America's Picasso of Car Designers, Gordon Buehrig, Rolls Out a $130,000 Custom-Bodied Dream Car

updated 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Whenever movie idols like Gary Cooper and Tyrone Power didn't have a woman on their arm in the 1930s, it was probably because they had their hands on the wheel of a sexy Auburn, Duesenberg or Cord. Many of these sleek classics owed their beautiful lines to designer Gordon Buehrig, who is revered in the auto world as the man most responsible for leading Detroit out of the boxy age of the Model T. Now, at 77, Buehrig is back with a jaunty two-seater whose fiberglass body is reminiscent of Gatsby days but whose Chevrolet Corvette power train will eat up the asphalt at better than 100 mph. Says Buehrig: "This is a car I might have designed 50 years ago, if I'd had the modern components."

He started work on it after deciding the luggage space in his 1971 Corvette was too skimpy. Three years ago Richard Kughn, a Detroit businessman and antique car collector, saw the clay model Buehrig had sculpted in the shop at his Grosse Pointe, Mich. home. Kughn offered to set up a company to build the vehicle. Thus the Buehrig Motor Car Company was born, with Gordon as chief designer. Fifty of the new Buehrigs are to be built and sold for $130,000 per.

Buehrig's most celebrated old car is probably the front-wheel-drive 1937 Cord 812, which in 1951 was honored by the Museum of Modern Art as one of the finest autos ever designed. Buehrig's other favorites are the 1935 Auburn Boattail Speedster and the 1930 Duesenberg Derham Tourister. Among the designer's innovations in styling are disappearing headlights (on the 1936 Cord 810), the front-opening "alligator hood" that nearly all cars now have, and the "T-Top," a roof design featuring removable panels now available as an option on Corvettes and many other cars.

The son of a country banker in downstate Mason City, III., Buehrig decided as a boy that horses were "a terrible way to get around" and quickly became a "car nut." At 14, he and his older brother bought their first four-wheeler, a 1904 Orient buckboard that did all of 15 mph. In college in Peoria, he was expelled from a chemistry class for scribbling car designs in his notebook. After six months driving a cab in Chicago, he returned to study drafting, art and wood-and metalworking. Without graduating, he headed for Detroit in 1924.

At Packard, his third employer in two years, he read Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier, the French modernist. "That helped me formulate my theory of design," says Buehrig. "Never do anything without a good reason to do it. A beautiful automobile gets its form from its function." He became chief body designer for Stutz in 1928 at age 24 and moved on to Duesenberg, Auburn and Cord. After the Depression he moved through a series of design jobs and spent World War II as a drafting engineer and tool designer at aircraft firms. In 1949 he landed at Ford, where he developed its first hardtop (the 1951 Ford Victoria), first all-metal station wagon (in the 1952 model) and was body engineer on the 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II.

Buehrig's first wife, Betty, died in 1970, five years after he retired from Ford. In Grosse Pointe and at his condo in Sun City, Ariz, he and second wife Kathryn keep an ail-American stable of cars—his '71 Corvette, a '78 Lincoln sedan, an '80 Plymouth Champ and a '76 AMC Pacer. He can't afford to buy a new Buehrig, but never mind. "Fred Duesenberg never owned a Duesenberg, either," Gordon smiles. Buehrig worked briefly at GM in the late 1920s but quit for a better-paying job at Stutz so he could keep up the $82-a-month payments on a Buick he helped design.

What does Buehrig think ails Detroit? Today's slab-sided cars reflect the "Chiclet school of design," he insists. "They all look too much alike" and are overloaded with "expensive electronic gadgetry." Rather, Buehrig argues that in styling, as in sculpture, beauty is a logical result of good design. "Like a woman with a beautiful face and figure," he says, "you don't need to add anything else."

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