The 1955-57 Gaylord "Gladiator" sports car is one of the rarest and most unique of the 1950's cars. Developed by the super-rich Gaylord Brothers, Jim and Ed, of Chicago, heirs to the forture of the inventor of the bobby pin, it was conceived to compete with the world's very finest vehicles, including Rolls-Royce. The quality of the materials, and attention to detail, bordered on obsessive. And, the arresting shape of this ultra-luxury vehicle was penned by none other than legendary designer Brooks Stevens, who later went on to create the "neo-claissical" Excalibur cars of the 60's and 70's, and is also credited with the original Jeep Wagoneer (the "father" of all SUVs) and the Oscar-Mayer Weinermobile. Don't you think the Gladiator would be the perfect car for Cruella DeVille in the Disney movie "101 Dalmations"?


The Gladiator is also of historic significance in that it featured the very first automotive retractable hardtop. It was to be manufactured by the Zeppelin Company in Germany, for ultimate Germanic quality! The prototype, with gargantuan Lucas P-100 headlights (used on topend pre-WWII British cars)  made its world premier at the 1955 42e salon de Paris. Unfortunately, 25 orders were needed to keep the project afloat, but they never came. At $17,500 per (the equivalent of four Corvettes) this is not surprising. However, there were some buyers. Deposed Egyptian King Farouk was one and Hollywood star Dick Powell was another. Grance Kelly and William Holden placed orders.

There were actually two versions of the Gladiator. The prototype, handcrafted by Hermann Spohn Company in Ravensburg, Germany (above), came in two versions: a 2 door and a 4 door (model only, never made), both with exposed front (scalloped) wheels and the P-100 headlights. The tamer "production" version had enclosed front wheels and conventionally-sized "quad" headlights, which were just coming into vogue in the US. (I much prefer the prototype Gladiator, the original concept.) The original fender/headlight style was dropped for production apparently because of 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 Gladiator prototype was powered by the most powerful engine available, a 365-cid Chrysler Hemi V-8 (also used in the gorgeous 1955 Chrysler C-300, the first 300 hp production vehicle) but the production versions were to have a 305 hp Cadillac V-8 connnected to a Hydra-Matic four speed transmission. The Gladiator tipped the scale at almost 4,000 pounds, yet could hit 120 mph easily and accelerate from 0-60 mph in 8 seconds, which was rather spectacular for the day. However, it also cost almost twice as much as the most expensive Cadillac of the time, the stunning El Dorado Brougham. Regardless, the level of quality was unmatched and the chassis design was so advanced that no other car from the era could touch it.

.Jim Gaylord 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 while maintaining unparealled handling and cornering ability for the time.

Luxury abounded within. The cockpit was trimmed in the finest leather and burled wood. Real chrome (plastichrome had not yet been invented) accents were everywhere. On the wood dash, cutomized VDO gauges, branded "Gaylord" with the Gladiator's sword motif, stared out at the awestruck driver. Even the spare tire was presented on a tray with chrome rails which slid out from a hatch in the lavishly chromed rear end. The steering effort itself could be controlled by a hydraulic servo unit from the driver's seat.

The Gaylord's first even retractable hardtop roof was particularly ingenious. With the mere push of a button, the rear decklid rose 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 with extractor vents for stale cabin  air. Ford stylists took many photos of this system  when the Gladiator was on display at the salon, but the subsequent Ford retractable system, which first appeared in the 1957 Ford Skyliner, was a much more complicated affair than that in the Gladiator. The Gladiator system used only one motor whereas Ford used seven!

Unfortunately, only the owl-eyed Spohn prototype and three Zeppelin-made Gladiators ever saw the light of day and the jewel-like Gladiator is now just a fascinating footnote in automotive history. Two of the Gaylords were at one time toegether at the Early American Museum in Silver Springs, Florida, although it appears to have shut down. One is now in Germany at the Zeppelin Museum in Frederichshaven (article in Geman but great photos), where it was was unveiled in May, 2018. The other is in the hands of a private owner in Arizona, Ralph Carrungi, and is the subject of this excellent video, which details just how stunning this car is.

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


Any information on the fascinating Gladiator would be greatly appreciated

All Text Copyright © 2018 - Christopher K. Opfell