Well, that’s not entirely accurate, but “the concept vehicle called the Dodge Deora that inspired a well-regarded Hot Wheels cars based upon it is up for auction” doesn’t have the same ring. And functionally, it would be pretty cool to actually drive around in something you played with as a kid. The story behind the Deora is compelling as well – it’s not simply one of those clay model exercises by idealistic young designers at a large automaker, it was an honest-to-goodness independent effort by a couple of George Barris types. Click through for more images and background on the Deora.
It was the Alexander Brothers of the fair city of Detroit who decided to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of forward-control vans by heavily customizing a Dodge A100 van donated by curiously adventurous execs at Chrysler. They employed a boy-wonder, Harry Bentley Bradley, to actually pen the shape, and fitted such wild features as the reversed-tailgate front end (think of the BMW Isetta’s door). The rest is history – it became one of the “Original 16″ Hot Wheels and found it’s way into the sweaty palms of youthful car enthusiasts everywhere. The actual RM description goes into amazing detail about the modifications, so I recommend actually reading through it as it’s pretty interesting.
101 bhp stock (Est. 115 bhp modified), 170 cu. in. overhead-valve inline six-cylinder engine with Offenhauser intake manifold and dual carburetors, three-speed manual gearbox, solid front axle with parallel semi-elliptic leaf springs, solid rear axle with parallel semi-elliptic leaf springs, four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 90″
Spectacular!…that’s the best single word description for the remarkable Dodge Deora. When people see this futuristic cab-forward pickup today, they’re certain it’s an AMT scale model or a “Hot Wheels” car come to life. But it was the other way around. Created as a spectacular one-off custom, this Ridler Award winner from the 1967 Detroit Autorama was adopted by Dodge Division of Chrysler Corporation, and became one of the company’s most popular show cars. Created by one of hot rodding’s premier designers, the Deora was handcrafted by two of the best custom car builders of all time.
Here’s how it all happened:
Detroit’s famed Alexander Brothers, Mike and Larry, won considerable acclaim with a customized Ford Victoria called, “The Victorian,” and the “Silver Sapphire,” Clarence “Chili” Catallo’s unforgettable “Little Deuce Coupe,” which appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine, and on the cover of the Beach Boys’ album of the same name. In 1964, they wanted to build a “far-out” custom truck using one of the Big Three’s new cabover mini-pickups. They tapped a talented friend, Harry Bentley Bradley, to design it. The “A Brothers” had discovered Harry when he was a student at Pratt Institute in New York City. They’d followed his career path to General Motors, where he apparently did freelance design work on the side.
The plan was simple. The Alexanders were certain that Dodge would give them a stock A100 truck to customize once they’d seen Harry’s futuristic design sketches. And if Chrysler Corporation didn’t bite, they would try Ford Motor Company, who’d just introduced their own Econoline cabover. Years later, Harry Bradley, who never pulled punches, told Motor Trend’s writers, “Of the three cab-forward pickups on the market at the time, the Dodge was unquestionably the homeliest.”
But Harry obviously saw something beautiful and decidedly avant-garde in the basic shape of the little cab-forward truck. “What I wanted to do,” Bradley recalled, “was get rid of that phone booth cab and integrate the upper (section of the body) with the lower. The finished truck would have no doors on either side. “I didn’t want cutlines,” Bradley declared. “We were always told at GM to play down cutlines. If cutlines were wonderful,” he continued, “Ferraris would have them running down their sides.” Harry Bradley insists he always thought of this design “…as a conceptual proposal, rather than a customizing solution.”
That left the practical problem-solving up to Larry and Mike Alexander. Just how would the driver and passenger get inside? The ingenious answer was through the front window, which in execution, became a large, forward-opening glass hatch that the clever “A Brothers” fabricated using the lift-up rear window from a donor 1960 Ford station wagon. More about that in a moment:
The Alexanders liked Harry Bradley’s radical design. To everyone’s surprise and delight, so did the powers that be at Chrysler, who donated a stripped A100 as a sacrificial lamb. Mike and Larry began by whacking off the stock cab completely, right down to the floorpan. When the new roof section was tack-welded into place, it rested just about where the stock steering column had been. Bradley’s original vision was that the front-opening hatch would be a one-piece unit, hinged at the roof’s leading edge, like the tailgate of a hatchback or the liftgate of a modern station wagon.
But the stock A100’s flimsy A-pillars would never have supported that arrangement, so Mike and Larry ingeniously crafted a split door setup. The rear section of the 1960 Ford station wagon, rotated 180-degrees, became the new cab roof. What had been the Ford’s rear window, was now the Deora’s new windshield. Hinged at the top, it was controlled by an electric motor that activated an hinged arm that was plated for looks and drilled for lightness. The “A Bros” hand-fabricated a lower front panel that fit neatly between the headlights. That panel, which became the lower portion of the cab’s only door, was hinged on the right side for ease of entry and exit.
Transforming Harry Bradley’s futuristic sketches into a working trucklet took all the ingenuity the Alexanders possessed. They may have used a BMW Isetta for inspiration. The stock steering column was replaced with a folding horizontal strut that rotated forward from the left side of the body to let the driver in and out. It locked into place when the driver was seated. The steering wheel was a stylish butterfly-shaped yoke, reportedly made from an Oldsmobile steering wheel, which would have been right at home in a small aircraft.
The steering box itself is a modified Chevrolet Corvair unit. The vertical steering column runs up and out of sight through the left cab body panel. A small sprocket on top of the column is connected via a roller chain to another sprocket about 12 inches to the right, on the end of the swiveling bracket, which in turn, is connected to the steering wheel. A finger-operated latch mechanism locks the wheel in front of the driver. During entrance and egress, the steering column tilts forward so the driver can squeeze by. The stock A100 foot pedals were already mounted in the floor, so they didn’t need to be relocated. Engineers at Hurst Performance Products developed a custom floor shifter for the stock Dodge three-speed manual transmission.
The Alexander brothers wanted the occupants to sit low, inboard of the front wheel wells, so the slant-six was moved rearward about 15 inches to make room for the bucket seats. The engine now protruded into the pickup bed, but the show truck was never really designed as a practical hauler, so it wasn’t a problem. There was never a plan to stuff a big V-8 in this vehicle. Its sleek silhouette requirement would not have tolerated it.
In order to achieve that ultra-low look, the radiator was relocated in the bed as well, just ahead of the rear axle. Twin air intake holes were cut into the bottom of the bed, and an electric fan was used to draw in cooling air. That meant that the fuel tank had to be moved from its stock location behind the rear axle to a new position just behind the reconstituted cab. The pickup bed itself was covered with a hard tonneau that was secured by chrome hood locking pins, so no one could see the magic that went on beneath it.
To effectively lower the chassis, the Alexander’s raised the front frame rails and ran the front springs through the axle. Short-coupled industrial shocks replaced the original tubular shock absorbers in front. They also modified the rear suspension. The overall height of the truck went from about 72 inches in stock form, to just 57 inches after modifications – that’s a 15 inch difference! Contoured bucket seats leaned rearward just a little to accommodate the Deora’s two stylish occupants. The cockpit itself was trimmed in pleated leather. In keeping with this car’s atypical design, the instrument panel was relocated to the driver’s side door, and a center console held a speedometer and the tachometer.
At the 1967 Detroit Autorama, the Deora completely swept the show, winning nine trophies plus the coveted Don Ridler award for the best new custom car. It was a poignant moment for Mike and Larry Alexander. Their father died on the morning of the Autorama setup day, but their mother convinced them that their Dad would have wanted the Deora to be shown. Interestingly, that was the only time the “A Brothers” ever showed the car in competition.
After the Deora was completed, Chrysler leased it to display on their auto show stands with their own concept cars, where it reportedly caused a sensation. Chrysler Corporation, who’d had nothing to do with the design save the donated A100 itself, claimed this car was a quantum leap in advanced vehicle styling. Today, over 40 years since it was first created, the Deora still resembles a car of the future. It should be noted that the remarkable mini-truck was conceived in an era where crumple zones and crash tests were unheard of, so there were no design compromises required for safety considerations. The cabin is small, but two adults can sit comfortably inside.
Jim Bradley told Motor Trend, “Chrysler never seemed to understand that we used (a lot of) Ford parts to build this car.” Besides the 1960 Ford wagon tailgate and a small section of the station wagon’s roof, the rear window was borrowed from a 1960 Ford sedan. And that’s not all. 1964 ½ Mustang taillight bezels formed the surrounds for the twin side duct exhausts. The taillights are especially clever. Hidden under the wood veneer panel that runs across the rear, they are only visible when they’re illuminated. Viewed from behind, the lights themselves are reflected in a polished stainless steel strip that runs underneath them. They were made from sequential turn signals found on a Ford Thunderbird. When the directionals are activated, the flashing lights blip outward from the center.
Not long after it debuted, the Deora became one of the first 16 “Hot Wheels” model cars offered to youngsters all over the country. Harry Bradley, who had left GM to join Mattel, noted Mattel’s research in that era showed that every kid in America owned at least 1.3 miniature “Hot Wheels” cars. “I don’t think many people knew the Deora was a real vehicle,” he mused.
Rod & Custom actually tested the Deora in its September 1967 issue. Editor Spence Murray reportedly drove the car more miles in one afternoon than it had ever been driven, and he was very impressed. “Our test drive went off without a hitch,” he reported. Larry Alexander knew that (the) Deora would perform up to the standards of any mass-produced pickup truck,” Murray wrote. “But I had to prove it to myself.”
After the first year’s lease was up, Chrysler arranged to lease the Deora for a second year. They requested a new look for 1968, so it was repainted in Lime Green Pearl. After the second year, Chrysler did not renew its lease. The Deora was sold to Al Davis, a noted custom car enthusiast. Davis passed away in 1970. His son, Al Jr., stored the car for a while, then took it on the show circuit in 1982 and won a Championship. In 1998, the Deora was taken out of storage and re-restored to resemble its 1967 appearance. The Alexanders hadn’t kept the paint formula, so it’s believed the present color is a little “greener” than the original gold. The born-again Deora wowed ‘em once again in 2002 at the 50th Anniversary of the Detroit Autorama, when it starred in a display of famous Alexander Brothers customs. Many people couldn’t believe this car had been built over 40 years ago. It’s still that good.
One final note: the unusual “Deora” name was chosen after AMT, the well-known model car manufacturers, held a contest to name the vehicle. The winning name was supposed to mean “gold” in Spanish. It was apropos because of the show car’s original Candy Gold color. AMT’s 1/25th scale model of the Deora was produced in great volume, but they’re scarce collector’s items today. Mattel’s “Hot Wheels” sold millions of miniature Deoras in several colors. The Deora’s winning bidder will receive extensive records on this car from the consignor, including copies of Harry Bradley’s personal notes on its design.
Custom car aficionados agree, there’s nothing like the Deora, and there never will be. If you loved this car as a model, imagine what it would be like to own the real thing?
RM Auctions would like to thank Thomas Voehringer and Angus MacKenzie, of Motor Trend, for portions of the research used in this description.