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1955 Chevrolet Biscayne Concept Car - Biscayne Reborn

Concept Car Collector Joe Bortz Moves To Finish The Restoration Of One Of Chevy's Most Influential Design Studies

Barry Kluczyk Feb 13, 2007
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This illustration from an auto show handout depicts the Biscayne in its glorious, auto show trim. The car debuted at GM's famed Motorama traveling auto show display.

Editor's note: What follows is a brief history of the '55 Chevy Biscayne concept vehicle and the state of its ongoing resurrection by Joe Bortz-the famed concept car collector who owns about two dozen former Detroit show cars.

Chevrolet's landmark Biscayne show car debuted during the famous Motorama show in 1955. It was a car unlike any found in the driveways and freeways of America's burgeoning suburbs.

Instead of towering tailfins and acres of chrome trim, the Biscayne had a minimalist appearance, with a trim silhouette, wide stance, and minimal bright work. The only recognizable styling trait of the day was the wraparound, "stratospheric" windshield.

More significant, however, was the Biscayne's influence on future Chevrolet styling. Indeed, the Biscayne show car looks like the result of a Star Trek transporter malfunction that combined the DNA of a '57 Corvette and a '62 Corvair sedan. The Corvette-signature cover is there, but backwards, and the front fender vent/turn-signal pod looks like the taillight trim from a Vette. The overall shape of the vehicle was an undeniably early peek at the Corvair.

Like many show cars of the 1950s, the Biscayne was more of a styling exercise than a speedway runner. While the car had a front-mounted drivetrain and interesting features, such as swivel front seats, most of the conventional components of an operational automobile were appearance-only items.

There were no side windows, and the power window switches were dummies-the same goes for the instruments. In fact, apart from some motors and servos to open the doors on the show floor, there was effectively no electrical system. Heck, it didn't even appear to have a conventional car battery or fuel tank.

Regardless of its operational status, the Biscayne was one of the most influential concept vehicles produced by Chevrolet. It eschewed conventional design, serving as a precursor to styling that would become prevalent in the coming decade. Interestingly enough, the Biscayne was introduced the same year as the new-for-1955 Chevrolet passenger car line-a design now considered a classic, but criticized by some upon its release for its restrained styling and sparse chrome.

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At Warhoops yard outside Detroit, Joe Bortz took possession of the Biscayne, along with three other GM concept vehicles. The Biscayne body rests on chassis from the junkyard, as the original frame was long gone.

To The Bone Yard
As has been the fate of all too many concept vehicles, the Biscayne had a date with the scrap yard once the auto show spotlight was trained on the next hot-for-the-moment show vehicle. And like many vehicles produced by GM, that meant sending it to a suburban Detroit junkyard for dismemberment and disposal.

The yard was Warhoops and the Biscayne was one of a quartet of concept vehicles delivered shortly before Christmas in 1956; the others included the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, the La Salle II roadster, and the La Salle II sedan. The plan was for the vehicles to be sliced up (which was easy, as they were built mostly of fiberglass) and scrapped.

GM's protocol called for a representative to oversee the cars' demolition, but with the holidays at hand, the GM rep "phoned in" his inspection and trusted the cars would be destroyed as planned. The rep saw the doors and roof removed each from the Biscayne and La Salle II roadster, and that was good enough for him. The other two vehicles arrived the next day, Christmas Eve, and the rep simply called to say "crush 'em" and never laid eyes on the vehicles.

Harry Warhoop, Sr., the yard's operator, thought the cars were too unique to destroy, so he had his employees stash the parts removed from the Biscayne and La Salle II roadster; the Eldorado Brougham and La Salle II sedan were hidden and left mostly intact.

And so they remained for the next 30 years.

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Enter Joe Bortz
Chicago entrepreneur and car collector Joe Bortz was always attracted to Detroit's old show cars. After acquiring a Pontiac concept car in 1983, the collection grew to about two dozen by the late 1980s. In 1989, his son, Mark, saw a 1970s-vintage photo of the Biscayne in Warhoop's junkyard, near Detroit.

Mark Bortz brought the photo to the attention of his father, suggesting they should see if the car was still available. Joe Bortz initially dismissed the idea, because Warhoop's yard had a reputation as a repository for the Big Three's old junk, and rumors had swirled for years that among the everyday wrecks and clunkers, there was a cache of hidden concept vehicles. He was familiar with the rumors, but was skeptical that any whole vehicles were to be found in the yard.

"Along with the rumors of the cars were the stories that Warhoop's wouldn't discuss them," says Joe. "But Mark called and when Harry Warhoop found out that Mark was my son, he started to talk."

As it turns out, Harry Warhoop was familiar with Bortz's passion to save vintage concept cars and allowed the Bortzes to view the Biscayne in the junkyard. Warhoop initially refused to discuss selling the car, but when he returned to Chicago, Joe Bortz was able to pry a price from the gentleman.

"It was high-way too high for a car in pieces, even if it was a one-of-a-kind concept car," says Joe. "I told [Harry Warhoop] as much, but he replied the price was for all four GM concept cars."

Bortz was momentarily speechless, but quickly agreed and made arrangements for the archaeological dig required to haul out the hulks, along with whatever pieces could be found to go with them.

With other projects to focus on from Bortz's expansive collection of show vehicles, the Biscayne would sit mostly untouched for the next 16 years.

Restoration Underway
Although some initial fiberglass work had been performed several years ago to reattach the roof, restoration work on the Biscayne began in 2005 with the reconstruction of the vehicle's frame.

The original frame had long ago rotted away in the Michigan mud at Warhoop's yard. Luckily, the Biscayne was essentially a fiberglass tub bolted to a conventional frame. With the body intact, fabricating a frame would be a relatively straightforward task-not necessarily an inexpensive one, but straightforward, nonetheless.

Building the frame fell to street rod builder Kerry Hopperstead. Having fabricated frames for countless hot rods during the last 30 years, creating the Biscayne's foundation was easily within his capabilities.

This is the point where Super Chevy caught up with the project. We visited Hopperstead's shop to get a look at the frame, and some background information from Bortz himself. In an amazing stroke of luck, he was able to obtain internal GM photos from the car's construction more than 50 years ago. They are detailed enough to give Hopperstead the reference information needed to produce an exact replica. And, the front section of frame was obviously from a '55 Chevy, so a frame was purchased and its front section lopped off and mated to the custom rearward section.

Obviously, there is still much more work to be done on the Biscayne. In addition to the frame, the body and interior require extensive work. The engine also has to be cleaned up and rebuilt. Bortz says the work should consume the next couple of years or so.

When finished, it promises to pull the spotlight back onto one of Chevy's most important concept cars.



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