Monday, April 28, 2014

What Were They Thinking?: 1955 Studebaker Starliner Facelift

I might have labeled this post "Styling Crime: 1955 Studebaker Starliner Facelift" because that applies equally well.  The Starliner hardtop coupe Studebaker introduced for the 1953 model year is generally considered one of the finest automobile designs ever.  That means that improving upon it is a near-impossibility.  So what to do for next year?

For 1954, Studebaker added small, thin vertical "teeth" or bars to the grille.  Retrograde, for sure, but only a small step.  Then for 1955 some kind of panic must have set in for corporate marketers and stylists were ordered (I assume) to slather the poor car with chrome and gaudy two-tone paint jobs in order to be in tune with the rest of the American automobile industry.

The sad results are presented below.


The well-known photo of styling consultant Raymond Loewy posing with a 1953 Starliner.

Advertising image of 1953 Studebaker Commander V-8 Starliner.

Photo found on the Web of a Commander Starliner showing the front end in greater detail.

Advertising photo of facelifted 1954 Starliner.  Note the new teeth in the grille.   It's possible that this image is a re-touch of a 1953 Studebaker: the changes were that mild.

Here is an advertising card for the 1955 Studebaker Speedster.  For some strange reason, the front end is not shown.

These images from the Internet show 1955 Studebaker Commander hardtop coupes (not the top-of-the-line Speedster).  Behold the glory of the restyled grille, the swath of chrome along the side and the two-tone paint arrangement.

Finally, an image of the Speedster featuring its front.  The two-tome paint scheme is different from that of the basic Commander shown above and is better (though unnecessary).  Another difference between the models is a large chrome band reaching across the top just aft of the door; it shows up better in the advertising card image above.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

ItalDesign's Porsche Tapiro

The styling trend to low cars in general, and sports cars in particular, reached its beyond-practicality limits by the early 1970s.  A concept car that came close to this trend end-state was the Porsche Tapiro, built by the ItalDesign firm, and styled by its design director, the famed Giorgetto Giugiaro.

I always liked the Tapiro.  And not at all because it was built on the Porsche 914/916 mid-engine platform and I actually owned a 914.  It was, to my way of thinking, a truly interesting design exercise.  On the other hand, a production car of that design would have been impractical due to its low height (the only vehicle a driver could see over would be something similar to the Tapiro itself) and lack of storage space (unlike the Tapiro, standard 914s had storage space suitable for travel; I crossed the USA twice in mine).

Giugiaro also had a major hand in the styling of the DeLorean DMC-12, which resembles the Tapiro.


This is a rendering of the Tapiro bearing Giugiaro's signature.

The Tapiro was completed in 1970.  Here it is on display at the 1971 Turin auto show.

An atmospheric photo of the Tapiro.

Front three-quarter view from a normal viewing angle.  For some reason probably having to do with how low the car was, many Tapiro photos were taken from a lower point of view.

Side view emphasizing the wedge shape and related angularities fashionable at the time.

Rear three-quarter view.  Alas, I wasn't able to locate any similar image without the, um, distraction.

Photo from above showing the gull-wing doors and engine access / trunk panels wide open.  The front "hood" also can open (it's hinged at the front) to reveal the spare tire and perhaps a tiny bit of extra storage space.

Monday, April 21, 2014

American "Continental Kits" of the 1950s

Into the 1930s, American automobiles carried spare tires outside the body.  Often they were placed in wheel wells on the front fenders.  Otherwise, they might be found at the rear of the car.  The reason was that integral (to the body) trunks large enough to house both luggage and a spare tire didn't become common until around the mid-to-late 1930s.  Even so, exterior tire-mountings persisted as a now-superfluous accessory -- a fad that reached a peak in the USA in the 1950s.  A Wikipedia entry on the subject is here.

Below are examples of what were called "Continental Kits" in the 50s.


This is the inspiration for the postwar fad and Continental kit name: the Lincoln Continental.   Shown is a 1940 model coupe.

The kit on this 1951 Mercury is probably an after-market item.

I'm not sure whether the kit on this 1958 Edsel is a factory accessory or after-market.   Edsel mavens are welcome to set us straight in Comments.

The same applies for the Continental kit seen on this 1955 Ford Crown Victoria.

On the other hand, kits were factory items for 1956 Ford Thunderbirds.

Due to their limited interior room, all Nash Metropolitans had spare tires mounted externally at the rear.  This is a 1957 model.

Early Nash Ramblers were larger than Metropolitans, so Continental kits were factory options.

Regular Nashes also had factory-issue optional kits such as this one seen on a 1955 model.

Packard pre-1955 Caribbean convertibles came from the factory bearing Continental kits.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

1938 Studebaker Headlight Options

Part of the design evolution treated in my e-book "Automobile Styling: From Evolution to Fashion" is the treatment of headlights.  In 1930 they were typically mounted on bars or stanchions placed slightly forward of the radiator.  By 1941 they were housed in the front fenders.

The evolutionary path involved the car's motor, radiator, and so forth being moved forward, the engine overlapping the front axle-line whereas before it rode entirely aft of that point.  Headlamps could not continue to be placed forward of the grille, so they remained about where they were (in relation to the axle line), but now were beside the radiator rather than in front of it.  Since visual (and some actual) streamlining became the styling fashion of the 1930s, headlight housings were usually shaped like bullets, artillery shells or teardrops -- pick your favorite analogy.

These assemblies were mounted various ways.  Some were attached to the radiator/grille housing just forward of the hood panels.  Others appeared to be sitting atop the front fenders.  Often they were nested between the hood and fenders, atop stanchions that were mostly hidden by front end sheet metal.

Most manufacturers made do with a single headlight assembly design for each car brand, or even shared them across brands in the interest of economy.  For some reason Studebaker, which was hit harder than many firms during the Great Depression, opted for two headlight housing designs for its 1938 lines.  This link mentions that President and State Commander models shared capped headlights featuring more angular shapes, whereas regular Commanders carried the more common bullet shapes.


Here is an advertisement for the Studebaker Commander 6 Coupe.

And this is a black-and-white version of the photo in the ad shown above.  The headlights are in bullet-shaped housings nestled between the fenders and the hood -- a common practice for American cars at the time.

This is an advertisement image showing a 2-door sedan version of the base model Commander.

Studebaker advertisement showing a higher-end model, probably a State Commander coupe.  This has the more angular headlight housings.

Advertisement for the 1938 Studebaker President Cruising Sedan.

Studebaker President with another Raymond Loewy design, the Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Limited's locomotive.  This view shows the headlamps lurking behind boat-prow shaped glass covers.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Porsche Sports Cars: (Almost) Forever Retro

The title of this post is an exaggeration, but not much of one.  Now that 50 years have passed since the 911 model entered production, attention is being paid in the car buff media to the original 911 design as well as current iterations.  I find it interesting that Porsche has held to the 1963 design theme of the model 901 (renumbered 911 when it entered the marketplace) with only a few detours in the intervening years.

The Porsche sports car originated after World War 2 as a modified Volkswagen, retaining its rear-mounted air cooled motor.  This concept seemed advanced in the 1930s and perhaps even when the model 356 entered production in 1948.  But it was an engineering misstep -- a mistake, even.  Rear-mounted engines almost always mean a weight distribution biased towards the rear.  This can be useful when trying to get a car moving in snow or mud, but once under way, such as car is likely to rotate 180 degree when traversing a large patch of ice (I know this from personal experience).  So while Porsche 911s and related models have always had engines mounted behind the driver, the firm's engineers have labored to tame the effects of the problematical weight distribution.

The engine placement affected Porsche styling from the beginning.  With no motor up front and no radiator (in the years before Porsche switched to liquid-cooled engines), the front trunk area could be curved downward from the windshield to the bumper.  The rear of the car assumed a fastback design to accommodate the motor and its cooling ducting.  The result was a distinctive design theme that has been maintained over the decades because it is clearly Porsche, offering a useful marketing advantage.


Here is a 1952 vintage Porsche 356 featuring the original version of the later 911 styling theme.

And this is an early 911.  Essentially it's a crisper, airier (due to the larger windows) version of the 356.  It was also a fairly small car compared to current sports cars.  But nearly all sports cars of the 1950s and 60s were comparatively small by today's standards.  My father owned a mid-1960s Porsche 912 (the four cylinder version of the 911) and traded it for a 911 a few years later.  They were fun to drive.

In honor of the 50th year from the appearance of the 901/911, Porsche paired an early car with its 2013 Carerra 4S model in a series of comparative images.  The Carerra has a liquid-cooled engine and a radiator, but the motor remains at the rear.  Although the Carerra's styling is clearly Porsche-like, the car is noticeably larger and almost all styling details differ, while maintaining the spirit of the original.

In this side view, the closest detail match between the two cars is the slant of the B-pillar at the rear of the door.

Front and rear views further emphasize the larger size of the Carerra.

I find the early 911 design to be pure and classic.  The same goes for the 1950s 356.  The Carerra isn't unattractive, but seems bloated in comparison.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Toyota Avalon: 4th Version

Toyota has been marketing its Avalon series in the United States for 20 model years, starting in 1995.  The 2013 version is the fourth major revision of Toyota's top-of-the-line model (Lexus is a separate, luxury brand, while Avalon is a Toyota).  Toyota has always taken care to maintain visual distinction between the Avalon and Camry, its closest cousin.

Toyota has been criticized in recent years for featuring bland styling, so recent redesigns indicate that the firm has reacted to that complaint.  In the present post, I discuss the Avalon's new styling.


Even though its large wheels and their openings offer some relief, the Avalon looks massive.  This is in part because it has a large greenhouse and a pure (by current standards) fastback shape to it.  Adding to the effect is its rather stubby hood and the placement of the front wheels immediately in front of the front doors.  If the wheels were, say, even six inches (15 cm) farther forward and the hood lengthened accordingly, the visual bulk from the greenhouse and rear fender panel would have been reduced.

Unlike many current designs, the Avalon's sides have restrained character line sculpting: a strong line and subtle adjoining scallop near the top of the fender and a fairly subtle rising crease towards the bottom.  The grille / air intake ensemble follows current Toyota practice in that there is a narrow, chrome-enhanced slash along the top that includes the Toyota symbol in the center and which merges into headlamps on either side.  The main air intake is something of a fish-mouth decorated with horizontal bars.  Nothing intrinsically wrong with this concept, but I would have made it less tall.

This profile view further illustrates the fastback styling and the too-short front end.  Designing the transition from the front end to the fender is more difficult than one might think, but I will criticize the curve at the front of the fender: it makes the front end seem even shorter.  The front end aside, the rest of the car looks good in this image.

The Avalon's rear is less cluttered than those of other recent designs.  The shape of the tail lights is less arbitrary than on many other new cars.  Note how the curve along the upper edge of the windows is picked up by the front edge of the tail light assembly and then continues around into the rear impact area.  Then the cut-line separating fender sheet metal and the bumper cladding is continued along the lower edge of the tail light assembly.  What I don't like is the semi-trapezoidal license plate zone and the chrome glob atop it.  Yes, there is a mild visual linkage to the matte-finish panel by the exhaust pipes, but a rectangular license plate area would have been less disruptive.

At the front of the car, on the front fender can be seen a lump that's part of the headlight housing.  I suppose this is to enhance visibility of the turn signal lamp, but it disrupts the flow of the surfaces.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mercedes Benz's CLA-Class Compact Car

Mercedes-Benz has been selling small cars with its brand name in Europe for many years, while here in the States they've focused on larger, more expensive automobiles.   Recently, however, they've moved a tiny step down-scale with their new 2014 CLA-Class.

The CLA is fairly small, having a 106-inch (2,700 mm) wheelbase, but its sales price is higher than that of the average mainstream Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima or Honda Accord.  One reason for the comparatively short wheelbase is that the CLA is a stretched (at the rear) version of Mercedes' A-Class, which is not sold in the United States.


Here is the current A-Class Mercedes.

And this is the CLA.  Front styling is nearly identical, differences including the shape of the corner cut-outs and two low windsplits atop the hood.

This front view features the grille, which has a concave pattern of tiny, shiny dots -- something new for Mercedes that I think is just fine.

On the other hand, I don't care for the character line pattern on the car's sides.  That for the A-Class is worse, an awkward kink for the lower one.  This side view indicates what the stylists had in mind.  The lower crease curves upwards, and is continued aft of the rear wheel opening by the intersection cut-line of rear fender sheet metal and the rear bumper impact material.  But this continuity is broken by the flat lip around the opening.  If you look at the upper CLA image, you will see that the wheel opening, along with the cut line of the rear door, serves to terminate, rather than interrupt the rising character line.  What one sees from many angles is a character line that reverses itself into a side scallop at that point, something the stylists probably never intended.  Worse, this termination or reversal zone is "pinched" against the wheel opening, resulting in an awkward design.

This rear view shows a fussy melange of lines and surfaces that's in line with current styling fashion.  The tail lights are intact across their width, reducing the width of the trunk opening -- an ergonomic failing in my judgment.

Overall, the design of the CLA is pretty well done for a comparatively short car, containing contemporary styling desiderata (strongly curved top, lots of character line sculpting, fussy and poorly integrated rear end detailing).  I saw a CLA at the Seattle Auto Show and, despite my complaints, thought it looked pretty good, though not great, in person.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Squared-Off Small Cars

Once upon a time, starting around the mid-1930s, stylists tried in most cases to design cars to look aerodynamic.  In all cases, this meant abandoning the boxy body styles of the 1920s, cars becoming curved or rounded.  But fashions eventually stale, so from the mid-1960s into the mid-1980s, a sharp-edged look became fashionable.  Those sharp (or "crisp" as I often put it) edges didn't mean that cars looked box-like; rather, they usually looked airy or light, and sometimes even lean and mean.

But something happened in Japan and perhaps in its California styling outposts during the first decade of the 2000s, a virus that then spread to Korea.  Some seriously square designs appeared on small cars.  The look was funky and not especially aerodynamic.  But then, who needs aerodynamics when driving the streets of Tokyo or Yokohama, as my foggy memory of 1960s taxi rides there confirms.

Shall we take a look?


2004 Scion xB
Scion is a brand name used by Toyota in North America for entry-level cars that presumably have appeal to young buyers.  Scions come in a variety of configurations, one of which is the xB, a sort of crossover SUV.  The version shown above was marketed in the 2004-07 model years.  Its styling is severe, and boxy in the extreme.

2002-08 vintage Nissan Cube
The Nissan Cube has a more whimsical look, an aspect driven home by the asymmetrical, wraparound rear/side window design.

2012 Nissan Cube
Its 2009 redesign continued the character of the original Cube, but applied some rounding and deepened the windows' inset.  The car remained quite boxy despite these funk-enhancing changes.

2012 Kia Soul
Over in Korea -- Actually California, where Kia stylist Mike Torpey, according to this Wikipedia entry -- got out his straightedge and crafted the lines of this small crossover SUV.  To my surprise, the Soul has sold fairly well in spite of its odd appearance.

I really dislike the styling of all of the cars shown above.  I suppose a critic married to the religion of functionalism might praise the "purity" of the xB, and others might point to this or that detail on the Cube or Soul.  But to me, these designs are ugly and silly, not serious.