Thursday, January 19, 2017

Oldsmobile's New 1948 GM "C" Body

The largest American automobile makers held off introducing redesigned cars until three or four years after World War 2 ended in 1945.  Instead, they relied on facelifted 1942 models through the 1948 model year.  In part, this was because the US government curtailed car production early in 1942 and it didn't resume until late 1945.  This implied that there would be strong demand for any kind new cars by people who otherwise might have purchased 1943-1945 models.  Also, a return to depressed, late-1930s-like economic conditions was expected by many, so perhaps fear of poor sales of expensively-tooled new models might have caused some hesitation by upper management.

As it turned out, demand for cars was strong, and the feared immediate postwar recession didn't happen.  So Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation did not market redesigned cars until the 1949 model year.

It was slightly different for industry leader General Motors.  New A and B bodies did not appear until 1949.  Affected brands were Chevrolet, Pontiac and Buick.  Ditto for Oldsmobile's 70 and 80 series cars.  But a redesigned top-of-the-line C body was released for Cadillacs and Oldsmobile 98s.  It also was used for an extended 1949 model year for Buick's Super and Roadmaster lines.

This post deals with 1948 Oldsmobile 98s that had those new C bodies.


This is a 1947 Olds 98 that used the previous C body.

And here is a 1948 Olds 98.  At this time, GM's legendary styling director Harley Earl favored large-radius rounded shapes. This might have been residue from circa-1940 thinking that cars of the future would have highly streamlined, teardrop-derived shapes.  But such designs looked bulky, so Earl compromised, placing rounded shapes on an otherwise fairly lithe basic platform.  The 1948 98s featured flow-through front fenders and retained distinct rear fenders to avoid visual bulk.  Dropping the fender tops below the belt line also helped in this regard.  Note the continuity in grille shape and side trim.  This tactic preserved brand identity when body designs were discarded and replaced.

I've used this photo in several places because it shows what a fine design the fastback version of the C body was.

Another new feature was curved windshield glass.  The technology for reliable (low manufacturing breakage rates) mass-production of curved, shatterproof automotive glass was in its earlier stages, so '48 C bodes featured divided, rather than one-piece windshields.

The same applied to the rear window (or backlight, in styling jargon), as can be seen in this "for sale" photo.

Another sales photo, but of a restored Oldsmobile 98.  The split window seems to make an otherwise pleasing design slightly cluttered.  On the other hand, it helps define the car's vintage.  For example, when Hudson enlarged the back window opening of some of its 1950 models, it too used two-piece glass.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Baroque/Rococo Car Styling: Late 1950s and Now

Around 1955-60, American car styling was at the height of one of its periods of cumbersome shapes and elaborate decoration.  This was the result of the end of an evolutionary trend from cars being collections of discrete features to "envelope" bodies where fenders and other details were parts of comparatively simple overall shapes (see my book dealing with this in detail).  Casting about for new directions, American styling executives hit on the use of jet fighters and science fiction space ships as the basis for shapes and ornamentation.  This was further elaborated by the fad for sometimes arbitrarily placed two and three color paint schemes.

Reaction set in during the early 1960s when simpler designs reached the market.  But automobile styling has as much or more to do with fashion than functionalist ideological purity, so one can observe several swings between simple designs and elaborate ones.  For example, the 1970s saw American cars tending to the Rococo.  And the present auto scene is yet another round of styling ornamental overkill -- worse than in the '70s, rivaling the late '50s, and a worldwide practice to boot.


Late 1950s Era

1958 Buick Super Riviera Coupe
General Motors' famed styling boss Harley Earl had run out of fresh ideas shortly before his retirement.  His 1957 redesigns for Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac were rounded and heavy looking compared to Virgil Exner's taut, tail-finned Chrysler Corporation line.  Because of the lead-time required for total redesigns, Earl ordered his staff to add lots and lots of chromed trim in a crash project as a means of making the unsuccessful 1957s more marketable for 1958.  The result was Rococo Bad Taste, as the Buick pictured above demonstrates.

1958 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Holiday Sedan
Like Buicks, '58 Oldsmobiles received a good deal of seemingly arbitrarily shaped and placed decorative trim.

1959 Chevrolet Impala Sport Sedan
The entire GM was redesigned for 1959, cars from all divisions sharing the same basic bodies.  The Chevrolet shown here had the thinner, less-rounder tops intended to make the cars seem less bulky than before.  But the late '50s tendency to flamboyance is obvious in the strange rear-end ensemble.

1960 Imperial - MJC Classic Cars photo
Meanwhile, Exner's Chrysler line's styling got increasingly overdecorated.  By 1960, the luxury Imperial brand was basically heavy and rounded with flabby tail fins and a fussy front end.

1961 Imperial
The final facelift of the Exner era saw the Imperial's fins enlarged slightly as well as being canted outwards and having a more pointed tail.  The frontal design is more angular, but decorative complexity was added in the form of detached headlight housings.

Recent Examples

2016 Toyota Prius front
Totyota's Prius was redesigned for 2016.  This was a time not long after Toyota management had been stung by criticism that the Toyota product line was too blandly designed.  So orders came down that in effect stated that the cars should be styled to be as un-bland as possible.  The result thus far has been a good deal of elaborate, confused angularity tacked onto wind tunnel tested basic bodies.

2016 Toyota Prius rear
Here too the added angularity is at odds with the underlying aerodynamic design.

2015 Lexus NX - two cars
Toyota's prestige Lexus brand is also beset by angular over-decoration, as can easily be seen on these Toyota RAV4 based compact SUVs.

2017 Lexus IS 250
Here much of the middle part of the body is clean.  But the frontal design with its oversized air scoops and too-contrived back-to-back Lexus L grille shape is out of sync with the rest of the car.  The rear is not much better, but I'll let that pass for now.

2016 Nissan Murano
The aft end of this SUV is a confused jumble of excessive curves and angularities.

2014 BMW i3
This stubby all-electric car from BMW probably seems cute to some potential buyers.  My take is that the entire car is a visual mess.

2015 BMW i8
BMW's sporty electric car is more pleasing than the i3, yet is still over-decorated.  The top styling aft of the trailing door cut includes too much detailing in too cramped a space.  The black-painted areas add more busyness than is probably necessary, but were included (along with the flash of blue) to denote the "i" electric series  --  these traits are also seen in the previous photo.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

1958 Ford La Galaxie Concept Begats Chrysler's Turbine Car

The late 1950s was a time when American car styling was at the height of one of its Baroque, (Rococo, even) periods.  The nub of this was use of jet fighters and science fiction space ships as the basis for ornamentation that was further elaborated by two and three colors paint schemes that were sometimes arbitrarily placed.

A reaction set in around 1960 when simpler designs began reaching the market.  And given the three or so years lead-time from sketchpad to production, stylists were probably thinking of simplification as early as 1957.

An example of incipient change might be the 1958 Ford Motor Company show car called La Galaxie.  It included some jet plane detailing, but lacked tail fins and a three-tone paint-job.

There are few decent photos of La Galaxie on the internet.  Some of the ones shown below had to be cleaned up, and still aren't top-drawer quality.

Headlight assemblies resemble jet fighter air intakes.  But the rest of the details seen from this angle are not from that source of inspiration.

Viewed from the side, La Galaxie's styling is fairly clean.  Much of that is due to the simple fender line and skirted rear wheels.  Visual boredom is reduced by the character line on the rear fender area and the decorative panel straddling the front wheel opening.  Note that the angle at its aft end is echoed  by the window sill interruption and the cut of the transparent roof panel.  For some reason, I've always been fond of the side window treatment of La Galaxie even though it's not practical for notional back seat passengers.

La Galaxie's rear aspect strikes me as being more science fiction inspired than jet fighter based.  Those huge "exhaust outlets" are out of scale to the rest of the car.  The continuation of the rear fender character crease into these zones helps tie the ensemble together, however.  The reverse-angle backlight (rear window) was a detail toyed with during the 1950s.  It saw production on 1958 Lincoln Continental Mk. IIIs, for example.

This low-quality image shows La Galaxie in color.

This is Elwood Engel, the man in charge of Chrysler Corporation styling.  In the 1950s he worked at Ford.  Behind him is the 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car powered by a gas turbine engine conceptually similar to those in actual jet fighters.  Around 50 Turbine Cars were built, many intended for testing by ordinary drivers.  Most were destroyed later.

The headlight housings have a jet-intake appearance in the same spirit as those on La Galaxie.

The aft end of the Turbine Car bears even closer resemblance to La Galaxie's.  The parts of the body between the ends is similar to some Ford Thunderbirds and Continentals.  The front and rear end designs make the Turbine Car impractical for normal use -- poor front protection and inconvenient trunk access at the rear.  But the true production killer was the impracticality of gas turbine engines for automobiles.  The jet fighter styling cues are appropriate for once, given the presence of the engine.

Monday, January 9, 2017

When Ford's Grille Spinners Went to Germany: 1952 Taunus 12 M

For model years 1949-1955 American Fords had grille designs featuring spinners -- shapes similar to streamlined propellor hubs on some aircraft or the tips of artillery shells.  I wrote about these here.

It happened that spinners were not a strictly American thing: they appeared on German Ford Taunus 12 M models produced 1952-1954.

One difference was that the Taunus spinner was not part of the grille design.  Instead, it was placed at the high hood opening, almost on line with the headlights.  And it looked odd, out of place.


The spinner's first appearance: 1949 Ford.

The spinner arrangement on 1952 Fords.

Also for 1952, here is the frontal design of the Taunus 12 M.  The fairing on the hood aft of the spinner face adds clutter to a fairly small car.  The vertical grille section divider creates a T or perhaps cross pattern, but it too adds more detail than necessary for the basic overall design -- though absent the spinner-related bits, it would have been okay.

Publicity photo of the 12 M.  The greenhouse has the feeling of the 1949 American Ford's.

A slightly later 12 M.  It would have looked better without the spinner.  But spinners continued to appear on Taunus 15 M cars through the mid-1950s.

This shows the rear design.  Unlike the front, it is uncluttered.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Died Together: Stutz and the Classic, Pre-Streamlined Era

I share the opinion of other writers I've read over the years that American classical, pre-streamline, luxury automobile design reached its apogee in 1932 or thereabouts.  The awkwardness of typical 1920s designs had been sloughed off.  This was probably due to exterior design passing from a company's engineering staff to either custom body designers, corporate styling staffs or consultants with coachbuilding firm design experience.

Consider the Stutz, a brand in decline by the late 1920s that the Great Depression of the 1930s eventually killed (more information here and here.)

It had success at the Le Mans in 1928 and '29 -- not a win, but high placing.  This, along with the aura of its famed Bearcat from 1912, gave the brand a sporting reputation.  But Stutz could not afford to develop the V-12 motors its competitors such as Packard could.  So it marketed a motor with two intake and two exhaust valves for each of its eight in-line cylinders.  This was called the DV-32 for "Dual Valve" (of each type) for a total of 32 valves.  Stutz's motors with single intake and outlet valves were called SV-16s ("Single Valve" and 16 total).

Nevertheless, many of these final Stutz cars were magnificent.  That, and their rarity, resulted in high auction prices in recent years.

Below are some examples.


1929 Stutz Blackhawk Roadster - Hyman Ltd. photo

1930 Stutz SV-16 Monte Carlo by Weymann - RM Sotheby's photo
Weymann bodies were fragile, being treated fabric over wood frames.  This Monte Carlo is interesting because of its bustle-back design that harks ahead to the rapidly-growing popularity of that style in the postwar era.  Also interesting is the extra luggage trunk tacked aft of the bustle back.  The low passenger greenhouse is very sporty looking, though driver vision and headroom for hat-wearers probably weren't the best.

1931 Stutz DV-32 Rollston Convertible Victoria - RM Sotheby's photo
Long wheelbase, long hood, minimal overhang front and rear.  Also no bustle back.

1931 Stutz DV-32 Rollston Convertible Victoria - RM Sotheby's photo
Another example by the same coachbuilder.

1931 Stutz DV-32 Roadster - Bonhams photo
This roadster seems to have a boat tail.  I have no information regarding the coachbuilder (assuming it's not a factory body).

1932 Stutz Super Bearcat
The sporty Bearcat was revived towards the end.  Very long (proportionally) hood, the driver seated well towards the rear.

1933 DV-32 Monte Carlo by Weymann
This body is virtually the same as the 1930 Weymann's shown above, though the box trunk is absent.

1933 DV-32 Monte Carlo by Weymann - RM Sotheby's Photo
A recent view of the Stutz shown in the previous photo from 1933.

Monday, January 2, 2017

1955 Ford Mystere Show Car

One mid-1950s Ford show car that I've never liked was the 1955 Mystere.  The name might have been inspired by the French Dassault Mystère jet fighter that first flew in 1951.  Moreover, its ornamentation includes several jet fighter motifs, as we shall see below.

The Mystere falls into the dream car / flashy concept category.  That's because it was almost entirely impractical and, with the exception of the tail fin color scheme treatment, was not predictive of future production Fords.


1955 Ford
To set the scene, here are views of 1955-57 Fords featuring the J-shaped side trim theme also found on the Mystere.  It first appeared for the '55 model year.

1956 Ford
This is the 1956 version.  It's a bit more gracefully shaped than the 1955 version, but still is rather awkward.

1957 Ford
The best version of the theme was on '57 Fords where the aft part blends with the tail fin.  We see this on the Mystere.

General view of the 1955 Mystere dream car.  Its three-tone color scheme colors are similar to those found on 1955 production Fords.  It seems that the entire roof dome was hinged at the rear to allow it to be pivoted upward to allow passenger ingress and egress.  The air vent at the top is the only source of passenger compartment ventilation.

Note this early application of those awful quad headlights that began appearing on 1957 American cars.  Otherwise, the front design is fairly clean and sensible.  The rear fender area with the side air intake and tail fins is jet-fighter inspired as was much American car ornamentation in those days.  The intake looks functional, but I can't tell for sure from the photos.

Side view with a group of what are probably stylists involved in the Mystere project.  That's Alex Tremulis at the far right.  The color separation side trim is awkward and does not enhance the car's appearance.  It does relate to the trim on top-of-the-line '55 Fords and previews the link to canted tail fins that appeared for 1957.  The placement of the passenger compartment seems too far forward.  One reason for that is that the engine (which the Mystere actually lacked) would have been placed at the rear.

Rear view showing the jet fighter theme of fins and jet exhausts.

Color view of the rear along with a model to provide scale.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Streetscenes: Pre-Styling Days

The focus of this blog is the aesthetic appearance of automobiles.  For that reason, I seldom include more than one car in an image.  And in those comparatively rare cases, three cars is the usual maximum.

In the real world, especially on busy streets in large cities, one sees clumps of cars.  They are part of the environment, their styles contributing to the overall visual effect.

So, for a change of pace, below are some streetscape scenes photographed 1926-1930.  Few of the cars shown were designed by professional stylists.  They seem awkward to our eyes, and probably also would have to an observer in, say, 1940.  They reflect the automotive technological level of the 1920s, when most were built (some in the images might have rolled off the assembly line before then, but were still in use).  Perhaps the most striking thing I notice from photos taken from above pedestrian eye level is the cars' roofs.  For enclosed sedans, they are nearly flat and fabric-covered.

Here is a charcoal sketch, probably by Hugh Ferriss from the 1920s, showing a popular urban design concept of the time -- separated traffic and pedestrian levels.  Note the sea of cars depicted.  Also all those rectangular tops.  Less-exaggerated reality follows:


Toronto: North from Queen & Yonge - 31 August 1929
All the cars heading toward us have exterior sun visors, a feature eliminated in the early 1930s when stylists began considering aerodynamics (albeit in a superficial way).

Chicago: Michigan Avenue - 1929
Interesting that there are no lane markers -- only a direction separation stripe.  That's the Tribune Building at the far right.

Los Angeles: Parade zone for Charles Lindbergh visit - 1927
Closed sedans are in the background, so all these open-top cars were probably to appear in the parade carrying dignitaries.

Los Angeles: Southern California Auto Club - 1926
South of downtown, just north of the University of Southern California campus.  Most cars seen here are from the late teens or early 20s.

New York City: Opening of the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River to New Jersey - 1927
This comes fairly close to the charcoal sketch above.  Before the tunnel was built, cars had to be ferried across the river, so many New York and New Jersey drivers were highly excited and in a rush to give the more convenient tunnel a try.

Washington, DC: Gasoline station
A change of pace, tranquil scene.  I include it because it's in color.

London: Burney Streamliner - c. 1930
Well, not all cars in those days were boxy.