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BBC Autos

This is GM’s incredible secret stash of cars

  • Midwest motherlode

    On a large, anonymous industrial estate half-an-hour north of downtown Detroit sits a large, anonymous warehouse. Inside this large, anonymous warehouse sits the greatest collection of General Motors (GM) cars – arguably the greatest collection of cars, period – anywhere in the world.

    This is GM's heritage facility, a not-open-to-the-public sprawl of some 600 all-American cars, spanning over a century and incorporating every one of the General's biggest hits.

    There's a 1932 Cadillac phaeton packing a 7.4-litre V16 engine. There's a 1960s prototype electric car, its bonnet bay jammed full of battery packs. There are the Cadillac Cien, Ciel and Sixteen concepts. There's a 1966 fuel cell bus. There's a six-metre-long 1959 Cadillac Eldorado convertible with tailfins the size of surfboards. There's a Bonneville Salt Flats racer, a ‘60s single-seat pod, and a wall of V8 engines stretching back some 100 years. There's the first concept car ever made, 1938's Buick Y-Job. (All photography Webb Bland)

  • Midwest motherlode

    There are dozens of Corvettes and Camaros, vast Cadillac town cars. Corvairs, Bel Airs and pickups. There's stuff TG never knew even existed but now very much needs – a knee-high 1967 Chevy mid-engine sports car concept, an experimental Sixties fuel-cell transporter, a proto-Deltawing design study inspired by executive jets. There are many tailfins.

    In short, this might just be the greatest automotive sweetshop on the planet. Especially if you have a thing for post-war American design. TG has a big thing for post-war American design.

    The heritage centre is the baby of its creator: curator and GM lifer Greg Wallace. Working at Cadillac in the early ‘80s, Wallace realised no one was keeping tabs on the firm's ultra-rare production and concept cars, and set about preserving them for future generations.

    "There was stuff on its way to the scrapheap," says Wallace. "The path of least resistance is to throw it away. We've lost so many things over the years. We don't want to lose any more..."

  • Midwest motherlode

    Wallace – an ardent believer in the “To Know Where You're Going, You Gotta Know Where You've Been” school of thought – set out to track down and acquire the most significant Cadillacs ever made, a painstaking process that took him around the globe, from abandoned test facilities to old factories, not to mention a lot of time on the classifieds.

    "We started at Cadillac with seven or eight cars and built from there," says Greg. "And then, in the late ‘90s, GM came to me and said, ‘We'd like you to do this for the whole company.' We spent three years gathering up assets, and opened in 2005 with 300 cars. It was... archaeological."

  • Midwest motherlode

    A clangingly predictable question, but someone has to ask it. What, TG enquires, is the most valuable car in the collection? Wallace points to a giant, austere-looking coach from the Brass Era, ancient but undeniably mint. "That's the 1911 Oldsmobile Ltd. Just three are known to exist. An unrestored one recently went for $3m. So you can imagine what that one's worth."

    A quick counting-on-the-fingers skim of the hall estimates there must be hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of irreplaceable metal in here. And here's the finest bit. "Everything here runs, including the jet-powered cars," grins Wallace. "That's the best part of my job. If it I can fit in it, I'll drive it."

  • Midwest motherlode

    Each car in the collection is fired up at least once every 90 days, with Wallace driving many of them on the road. But which is his favourite? "Ah, they're like children," he smiles. "If you've got more than one kid, one's your favourite one week, another the next. But I like cars you can get out and drive. The stuff before 1920 is a bit... tricky."

    Without getting too misty-eyed, the heritage hall isn't merely a hypnotic collection of Caddies, Corvettes, Buicks and the rest, but a barometer of the rises and falls of the American car industry – perhaps even America in general – from the highs of the ‘20s to the low, low lows of the ‘80s.

  • Midwest motherlode

    In particular, it's testament to the extraordinary wave of creativity that poured from the US after the Second World War, an era in which anything seemed possible: Americans were richer than ever before, the space race was in full flow and Jetsons-grade tech was finding its way onto road cars.

    "People were feeling good," says Wallace. "We were coming back from the war, it was all about the future, and the good times we were heading into..."

  • Midwest motherlode

    The good times are encapsulated by the extravagant designs of Harley Earl, the General's styling chief from the late ‘20s until his retirement in 1959. The Buick Y-Job was Earl's handiwork, the first car built solely to test public reaction to new design ideas. After its public display, it became his daily driver, a fact that makes TG insanely happy. Most of the finest pieces in the GM collection are Earl's handiwork.

    And the finest of the lot are surely his three Firebird concepts (Firebird I, II and III, believe it or not), a trilogy of gas-turbine-powered, jet-fighter inspired concepts that demonstrate, more vividly than any history book, film or album ever could, the anything's-possible attitude of America in the ‘50s. They're the centrepiece of this glorious collection of cars, and possibly the greatest concepts made in the history of ever.

  • Midwest motherlode

    Firebird III boasts no fewer than seven wings and fins, along with a double-bubble canopy and a joystick in place of a steering wheel. Oh, and pop-up air brakes. And cruise control. It looks futuristic today. Imagine what the crowds would have made of it in 1959. Not even Lamborghini in its pomp has managed anything more jaw-dropping.

    But maybe ‘50s futurism isn't your thing. Maybe you're into ‘20s Jazz Era opulence, or ‘70s muscle, or turn-of-the-millennium hyper-concepts. Whatever your tipple, there's something in here for you. Here, in no particular order, are some of our favourites from the GM facility.

  • 1931 Cadillac V16

    The inspiration for 2003's Sixteen, as driven by Babe Ruth and Marlene Dietrich. Only 86 were ever built, all with a 7.4-litre, 165bhp V16. Cost $6,500 when new. In modern money, that's A LOT.

  • 1987 Chevrolet Express concept

    A four-door, two-seater hatch, the Express was powered by a mid-mounted gas turbine and briefly starred in the opening scenes of Back to the Future Part II.

  • 1966 Electrovair II Experimental

    An early attempt to crack the electric vehicle conundrum, the Electrovair II shunned lead-acid batteries in favour of silver zinc cells, which were three times lighter and considerably smaller. Even so, the battery pack still filled out all the space under the bonnet.

  • 2003 Cadillac Sixteen concept

    A vast four-door with an even vaster 13.6-litre V16 engine mounted up front. James May reviewed it in the early days of Top Gear. Narrowly failed to reach production. Pity.

  • 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

    Arguably the car that made Chevy in the ‘50s. Packs a four-barrel, dual-exhaust “Turbo Fire” V8. We want a “Turbo Fire” V8 very much indeed.

  • 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Indy 500 pace car

    Chevy's pony car led out the Indy in the very first year it was introduced. Big V8? Check. Hypnotic electric-blue interior? Check. Sub-zero Americana cool? Check.

  • 1963 Corvette Sting Ray

    After 10 years on the market, the Corvette got a total redesign in 1963. The V8 icon gained a coupe for the first time: only 1963 cars boast the super-rare split rear screen.

  • 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442

    Described as the “ultimate high-performance Oldsmobile”, this monster packed a 7.5-litre, 370bhp V8, fibreglass bonnet, disc brakes and the endorsement of a mad, white-coated scientist. Still struggled with corners.

  • 1969 Astro III Experimental

    Deltawing, eat your heart out. Released in the same year as NASA’s first moon landing, this concept was inspired by executive jets and featured a powered canopy and rear vision provided by closed circuit television. Yeah, rear-view cameras. They’re nothing new.

  • 1955 Firebird III Experimental

    For Top Gear, the jewel in the crown. Seven wings, a gas turbine engine supplemented by a two-cylinder petrol engine (a little VW XL1, no?) and, best of all, a double-bubble canopy. “What's that, darling? Slow down? Sorry, no, I can't hear you...” This was how 2013 was supposed to look...