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This is a 1957 “Gaylord Gladiator” concept car. Despite its oversized appearance and Cadillac V8, it was a relatively lightweight coupe for its day, making a solid run at emulating a European sports car’s handling. It pioneered technologies such as a tubular frame and the first-ever automatic folding convertible hardtop. The story behind this concept car, its unfortunate name, and its eventual failure is truth as fantastic as fiction.

This “Batmobile in a tuxedo” was ahead of its time

  • Closeup of the headlights and front fender of a Gaylord Gladiator supercar prototype parked on cobblestones.
  • The rooftop of a Gaylord Gladiator coupe with its doors open.
  • The grille and four front headlights of a Gaylord Gladiator car parked in a garage, brick visible in the background.
  • Chrome rear end of the 1957/58 Gaylord Gladiator concept coupe.
  • Profile view of a two-tone (black and white) Gaylord Gladiator sports car prototype parked on cobblestones.
  • Luxury interior of the Gaylord Gladiator 1957 supercar prototype, with white leather and a tropical wood dashboard.
  • Closeup of the "GG" logo of a Gaylord Gladiator prototypes steering wheel.
  • Tachometer in the tropical wood luxury dashboard of the Gaylord Gladiator concept car
  • Closeup of the "GG" logo in the knockoff rims of a Gaylord Gladiator prototype car.
  • Cadillac V8 engine in the 1957/1958 Gaylord Gladiator concept car.
  • The tubular frame of the Gaylord Gladiator super car prototype.
  • 1957 build-date plaque of the Gaylord Gladiator supercar concept.

The idea of a powerful American V8 in a nimble, European-style sports car is familiar to vintage vehicle fans. Italian classics include the De Tomaso Pantera and Iso Grifo. You might even say this was Carrol Shelby’s original intention for the AC Cobra. But the Gaylord Gladiator came first.

The first Gaylord Gladiator mock-up had a 331-cubic-inch Chrysler V8. The first two prototypes built by Zeppelin Group in Germany featured a Cadillac 365 that made 305 horsepower. This meant it could hit 60 MPH in 8 seconds. The company planned to supercharge later engines, bump output to 400+ horsepower, and have one of the quickest 0-60s around. But despite its power, the Gaylord Gladiator was far from a straight-line car.

The prototype was surprisingly agile for its day. It leveraged a lightweight tubular chassis. All its components were attached to oversized rubber bushings. While Detroit was still building straight-line power, the Gaylord Gladiator could corner–and retained a Rolls-Royce-smooth ride.

If you’re familiar with modern ultralight race-car-inspired supercars, you might be confused by the heavy wood, leather, and two-tone paint that bedazzles the Gaylord Gladiator prototypes. But remember, it was competing against the “personal luxury car” coupes of the 1950s, such as the Ford Thunderbird.

The prototypes were resplendent with a white leather two-seat interior and tropical wood trim, polished to a mirror-like finish. And–luxury-of-luxuries–the Gladiator boasted the world’s first electric folding hardtop (the Ford Skyliner was still two years away). The Gaylord Gladiator prototypes’ black and white two-tone paint job inspired Hagerty to nickname it “The Batmobile in a tuxedo.” I don’t know if that was the Gaylord’s intention, but I could absolutely imagine Bruce Wayne dropping the top and cruising around Gotham City after a long night of nocturnal adventures, dressed as a bat.

But sadly, the Gaylord Gladiator would ultimately be doomed to fall on its own sword.

The Gaylord brothers and Zeppelin struggled to make the rubber meet the road

The Gaylord brothers and a Zeppelin employee stand next to a prototype of their 1957 Gladiator supercar.
James & Edward Gaylord with a 1957 Gladiator | Zeppelin Group

Brothers James and Edward Gaylord styled themselves as high-society gentlemen and heirs to a fashion empire who had grown up racing on the streets of Chicago. As the story goes, they often got pulled over in whatever new Deusenbergs, Packards, or Pierce-Arrows they were driving too fast. And they were well known for politely paying their tickets, then racing off again. The truth is a bit more complex, but more on that later.

The brothers had an idea: a nimble exotic car with a powerful Detroit engine. And they had money. Their friend, Ford designer Alexander Tremulis, who had penned the 1948 Tucker, recommended a freelancer named Brooks Stevens. Stevens was the talent behind Harley-Davidson’s 1949 Hydra-Glide, the Studebaker GT Hawk, and the Oscar-Mayer Wienermobile. Yup, that was on his resume. How could the Gaylords reject him?

The brothers had a strong vision. It included a coupe with a long, low hood, a dramatically angled grille, spotlight-sized headlights, and open wheels like a European Grand Prix car. Whether or not this assortment of features goes together is a matter of judgment. What is more objective is that in an industry with standardized sealed headlight beams and fender requirements, their vision was destined to fail. But Stevens dutifully penned the car they describe. Sometime in 1955, the brothers had a prototype built.

Perhaps the brothers queried some coachbuilders and larger car companies about going into production and didn’t like the responses they received. Perhaps not. Whatever the story, they landed on Zeppelin Group to build their Gladiator.

You read that right. The Gaylords put the assembly of their baby in the hands of the team behind the Hindenberg.

In all fairness, the Maybach car company (founded by Wilhelm Maybach and his son) began as a subsidiary of the Zeppelin Group. In the 1950s, Maybach was completely dormant (because, you know, WWII). And Zeppelin Group was at least partially dormant. But they convinced the Gaylords they could build a powerful sports car, rolled up their sleeves, and set about pumping out two more prototypes.

And as absurd as this story sounds, at this point, I would be remiss for not mentioning that the Gaylord Brothers had plentiful pre-orders. They had conceived of the vehicle at a $10,000 price point. By the time Zeppelin started work, they figured they would have to charge $17,500 a pop (equivalent to $200,000 dollars today). Even at that price, they had interest. They even had celebrity interest. Hollywood leading man Dick Powell and an Egyptian King named Farouk the First–who had been overthrown and settled on a playboy lifestyle (still not making this up, I swear)–had both ponied up for a Gaylord Gladiator.

As importantly, the brothers calculated that moving just 25 vehicles a year could keep the Gaylord Cars Ltd alive. So even if they only ever sold hand-built boutique automobiles, they would be fine.

You’ll notice that the Zeppelin-built prototypes had legal headlights (four of them) and legal fenders. So we know that the Gaylord brothers were listening to someone at Zeppelin Group and becoming more realistic about building a road-worthy car. But the writing between the lines is that this process was very draining on everyone involved.

The Gaylord brothers ended up suing Zeppelin over changes to their Gladiator design. Perhaps they all could have worked things out, but James Gaylord suffered a nervous breakdown. Edward convinced him to call it quits, and they left their car company dreams high and dry.

Perhaps the most shocking twist in the story is that the brothers’ name wasn’t even Gaylord.

The Gaylord Gladiator has a less-than-SFW name

Tachometer in the tropical wood luxury dashboard of the Gaylord Gladiator concept car
1957 Gaylord Gladiator prototype | Zeppelin Group

I can practically hear you giggling, so I’ll just come out and say it: The Gaylord Gladiator has a name you probably shouldn’t Google at work–who knows what will pop up! The car’s original builders likely saw nothing controversial about their make and model’s moniker. But slang changes over the years, and if they had gone into production, they might have been forced to adjust for a modern audience.

What’s wild is that the brothers were born James and Edward Goldberg and later agreed to legally change their names! Their father, Solomon H. Goldberg, patented wavy or “humped” hairpins which led to the modern “Bobby Pin.” This simple act of genius built an empire and supposedly elevated the “Hair Pin King” from a Chicago bellhop to a candidate for mayor. Again, the truth is likely more complicated. Sol had an itinerant childhood: his father was a traveling salesman and convicted con man. Even as a candidate for mayor, Solomon’s various accounts of his life story–and even his age–contradicted one another.

Sol died in 1940. His wife Ruth took over the “Hump Hair Pin Company” and convinced the War Department that hairpin production was a wartime necessity. This ensured a steady supply of raw materials and the success of the family business. While James served in the military, his mother began knocking elbows with the fashion industry elite. She eventually rebranded her company as “Gayla” and herself as Ruth Gaylord.

After the war, Ruth convinced her adult sons to legally change their last names too. Why? Perhaps it was the promise of building a family dynasty. Or perhaps it was just to avoid the anti-semitism rampant in the 1940s. (The Goldbergs’ WWII military service and Jewish heritage might add another layer to their troubles with ex-Nazi-military-supplier Zeppelin, but that’s a whole other article).

When, a decade later, Edward and James took a run at building an automotive company, they seemed to see it as an extension of their family’s legacy in fashion. They named their company “Gaylord.” And for its sigil, they adopted the outline of a European broadsword. Why “Gladiator?” The brothers never said. I imaginethey wanted to name their models after warriors to double down on that sword symbol. And Gladiator alliterates well with Gaylord.

Within decades after the Gaylord Gladiator’s fall, multiple car companies began to sell American buyers expensive supercars. These vehicles have morphed into exotic badge delivery systems. Even Porsche’s logo is a bogus family crest penned by a salesman. In 2023, a $200k luxury supercar would look underpriced next to Ferraris and Bugattis. The exotic supercar world is dominated by “designer brands.” With their fashion-industry mindset, the Gaylord brothers were just premature.

Next, learn the true story behind the Subaru Touring Bruce , a car named after Bruce Willis, or see the Gaylord Gladiator for yourself in the video below: