Le Sabre—GM’s answer to pre-war Mercedes?

1951 GM Le Sabre

Photo of the original 1951 version of the car. From Harley Earl’s website, Car of the Century.


Leading up to Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, certain high members of the Third Reich were flaunting their national pride and power by using a visual cross-reference language or techniques to mesmerize the German public. Politics combined with modern Teutonic engineering ingenuity had never been successfully employed like this before. Germany’s racing propaganda machine was the Mercedes Benz W125, arguably Europe’s most futuristic pre-war sports car. Special notice was taken in Detroit’s auto capital, and Harley Earl vowed to deliver a triumphant message all of his own someday.

When things were settling down in Europe following the war, one of America’s most legendary innovators created a clever comeback in the form of an automobile (according to the Car of the Century website, the Le Sabre was started in July, 1946). Originally planned as a super streamlined car, the Le Sabre comprised more variations on a theme than Bach ever dreamed of—all of which were aimed at winning over a world audience. In the best-selling booked titled, The Fifties, David Halberstam wrote, “Other GM execs drove Cadillacs, but Early drove the Le Sabre, a highly futuristic car he himself had designed; the cost to the company of building this prototype was estimated at roughly $7 million. It is possible that no one exerted as much influence on American style and taste in the fifties as he.”

While this radical concept car had many purposes, the most intriguing one was never publicized. The Le Sabre’s emblem was a flipped Mercedes Benz tri-star logo, surrounded in a bull’s-eye like center target—blending in America’s color of red, white, and blue. Along with the elegant French name symbolizing strength, the Le Sabre was complete. The inverted Mercedes star as a visual hook was truly mysterious, to say the least, as were most of the Le Sabre’s touches. Every one sent out spooky effects to all of its viewers. It’s no doubt the wizardry  was intended to remind the new world community of America’s supremacy and future direction, which of course was opposite of Germany’s pre-war view. Also, in a subtle way, this one automobile clearly pointed out the world’s greatest automaker, too, as well as showing Le Sabre was the most influential car, ever. In terms of numbers and fiance, it is the most expensive car built to date, but because of certain reasons, one being Earl’s secretive nature, this fact has been left largely unexamined. On top of all of this, Harley Earl named Le Sabre as his inspirational muse when originally conceiving his American sports car, the Corvette.


1954 Le Sabre brochure, courtesy of Ron Will


1951 and 1954 Le Sabre photos


Design Unlimited, from Car Life magazine, 1954

  1. Yes, except for one thing: the brochure shown above labelled as “1951” is not the 1951 at all but rather appears to be showing the car in its revamped guise as of about 1954. The REAL 1951 brochure and car were both different. Look closely at ORIGINAL 1951 pics of the vehicle and you will see that it looks very different and the lines frankly harmonize a lot better. Long and low and sleek. This is due to the fact that the original came with skirts (clever lift-up hinged panels actually that concealed most of the rear wheel and built-in vehicle jacks) as shown in your very first photo illustrating this piece. But somewhere along the way–in typical “mess with perfection GM style”– they decided to rip the skirts off and present the car with huge cut-out rear wheel openings and Cadillac-looking turbine wheels. They also cut holes in the front of the car and made a “new” grille (some said due to cooling problems with the engine). GM did this several times in production vehicles–most notably to Cadillacs where they yanked the skirts off and made a weirdly naked-looking “new version.” They did this to Eldorado first in 1964, then again in the 1970s… then to DeVille in the 1980s then to Concours in the 1990s. Eeeeck!

    Anyway, the car shown in your “1951 Brochure” is NOT the 1951 Le Sabre and the vehicle as it is shown around today is NOT the 1951 Le Sabre (no matter what the incorrect signs may say), but instead a 1954 REVISION of the 1951 Le Sabre. The car just didn’t look like that in 1951 and frankly, had different features.

  2. Thanks, Leon. I see the differences now and have made changes to the post.

  3. Walter Gomez

    So the cut-away drawing is also the 1951 version. The front turn signals were also revised for 1954.

  4. Steve Tremulis

    Here’s a couple photos taken by Alex Tremulis at an Air Force base car show around 1954. Side-by-side with the equally-radical Bat 5, you can really see just how low the Le Sabre was. It’s pretty clear, though, which one captured Tremulis’ attention more…

  5. Wayne Barratt

    I have been lucky enough to have stood in the Le Sabre’s presence a couple of times and it certainally is quite the eyefull, I feel you could be around it for along time and still descover little styling features you had never noticed before.

    What facinated me the most was how exactly the centre hidden “cyclops” headlight mechanism worked, nobody has ever been able to explain that one to me, but it is facinating to watchhow the grille is drawn back, then the whole thing revolves revealing the lamps and pushes forwards back into the apature.

    Probably took a million dollars worth of engineering time to design that feature alone.


  6. Larry Wood

    I did that as a Hot Wheels, it was one of the cars that made me want to be a car designer .
    Larry Wood , Hot Wheels designer, retired.

    (Photos from Ron Will)

  7. John Yasenko

    Do you know which temporary track this picture was taken at?

    Didn’t Harley’s son do some early SCCA racing?
    Didn’t Harley take the concept cars out 4 times to SCCA events?
    A good friend of Harleys, BF Harris III, who flew Harley around sometimes, as well as Ed Cole, was mostly responsible for this.
    Long story which also goes off into the lost history and questions of the lost Oldsmobile History which John Hendricks, founder of the history channels and much more owns.
    Warm regards .

  8. Kirk murrell

    I have a photograph of this car in Springfield mo.in the 50’s with a man in military uniform with the front left wheel bearing failure and wheel laying sideways . As a crowd of people looking at the car. It was in my fathers -sister , her scrap book.

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