At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, GM built a one-of-a-kind transparent car and dubbed it “The Ghost Car.”
It was designed by Harley J. Earl (GM’s design chief) who had several cars made for him that he used as rolling billboards to promote new designs and concepts. His idea behind this car was that future car buyers would want more than just good looks; they would want to be able to see through their vehicle’s body.
The result was a beautiful design on the outside but, underneath its skin, nothing like you’d expect: an engine situated way out in front of the front axle line with the front wheels behind it, a transmission fitted in horizontally between the seats, an exhaust system that ran through the passenger compartment and under the driver’s seat.
The car was built on a 1939 Pontiac Deluxe Six chassis because it had sturdy construction and, unlike most other cars of its time, was not designed with separate fenders bolted to the body; instead, all of its panels were integral with each other yielding smoother lines. This made it easier for Harley J. Earl’s team to fit Plexiglas windows into its doors and hood. They also eliminated the radiator grille because they thought that there should be nothing to “break up” their transparent design motifs.
The completely transparent body of the car was a real show-stopper, and Pontiac soon became known as the company that made the most beautiful cars in America.
The ghost car was not just a pretty face, however. It was also a very practical car. The transparent body allowed the driver to see everything around them, and the car’s high-quality construction meant that it was as safe as any other car on the road.
In the 1930s the automobile business was on fire, and practically every middle-class family had at least one vehicle in their driveway/garage. To further boost sales, GM wanted to find something that had never been done before and bring it to the show.
The “Highways and Horizons” exhibit, which was designed by Designer Norman Bel Geddes and artist Dean Cornwall, was commissioned for the whole thing. There’s some confusion about who actually built the car at this point: GM is said to have handled everything according to the official version, but there are people who think it was a collaboration between Fisher Body Company and Rohm and Haas, the chemical firm that developed Plexiglass.
The 1940 Pontiac Deluxe Six was the ultimate expression of American engineering – and it didn’t even feature a windshield. On the chassis of this ’39 Pontiac Deluxe Six, an all-Plexiglass body was installed – an unachievable goal because acrylic plastic was uncommon at the time. Because everything was on show, screws, and fasteners were chrome-plated, as were the dashboard, wires, and rubber moldings to match the U.S. Royal wheels; additionally, the metallic structure beneath got a copper wash.
All-transparent cars are a rare thing, and after GM’s first all-transparent vehicle was built in Pontiac, it helped pave the way for future manufacturers to build such vehicles. Regardless of who paid for the Pontiac Ghost Car, it cost around $25,000 at the time.
The ghost cars are true engineering marvels, and represent the very best in American craftsmanship at its finest. The idea of a completely transparent car may seem silly by today’s standards, but for 1930 it was truly amazing!