After creating the LeSabre XP-8 in 1951, Harley Earl continued to look for that innovative design that would storm America and make its way into full production. With a few models in between, his next great contribution was the Buick Centurion XP-301 in 1956.
The Centurion XP-301 debuted at the 1956 Motorama (Motorama’s were auto show produced by General Motors during the middle of the last century). The XP-301 is the first documented car to feature a rear-mounted camera with a wide-angle lens and a 4” x 6” view screen mounted in the dashboard. While rear cameras are ubiquitous in today’s vehicles, it was a space-age innovation at the time. In addition to the camera, Earl and the GM Styling Section staff gave the Centurion XP-301 a transparent bubble top and panoramic wraparound windshield, eliminating the need for a rearview mirror.
The Centurion XP-301’s innovations and unique styling did not stop there. The Centurion featured a sleek aerodynamic body with sweeping front fenders and deeply recessed headlights. The Centurion was the first Buick to feature the Sweepspear: a chrome-plated strip that began above the front wheel, curved down just before the rear wheel, and then curved back to the taillight, which became a trademarked Buick style feature. Additionally, twin airscoops pulled outside air into the passenger cabin and the tapered tail resembled a jet engine exhaust.
The Centurion XP-301’s interior did not disappoint, either. The upholstery was in Elektron Red (an aircraft inspiration as well). There were four individual bucket seats featuring horizontal pleats, individual headrests, and a retractable seatbelt. The steering wheel, mounted aircraft-style on the flat arm of a chromed column, cantilevered from the dash.
While the Centurion XP-301 did not make its way into production, many of its features did. For proof, all you need to do is look at 1970s Buicks and Chevrolets. The 1971 Buick Riviera coupe featured the XP-301’s pointed tail, making it an instant classic. The Centurion became a Buick nameplate between 1971 and 1973. The XP-301’s rear-mounted camera helped cement Harley Earl’s status as a true automotive visionary.
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