Thursday, November 23, 2017

2017 Honda Civic: Return (to the USA) of the Hatchback

For some reasons, hatchback (or five-door) cars have never sold well in America.  That feature never bothered me, having owned a 1973 Volkswagen Dasher and a 1984 Civic Hatchback, so I have trouble understanding why it bothered many other car buyers.

Nowadays, crossover SUVs seem to be the hottest market segment in the US, which implies that lift-up back doors are acceptable.  Perhaps for that reason and possibly because Honda Civics share the same platform worldwide, Honda is now importing Civic Hatchbacks from England.  That last detail makes economic sense.  Hatchbacks sell well in Europe, so the production line in Swindon is justified for that reason alone, and additional production sold in American becomes icing on the cake, even if sales here are not huge.

And what of its styling?


The Civic Hatch in this photo has an aggressive design.  Note the black spokes on the wheels and the low-profile tires.  Then there are those apparent air scoops below the headlights.  And of course there is plenty of the current fashion for overdone, angular detailing on body panels and ornamentation.

Zig-zag angularity is especially evident in the zone that includes the C-pillar and taillight assembly.  Three distinct angular features here are (1) the sheet metal at the rear of the side window ensemble, (2) the leading part of the taillight assembly, and (3) the rear door aft cut line.  All snuggled together along with a door handle and fuel access door to heighten the clutter.

Rear over-decoration is evident in this view.  Honda stylists made a strong effort in the area of line-continuation, something almost always helpful in tying design elements together visually.  Here the pains they took are overwhelmed by the number of elements they had to deal with.  There is simply too much happening. It's too intense.  Changes of visual pace are needed here.  A place to start might be to disassociate the busy aero-bar running across the backlight from the taillight assemblies.

The front view reveals that those massive air intakes below the headlights, such as can be found on high-performance cars, are bogus.  They actually are largely flat panels with raised areas that mimic grilles.  If you look closely at the left-hand panel you will see what seems to be a small hole to the right of the running light -- so a little air might get through.  The sweep of the headlight assemblies and connecting material is yet another example of an automobile industry styling fad.

The rear has what are supposed to be massive air outlets styled similarly to the faux intakes up front.  This photo clearly shows that they are purely decorative, not at all functional.  Form follows fad, it seems.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger: Last Pairing

Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger were model names assigned to American compact-type cars during the period 1995-2014.   They shared platforms to some degree 1995-2000 and totally for their last versions: 2007-2010 for the Sebring and 2008-2014 for the Avenger.  For more details on their histories, click here for the Sebring and here for the Avenger.

Despite the sports car racing suggestion the word "Sebring" offers and the dramatic tone of the word "Avenger," neither brand amounted to much more than ordinary transportation in the versions featured in this post.  (An earlier Sebring model was popular because it was a convertible, something hard to find in its day.)

The 2007-10 Sebring and 2008-14 Avenger are interesting due to the considerable effort expended in making the sedans different even though they shared the same basic unit body.  The Avenger sold reasonably well, averaging some 75,000 units per model year.  The Sebring's quirky styling was probably the reason its sales were less, about 58,000 per year and on a much shorter production run, though price might have been a consideration.


Front 3/4 views, the Sebring in silver, the Avenger in red.  Similarities include the shape of the roofs and windshields, the door cuts lines, hood slopes, and front overhang.  The Dodge has large lips on its wheel openings, not to mention expected grille differences.  The Sebring's sides are comparatively flat.  An odd feature is the inverse ribbing on its hood.

The identical door cut lines are clearly visible in these two photos.  The Avenger has a distinct rear fender whereas the Sebring's fender line rises relentlessly towards the rear.  For some reason its rear overhang (and trunk space) is less than the Avenger's.  The Avenger's side window profile is more conventional and thereby perhaps more pleasing than the Sebring's more harsh, faux- Euro-functional version.

Seen from the rear, the Avenger's larger trunk is obvious.  And, as suggested in the previous caption, the Sebring seems like a modernized version of 1930 theory-dictated styling.  The problem centers on the sheet metal in the C-pillar area.  Its curve that echoes the roof profile does not work well with the stubby trunk.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Complete Re-Designs ... or Major Facelifts?

Sharp-eyed reader "emjayjay" questioned in a comment to this post my assertion that 2011 Chrysler 300s were a facelift of the 300 series introduced for the 2005 model year.  I responded that I hadn't noticed that the 2011 model was a new design at the time, though a current Wikipedia entry notes that it was.  Troubled, I thought it worthwhile to delve further into the matter of 2011 Chryslers as well as another facelift controversy -- the 1955 Ford (and by extension, Mercury, that I won't deal with here because both brands had similar basic bodies that were updated in a similar way for 1955).  This post is my present take on the matter of facelifts that are so major that they seem to be complete redesigns.

Chrysler line 1939:

A couple of years ago I posted about the 1939 Chrysler Corporation models that (aside from Plymouth) appeared to be a redesign but seemed to me to probably be a major facelift.  I haven't changed my position on that, so you might link to that post, treating it as an introduction or companion piece to the present one.

Ford 1955:

For many years I thought that 1955 Fords were new designs: they certainly looked different from 1954 models.  But in recent years I've noticed some claims that the '55s were actually major facelifts.  For example, the current Wikipedia entry states (as of when the current post was drafted) that "The American Ford line of cars gained a new body for 1955 to keep up with surging Chevrolet, although it remained similar to the 1952 Ford underneath."  But the How Stuff Works site states: "Retaining the 1952-54 shell, the 1955 Ford was completely reskinned, emerging colorful if chromey, with a rakish look of motion and a modestly wrapped windshield."

Sort of a toss-up here, so I present images and an analysis below.

Chrysler 300 2011:

Now for the 2011 Chrysler controversy.

Motor Trend magazine published this "First Test" of the 2011 300 that reads more like a Chrysler press release than a critical evaluation.  It implies that the car is a new design.

Car and Driver magazine, on the other hand, held that the 300 was actually a facelifted 2005 model.  Here it stated: "Chrysler had to deal with that whole bankruptcy thing, and so the 2011 300 received more of a thorough face lift than the total overhaul for which it was due."  And here it added: "And as much as the 300 might have looked like Chrysler’s chef-d’oeuvre in 2004, the company couldn’t just sit back and let it be. For 2011, the 300 receives a refresh rather than the redesign for which it is due, but the update addresses the most important things."

In addition, Consumer Reports asserts here that "Chrysler's flagship, the 300C, is muscular and luxurious. An extensive freshening has made this cruiser a lot more competitive than before."

And finally, Popular Mechanics' review mentioned: "With ambitious refinement targets (the Lexus LS460 among them), the new Chrysler 300 required all-new sheet metal and suspension components."

These items tend to confirm my memory that 2011 300s were facelifed 2005s.  Certainly their appearance suggested that.

Let's look at some photos.


First is a "for sale" photo of a 1954 4-door Ford followed by a Barrett-Jackson photo of a 1956 Ford 4-door that has post-market wheels ('56 Fords were lightly facelifted '55s).  The window shapes aside from the wraparound windshield on the '55 are the same, as are the door cut lines, door handle locations, and the beltline.  The front door forward cut line distance from the wheel hub confirms that the cowling is in the same position -- a key indicator of continuity.  Also, the 1955's wheelbase is essentially the same as the '54's (0.5 inches longer, a little more than one centimeter).

These views of two-door Fords help confirm that 1955 Fords were heavily facelifted 1954s.

Here are side views of a 2008 Chrysler 300 (top) and a 2011 model, the '08 being essentially the same as the 2005 version.  Again, the cowling positions, door cut lines, aft window shapes, and gas filler doors are essentially the same.  Aside from all the new sheet metal, the main difference related to body structure has to do with the windshield.  The 2005-2010 Chrysler 300s had a fairly narrow windshield in the spirit of 1948 Hudsons.  A major problem was that this reduced visibility for the driver.  For example, sometimes stoplights would be obscured.  I know this because I owned a 2005 300.  So for 2011 the windshield was enlarged and its slope increased so as to improve visibility and aerodynamic efficiency.  Note that the windshields on both cars shown here are based on the same cowling position.  The differences are in the merger of the windshield and the roof and in the shape of the front window.

For the purposes of this blog, I consider continuity of body structural elements (cowlings, door posts, etc.) as the key factor dictating that any appearance changes from model year to model year can be considered facelifts, whether minor or major.  Therefore, until I learn otherwise from body engineers, the 1939 Dodges, DeSotos and Chryslers, and 1955 Fords and Mercurys, and 2011 Chryslers (and Dodges using the same body) -- represent major facelifts and not new designs.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Up Close: 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic

Above is the cover of a 1956 Trend Books, Inc. paperback publication.  Trend Books was part of R.E. Petersen's growing automobile-interest empire that began with Hot Rod magazine and added Motor Trend magazine a few years later, hence the word "Trend."  The writer, Robert J. Gottlieb, was a Los Angeles area attorney who had a popular monthly column in Motor Trend devoted to "classic" cars as defined by the Classic Car Club of America in those days (definitions have evolved since then).

I strongly suspect that the car featured on the cover, a Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, was unknown to most American car fans under age 30 or 35 in 1956.  It must have been a revelation (though the same photo, cropped and in smudgy black and white, was buried near the end of a 1953 paperback from Petersen: "Classic Cars and Antiques").  More background on Atlantics, including an explanation for all those visible rivets and details of the three surviving cars, can be found here.

I have viewed both surviving 57SC cars ("C" designated the supercharged version).  One was at Pebble Beach where Ralph Lauren displayed his car.  Ralph stood near it dressed in a natty dark blue blazer.  A few years later I saw Ralph at Pebble helping his crew push his Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 to a different location.  Ralph is a real car mensch.

The car on the cover pictured above, now meticulously restored, will be on view until 13 January 2018 at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles along with a host of other Bugattis (details here).

The extremely rare and extremely valuable 1936 Atlantic is owned by Peter Mullin and others in the form of an organization named Atlantic LLC.  It normally resides in the Mullin Automotive Museum (its web page dealing with the Atlantic is here).

As for the Atlantic's design, I cannot call it beautiful.  Instead, I find it astonishing ... in a highly positive sense.  Other descriptive words I can easily apply to it are exciting, dramatic, and fascinating.

Below are photos I took of it at the Petersen museum earlier this year.


Side view.  The diver's head position is about 3/4 of the distance from the front to the rear and the firewall/cowling is about halfway between the ends.  The radiator/grille is classically positioned close to the front axle line.

High-end French cars in the 1930s usually were right-hand drive even though in France cars drove on the right sides of streets and roads.  The flanges and rivets were needed because the bodywork metal alloy could not be welded.

Note the contrast between the teardrop fender and the sharp-edged hood.

At least one Atlantic -- perhaps Ralph's -- had a front bumper for a while.  The grille is not a classic Bugatti horseshoe: other Type 57s also featured the pointed bottom profile seen here.

The Atlantic's dramatic sculpted forms are most evident towards the rear.

The museum's lighting was quirky, as is often the case.  However, it worked to my advantage here.

From the other side.  The dramatic integrative sculpting of the fenders and trunk is offset and perhaps heightened by the riveted flange extending over the top of the car.  Designing an attractive/practical rear bumper would have been impossible even for Jean Bugatti in 1935 or 36.  However, one Atlantic had a crude, temporary rear bumper for a while, apparently to make it street-legal.

Aft view.  The rounded trunk lid was functional.  Its latch is by the bottom edge.

Detail of the trunk latch.  Very simple to open or close.  Using two fingers grasping the little arms extending from the U-shaped bracket, the bracket is lifted from one notch on the flange/spine and dropped into the other notch close by on the other side of the flange's cut.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Chrysler's 2003 Airflite Concept

The 2003 Airflite concept car from Chrysler was not a thinly disguised version of a future production model.  But a number of its styling details did appear on Chrysler products.

Wikipedia's take on the Airflite is here, and here is a link whose text strikes me as being taken directly from a Chrysler press release.

The Airflite was a four-door sedan without a full-height B-pillar.  In America 1955-1976, we called them "four-door hardtops," "pillarless sedans," "hardtop sedans" and perhaps a few other titles.  But they did poorly in roll-over tests and disappeared from production lines nearly 30 years before the Airflite.  So to that degree, the Airflite was car-show jazz.


General view of the Airflite.  I think the wheels are a little too large -- yet another show car feature.

The front end "smile" theme, including the inverse ribbing effect on the hood was picked up by the Chrysler Crossfire and Chrysler Sebring pictured in some images below.

This side view shows the low, long greenhouse.  It's long because it transitions into a fastback.  It also makes the front end seem stubbier than it is.  The Airflite is actually a five-door or hatchback car: note the roof cut line at the C-pillar.

The hatchback cuts are clearly seen in this rear view.  The opening is wide at fender-top level, but narrow at the rear.  Potential buyers of a production Airflite might consider this a demerit.

The side sculpting also carried over to some degree on the Crossfire and Sebring.  The pointed rear of the window profile can be considered logical design, but it bothers me for a reason that I can't yet explain.  In any case, it isn't functional in terms of the rear door cutline and the roll-down window's aft edge.

The fastback aspect.  The roof treatment works best from this point of view.  Note the crease in the backlight glass, part of a crease extending over the roof down to the rear strike panel.  It's one feature I like.

The Chrysler Crossfire appeared about the same time as the Airflite, so it's a slight stretch to claim that the Airflite "predicted" the Crossfire.  Both cars have essentially the same windshield.  The hood and "face" have similar detailing.

The Crossfire also has fastback styling, but all its details differ from the Airflite's.

The 2007-2010 Chrysler Sebring used several Airflite features.  Like the Crossfire, the it has the Airflite facial theme.  Side sculpting is from the Airflite, as is the general treatment of the greenhouse.  However, the Sebring has a slight notchback, and this does not integrate well with the C-pillar area design.  The sense it provides me is that the car seems more industrial than automotive, something that applies to the Airflite as well.

Monday, November 6, 2017

When Clipper was a Car Brand

The Clipper name was associated with the Packard brand off and on from the 1942 model year through the 1956 year, after which Packards became glorified Studebakers.  For most of those years there was a Clipper nameplate.  But for 1956 only, Clipper became an actual brand, and not just the name of a Packard model.

This had to do with James Nance's mid-1950s strategy of re-establishing Packard as a true luxury brand, as it was during most of the first 40 years of its existence.  The brand got watered down when a mid-price line was introduced in a successful survival effort during the Great Depression.  Post- World War 2, Packard was in a position similar to that of Chrysler, being largely an upper-middle brand with a few luxury models on the side.

The captions for the images below continue the story.


This is the first Packard Clipper, a radical break from the marque's previous, rather old-fashioned designs.  It appeared during the 1941 model year, but is considered a 1942 model.

The Packard Clipper name continued after the war for the 1946 and 1947 model years.  For 1948, Packards were given a major facelift and the Clipper name was dropped.  Pictured here is a 1947 Packard Clipper Touring Sedan in a for-sale photo.

The Clipper model name was revived for 1953.  Above is a Packard Clipper Touring Sedan.  Its side trim differs from that of higher-priced Packards.

For 1954, Packard Clippers became even more visually distinctive.

The grille was almost the same as those of senior Packards, but Packard Clippers were given a different rear fender and tail light treatment.  Pictured here and in the previous photo is a Packard Clipper Panama hardtop.

Facelifted 1955 Packard Clippers received a distinctive set of thin, vertical bars on its grille as well as chrome trim providing two-tone paint schemes that differed from other Packards.  The rear fender style was carried over from 1954.

Clipper became a separate brand for the 1956 model year only.  The promotional material above compares Packard and Clipper grilles.  Both retain the traditional Packard upper frame theme, but the Clipper again has bars instead of a grid pattern.  The Packard crest was dropped for 1955 and the ship's wheel substituted.

Two views of a for-sale 1956 Clipper Super Panama showing the Clipper side two-tone scheme.  The taillights and rear fenders are restyled.

Packard extended its 1956 line with the Packard Executive model slotted between Clippers and regular Packards.  The Executive had the Packard grille, the Clipper's rear fender design, and its own two-tone paint scheme.

An example of a standard 1956 Packard is this 400 hardtop.  Hyman auctions photo.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Early 1970s U.S. Bumper Standards and Car Styling

The 1970s were especially difficult times for the American automobile industry.  As the decade began, engineers were dealing with regulations concerning emissions.  Following the petroleum crunch in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, fuel economy became an important concern.  All this while and into the far future, state and federal governments piled regulation upon regulation on the industry.  But the worst of it was in the 70s when major changes had to be made quickly.

Regulations that affected car styling the most in the first half of the decade had to do with bumpers.  This link mentions a 1971 regulation taking effect for 1973 models that dealt with collision damage, and bumper designs had to be adjusted to protect more parts of cars.   The next year, regulations dealt with placement of bumpers and the impacts they had to be designed to deal with, requiring even larger protection systems.

These regulations could have been more easily dealt with if designers were allowed to implement them when a new design was launched.  Unfortunately for stylists and engineers, designs already in production had to be modified.  The result often was heavy, awkward-looking bumpers placed on designs originally featuring far less protection.  As time went on, bumper impact criteria became more easy to accommodate, and protection systems on today's cars are hardly noticeable.

Below are some examples of Detroit cars and how they coped with the new rules.


1973 Chevrolet Camaro Z28.  The bumper guards in front of the grille were in reaction to the first regulation.

The 1974 Camaros received a much more massive bumper whose styling wasn't quite a design theme destroyer.  Other parts of the front end were restyled to accommodate this change.

This is the newly designed 1972 Ford Torino produced before the regulations took effect.

This Ford press release pictures the 1973 Torino with a massive front bumper that anticipates the regulations to be in effect for the 1974 model year.  Again, other parts of frontal styling were modified.

A pre-regulations 1972 Mercury Cougar.

Like its Ford stablemate, Mercury went straight to the heavy bumper required for the following year.

Mecum auction photo of a 1972 Dodge Dart with its pre-regulation bumper.

Like Ford, some Chrysler Corporation models such as this Dart got large bumpers that didn't easily fit the existing styling theme.  Barrett-Jackson photo.