1950s, the F-88 Concept is one of the few truly rare icons of the glory days of the American auto industry. It was to be Oldsmobile’s version of the Corvette, but fitted with a Rocket V8 where the slow-selling Corvette was making do with Chevrolet’s Stovebolt Six.
Internal politics at GM killed the F-88 before it could go into production, and the following year Chevy put its own small-block V8 in the ‘Vette. More than one car buff has wondered how history might have turned out differently had Oldsmobile been allowed to bring its sports car to market.
Legend has it that five F-88 show cars were built, though some were just models, not runners. While the other four cars were destroyed, GM styling chief Harley Earl was so fond of this fully fettled prototype that he sold it to E.L. Cord-in pieces. Cord was able to reassemble the 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 Concept, which has since undergone at least two restorations under private ownership.
That’s the story anyway, something that the seller, a well-known collector and long-time SCMer, had gone to great lengths to document. He dredged up the paperwork showing that GM had shipped the car to Cord, and assembled a further treasure trove of parts, records and information over the decade he owned the car. This provenance certainly played a huge factor in the successful sales result.
That the F-88 looks great-like an original Corvette with a more sophisticated sense of style-and that it is said to run and drive as well as any ‘Vette from that era probably didn’t hurt either.
Bidding for the F-88 hit $600,000 within seconds, and by the time it reached $2.5 million, five prospective new owners were still in. Oddly enough, GM did not even attempt to bring the F-88 home to its new Heritage Center-but what can we expect from a company whose history museum is not open to the public? The winning $3 million bid ($3,240,000 with commission; we can assume the new owner is savvy enough to avoid paying another 8 percent in Arizona sales tax) instead came from the founder of the Discovery Channel, and the creator of the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum, a new facility scheduled to open in the fall. He plans to make the F-88 the centerpiece of a collection that will feature only American cars.
With so much interest in the Oldsmobile F-88 Concept, it’s clear that this sale result is attributable to more than just the “Speed Channel magic.” Why then was the seller hoping before the auction to only get something near $1 million for the car, while most of the other collector car cognoscenti pegged the sale price at just over half that? How could the best minds in the hobby be so wrong?
It helps to understand what kinds of cars sell for multiple millions of dollars. If we’re talking American cars, that means rare, limited-production pre-war cars with special coachwork like the $2.75m Duesenberg, or race cars with loads of provenance. Almost without exception, the only street cars of the post-war era that are worth this kind of money are European, as typified by the $2.7m Aston Zagato.
In other words, to most collectors, a multi-million-dollar car from the ’50s tends to be from Italy, not Lansing, MI.
If that sounds like car collector snobbery, well, it is. That the F-88 shares similar attributes with those traditional big-ticket collectibles was sorely overlooked by the pundits in Arizona. It’s a one-of-a-kind concept that’s got a great story behind it. GM’s Motorama displays in the ’40s and ’50s ignited millions of automotive passions, and certainly no one can argue that Harley Earl is not among the most important figures in automotive history. E.L. Cord isn’t too bad a name to have on an old title, either. And quite simply, there is only one Olds F-88.
But the fact that the car made the money it did also shows that to a younger generation of collectors, significant American cars from the modern era should be valued with the greatest cars on earth. The seller realized this-that all of the recent interest in ’50s and ’60s American iron cannot help but lead to high valuations for those few examples that are both definitive statements of the era and really rare. That’s why he bought the car in the first place.
Of course there just aren’t that many cars that qualify, and those that do are usually not for sale. A lot of the F-88’s peers-cars like GM’s Le Sabre concept and the Buick Y Job-are owned by car manufacturers. Many of the rest of the handful of cars that are in the same league are firmly ensconced in collections or museums.
What the seller couldn’t know is just how many people would recognize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase such a significant car. Quite a few did-and the rest, as they say, is history.
(Historical and descriptive information courtesy of the auction company.)

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