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.

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