Tuesday 5th June 1951
Gordon M. Buehrig was issued a US patent for his “vehicle top with removable panels”. The T-top (UK: T-bar) automobile roof has a removable panel on each side of a rigid bar running from the center of one structural bar between pillars to the center of the next structural bar. The panels of a traditional T-top are usually made of auto grade safety glass. It was first used in a 1948 prototype by The American Sportscar Company or “Tasco.” The 1968 Chevrolet Corvette coupe was the first U.S.-built production automobile to feature a T-top roof. This increased the popularity of the coupe, such that it outsold the convertible and later led to the discontinuation of the Corvette convertible after 1975 until it was revived in 1986. Post-C3 models were built with a targa top instead of a T-top.
Buehrig was a member of America’s first generation of automobile stylists. As a boy he had always dreamed of designing cars, so at the age of 17 he took a summer job with the Yellow Cab Company in Chicago in order to be around the greatest variety of cars possible. He held the job until the company discovered he was under-aged. Before he left Chicago, Buehrig called Clarence Wexelburg, designer for the custom body-building C.P. Kimball Company, and asked him how he should go about becoming a car designer. Wexelburg directed him to take classes in drafting, wood and metal shop, and art. Buehrig pursued all three at Bradley Polytechnic before leaving for Detroit in search of an apprenticeship, which he found at Packard. His inexperience limited him to unexciting work as a body panel designer; but it was at Packard that he made valuable connections in the design industry and where he first discovered Le Corbusier’s book, Toward a New Architecture, a text that would influence Buehrig’s own aesthetic sense for the rest of his life. In 1928, Buehrig was the fourth man hired by Harley Earl for General Motors’ (GM) new Art and Colour Section, the first GM department dedicated solely to design concerns. Buehrig stayed there just long enough to share Earl’s frustration with the Fisher Body Department’s execution of the art department’s designs. Of the 1929 Buick, dubbed the “pregnant Buick,” Buehrig objected, “Harley Earl’s original design was a masterpiece, but Art and Colour was new and he couldn’t swing a lot of weight.” Leaving GM’s fledgling art department may have been a mistake for Buehrig, as Earl would rapidly establish the department into the industry’s first design dynasty. But just as likely, Buehrig’s inventiveness would have been harnessed by Earl, and while Buehrig would have become rich, he might never have achieved the boldness of his later designs. Buehrig, just 24, left GM to become chief body designer at Stutz before moving on to the even more prestigious role of chief designer at Duesenberg. At the age of 25, he began designing America’s most high-profile car bodies. His crowning achievement came in 1936 with the Cord 810. Heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s designs, the 810 had disappearing headlights, a hidden gas cap, and venetian blind louvers that accentuated the car’s lean, “coffin-nosed” hood. It was an affordable future car. In 1951, the Museum of Modern Art picked the Cord 810 as one of eight automobile selected worldwide to be exhibited as pieces of art. Curator Arthur Drexel wrote Buehrig that in the museum’s view, the 810 was “the outstanding American contribution to automobile design.” Buehrig quietly changed the way cars look today. Ironically, his former employer Harley Earl would follow Buehrig’s work closely, often incorporating his innovations into GM’s designs. It was Buehrig who first erased the running board from the American car… and Earl who first got the credit.