Monday, December 30, 2013

Maverick: A Forgotten Ford

For the 1970-1977 model years, Ford produced a "compact car" (in the American sense of the term) called the Maverick.  It was briefly (until the Ford Pinto was introduced) the smallest car in Ford's lineup, and sold well during the 1970 model year as this Wikipedia entry indicates.

Mavericks were available with V-8 motors as well as in-line sixes, so some could be advertised as "muscle cars" and a few were even sold to police departments.  But basically the Maverick's role in the marketplace was as an affordable, utilitarian car.

As for its styling, it was pleasant for the two-door version.  It had a typically thin roof line of its era that smoothly transitioned into a convex sort of fastback.  The sides featured a horizontal character line that bumped over the wheel well openings for added visual interest.  The grille was a nondescript, but functional, egg-crate design set above bumpers that strike us today as flimsy (they were beefed-up in later years to conform to government regulations).

Four-door Mavericks were less attractive, perhaps because they were slightly longer and had a bustle-back trunk area.


Maverick two-door - 1972
This is one of the earlier two-door models with the sketchy front bumper.

Maverick four-door from around 1975
A view of a four-door Maverick with a two-door in the background.  Despite what this advertisement's headline wants us to believe, the Maverick was never a luxury car.  Note the stronger bumpers on these later Mavericks.

Profile views of 1973 Mavericks
This catalog fragment is included to illustrate the roof line variations.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

New Wine in Old Bottles: Postwar Delahaye 135

By historical accident, World War 2 coincided with a major change in automobile style.  Prewar, cars were given the appearance (and to some extent, the actuality) of streamlining.  That is, they were far more rounded-looking than cars of 1930.  Stylists for mass-market manufacturers were poised to take the final evolutionary step when the war intervened and production essentially ceased.  That step was the realization of the "envelope" body where fenders were merged into the main part of the automobile, no longer being distinctly separate elements.

Once the war ended and production resumed, a few car makers such as Studebaker quickly replaced facelifted prewar models with entirely new designs featuring flow-through front fenders or, in the case of the new Kaiser-Frazer company, slab-sided "pontoon" fenders where the front and rear fenders disappeared into a single element.

The ideal situation, styling-wise, was to have a totally new body.  But this wasn't always feasible financially, so flow-through or pontoon fenders were imposed on prewar designs that  had proportions unsuitable for the new style; in most cases the older design was simply too tall to carry such fender designs, as can be seen on 1949 Packards.

These problems also were faced by low-volume, high-price makers in Europe, including Delahaye, whose production was largely clad by custom-made bodies crafted by coachbuilding firms.  Thanks in part to French industrial policies that punished luxury car builders, Delahaye was never able to produce a totally new postwar car.  So it had to suffer dwindling sales while coachbuilders struggled to keep Delahayes looking up to date despite being based on a body introduced in the fall of 1935, as was the case for its main 135 model.


Delahaye 135 Sport models - 1936
Page scanned from Automobilia special historical series, 1936 issue.  The 135 was actually lower and more racy than most prewar cars, so that part of the postwar facelift problem was easier to resolve than was Packard's case.  But the Delahaye featured a very long hood that was fine in the 1930s, but fell out of fashion in the late 1940s, creating its own facelift problems.

Delahaye 135 MS Cabriolet by Figoni & Falaschi - 1938
A fine example of a prewar custom Delahaye 135.

Delahaye 135 M Cabriolet by Graber - 1947
Here is an early postwar custom design on a similar chassis.  From a styling evolutionary standpoint, it could just as easily have been created in 1939.

Delahaye 135 Cabriolet by Pourtout - c.1948
Here we find flow-through front fenders that fall away and join distinct rear fenders, very much in the idiom of Buicks for 1942-48.  The vertical grille and long hood give away its prewar heritage, though the design would not be far out of step for its model year even in America.

Delahaye 135 Coach by Guilloré - 1949
More prewar is this two-door model whose basic body is given a pontoon fender treatment by the same coachbuilder, as can be seen in the images below.

Delahaye 135 M Coach by Guilloré - c.1950
Delahaye 135 M Coach by Guilloré - 1950
These Delahayes by Guilloré are essentially the same aside from the partly decorative engine compartment heat exhaust vent on the side of the dark blue car.  This detail adds a bit of interest to what otherwise is a large, featureless expanse of sheet metal.  The passenger compartment is awkwardly done, perhaps being partly or entirely factory bodywork.  Note the similarity to the passenger compartment of the car shown above: a major difference is how the doors are hinged, and the rear side window shapes might be slight different.  In any case, the slab-sided appearance resulting from pure applications of the pontoon fender style in nearly every case represented design failure.

Delahaye 135 M Cabriolet by Henri Chapron - 1951
Chapron followed the fender style set by Studebaker and General Motors, where the front fenderline flowed back to merge at the top of a tacked-on rear fender. This solution to the problem of slabby sides generally worked fairly well for all who tried it, though this style became less necessary and, eventually, dated-looking as cars got lower and lower in the 1950s.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Classic Postwar Sporty Brit: Sunbeam Alpine Mks 1 & 3

Only 1,852 Sunbeam Alpine Marks 1 and 3 were built during their 1953-55 production run, as this Wikipedia entry mentions.  The Alpine was based on the Sunbeam-Talbot 90 that was produced 1948-1954.

Whereas American styling abandoned the vertical grille towards the end of the 1930s, most British cars did not follow suit until the 1950s, some brands being slower than others in making the transition (traditionalists Rolls-Royce and Bentley did not 'modernise' their grilles until recently).

The 1948 Sunbeam-Talbot 90 along with the Jowett Javelin and the Standard Vanguard, both introduced in 1947, represent England's first echelon of postwar automobiles incorporating "envelope" bodies and other modern styling touches.


This seems to be a poster or brochure cover depicting the Sunbeam-Talbot 90 models.  The blue car in the background is the main production version, a four-door saloon.  In the foreground is the drophead coupe version that served as the basis for the Alpine.  Design features include a traditional vertical grille, front fenders that fade away over the door in the manner of 1942 Packard Clippers, and something unusual -- no clearly defined rear fender.  The cars pictured here have open rear wheel housings that reduce the visual bulk of what otherwise would be a large expanse of boring sheet metal (though coverings were available for buyers opting for a smoother appearance).

This is the front cover of a brochure for the Alpine.  I found this on the Internet, but have a copy of this brochure or something similar buried in my collection of automobile sales literature.  Unfortunately, the illustration isn't signed, but it clearly is in the spirit of Frank Wootton.

Another brochure illustration, this showing the smooth curve from the back of the passenger compartment across the trunk (boot) down to the rear bumper.  Look carefully at the image of the Sunbeam-Talbot 90s and note that the shape of the rear of the 90 drophead is less smooth due to the rear passenger seat and the folding top.

Here are photos of Sunbeam Alpines found on the Web.  The green car is a 1955 Mk. 3 and the lower image is of a rare 1953 Mk. 1 with small, racing-type windshields.

I have no serious complaints about the Alpine's styling, especially when taking into account where and when it was conceived.  My main suggestion would be to add a trace of a rear fender, emerging about two-thirds up the side of the car and about half the distance between the door and the rear wheel opening.  This would help lighten slightly the heavy appearance of the rear third of the car.  A much  more costly improvement would be to move the passenger compartment about one foot (30 cm) to the rear.  This would provide a longer hood and better balance to the design which basically was that of the drophead coupe with the rear seat eliminated.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Renault's Not-So Vel Satis Adventure

Renault produced a quirky top-of-their line automobile called the Vel Satis for the 2002-2009 model years including a 2005 facelift.  Sales were around 62,000 cars -- less than 8,000 per year on average.  A short Wikipedia entry on the Vel Satis is here, mentioning that the Latin-appearing name apparently "is a composite of elements of the words Velocity and Satisfaction."  I suppose this is was a fortunate choice, because the words have similar spellings and meanings in both French and English, allowing it to pass undetected by L'Académie française.

The man in charge of Renault styling at the time was Patrick Le Quément, a French-born but British educated designer who was given considerable authority when he was hired in 1987.  He retired in 2009 and began designing boats.  His current project is the establishment of a design school focusing on "sustainability."

Among his goals was the establishment of a new design language for Renault, one that, according to some accounts I vaguely recall, could be identified as French.  And during a period when automobile styling was becoming increasingly internationalized, when cars looked less and less British, German, American and so forth, he did succeed in creating distinctive designs for Renault.

The Vel Satus is an interesting case.  Renault wanted a new high-end model that might compete with Mercedes and BMW.  Yet the resulting car did not embody power, prestige, glamour or very many other traits a potential buyer would expect when shopping for a new luxury car.  The result was poor sales and probably a loss of money on the project.


Here are views of the Vel Satis concept car from 1998.  It's more interesting than the production model which dropped every feature aside from the design of the grille.  A styling touch that intrigues me is the juxtaposition of curved surfaces at the rear as seen in the lower photo.  The roof exhibits a strong horizontal-plane curve when seen from above.  This is echoed in a lesser way by the vertical-plane curve at the extreme rear as seen from the side, the downward curve at the rear of the fender line that continues as a roll over the trunk and rear bumper area.  In contrast to these curves is a wedge-shaped front end.  The result is not what I'd call beautiful, but it certainly offers stylists food for thought.

These are images of the initial production Vel Satis, the second and third being factory photos.  The production car is definitely more practical than the concept version, but is chunky and nondescript styling-wise.  No wonder it failed to compete with BMWs and Mercedes.

This is a face-lifted 2005 model.  The most obvious exterior change is the positioning and coloring of the grille bars.  The wheels also differ from the earlier version.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Separated Twins: 2013 Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4

I recently decided that it was about time to replace my 2009 Toyota RAV4 with a restyled 2013 model.  So I began to pay more attention to the '13s when I was out and about.

But I encountered a problem: Many times when I at first thought I was looking at a 2013 RAV4, I was actually seeing a 2013 Ford Escape, a rival compact SUV.  Hence the subject of this post.

Because both cars were restyled for the 2013 model year, it is unlikely that Toyota stole Ford's theme or vice-versa, because the cars were probably under development around the same time.  What Toyota was doing was taking the theme of the 2008-2012 RAV4 design and making it more in line with the current fashion for sharp-edged, somewhat baroque shapes.  Ford, on the other hand, had a rather plain, boxy-looking Escape line for 2008-2012 and wanted to make it more in line with the current fashion for sharp-edged, somewhat baroque shapes.  But Ford seems to have borrowed a number of styling cues from the popular 2008-2012 RAV4 as the basis for its restyling.  In short, both firms were independently trying to do essentially the same thing (update the RAV4 design), so there's little wonder that the resulting designs seem so similar.

Let's take a look.


Here is a 2008 RAV4 for reference.  Key design features include (1) a fender line that rises towards the rear, (2) a reverse-slant to the back edge of the the rear side windows, (3) vertical paneling on large wheel opening lips, and (4) a strong character line and indentation along the lower edge of the doors.  Other details such as windshield rake and the slope of the top are conventional responses to wind tunnel derived aerodynamic data.

Here we compare front three-quarter view of the 2013 RAV4 (top) and the 2013 Escape.  The RAV is nearly nine inches (4.5 cm) longer than the Escape, and its wheelbase is only about an inch (3 cm) more, but these differences have little effect on appearance.  Aerodynamically-influenced features aside, similarities include: (1) rising fender lines, (2) strong wheel opening lips, (3) strong character lines on the lower door area, (4) a "shoulder" level character line a little below the side window sills, and (5) wraparound, sharp-cornered headlamp and tail light housings.

Rear three-quarter views show fewer similarities, though both cars follow current fashion in the form of sharp, fussy tail light shapes.  The Escape's rear styling is busier, offering a more baroque appearance than the RAV.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

First G.M. Fenders Over the Front Door

The 1930s and 40s were a period of automobile styling evolution, as I explain in my book on the subject.  During that period, General Motors was both sales and style leader of the American automobile industry.  Styling director Harley Earl famously asserted that he wanted GM's cars to either become lower and longer or at least give the appearance of being so.  He was careful not to push his design goal in large leaps, favoring smaller steps.

One example of this is the fender line.  Earl's goal here, as it was for many other stylists, was to merge fenders into the overall body shape, having them extend from front to rear rather than being discrete elements.  The first step he took was to have his stylists change the basic front fender from a "teardrop" curved shape to a more squared-off "suitcase" form.  The following step was to move the rear of the suitcase fender from in front of the front door opening to a point over the door itself.  This took some engineering work on body panels and door hinging, but by the late 1930s these problems had been solved and extended fenders could now appear on General Motors production cars.


1938 Buick Y-Job concept car
That's Harley Earl himself in the driver's seat of GM's first true concept car, the Buick Y-Job of 1938.  The over-the-door front fender is clearly visible.

1941 Cadillac Sixty Special
American buyers first encountered production extended front fenders of the Y-Job variety on the 1941 Cadillac Sixty Special.  The body dates from the 1938 model year and had been extensively facelifted by 1941.

1942 Oldsmobile B-44
The 1942 model year saw this fender concept throughout the rest of GM's line, though some Buick models featured front fenders that extended so far that they touched the rear fenders.

1942 Pontiac
Another example of extended fenders.  Surely another case where American cars took the styling lead in those days.

1939 Opel Kapitän publicity material
Actually, no.  Earl's extended fenders first appeared in production on General Motors' 1939 Opel Kapitän.  This might have been intended as a trial run by GM management.  In any case, Earl is known to have sent Frank Hershey, one of his ace stylists, over to Germany and Opel, perhaps with this fender styling concept in mind.

Opel Kapitän
Here is a photo of a 1939 Kapitän showing what the car really looked like, because the publicity illustrations above are clearly distorted.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Semi-Porsche 914

The Porsche 914, alias VW-Porsche 914 (as it was called in Europe) was marketed 1969-1974.  At the time, both Volkswagen and Porsche featured rear-mounted air-cooled motors, but the 914's air-cooled motor (borrowed from the Vokswagen 411 or Series 4) was mounted racing car style, in the middle, ahead of the rear axle.

The Wikipedia entry on the 914 is here and a fairly detailed history can be linked here.  The latter reminds us that mid-mounted engines work well for racers, but are problematical for passenger cars.  This design decision certainly forced the 914's planners to come up with creative spatial arrangement solutions.  For example, the car had two trunks, one at each end.  The rear trunk was sized and shaped to house the car's detachable Targa roof.  This was held in place by four clips that, when released, allowed one person to lift the roof off and place it in the rear trunk with the side effect of somewhat reduced storage capacity.  In any case, these dimensional requirements affected the car's proportions and styling.

As for the interior, the passenger seat's back was fixed against the engine firewall; a movable footrest was provided to aid comfort.  The driver's seat was adjustable.  The seating position in both was very close to the ground, legs being stretched out.  Nevertheless, this was comfortable for long-distance driving.


Shown above is Ferry Porsche next to what might be a 916 (the 6-cylinder Porsche engined version of the 914) or even perhaps an experimental 8-cylinder version.

This is the European version of the 914.  Note that the hub caps have the VW symbol; cars sent to North America had Porsche markings.  Entry level 914s lacked the chrome bumpers and vinyl cladding on the Targa bar.

This 914 has the painted bumper.

A profile view. Here you can compare the length of the top and rear trunk. which begins just aft of the Targa bar.

As can be seen in this view, the rear window is essentially vertical.  It was fixed, not able to be rolled down.  The dark area between it and the trunk is the air intake for the air-cooled motor.

The 914's headlights rotated up when turned on.  This did nothing for its aerodynamic efficiency.

I include this image because it provides a sense as to how small and low 914s were.

Another view providing scale.

You might be wondering why all the 914s shown above are painted that orange-gold color or something similar.  That's because orange-gold was the color of my 1971 model 914.

Due to the requirements of its mid-placement of the motor and roof storage, 914's began with a proportional handicap that created difficulties for stylists.  I consider it awkward, rather than ugly.  I also think a few detail changes might have improved it looks a bit, though beauty was probably doomed from the start.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Flat-Roof 1957 Plymouth

When American car makers made the transition from composite car bodies with wood framing and steel panels to all-steel bodies around 1936, the result was noticeably rounded shapes.  Some of this might have been due to the streamline styling fashion of the time, but the most important factor was the state of metal forming technology.  Basically, it was easier and cheaper to stamp "large radius" curves than tight curves.

By the late 1940s the technology had improved, but car tops remained comparatively rounded because of a perceived marketing need to accommodate passengers wearing hats.  Continued use of flat panes of glass for side windows meant that doors had to have fairly straight profiles above the car's belt line.  This also might have influenced the need for curved tops because a smooth transition between the surfaces was probably considered desirable.

But automobile design is largely fashion-driven, and too long a stretch of one style usually brings on a reaction.  So it was for the 1957 model year in America.  That year General Motors introduced new bodies for Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac, and these featured tops that were even more rounded than those of the previous bodies introduced for 1954.  Ford featured a roof that was slightly flatter on top than those of its 1955 facelift.  But it was Chrysler Corporation's 1957 redesign that had noticeably thinner, flatter roofs along with other interesting styling features.  Thin, flat roofs became popular and were the dominant theme for that part of a car until the 1980s when wind tunnel based aerodynamics began to seriously influence the shape of automobiles.


Oldsmobile brochure spread - 1957
The 1957 Oldsmobile re-design actually wasn't bad, given that American styling was into one of its baroque periods, one where comparatively complicated metal shaping and dramatic two-color paint schemes were very popular with buyers.  The problem for Oldsmobile and Buick was that their 1957 designs struck few potential customers are being an advance over 1954-56 styling.   Worse, the rounded tops made the cars seem heavy -- doubtless an effect intended by GM styling head Harley Earl.   Worst of all for General Motors was the appearance of the 1957 Chrysler re-design which instantly made GM cars seem out of date and created panic in the corporation's styling department.

Plymouth advertisement introducing the 1957 line
"Suddenly, it's 1960" was a powerful advertising theme, not so much because it suggested that 1957 Plymouths were years ahead of the competition, but mostly because Plymouth's styling validated the claim.  The thin, flat roof gave the design a light, airy look -- something missing in the Oldsmobiles shown above.  Plus, the cars were lower than previous models, and this was emphasized in advertising images where the cars were often posed with people behind them to lend scale and further validation of the futuristic appearance.

Although Plymouths had tail fins, for many years now consider a styling joke, they actually enhanced the appearance of Plymouth hardtop convertibles such as the one seen in the ad.  That's because the position and shape of the fin's curve visually nests the "greenhouse" area, making the car seem even more low than it is.

Plymouth brochure spread - 1957
The Plymouths shown here are practical sedans rather than sporty hardtops.  The images are artist renderings that were often subject to distortion, though these seem essentially correct.  My sense is that the roofs of sedans might have been a bit more rounded that those for hardtops.  The door pillars and window framing also add some visual bulk.  Even so, those Plymouths look more lithe than the 1957 Oldsmobiles.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Bristol 401 to 403: Postwar Streamlining

I have a soft spot for late-1940s streamlined sports cars such as the Fiat 8V that I wrote about here.  Another is the (to me) classic Bristol -- the 401, 402 and 403 series, built 1948-1955.  The Wikipedia entry on the 401/402 is here, and that for the 403 here.

The first link suggests that the Bristol's styling was inspired by the work of the Italian coachbuilder Touring, and might have meant the car pictured below.

There is only this photo being turned up by a Google search, and several sources identify the car as a 1938 "Lancia Aprilia Touring," where it is not clear from the Web sites whether the word "Touring" refers to the carrozzeria or just to a type of car, though the former interpretation is more likely.  Regardless, the Bristols shown below bear a strong resemblance to this Lancia, and it's quite possible that Touring had a hand in their design.

Here is what seems to be a factory publicity photo of a Bristol 403.

These are photos I found on the Web with other views of the design.

My main criticism is that the side windows are slightly too large.  Raising the belt line at the bottom of the windows an inch (about 2cm) or so might work.  Otherwise, I would lower the top about twice as much, if possible.  Another change that I think would improve the design would be to have the front fender fade fall off more to the rear rather than being largely horizontal.

These so-called defects are most apparent in the side view photo.  From other angles, the car looks good.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Gem of an Automobile Museum

A version of his article was originally posted on the Art Contrarian blog 11 May 2012.  I am re-posting it because I believe it will be of interest to readers here.

Automobile museums are all different, yet in many ways similar -- especially the Important Museums.   By that I mean car museums with large collections here in America seem obliged at have at least one Duesenberg, one Cord, a Ford Model T, an early 1900s antique of some description, a Packard from any era plus at least one car from the 1930s with either a V-12 or V-16 motor.

So it was with surprise and pleasure that I recently visited the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, a gem filled with cars seldom seen here in the United States.   Moreover, the collection is built around a theme, whereas most car museums strike me as being filled with whatever nice-to-have vehicles that pop up on the market, creating a sort of random effect.  But the Tampa Bay museum's collection core is built around two poles.  One is cars with engines in the rear, the other is cars with front-wheel drive.  And those cars had to be from the era 1920-1950.  Because most cars with those characteristics were built in Europe in those days, I saw many cars that I've never encountered in person before.  (Sadly, I've visited few European Automobile museums; one does have to make travel compromises with one's spouse, after all.)

Let's take a look at some photos from my visit:


Ruxton - 1929
Ruxton was an American front-wheel-drive car that reached the market when the Great Depression hit; only a few hundred were made.  The four-tone paint scheme was designed by Joseph Urban who also created a similar scheme based on blue.

Tracta E - 1930
Another low-production fwd car, this by Jean-Albert Gregoire (1898-1992) of France, father of numerous automobile engineering innovations.  I confess not to have heard of the brand before.

Aero - 1937
Another brand previously unknown to me. This fwd car was built in Czechoslovakia.

Tatra T87 - c.1942
The Czech Tatra firm built several series of rear-engined cars from the mid 1930 to the late 1970s. The one shown here is to me the archetypical version.

Tatra T97 - 1938
Tatra Tatraplan - late 1940s

Voisin C7 - 1927
The power train layout is the traditional front-motor-rear-drive. I include it because it's a Voisin and its body is constructed of wood and doped fabric of the Weymann type.

Panhard Dynamic - 1938
Some (many?) French cars are rather ugly, and this Panhard is near the top of the list.  The drive train is conventional.   But note the covered wheels and three-piece wraparound windshield.   And if you look closely, you'll find that the steering wheel is mounted at the middle of the dashboard -- neither right nor left.   In the 1930s, luxury French cars had right-hand steering while mass-market cars mounted the steering wheel on the left.   Traffic in France followed the German and American pattern, so expensive French cars were better suited for driving in Britain or Czechoslovakia.   Apparently Panhard wanted to split the difference.