This web site tells the tale of the 1956 Gaylord Gladiator, one of the rarest and most unique of the 1950's cars. Developed by the uber-rich Gaylord Brothers of Chicago, heirs to the inventor of the bobby pin's fortune, it was conceived to compete with the world's finest vehicles, including Rolls-Royce. The captivating shape of this ultra-luxury sports car was penned by legendary designer Brooks Stevens, who later went on to create the "neo-claissical" Excalibur cars of the 60's and 70's. The Gladiator is now affectionately known as "The Batmobile in a Tuxedo", even though it was created well before the Batmobile. Perhaps it even inspired George Barris in creating the Batmobile.
The idea was to create an "American Rolls-Royce". The Gladiator was brimming with advanced features, including a retractable hardtop, a spare tire that slid out on a tray from the back of the vehicle and it was to be manufactured by Zeppelin in Germany, for ultimate quality no doubt!


The Gladiator made its world appearance at the 1955 Salon de Paris (photo left, below), where it garnered much fanfare. Unfortunately, 25 orders were needed to keep the project afloat, but they never came. (Rumor has it that Princess Grace of Monaco (aka Grace Kelly) placed one of the orders.) There was even consideration for a four door "Phaeton" edition. I have been able to find a only concept sketch and a scale model (photos below) of the Phaeton, so I have no evidence that one was ever produced. However, what a stunning vehicle it would have been!

                                          

There were actually two versions of the Gladiator coupe. The first prototype, was handcrafted by Spohn Company in Ravensburg, Germany and featured exposed front wheels and massive headlights (photo far right, above).

The "production" version, shown in the photos below, was made by Lufschiffbau Zeppelin in Freidreichshaven, Germany (yes, THAT Zeppelin!), and had enclosed front wheels and more coventional "quad" headlights (which aped Rolls Royce). Although I much prefer the the over-the-top styling initial prototype, that fender/headlight style was dropped apparently because of the potential for damage caused by roadway debris. The enclosed wheel wells featured illumination. (Jim Gaylord was such a perfectionist that he is rumored to have had a nervous breakdown as the project neared completion.)


As for performance, the original Gladiator was powered by a 365-cid Chrysler Fire Power Hemi V-8 (also used in the gorgeous Chrysler C-300) but the production versions were to have a 305 hp Cadillac V-8. The Gladiator weighed over 4,000 pounds, yet could hit 120 mph easily and accelerate from 0-60 mph in 8 seconds, which was pretty spectacular for the day. So was the price: $17,500! That was almost twice as much as the most expensive Cadillac of the time, the stunning El Dorado Brougham.

The Gladiator's retractable roof was particularly ingenious. With the push of a button, the rear decklid lifted on a pair of electric supports, then the top was pulled back into the trunk by a chain drive. The roof itself contained a recessed rear window and extractor vents for stale cabin air. Ford engineers took many photos of this system, but the later Ford retractable system, which first appeared in the 1957 Ford Skyliner, was a much more complicated affair than that in the Gaylord.


Jim Gaylord had designed a very strong chrome-molybdenum tubular chassis, using coil springs and A-arms for the front suspension and a beam axle with leaf springs for the rear. The suspension made extensive use of rubber and the passenger compartment was virtually impervious to shock from rough road surfaces.

Unfortunately, only the Spohn prototype and two, or perhaps three, Zeppelin-made Gladiators ever saw the light of day and the Gladiator is now just an interesting footnote in automotive history. Two of the Gladiators were last seen at the Early American Museum in Silver Springs, Florida, although it appears to have shut down. One is supposedly in Germany. Rumors abound. However, this video from January 2017 claims to show the only one left. The attention to detail and the level of fit and finish is amazing. I just wish the video showed the roof retracting!

Brooks Stevens was a designer who defied convention. Sometimes it worked, like with the Gladiator, but, sometimes it didn't, like with the 1954 Cadillac Die Valkeryie and the 1959 Schmitar which had similar stylistic ingredients that didn't mix so well.

The Gladiator was the subject of a full review in 1981 in Special Interest Autos.

I have scoured the Internet for photos of the Gladator and have congregated them in one place in the photo gallery below. I particularly enjoy the photos with the classy model in the Spohn prototype. Oh, what could have been!
                                         
            
            
           
            

A
ny information on the fascinating Gladiator would be greatly appreciated (kajguy03@gmail.com)

Site updated: June 15, 2017





All Text Copyright © 2009 - Christopher K. Opfell