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.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Archetypical Mid-1950s American Car

Automobile styling to a large degree is a matter of fashion.  Styles come and go, and when a style is riding high, it can characterize an era.  This used to be the case for women's clothing fashions.  I can look at old photos from, say, 1920 to 1970 and usually guess when they were taken within plus or minus three years of actuality if women are shown.

That's no longer the case for clothing, but still holds up pretty well for automobile styling.  Consider 1955, the model year that set sales records for its era.  Every American car maker featured either a complete redesign or a significant facelift, this helping to lift buyer enthusiasm.

And what were the main characteristics of 1955-vintage American car styling?  Here is a list of some of the most important ones:
  • Wrap-around (panoramic) windshield.
  • Extended upper tips of fender line (to emphasize length) ...
  • ... including "frenched" headlight bezels.
  • Low or even sunken hoods (as compared to tops of front fenders).
  • Two or three color paint jobs.
  • "Hardtop convertible" body type.
Let me elaborate.

The extended fender line created a long, thrusting aspect to a car's appearance.  In reality, the front and rear endpoints of an automobile are usually represented by the bumpers.  Up through the early 1950s, it was fairly common for car bodies to appear to have a firm base at bumper level with the rest of the body as as set of increasingly shorter, narrower layers atop this base (the 1949 Buick is a good example).  The new, higher thrust line created the impression that the parts of the car both above and below were lesser layers, thus making a kind of arrow shape.

The term "frenched" headlights was used in the 1950s to refer to headlight bezels that extended a short ways ahead of the surface of the headlamp itself.  The result was a physically longer fender.

For many years, the top of a car's hood usually stood noticeably higher than the tops of the front fenders.  This created the impression that the automobile had a large, powerful motor under that hood.  But, as my book about car styling explains, stylists began to use jet aircraft as inspiration for a future evolutionary path.  Low hood lines were in the spirit of this.

The "hardtop convertible" style was popular from the very late 1940s into the 1970s, and died off due to concerns regarding roll-over safety.  "Hardtops" lacked a "B" pillar in the manner of convertibles, but retained a fixed metal top.

Below are three examples of American automobiles that can be considered archetypical of mid-50s styling.


1955 Oldsmobile 88
Oldsmobiles were completely restyled for the 1954 model year, so this 1955 Olds features a modest facelift.  Changes included a revised division shape between body colors and "frenching" for the headlights.  All of the criteria listed above are met.

1955 Packard Clipper
The Clipper was Packard's attempt to create a mid-price brand (in years past, the name was used for a Packard body style).  The body dates back to 1951, but for 1955 Packard did a massive facelift, adding wrap-around windshields and extensively revising front and rear sheet metal to yield what amounts to an archetypical 1955 design.

1955 Plymouth Belvedere
Plymouth got a completely restyled body for 1955.  Note the sweep of the fender line top and how it emphasizes the length of the car.  Like other Chrysler Corporation cars, its wrap-around windshields kept the slant of the A-pillar at the traditional angle.  So although the windshield wraps, the Chrysler version is not quite mainstream, its solution being shared only by Studebaker.  Ford, Mercury, Nash, Hudson, and the entire General Motors line featured windshields like those shown on the Oldsmobile and Clipper above.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Aurora and Riviera: Not-So-Dynamic Duo

During the period roughly 1995-2005 General Motors stylists turned out a number of designs where form was emphasized and ornamentation minimized.  I suspect this had to do with design "purists" achieving influence, people who believed that simple, sculpted shapes were best.  (If any GM veterans from that era happen to read this post, please tell us in Comments what really was happening in those days; all I can do is speculate.)

GM's design director from 1986 to late 1992 was Chuck Jordan.  It was during Jordan's time that the designs for the cars featured in this post were established.   The more important design was that of the 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora, the 1995 Buick Riviera being based on the same platform and sharing its basic characteristics.  It might be said that there was only one basic design, wherein the Aurora was the four-door version and the Riviera was the coupé version.

In the essential book A Century of Automoble Style, Michael Lamm and Dave Holls (who worked for Jordan) state the following regarding the Aurora (page 282):

* * * * *

Another car Jordan pushed through was the 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora.  The Aurora began as a non-divisional project in one of GM's advanced studios.  "We said, 'Let's design a sedan the way they do it at the Lockheed skunkworks--an aircraft theme,'" he noted.  "We called it the 'tube car.'"  When the advanced designers had finished, Chuck had a full-sized fiberglass Aurora mockup parked at the head of the Design Staff escalator.  "That's a place of influence," remarked Jordan.  "You pass by there so many times a day that the design either wears well or it doesn't."  The design wore well, and when Oldsmobile decided it wanted a four-door Toronado, the Aurora came up as a natural.  It too went through a rigorous clinicking process [where potential buyers evaluate a number of real cars and styling mockups with brand identification removed from all the vehicles].

* * * * *

The Aurora received generally favorable reviews, but was only modestly successful in terms of sales.  Rivera sales also were mediocre.


Oldsmobile sales had been falling for a while and it was hoped that the Aurora would proclaim a new, favorable image for the brand, as this advertisement attests.

These two views provide a good sense of Aurora styling.   As noted above, by the 1995 model year, GM was beginning to introduce a series of cars where the design emphasis was sculpted shapes with limited ornamentation.  One consequence was that brand identity was more difficult to establish, this contrary to one of Jordan's major goals when assuming the styling helm (see Lamm and Holls, page 280).

When I first encountered an Aurora, something I immediately disliked was the near-symmetry of the front and rear doors.  This feature seemed static and dull, and helped emphasize the nondescript appearance of the car.  The front end lacked character and brand identity.  The red tail light and reflector assembly shape seen in the lower photo only served to emphasize the soft, droopy, characterless rear body shaping.  Although the project was well-intended, good intentions do not guarantee success; the Aurora's relative market failure did not surprise me.

The Buick Riviera's styling was slightly more crisp than the Aurora's -- note the small plane between the top of the front fender and the hood, as well as the lip at the rear of the top of the trunk.  The Riviera has slightly better brand identification, this in the form of small vertical Buick-like bars tucked into the grille opening.  Otherwise, this is yet another bland, characterless design despite the effort spent on surface development under the likely influence of Bill Porter. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Some Memorable Cadillac Concept Cars

Over the years, Cadillac has displayed many concept/dream/show cars, some more interesting, prophetic or better designed than others.

Its latest effort is called the "Elmiraj," a take on "El Mirage," a name associated with the southwestern United States by way of towns, dry lakes, car racing and such.  It was first displayed at this year's Concours d'Élégance event at Pebble Beach, apparently to strongly positive reviews.  The consensus seems to be that it is one of those concept cars whose main purpose is to indicate near-term styling features for production cars, which might account for the interest by the automotive press.  If that is indeed the case, it will be the production cars and not the concept version that will prove to be memorable in the future.

Cadillac Elmiraj - 2013

The Cadillac Internet page dealing with the Elmiraj is here, but is skimpy as of the time I'm writing this post.  A Google search turns up a number of early reactions, and one providing some useful background information is this piece from The New York Times.

Although it's not on the Web as this post is being drafted, Robert Cumberford has a design evaluation in the November issue of Automobile Magazine that is, as usual, worthy of consideration. Cumberford and I agree that the name "Elmiraj" is far too cute for its own good.  We also agree that the vertical hot air outlet aft of the front wheel opening is an unnecessary styling cliché, already seen far too often on Land Rovers, Jaguars and other makes.  Otherwise, Cumberford has few complaints regarding the Elmiraj's design and again I generally concur.  The important matter is, should there indeed be a production Cadillac with Elmiraj styling elements, the design quality of that product.

For some reason -- perhaps because of its black paint -- the Elmiraj brings to my mind two other Cadillac concept cars that I rather liked:


Cadillac Voyager - 1988
First revealed 25 years ago, the Voyager was from the era of General Motors' decline.  A whiff of the design appeared in mid-1990s Fleetwoods and Sedans de Villes, but the car might be best known for its appearance as a car of the future in the 1993 Sylvester Stallone movie "Demolition Man."  I don't care for the skirted front wheel openings, but otherwise the design nicely counterpoises the curved top and more squared-off lower body.

Cadillac Sixteen - 2003
The Sixteen is one Cadillac concept that I would have loved to have seen enter production.  I actually viewed it at a Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance and was not bothered at all by its flamboyance and exaggerated proportions (that long hood is fabulous!).  I never could have afforded one, but dream cars are dream fodder, aren't they?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Hudson's Multiple Facelifts

The Hudson Motor Car Company went from the 1936 model year through the 1947 model year using the same basic body that had to be facelifted annually to maintain enough freshness to generate sales.  In many respects, Hudson's facelifts were creative and successful in disguising what soon became an outmoded body shell, making it look reasonably similar to its competition's increasingly completely restyled cars.  If you do the arithmetic, the 1936 body would have been produced for 12 model years.  But due to curtailed American car production during World War 2, there were no 1943, 1944 or 1945 models from any car maker, so the '36 Hudson body was used for "only" nine model years -- a very long time in that era. 

The Wikipedia entry on Hudson is here, and information about Hudson's styling direct or Frank Spring is here.  Examples of Hudsons from each model year that body was used are shown below.


Here is the completely restyled Hudson for 1936.

Hudson's 1937 facelift was minor -- mostly affecting the grille and the trim on the sides of the hood, though the wheel cut-out on the rear fender was also revised.

For 1938, Hudson featured a completely redesigned grille along with minor reshaping of the hood.  As can be seen, a new grille treatment is an effective means of "freshening" an old body design.  Pretty cost-effective, too.

The same areas were facelifted again in 1939, but now the front fenders were redesigned too.  One reason was that, to keep up with the styling times, Hudson needed to drop detached headlights and integrate them into the fenders.

Again, changes to the front end to keep up with the competition.

Mostly detail changes for the front of 1941 Hudsons.  But this time the rear of the car got some attention.  Shown is a bustle-back design with different rear fenders.

The main changes for 1942 were smaller rear wheel openings and the reshaping of lower door and nearby panels so the the running board was hidden; this too to keep up with the times.

Hudson had a total redesign in the works for 1948.  Its 1946 and 1947 models were nearly identical, sporting a new, partly sunken grille to distinguished them from the 1942s.  These cars look a lot different from the 1936 models, but crucial points of similarity remain.  These include the windshield and forward part of the top, the doors and the directions they open, and most important, the carriage-style side tuck-under towards the lower part of the sides.  These details are difficult to face-lift.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Spohn's Ugly G.I. Customs

Germany's Spohn coachbuilding firm produced a number of fine custom bodies, especially in the late 1920s and the 1930s.   After World War 2, economic times were difficult, and the company tried to survive by creating tasteless bodies on American cars owned by young officers and other troops stationed in Germany.  There's not much about Spohn on the Internet, but this link sketches out the essential information.

During the early 1950s, imaginations of many young car fans were fired by the appearance of flashy, futuristic dream cars from General Motors and Ford.  Styling details from these were borrowed and applied to bulky American cars that served as platforms for Spohn's work.

I have no information regarding who did the designs.  I suspect clients initially waved dream car photos under Spohn noses and asked for this or that feature to be incorporated.  Later on, it's possible that other clients used previous Spohn G.I. customs as inspiration.

The fundamental problem with these efforts was the fact that the basic proportions of the dreams cars were different from the production models that were much taller and perhaps a bit more narrow.  So what looked good rotating on an automobile show display turned out awkward, inappropriate and ugly on the Spohn customs.  I'm pretty sure that the Spohn people knew they were turning out junk, but survival was at stake.  Nevertheless, the firm failed in 1957.

The photos of Spohn customized cars below were found on the internet, and before those images were scanned, they had appeared in 1950s car magazines or perhaps inexpensive perfect-bound car books.  So apologies for their poor quality.

LeSabre - General Motors - 1951
Tail fins and other details from the rear were often used on Spohn custom bodies.

X-100 - Ford - 1952
On the other hand, the front end styling of Ford's X-100 (alias Continental-X) was a popular borrowed theme.

XP-300 - Buick - 1951
One example shown below made use of the XP-300's grille design.

This example features most of the rear details of LeSabre.  The problem was blending them into a much taller body.

Here we see LeSable tail fins along with a grille inspired by the Ford X-100.

Another car with an X-100 front and LeSabre fins.

But wait ... here's more of the same!!!

For a change of pace, the LeSabre fins are balanced by a small, XP-300 inspired grille.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mercury Cougar: The First, Best Generation

Ford had a huge success on its hands in the form of the Mustang sporty car introduced in the spring of 1964.  So they figured that if you succeed, then try, try again.  What they tried was a slightly lengthened and more up-scale Mustang in the form of the 1967 Mercury Cougar.

Here is the starting point, the 1967 Ford Mustang.  Fearless styling critic that I fancy myself to be, I need to announce that the Mustang was not, and has never been, a great design.  I should do a complete analysis some day, but for now I'll just assert that the front end is awkwardly busy and that the fake side air scoops on many Mustangs are too obviously fake.  It's by no means a poor design, but improving it probably wasn't a big challenge to the Mercury styling staff.

Here is the 1967 Mercury Cougar, the best of the lot, in my opinion.  No fake air scoops.  A cleaner grille featuring Mercury's traditional vertical grille bars.

The feature I like best is only a small detail.  Notice how the top fender line crease makes a little J-hook matching the lower rear radius of the side window outline, and then it continues on to the rear.  This was new, neat and appropriate.  To me, it "made" the design.  Later Cougars didn't include this feature, and therefore didn't seem Cougar-like to me.

Here is a view of the rear.  Again, a clean (but not boring) design.  The vertical pattern on the tail lights mimics the grille bars thereby helping to tie the design together.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Postwar 6-Window Fastback Sedans

World War 2 came at an inconvenient time so far as automobile styling evolution was concerned.  During the 1930s, car designs changed from bodies with discrete elements such as headlights,  bumpers, fenders, spare tires and so forth to somewhat streamlined shapes where most of those formerly separate elements were wholly or partially integrated into the car's body.

Fenders generally were still separate elements that were partly blended into the main body.  The trend also was for the front fenders to edge toward and ultimately merge with or supplant rear fenders.  Roof line fashion in America just before Pearl Harbor was the so-called "fastback" style where the roof line descended in a smooth curve from the passenger compartment across the trunk down to the rear bumper.  These evolutionary trends were in the direction of a body shape resembling a teardrop with provision for a hood and with a windshield behind it.

Curtailed automobile production during the war gave stylists time to reconsider all this.  General Motors, at the time the production and styling leader in America, opted postwar for continuation of the fender trend, but fastback styling largely yielded to "bustle back" designs where the roof curve ended in front of the trunk hinge line, the trunk area being a distinct part of the body.  Postwar GM designs included some two-door fastback models, but the style was phased out in the early 1950s.

Other car makers forged ahead postwar with the thought that the prewar styling trends would continue.  The result was a variety of rather clumsy designs, especially for six-window sedans, few of which did well in the marketplace.

I discuss these and other evolutionary styling trends in this book.

Here are some of those cars that missed the postwar style change.


Tatra 600 Tatraplan - 1948
The Tatra 600 was a Czech car introduced in 1946 that was a follow-on to a prewar series of automobiles with their engines mounted at the rear.  All such Tatras embodied the teardrop streamlining philosophy of design, so their styling people probably felt that they were already ahead of the rest of the industry as the war ended.

Jowett Javelin - c.1947
The Jowett Javelin was an early postwar British car with advanced styling and engineering features.  Some of the inherent heaviness of fastback 6-window styling was avoided by designer Gerald Palmer because he retained separate fenders.  But the Jowett company failed due to engine teething problems and corporate under-capitalization that prevented riding out the troubles.

Standard Vanguard c.1947
Less successful design-wise was another British car, the Standard Vanguard.  Here the through-fender design coupled with a high roof line and steep fastback curve made for a heavy looking car in spite of its comparatively small size.

Ford SAF Vedette - 1949
If the Ford SAF Vedette looks a lot like a 1949 Mercury, that's because its features were intended to be used on a compact Ford model.  Standard size Fords were at first intended to have the body eventually used by Mercury.  This plan was rejected.  Standard Fords got a smaller, different body and the body intended for the compact Ford was instead adapted by Ford's French subsidiary for the new Vedette line.  The result wasn't as heavy looking as some 6-window fastbacks because the roof was fairly low.

Lincoln Cosmopolitan - 1949
Untouched by Ford's postwar body juggling was the Lincoln Cosmopolitan, which came in both fastback and bustle back guises.  The fastback is pictured here.  Thin door posts helped to lighten the design, but the Cosmo was a massive car to start with, and the fastback feature made it seem even heavier.  Not many fastback Cosmos were sold, so the design was soon eliminated from the product mix.

Nash Ambassador Custom - 1949
Nash was lucky that its 1949-1951 "upside-down bathtub" styling didn't kill the company.  It had all the features expected from prewar trends, even including front wheels enclosed by the body for improved aerodynamics (which did wonders for the car's turning radius).

Hotchkiss-Grégoire - early 1950
The conservative French manufacturer Hotchkiss took a radical postwar step with its Hotchkiss-Grégoire model featuring front-wheel drive and fastback styling.  The car shown above was an early model with six side windows, a feature soon replaced by a 4-window version.  Fenders are discrete rather than flow-through.  The car is low thanks to the lack of a drive line, so its appearance isn't as heavy as it might have otherwise been.

Borgward Hansa 2400 - c.1952
Yet another awkward 6-window fastback was the German Borgward Hansa 2400 that was introduced several years after the others shown here.  By then its styling was distinctly old-fashioned, so sales were poor.