It’s appropriate that our feature car was engineered by a Roman Catholic priest; the word “catholic” (small c) means “universal,” and no design has ever been so uniformly reviled, to my knowledge. Is it merely unattractive? No, it’s not true. An Aztek is simply unattractive. Anglerfish is ugliness personified. Deliverance is unattractive. It has a face that not even Mother Theresa would like. It’s what Captain Ahab’s workshop must have been like if he’d taken up car building.
Alfred A. Juliano, the maker, was born in Philadelphia on December 19, 1919, to Louis and Catherine Juliano. Alfred had a strong interest in the arts and sciences as a child, especially those related to automotive design; however, he chose to follow a higher calling and enrolled in the Order of the Holy Ghost Junior Seminary in Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania, in 1932 to begin his clerical studies. Meanwhile, a couple of his drawings had caught the eye of someone at GM, who gave him a scholarship to study with Harley Earl in 1938.Juliano may have benefited from a long conversation with Mr. Earl, but in any way, he was committed to completing his ordination and remaining at the seminary.
Juliano taught physics and worked as chaplain at Virginia’s Saint Emma Military Academy for the next three years, where he made new professional contacts that led to experts and other opportunities in design-related fields. His Order soon called Father Juliano to the position of assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Branford, Connecticut, as luck would have it. He went on to nearby Yale University to obtain a doctorate in aerodynamics and his goal of developing the world’s safest car while he was there.
Father Juliano’s Aurora Safety Car concept was finally built after two years of planning and three years of development. The Aurora’s styling and architecture vividly recalled those of watercraft, whether by arrangement, coincidence, or ignorance. Its 18-foot-long, 100-percent fiberglass body–perched over a mostly wooden frame, which itself stood on the salvaged chassis of a 1953 Buick Roadmaster–was marketed as dents and corrosion-resistant. It was crowned by a massive, transparent-plastic greenhouse (literally) with a nearly 360-degree view (albeit quite a distorted one).Juliano wanted to provide air conditioning as standard equipment since the headliner was installed with metallic sunshades that filtered out the rays but were likely to fry the cabin on a humid, sunny day.
The car’s bulging windshield, which resembled the head of a B-movie space alien, was intended to minimize head injury by raising the gap between it and the car’s occupants; it was perhaps the only option possible in the pre-airbag era. In fairness to Father Juliano and his prototype, the Aurora foreshadowed many modern-day safety features, including seat belts, a padded instrument panel with recessed gauges, side-impact barriers, an adjustable roll cage, and a collapsible steering column.The Aurora’s four passengers were seated in separate captain’s chairs that could be swiveled 180 degrees in the event of a collision. Hydraulic jacks fixed on the frame and operated by a switch provided assistance when adjusting a tyre, similar to the Citroen DS.
To improve front-impact safety, the spare tire was mounted on a platform ahead of the radiator and could be lowered to the ground via a lever on the dashboard. The front end was effectively a massive, foam-filled bumper intended to grab inattentive pedestrians without damaging them. In theory, at least.
Despite its revolutionary defensive features, the Aurora is known today mostly for its appearance. It consistently tops lists of the world’s ugliest vehicles, just as Chinese Cresteds dominate ugly dog competitions. Although the undulating surfaces and body-by-Rubbermaid were intended to improve the rigidity of the fiberglass body, Father Juliano seemed to like what he saw, claiming in many interviews that (the American people) “won’t pay for protection, but they will pay for style.” They’d have to pay, since the Aurora’s estimated price was $15,000, or $2,000 more than the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.
Father Juliano contacted the hotel manager to let him know he was running late and that the introduction, which had been scheduled for 8 a.m., would most likely happen closer to noon. Before returning to their offices, the majority of the gathered reporters remained until early afternoon. Juliano called the hotel again about 3 p.m., this time from Harlem, to announce a dead battery and a new delay. He arrived at the hotel with the Aurora over an hour later, but by that time the gathered press corps had shrunk to a TV crew and two print reporters.