Car of the Week: 1958 Skylark II XP-75 Concept

Story by David W. Temple

Photos courtesy of GM Media Archive

American auto manufacturers have contracted foreign automotive body builders many times to construct limited-production and concept cars over the decades. Among them was Pininfarina of Turin, Italy. The company, with the formal name of Carozzeria Pininfarina, was founded in 1930 by Battista “Pinin” Farina (who later had his name legally changed to Pininfarina). It was established for the purpose of building special car bodies and detailing of limited-production automobiles. His goal was to become an independent industry and over time he put together a production line capable of producing seven or eight cars per day. Among the first cars he produced was the now coveted Hispano Suiza and later the Fiat 518 Ardita. He introduced aerodynamics to automotive body design in the 1930s and created the sleek Alfa Romeo 6C and Lancia Aprillia Aerodinamica. In 1947, he unveiled the influential Cisitalia 202 which became the first car to be permanently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, NY.

Prior to World War II, Pininfarina had established contacts with foreign car companies such as General Motors, but soon the war interrupted anything further. However, not long after the war ended U.S. auto manufacturers once again contacted Pininfarina regarding the construction of various automobiles for them. Among the cars he was contracted to build was the Nash Healey built between 1951 and 1954.

As the 1950s were coming to a close, General Motors embarked upon designing an unusual Buick two-passenger car based upon the styling of what became the 1959 Buick. Labeled initially as XP-75, the two cars which were ultimately built for GM by Pininfarina were formally named, “Skylark III.”

Harley Earl, who founded the styling department of General Motors after being hired by then company president Alfred P. Sloan in 1927, appointed Ned Nickles to lead the styling team assigned to the XP-75 program. General Motors was totally responsible for the design the cars and Pininfarina was hired to construct the two bodies.

The earliest photographs available through GM Media Archive related to the XP-75 project are dated June 10, 1957, and show mockups of the interior. Photos dated June 21st show a completed full-size clay model of the car which was referenced as the Skylark II. By mid-August a running car had been assembled, but was labeled as the Skylark III.

Pininfarina assembled the XP-75 body on top of a mock chassis and when it was completed it was sent via ship to Buick in Flint, Michigan where the body was placed upon a modified Buick chassis with a 110-inch wheelbase. Overall length of the Skylark III measured 204 inches, overall width spanned 80 inches, and overall height was a low 49.6 inches. It was painted silver and featured a sculptured metal side treatment similar to what appeared on the 1960 Buick line.

The only available information on the XP-75s engine comes from a GM news release which stated it had “a 348 cubic-inch engine with a dual exhaust system” and was “teamed with a Buick automatic transmission and a 3.36 rear axle ratio.” Coincidentally, Chevrolet offered a 348 at that time. However, the engine for the XP-75 must have been a modified “Nailhead” with a bore and stroke working out to the same displacement as the Chevrolet engine.

The interior of the Skylark III was Corvette-like though with distinct Buick features. Inside were leather-covered bucket seats with a console containing the gear selector for the automatic transmission and an armrest. The gullwing-shaped dash had a vertically designed radio in the center and was a feature which would later appear on the second generation Corvette. Ahead of the driver was an instrument cluster similar to the one used for the production version of the 1959 Buicks. On the passenger side was a recessed upper panel upon which appeared Skylark III script and beneath it was a padded panel with vertical pleats. Bright moldings surrounded these areas. Other features included a special steering wheel, paddle-type inner door handles, power windows, and air conditioning. One of the two Skylark IIIs – probably the first one – had a white interior at least for a while.

A second car was ordered not long after the first one. It was built for use by Fisher Body president, James Goodman. His car was painted ivory.

At least one of the Skylark IIIs was exhibited at various auto shows. The only documentation available regarding this matter is through GM Media Archive. One of their surviving documents, which is undated, begins, “Buick’s newest dream car, the XP-75, is making its initial swing around the national auto show circuit…. Its wing-like rear fins became a 1959 Buick styling feature, its sculptured metal side treatment a hallmark of the 1960 Buick line.” Judging by the commentary, the car was shown no earlier than the 1960 model year. Most likely, the silver car is the one shown on the auto show circuit assuming both were not exhibited. (Though it was on a nationwide show circuit, the car was not included in either the 1959 or 1961 GM Motorama.) Its first public appearance, though, was at the General Motors Golden Milestone Parade in August of 1958.

The limited documents from GM Media Archive also reveal the cars underwent various changes even as late as 1963. The ivory car was scrapped on or near July 28, 1964. As for the silver Skylark III, it was placed in storage in 1964 and then transferred to the Buick Division on June 13, 1967. What became of it afterwards is not known, though it could have been scrapped at any time after that date. On the other hand, also possible is that it is in a garage somewhere in the vicinity of Flint, Michigan.

 

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