One of the more fascinating subsets of the car collecting world are the people who collect one-of-a-kind concept and show cars. The cars in their collections arrive there in varied ways. In recent years it’s become possible to buy show cars directly from automakers and design houses at auction, like Ford’s centennial auction and GM’s culling of the GM Heritage Center collection during the company’s bankruptcy. One of the ideas behind the GM Motorama and Chrysler Exner/Ghia concepts was to introduce new ideas. Last year’s concept cars can quickly go out of style so until those recent sell-offs, once concept cars were retired from the auto show circuit, the car companies didn’t care about them. Some were sold to dealers or associates of auto executives, others were consigned for the crusher. So collectors like Joe Bortz have sometimes had to track down rumors of historic concept cars languishing in the back lot of a junkyard whose owner couldn’t bear to adhere to the scrap a famous show car.
Some concepts are beautiful, others turn out to be historically significant, some are neither. The Plymouth Plainsman is in that third group.
The name is fitting because it’s a funny looking car, not one of the better products of the collaboration between Virgin Exner Sr. and the Ghia styling and coachbuilding company in Italy. It’s an awkward blend of awkward styling elements, particularly the roof, which looks like a Mercury station wagon roof welded on backwards. The bulge along the wagon’s flanks that runs from oversized nacelles in the grille to the tail of the car conceals the spare tire, a feature perhaps borrowed from the Pierce Arrow Silver Arrows. The Plainsman has a western theme, with a cowhide interior and longhorn badges. Westerns were big in Hollywood and on TV in the ’50s. Some sources call it the Chrysler Plainsman, but it was originally fitted with a Plymouth V8 and featured Plymouth badges.
Frankly, the Plainsman’s history is more interesting than the car. It’s literally been around the world before it ended up for sale on eBay. Many of the Exner/Ghia cars survived because Chrysler wanted to avoid paying duty on the Italian built vehicles. So after they were done with their duties on the American show car circuit, they were shipped out of the country. In the case of the Plainsman it ended up in Cuba, where it was eventually presented as a gift to the leading Cuban banker. Upon his death the car was returned to Chrysler where it ended up in the possession of Chrysler’s export manager in Cuba. When the Communists under Castro took over, he fled, shipping the car back to the States.
The Plainsman followed him to a Chrysler job in Australia, and then back to the US, where he retired in California. At some point he had it fitted with a 440 V8. It was passed down eventually to a grandson, who sold it to Joe Bortz, who in turn sold it to the current owner. A planned restoration never happened, though the Plainsman is in fairly good condition, and the current owner says that financial circumstances force the sale, which is being handled by either Bortz or one of his associates. I don’t think that I’m the only person who thinks that the Plainsman is funny looking. The car came up for auction last year and failed to meet its reserve price. The auction has another 5 days to go, with a current bid of just over $25,000, reserve not yet met.