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Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Ghost in the Machine: The 1939 Plexiglass Pontiac


Copyright © 2016 Bold Ride LLC.
Pontiac Deluxe 2

The 20th century was a glorious time for science and technology. Einstein and his colleagues pierced the secrets of the atom. Penicillin led the way for a host of “wonder drugs” that could wipe out infections. Vaccines against polio and smallpox eradicated diseases that once had crippled and killed millions. And labs turned out wondrous new materials like plastic, nylon, and Plexiglass, which led to the creation of one of the most unique vehicles ever built.

Plexiglass is a brand name from a transparent material made from acrylic acid. These days you can find all sorts of goods made from it, including boxes, tubes, and windows. In the 1930s, however, it was pretty exotic stuff, which is why Pontiac chose it as the body material for a vehicle they showed off at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Pontiac Delxue 3

Dubbed the “Ghost Car” due to its see-through panels, it cost $25,000.00 to build at the time, or about $426,000.00 in todays’ money. The car’s innards were strictly Pontiac, with features like a 222.7 ci straight six engine, three-speed gearbox, front coil spring suspension, leaf spring rear, and four-wheel drum brakes. Except for its ghostly sheathing, it was identical to a stock 1939 Pontiac Deluxe Six.

The Ghost Car was a hit at the 1939 NYC World’s Fair, where it adorned GM’s “Highways and Horizons” pavilion. The see-through body was built by a collaborative team from both GM and Rohm & Haas’, the plastics company that first developed Plexiglass in 1933. The underlying metal components were given a copperized hue and all the hardware was plated in chrome. All the rubber fixtures were molded in white. The overall effect was – well, ghostly.

Pontiac Deluxe

The car was a hit at the fair and instantly became part of automotive history. After a dealership-sponsored tour, it went to the Smithsonian, where it sat until 1947. After that it passed through a series of owners (kind of like a haunting apparition) until collector Leo Gephart bought it in 1979. It remained as part of his estate until RM Auctions sold it at an event in St. John’s, MI on July 30, 2011 for $308,000.00.

Unlike many one-off vehicles, the Ghost Car is drivable. Long-distance trips would probably not end well, however, due to the transparent material’s strength limitations. It has no conventional vehicle identification number (VIN), though a part number from the radiator, 3113436, has traditionally been used instead. The odometer reads 86 miles, and the only mechanical work of late was a replacement of the fuel lines. A spectral vision of a bygone era, the Ghost Car retains all the romance and mystery of the era that produced it.