Monday, January 15, 2018

General Motors' Companion Cars (1): Oakland and Pontiac

A major factor in the rise of General Motors during the 1920s was Alfred P. Sloan's establishment of a price-prestige hierarchy for GM's various brands.  Over the 50 years from 1941 to 1991, when the Saturn brand appeared, the hierarchy from low to high was Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac.  But during the late 1920s so-called "companion" brands were introduced to fill what seemed to be price gaps in GM's line.  In 1930 the hierarchy was approximately (there was price overlapping in a number of cases): Chevrolet, Pontiac, Marquette, Oldsmobile, Oakland, Viking, Buick, LaSalle, and Cadillac.

The first, and most successful, companion brand was Pontiac, introduced in 1926 as the companion to the sagging Oakland brand.  Pontiacs, being considerably lower priced than Oaklands, quickly out-sold the established brand that was phased out in 1932.  Pontiacs continued into the 2010 model year.

This short series of posts dealing with GM's companion brands focuses on styling differences between the established brand and the newcomer -- especially differences in the design of the grille, the chief recognition feature for most brands.


We begin with the 1926 model year, Pontiac's first.  The first image, from a car sales site, shows a '26 Oakland, and the lower photo is a Barrett Jackson image of a Pontiac for that year.  The main grille differences are at the top, where the Oakland has a narrower chromed frame and a bulge holding the brand's crest.  The Pontiac's frame is wide at the top with some sculpting by its badge.  Radiator mascots differ, Pontiac featuring the head of Chief Pontiac, a feature it will retain through 1954.

Now it's 1929.  Both brands feature divided grilles.  The Oakland in the upper "for sale" photo has slightly more rounded curvatures at the top where the frame blends with the central chromed vertical divider.  The car also has a different hood louvre pattern than the Pontiac's shown in the lower photo.  Beltline trim and mascots also differ.  Nevertheless, as in 1926, differences are pretty minor.

Oakland's final model year was 1931, when the Great Depression was further driving sales downward. Comparing the Oakland in the upper, Mecum auction, image to the Pontiac in the "for sale" picture below, we find the main brand-identification difference aside from mascots is in the badges at the top-center of the grille frame.  So the Oakland phase-out is almost complete.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Triumph Dolomites Wearing a Hudson Fencer's Mask

A flash styling fad in America that lasted roughly 1935-1937 was the "fencer's mask" grille that I discussed here.  Such grilles had bowed out, convex shapes that suggested fencing equipment to enough observers that the term can still be seen.

Most such grille designs were fairly sensible and modestly attractive, as you can see if you scroll through the above link.  The strangest design was found on the completely restyled 1936 Hudsons.  Descriptive terms that come to my mind include: fussy, complicated, mannered, awkward and outrageous.   Hudson management, perhaps influenced by feedback from potential buyers, saw to it that the design was toned down for 1937 and replaced in 1938.

Not everyone got the message.  A grille design almost surely inspired by Hudson's appeared about a year later on 1937 Triumph Dolomite 14/60 automobiles.  This Wikipedia entry states that this new Triumph line's design "was overseen by Donald Healey and featured a striking new design of radiator grille by Walter Belgrove."  Belgrove surely was aware of 1936 Hudson styling because Hudson was a well-known and respected American brand in England in those days.

This is documented in the images below.  While the Dolomite grille is not identical to Hudson's, the Hudson theme is clearly used.


A photo I took of a 1936 Hudson featuring the grille.

The grille on a 1939 Triumph Dolomite 14/60 Drophead Coupé, auction photo.  Hudson similarities include the wedged waterfall central element and flanking areas with a contrasting pattern.

Another view of the same car, providing more context to the grille.

Lacking crossbars and other non-ventilating parts on the waterfall element of the 1939 grille (that first appeared for 1938) is the grille on this 1937 Dolomite 1 1/2-Litre Saloon (Bonhams photo).

Monday, January 8, 2018

1956 Pontiac Club de Mer Concept

Golden Ages seem pretty common.  That is, there are plenty of them  -- golden age of illustration, of comic books, of etc.  So I might as well add one more to the pile: Golden Age of General Motors Dream Cars.

I place that about 1954-56 when a good many interesting designs appeared in GM's Motorama traveling shows.  Today's subject is the Pontiac Club de Mer that appeared in the 1956 Motorama (Wikipedia entry here).  The car itself has little if anything nautical about it, but GM publicists took care to show it in seashore environments for non-studio photos (note the photo above and two of the photos below).

The Club de Mer's styling is actually a kind of blending of aircraft and racing car themes in the form of impractical details.  Examples include a small tail fin mounted atop where a trunk lid would be (there was none), and dual streamlined windshields that would probably stream wind directly into the driver's and passenger's faces (note the height of the windshields compared to the position of the model in the photo above).

But, Hey!, the Club de Mer was just a show car.  And a rather fun one at that.


Studio publicity photo of Harley Earl (left) and a Club de Mer clay model.  In the background is an airbrushed profile view.

Publicity photo showing the Club de Mer by la mer, probably in Florida.  This, and most of the photos below indicate how low the car was: Wikipedia has it as 38.401 inches (975 mm).  But it was drivable, so perhaps the car's main value to GM apart from publicity was in the engineering steps taken to make it work.  Note the low air intake -- something this extreme not seen on mid-50s American production cars.  Also, the familiar Pontiac "streaks" have been reshaped and merge with air intakes near the cowling, a nice touch.

Another pose near water.  Some relief is found in the (possibly non-functional) air outlets on the door and the character line that wraps to the rear.  The little four-pointed stars on the side are another Pontiac brand cue.

Even though the Club de Mer has a relatively simple, rounded-off shape, GM's stylists were able to impart enough of a sense of tension to eliminate a flabby look.  Being a show car, no front bumper was needed.

Another view indicating how low the car was.  The symbol above the Pontiac name was a brand identifier that didn't appear on production cars until the 1957 model year.

As the Wikipedia entry states, the Club de Mer was destroyed, though a scale model survived.  Eventually an enthusiast had this replica created.  I include this Barrett-Jackson photo to show what the rear end looked like.  Clean, aside from that silly fin.  And there is a rear bumper of sorts.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Mercury's Unpublicized 1955 D-528 Concept Car

There might be other cases like Mercury's 1955 concept D-528, but I suspect there are few of them.    After all, what's the point of designing and building a running concept car using more resources and cost than a non-running "pushmobile" -- and then never formally showing it to the public?  Apparently Ford Motor Company management thought that creating the D-528 was an engineering research "investment" that was worthwhile without the need for any additional benefit of the publicity it might generate if revealed to the public and sent on the auto show circuit.

Unlike many concept cars from the 1950s, the D-528 was never destroyed.  I saw it in the spring at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles.  The museum's web site's page devoted to the D-528 is here.  It describes the D-528 as follows:

"The D-528 was built to test advanced concepts in seating, lighting, air conditioning, and front frame design. The hinged rear fender bulges were functional, concealing a spare tire on one side and a gas tank on the other. Such a design gave the car adequate luggage capacity despite the need to accommodate a large air conditioning system. Although it boasted design features such as a pillarless windshield and Ford’s first reverse-sloping retractable rear window, it was an in-house research vehicle that was never shown publicly. “Beldone” [as it is sometimes called] was a stage name selected by Paramount Pictures for the car’s appearance in the 1964 Jerry Lewis movie, The Patsy, not an official Ford designation."

Below are some photos I took of it.


The D-528's styling was probably largely completed in 1954.  Elaborate two-tone paint schemes were already in production on General Motors' redesigned Oldsmobiles and Buicks, but still rare industry-wide.  Chrysler Corporation was two years away from launching its tail fin styling, and quad headlights were even farther in the future.  Perhaps these considerations help explain why the D-528's styling is comparatively clean.  Note that the windshield is somewhat panoramic, but the objects amounting to A-pillars lean backward in the fashion Chrysler used on its 1955 and later models, and not the vertical orientation Fords and Mercurys were given for that model year.  My main complaint about this aspect of the car is that the front fenders are too rounded, providing a heavier-than-necessary appearance.  Oh, and there seems to be too much overhang in front of the wheel opening for a rear-wheel drive car.

The front overhang seems less objectionable in this side view.  Note the thin, flat roof -- a feature Chrysler used in its sensational 1957 redesigns.  The fenders also seem too heavy from this perspective: the sides needed to be flattened a little bit.  And then there are those rounded lumps at the rear....

The quotation above explains the purpose of the lumps, but there is no getting around their awkward appearance.  The trunk lid has a blob-like shape.  It might have been improved by being flatter and by having a more squared-off aft -- something that would have added more carrying capacity.  The taillight housings do not seem to blend well with the bulges.

The most interesting feature of the dashboard design is the central section that intrudes into the passenger compartment.  Unusual for its time, but somewhat prophetic of what can be found on todays' cars.

It's possible that the reason why the D-528 was never formally introduced to the public was that it wasn't all that attractive due to the odd features noted above.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Minerva: Belgium's Luxury Car

Belgium does not come to mind as a factor in the automobile industry, but until the mid-1930 a significant builder of luxury cars was based there: Minerva.  Some background can be found here.

In this post, I present some images of Minveras over the period 1927 when car styling was becoming an established practice and 1934 when Minerva was merged with another Belgian car maker.

As the link mentions, Minervas were imported to the USA.  A striking Minerva bodied by the  New York state Rollston firm can be seen below.


1927 Minerva AFS Roadster by D'Ieteren, Gooding auction photo.

1929 Minerva Type AE cabriolet in a photo I took at Autoworld Brussels a few years ago.

1930 Minerva AL Three-Position Cabriolet by Van den Plas, Gooding photo.

1930 Minerva AM Dual-Windshield Convertible Sedan by Hibbard & Darrin, Gooding photo.  This car in need of restoration sold at Pebble Beach in 2017 for $484,000.

1930 Minerva M-8 Type AP Sedan.  I presume this is a factory body: please correct me if I am wrong.

1930 (ca.) Minerva 40 CV Cabriolet Impérial by D'Ieteren.

1931 Minerva AL "Windswept" Convertible Sedan by Rollston, Bonhams photo.

Same car, side view.

1933 Minerva M-8 25 CV Rapide.  The traditional Minerva grille seen in the 1929 Type AE photo is slowly being modernized to suit evolving body design conventions.

1934 Minerva M-4.  Due to the Great Depression, it seems that Minerva launched this smaller, cheaper 2-litre sedan to boost sales.  As the link above mentions, sales were disappointing.

1934 Minerva M-4 that I photographed at Autoworld Brussels.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Continental Mk II Design Competition

The original Lincoln Continental was iconic, beloved, and considered an automobile styling masterpiece by many observers.  Some background on it can be found here (scroll down for discussions of the Edsel Ford prototype and early production generations).  The original design was marketed during the 1939-1941 model years.  A facelift appeared for the short 1942 model year and there was some further facelifting for 1946-1948.  Model year 1949 brought redesigned Lincolns to market, and Ford Motor Company elected to not offer a Continental model.  This bothered some potential buyers who made their views loudly known, so eventually Ford decided to revive the Continental, this time as a separate, very exclusive brand (Wikipedia entry here).

William Clay Ford, youngest grandson of Henry Ford, was placed in charge of the new Continental project.  An initial design by his team was poorly received by company president Henry Ford II and others, so Bill had to come up with Plan B, a design competition.  What happened is described by Michael Lamm & Dave Holls in their authoritative book "A Century of Automotive Style," pp. 146-147:

* * * * *

[William Clay Ford, in charge of the Continental project] asked his staff to suggest names of outside stylists, and the groups invited were: George Walker Assoc., consultant to Ford Motor Co.; [Buzz] Grisinger & [Rhys] Miller, independent designers, previously with Chrysler and Kaiser-Frazer; Vince Gardner, formerly with Cord and Loewy; and Henry [Ford] II's brother-in-law, Walter Buhl Ford, who later merged with Harley Earl Assoc.

The Continental project now became a five-way contest.  The four outside teams would receive $10,000 each for their Mark II designs, chosen or not.  To keep everything fair and consistent, each team had to deliver side- plan- and end-view drawings plus 3/4-front and 3/4-rear perspective sketches.  Rules stipulated that all artwork had to be the same size, same matting, use the same supplied perspective grids and be of the same color.   No sketches could be signed or identified.   Judges -- five executives from Lincoln -- could cast only one vote each and had to pass through the final display area separately so they couldn't talk, nod or read each other's body language.

The final judging took place in Apr. 1953, and the design that ended up winning the competition came from Bill Ford's own Special Products group [the team led by John Reinhart].

* * * * *

One thing to keep in mind is the styling fashion context of the competition and the resulting production car.  The Continental Mk. II appeared for 1956, the same year the Studebaker Golden Hawk and the Chrysler Corporation line began sprouting tail fins.  Elaborate two-tone paint schemes were found on some 1954 Oldsmobiles and three-tones appeared on 1955 Dodges.  Panoramic (wraparound) windshields were found on a few 1953 Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, then in 1954 all Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs had them.  Contrasting all this, the Continental was very conservative, having only a moderately wrapped windshield, a single-color paint job and no tail fins.  So to some degree the Mark II fit more closely to 1952-53 when it was designed than for its actual model year.  On the other hand, even in 1953 its stylists were probably aware of the near-term new concepts and they or management chose to ignore them.

Decent images of the competing designs are hard to find on the Internet, so I had to resort to scanning images from books in my automotive library.  The design renderings are from Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1974, pp. 100-101.  Side drawings are from "Lincoln & Continental: The Postwar Years" by Paul R. Woudenberg (Motorbooks International, 1980), p. 72.  Click on the images to enlarge.


1940 Lincoln Continental Club Coupe
This is the Real McCoy.  Future Continental designs had to either speak to it or consciously ignore it (at their peril).

1948 Lincoln Continental Club Coupe - RM Southey's photo
The last Lincoln Continental using original bodywork and facelift features from 1942 and 1946.

1956 Continental Mk. II
The result of the competition and later refinement.  Features echoing the original Continental include: a long hood (by the mid-1950s, long trunks were coming into fashion, hoods becoming shorter); somewhat similar passenger greenhouse, including the general shape of aft side windows and the large C-pillar; and the spare tire at the rear (the hump on the trunk lid was atop the actual tire mounted in an angled position beneath it).

I don't think any of the design proposals makes for an appropriate successor to the original Continental.  Some details here and there are not bad, but the overall designs are lacking the right stuff.  A consistent problem has to do with grilles and front ends in general; most of these designs are bland, characterless.  The best of the lot, an opinion I've held for many years, is the second (lower) Grisinger-Miller design.  I don't like its front and the little fins at the rear, but the rest of the design comes closest to the spirit (not the details) of the original.

As can be seen in these side views, the designers had very little flexibility in basic layout of the car.

Monday, December 25, 2017

1941: Harley Earl's Very Good Year

I am not alone when I claim that the 1941 model year was the best for General Motors' styling chief Harley Earl, though I think 1949 comes close.  Several designs were outstanding and the others were very good -- all this in the context of their times.

The 1930s were a time when designs evolved from largely angular bodies and assemblages of many discrete parts (fenders, headlights, running boards, spare tires, etc.) to smoothed styles where most of the formerly discrete parts were largely blended into aerodynamically-influenced ("streamlined") compositions.  Between those points, a good many awkward designs were marketed by GM and the rest of the industry.  For General Motors, 1941 models were safely beyond that, as stylists and body engineers were now comfortable with with the new concepts.

GM had three basic bodies for 1941, but they were fairly similar.  Most attention was paid to using ornamentation as brand identification.  Each brand had its own theme (with one exception), and those themes were distinctive.  The exception was entry-level Chevrolet, which was given a grille similar to that of the upper-middle brand Buick.


Buick Sedanette - Hyman Auctions photo

Cadillac - for sale photo
My favorite year for Cadillac, and a design that established brand identification indicators for decades to come.

Chevrolet Special DeLuxe Club Coupe - RM Sotheby's photo

Oldsmobile 98 Club Coupe - Auctions America Photo

Pontiac - for sale photo
I am partial to '41 Pontiacs because my father owned one (a model not nearly as sleek as the one pictured here).

Here is the 1941 LaSalle that never entered production. The image is part of page 46 from Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, 2001.  This would have made for a very fine production design.  Sadly, a Cadillac model was substituted.  (LaSalle was a "companion car" to Cadillac -- companion brands being a late 1920s GM experiment.)