Monday, July 29, 2013

Plymouth Belmont, a Briggs Design

Briggs Manufacturing for many years had been an independent firm building bodies under contract to various automobile companies.  But in 1953 it was purchased by Chrysler Corporation.  That year Briggs created two show cars with bodies made of fiberglass, a material of great interest at the time. One car was the Dodge Granada which I discuss in a separate post. The other was the Plymouth Belmont. Although both were displayed under Chrysler brand names, their styling was created outside the influence of the corporation's styling staff which at the time favored elegant Italian-influenced designs.

The Belmont's styling was by Bill Robertson working under the direction of Briggs' Al Prance.   Both the Granada and Belmont were two-passenger "sports cars" built on passenger car chassis and running gear.  Both had high, rounded cowlings and similar, perhaps identical, windshields.

Like the Granada, the Belmont was confusing to some car fans because its styling was at such great variance from the Italianate concept car themes by now (1954, when the Belmont and Granada where first shown to the public) expected from Chrysler.


The Belmont's styling is in keeping with they way sports cars were expected to look in the early 1950s, in particular its flowing fender line.  However, the Belmont was longer and wider than real sports cars of the day, as the rear view I found on the Internet suggests.

As for specific criticisms, I think the rear fender kick-up is too extreme, too high.  I think the sides look a little too puffy, but that opinion can be fairly debated.  The high, rounded cowling might have been necessary for engineering reasons, but adds a little heaviness to the design.  The bumpers were stock Plymouth items, and therefore not part of the stylist's intent.  The air intake vent on the hood was a styling cliché of the early 50s.  It does add interest to the hood area, but added interest could have been accomplished by other kinds of panel sculpting.  The headlamps seem small for the times, so I would have liked them a little larger.  Plus, the chromed "frenching" (a 50s term) around them gives the car's face a a strange appearance.  The front could have been better composed had the stylist been allowed to design a bumper that harmonized with the grille shape and content.  Overall, the Belmont's appearance might be classed as "clean," but heavy looking; not a successful design.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Vauxhall's Concave Accents

In the early days of the automobile industry, a number of manufacturers tried to establish stylistic iconography so as to make their cars instantly recognizable.  Examples include Rolls-Royce's "tombstone" radiator/grill ensemble and Packard's red hexagons on wheel hubs and hubcaps.  This worked fairly well from around 1910 into the early 1930s when automobile hoods, headlamps, bumpers and fenders were the major visual elements of the car's front end, and they were physically distinct.   Blending of these elements began in earnest starting around the 1934 model year, and by 1950 most cars had so-called "envelope bodies" where all those bits except the bumpers were integrated into one mass.  This usually made it difficult to maintain distinguishing iconography.

A case in point is the British brand Vauxhall (Wikipedia entry here).  Before 1910, Vauxhall came up with the idea of placing tapered, concave depressions on each side of the hood where it transitions from horizontal to vertical.  Visually, these seem to be scooped out from the hood mass.  British car styling being conservative and World War 2 having dealt a serious blow to the economy, Vauxhall cars didn't receive fully envelope-styled bodies until the early 1950s.  Nevertheless, these concave streaks continued on Vauxhalls until the 1957 model year began their disappearance.


1909 Vauxhall

1920 Vauxhall D Type

1927 Vauxhall Type 30-98
These Vauxhalls are from the era when exterior components were separate units.  The tapered depression is clearly seen on the 1920 and 1927 vehicles.

1936 Vauxhall Big Six

1939 Vauxhall advertisement
By the mid to late 1930s, Vauxhall bodies were becoming increasingly rounded, yet stylists still had no difficulty incorporating the traditional hood accents.

1948 Vauxhall Wyvern or Velox
Vauxhall's first post-war body retained a tall hood that could support the accents (which were embellished by chrome plating).  But there was now a disconnect with the grille which was horizontal and low.

1955 Vauxhall brochure cover
Another complete body restyling appeared in the mid-50s, the transition to the envelope type being completed.  The hood was now lowered, leaving less room for the accents.  Another complete restyling came in the form of the 1957 Vauxhall Victor whose hood was lower than the fender tops.  There being no place for the accents, they finally disappeared.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Ugly Car: Nissan Juke

The Nissan Juke, a vehicle occupying the cloudy space between sport-utility (SUV) and hatchback, was styled at the company's British design center and refined in Japan. Then Nissan styling supremo Shiro Nakamura must have signed off on it, for reasons I find hard to fathom.

Actually, I can imagine a likely justification from some of the younger folks in Nissan's marketing and product planning groups.  Expressed in American English, words such as "edgy," "funky," "provocative," "postmodern" and "countercultural" and others might have been bandied about conference tables or infested emails and memoranda.  For the Juke seems to have been slotted into a market segment of young buyers with just enough extra money to indulge themselves with a vehicle that makes a statement.

I'm note sure how large this market might be, world-wide, but Nissan hedged its bet by building the car on the Nissan B platform shared by a number of other Renault-controlled brands including the Nissan Leaf electricity powered car (which has a slightly longer wheelbase than the Juke).


The Juke does not have much brightwork, yet nevertheless is a "busy" design due to the elaborate sheet metal bulges and creases, especially those on its stubby sides.  Such sculpting might be expected these days on standard-size cars, but everything is jammed onto the Juke.  This is not to say that the Juke's shaping had to be austere and bland; but a compromise such as having the fenderlines flow a little more might have helped.  The really off touches are the taillights and front turn-signal and auxiliary lighting fixtures set atop the fenders.  They enhance the stubby appearance and generally clash with the rest of the design, such as it is.  I find the use of round headlamps a nice touch, though their placement on the front strike-panel is both odd and risky.

This side view clearly shows the strange roofline.  It is nearly flat, which makes me wonder about its aerodynamic usefulness.  But its most serious defect is that it slopes to the rear, pinching off potential carrying capacity for objects placed in the trunk area.

A view of the lumpy rear.  The most interesting feature here is the wraparound backlight (rear window).

These views from above provide more detail as to how the body was shaped.  I would have placed the front auxiliary light ensembles right above the grille opening with the hood cut-lines as their inner edge.  But I suppose that wouldn't have been funky enough for the target market.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Whither Dodge's Grille Design

Grilles can be a strong brand identifier -- or not.  Some car makes such as Cadillac with an egg-crate motif since the late 1930s and (especially) Rolls-Royce follow thematic consistency.  Others change grille designs often, leaving brand identity to carried by a trademarked symbol (Ford, for instance).  I'll have a lot more to say about this in a forthcoming e-book.

One brand that has used a consistent grille theme for nearly 30 year is Dodge, with its crossed bars or "gunsight" nested within the radiator opening.

This motif has been used on Dodge's trucks as well as its cars. But a few years ago the truck line was spun off as a separate brand called Ram.  The name "Ram" was chosen because Ram was a line of Dodge trucks.  Back in the period roughly from the early 1930s to the early 1950s, Dodge vehicles used a ram (bighorn sheep) as its hood ornament.

When the Ram truck brand was established, someone at Chrysler insisted that Ram would still be Dodge-related and the symbolism would be retained.  A brave statement, that, but will it hold for the future as the Ram brand continues with its own staff who might not want to carry the Dodge symbolism for all time.  Or might the Dodge people decide to let Ram retain the theme and have Dodge do something different?  Are there any clues?


1985 Dodge Diplomat
Here is one of the earliest instances of what became the traditional Dodge grille motif.

2013 Dodge Charger
It can be seen on Dodge's largest current sedan line.

2013 Ram 1500
Thanks to its bold, simple design, the cross pattern works well on large, aggressive looking trucks.  I suspect Rams will continue to use it.

2013 Dodge Dart
This smaller dodge is based on Alfa Romeo components.  Like many cars these days, the main radiator airflow opening is set low and is a rather anonymous hole.  The small slot above the bumper is part of the grille ensemble, but not really needed for radiator airflow.  The cross pattern is retained here, but only in a stylized manner.  It's too soon to tell if it is a harbinger of future grille symbolism for Dodge.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Mini Minor, Mini Styling

Although millions were sold over a production span of more than 40 years and it is considered by many to be an iconic car, few of the original Morris Mini Minors ever made it to the United States.  So that makes it somewhat surprising that the new Mini brand launched by BMW has done so well here; not that many American knew about the original Minis.  A comprehensive Wikipedia entry dealing with the first Mini series can be found here, so we'll mostly focus on the car's styling.

The Mini was conceived as a basic car that would cost little to build.  Where it innovated was the requirement laid down by management that its length should be 10 feet (about 3 m) long and that the passenger area measure six feet (1.8 m) long, a large ratio at the time (late 1950s).  The design task was handed over to Alec Issigonis who conceived the idea of using front wheel drive and mounting the motor transversely, rather than in a fore-aft orientation as was the industry norm.

Mini buffs probably know if or to what extent stylists were brought into the project.  Given 1957 vintage body stamping capabilities in Britain plus the "package" mentioned above and the need to have the car cheap to build, the result was a crude, stamped-out general appearance.  The only evidence of styling input that I notice is in the grille, its surrounding area and the shape of the taillights.

So the Mini counts in my book as one of the few post-1950 mass production cars whose appearance was actually designed rather than styled.


A general view showing the awkward body panel joins, semi-exposed door hinges and other traits.

This rear view is positioned so the the sliding glass panels on the front door are visible; side windows did not crank down.

A better view of the front.  What struck me when I first saw Minis was how tiny their wheels were.  This was probably done for packaging reasons; larger wheels would have intruded too much into the passenger compartment.  But the result was definitely an aesthetic minus.  Automobiles generally look oddly proportioned if the height of the car is much more than about twice the diameter of the tires.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Most Astonishing Pegaso

Not many Pegaso automobiles were ever built during the period 1951-57 when the brand was active.  Cars were a minor activity of what was essentially a Barcelona based truck manufacturer described here.

There is also some Internet-based information regarding the Pegaso automobile line here and here. However, there is very little other than photographs having to do with the Pegaso model that interests me the most.  In fact, there seems to be no agreement even as to its name other than it was one of the Z-102 series.  Besides Z-102, its name might have included "BS 2.5 Cúpola" or "Berlineta Cúpola" or just "Cúpola."

It is also unclear who styled it.  Some sources credit Italian coachbuilders, others suggest that Pegaso designed and built it in-house.  I have been saying "it" having for years assumed that it was a one-off, but several sources indicate that two cars of the design were actually built.

What matters is that the Pegaso under discussion has a design that was astonishing when it first appeared more than 60 years ago and that continues to astonish (me, anyway) even now.  This is not to say the design is a great one, but it's a good one with the ability to fascinate as well as astonish.

Let's take a look.


The original car was painted yellow, as shown here.  The most serious design defect was that the backlight (rear window) shape failed to blend with the roofline curve, as is evident in this side view.

After being introduced in Europe in 1952 it was displayed at the 1953 New York Auto Show, where this photo was taken.

Here is another early picture.  For a while a red (I think) stripe decorated the top of the car.

This is a fairly recent picture, probably taken at a concours d'élégance.  The paint is now silver, but it might be that second car whose original paint color is unknown to me.

Another view, this featuring the front end.  The wheel housings are mostly covered by the fenders, probably for aerodynamic reasons.  This implies a wide side overhang beyond the wheels which would give the Pegaso an awkward appearance to our eyes in 2013 if seen from the rear.

This shows the Pegaso "opened up."  Well, not completely opened; the access panel covering the rear wheel remains closed.  Also note that the door windows do not roll down due to the extreme concave shape of the inner side of the door; instead, they swing out to open.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Frazer's Only Facelift

The only successful American automobile company established after World War 2 was Kaiser-Frazer Corporation.  (I'm not counting American Motors and Studebaker-Packard, that were the result of mergers of existing companies.)  And by "successful," I mean relative success in that the company survived in its initial form for the better part of a decade and built more than half a million cars.  (Kaiser bought Willys and its Jeep line in 1953 and soon ended Kaiser and Willys production in North America.)

Because Kaiser-Frazer was for all practical purposes a new company when production started in 1946 (technically it was created on the ruins of Graham-Paige), its cars had to make use of a new body design.  All other automobile companies marketed facelifted pre-war designs for varying lengths of time until the 1949 model year, when virtually every model was finally re-styled.  Kaisers and the more up-scale Frazers shared the same body and differed only in trim.  The initial 1947 design was "modern" in that it featured fenders that flowed from headlight to taillight, something anticipated pre-war, but not in production when car manufacturing ceased early in 1942 for the war's duration.

Besides the flow-through fenders, the other main styling feature was that no hood ornament was present.  This shocked some people because hood ornaments were an expected feature in those days.  Eventually Kaisers and Frazers had them added, probably in an effort to please potential buyers.

Overall appearance was awkward despite the modern fender line.  Kaisers and Frazers were fairly tall, so the nearly plain, slab-like sides helped emphasize their height, poor surface detailing and body panel fits.  But initial sales were good because there was strong demand for almost any kind of car after the war's production curtailment was over.

By the end of the 1940s the post-war seller's market had ended and potential buyers were becoming picky about styling and engineering details.  Kaiser-Frazer's styling was looking dated and other manufacturers, especially Studebaker, Ford and General Motors, were building cars that were sleeker and generally more attractive.  So it was time to do something.  K-F's main effort was the completely restyled 1951 Kaiser, a design that deserves to be the subject of a separate post.  As for Frazer, it had been decided that the brand would be scrapped.  But there were spare bodies that needed to be sold, if possible, so Frazer was given a major facelift for 1951.  I'm not sure how cost-effective this was, but the result was that Frazers looked to most people like they too had been given a re-styling.

Let's take a look:


1948 Frazer four-door sedan

1950 Frazer Manhattan
Aside from the grille and a few other details, 1950 Frazers didn't look much different than earlier ones, as a comparison of the cars shown above indicates.

1951 Frazer four-door sedan

1951 Frazer Vagabond
The facelift included a new front end design, some of this tooling shared with K-Fs new Henry J compact car.  The fender line was altered.  Changes included a wind split along the side of the front fender, a "kick-up" in the fender line starting behind the rear doors, and sharp, reverse-curve at the rear with the tail light positioned at the top.  These changes made the car look longer and more graceful.  If they had appeared in 1949, say, along with a V-8 motor, Kaiser-Frazer might have produced Frazer automobiles for several more years.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Buick Back Seats

If you were like me, your trips in cars as a child were spent in the rear seat.  Nowadays, I normally ride in front, even when I'm a passenger.  That's because my legs are longer than my wife's, justifying this arrangement.

It has gotten to the point that I've almost forgotten what back-seat riding was like.  Fortunately, a few months ago, someplace on the Internet (can't remember where), I came across some old publicity photos featuring rear passenger compartments of various Buicks, bringing back memories -- even though my family didn't own any Buicks when I was young.

Here they are:

This first image was captioned that this was a 1937 or thereabouts Buick.  Note the rounded windows and fuzzy upholstery.  The model is touching a grab-strap.  A robe holder cord is on the back of the front seat and a foot rest can be seen below the seat back.  The part of the armrest near the model's knee features an ash tray with a metal lid.  The overall package is fancier than what would be found on low-price or even many mid-price cars of that era, but it's a small step below what might be found in luxury cars.

These next three photos were captioned as from around 1941, though I think they are from the same vintage as the top photo (one has to be very cautious about accepting photo captions on the Internet).  The image above is of a two-door sedan.  Note that the front seat back folds forward to allow a passenger to enter and exit the rear.  Also note that it is still a small passageway near floor-level.  Visible features include grab-straps and a small light just above the opposite grab-strap.  The upholstery is spartan by today's standards in terms of design, but plush and comfortable to sit on.  And of course there were no seat belts.

The roof interior was covered with fabric; ditto the insides of the doors.  These practices were continued through the 1940s, though panels of leather or artificial material began to make their appearance.

The purpose of this photo was to dramatize interior room.  Earlier cars tended to be narrower, holding only two rear-seat passengers comfortably.

We conclude with a photo of the interior of a 1954 Buick Super or Roadmaster hardtop convertible.  Materials and styling are closer to current practices, but the seat remains a bench seat.  Many sedans of that vintage also featured bench front seats.  And still no seat belts.

Monday, July 1, 2013

2014 Chevrolet Impala Critiqued

The 2014 Chevrolet Impala is the latest redesign of a model that has been around since 1958 (the Wikipedia history is here).  Early reviews I've read suggest that it is a considerable improvement over the previous Impala generation, which has snidely been referred to as fit for rental, but not worthy of purchase.  We rented those Impalas on several occasions, and I found them to be okay.  I wouldn't have bought one, but could have tolerated it if one had been given to me.

As for styling, the previous Impala was rather bland, but the new version is now in line with the current flashy Baroque fashion.


2014 Chevrolet Impala
The side view tells most of the story.  Front overhang is not quite as severe as was common in the 1990s nor is rear overhang as great as in the 1970s.  The passenger compartment greenhouse is proportionally long, ending in a semi-fastback shape; this approach has been in vogue for nearly ten years.  There is plenty of sheet metal sculpting, which is why I used the word "Baroque" above.  This too is a styling fad.

The various folds and creases forming the sculptural side composition are professionally done in the sense that there is follow-through between separated elements.  For example, the lower creases and indentations on either side of the rear wheel opening are continuations interrupted by a bulge around that opening.  More subtle is the continuation of the crease near the top of the front fender.  It begins with a fold aligned with top of the upper grille and headlamps and strengthens abaft of the bulge around the front wheel opening.  It fades away at the rear door handle, but is picked up again where the rising crease on the rear door becomes horizontal.  If these (approximately) horizontal elements had been offset rather than continuations, the result would have seemed comparatively cluttered and confusing, the work of an amateur stylist.
The front is less fussy than the sides, though the hood has more than its fair share of sculpting.  A curiosity is that the upper and lower grille openings appear replicated in the photo above; they are stacked, rather than related using the sort of line continuations just mentioned. 
As for the rear, confusion ensues, especially where the trunk spoiler ridge, taillight assembly and upper bumper lip converge.  At least the taillight assembly blends with the upper side crease and panel cut-line.  Otherwise, the composition of elements at the rear of the car is fussy -- especially the relationship between the chrome strip and the taillights. In a nutshell, I think there is too much unnecessary activity in the design, too much busyness.  I would have preferred that a few areas of the car had been left plain to serve as relief from or in contrast to all the sculpting.

2013 Ford Fusion 
 I wasn't kidding when I suggested that the Impala design was in line with current styling fashion (but then, at any given time, most car designs follow current fashion; they almost have to).  Above is an Impala competitor, Ford's Fusion.  Note that their rooflines and side window treatments are nearly the same.  Both cars have similar sculpting along the lower part of the doors as well as a crease near the upper part of the lower body.

1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
Just for fun, I include these images of a Chevrolet from around 40 years earlier that might have served as inspiration for the rear door and rear fender area curved sculpting on the new Impala.  True, the shaping is different, but the slight suggestion of a rear fender on the Impala brought the '73 Monte Carlo to mind; can we call it a Retro touch?