Monday, June 16, 2014

Early 1950s American Sports Cars

Perhaps the MG TC and Jaguar XK120 had something to do with it.  In the late 1940s, some Americans acquired an appetite for sports cars and imported British sports cars became noticeable on streets and highways.  In turn, that prompted some Americans to create domestic sports cars.

This post deals with six brands introduced over the five-year 1949-54 period, a few of which were created by small, under-funded firms and others by mainstream car makers.  Not included are sports cars such as the Hudson Italia that I wrote about here and the Arnolt-Bristol I discussed here.

Unfortunately for the American sports car builders, the market for such automobiles was not very large in the first place, and in the second place, American buyers continued to favor sports cars from overseas.  Only one American sports car line from that era has survived.


Kurtis Kraft Sports
Race car builder Frank Kurtis (that's him posing in the photo above) started making sports cars in 1949.

Muntz Jet
But Kurtis didn't make very many, and sold that operation to car dealer and television set maker Earl "Madman" Muntz who produced Kurtis' creation as the Muntz Jet from 1951 to 1954 after adding a back seat.  That alteration basically removed it from the sports car category, though the resulting vehicle certainly seemed "sporty" in its day.  Styling was of the nondescript slab-sided mode common in the years soon after World War 2.

Crosley Hotshot
Crosley was a home appliance, radio and, later, television set maker that added a line of very small cars in the late 1930s.  Crosley cars were restyled after the war and had some success in the postwar seller's market.  As sales began to fall when Americans could more easily find the larger cars they preferred, Crosley introduced its tiny Hotshot sports car in 1949, followed by the Super Sports (featuring side doors) the following year.  But production of all Crosley models ceased in 1952.

Woodill Wildfire
The Wildfire was a fiberglass bodied sports car that was mostly sold in body-kit form from 1952 to 1958.  Styling incorporated the sports car clichés of the early 1950s -- the fender line, for example -- but in stretched form so that the body could be attached to American sedan chassis.

Nash-Healey - 1951

Nash-Healy - 1952 restyling by Pinin Farina

Nash-Healey - 1953 coupe by Pinin Farina
The Nash-Healey was a product of Nash, a mainstream automobile manufacturer.  The initial 1951 version featured a Nash motor, but the chassis and body were by Donald Healey in England.  For 1952, the bodywork was by Pinin Farina in Italy, Farina doing the styling.  (Farina at the time was a styling consultant to Nash.)  A coupe version was added for 1953 and production ended the following year when Nash merged with Hudson to form American Motors Corporation.

Styling of the 1951 version was basically generic-1950 sports car.  The hood air scoop with its heavy chrome bars was probably functionally necessary because later Nash-Healeys also had such scoops, but that were more subdued.  The heavy grill seems very similar to that for Nash Ambassadors for 1951, and indeed might even be the same.  The overall effect is rather heavy and American, which might have been just what Nash wanted.

Or maybe not.  The 1952 Pinin Farina design is much lighter and has a definite Italian flavor, as might be expected.  Too bad this car was discontinued.

Kaiser Darrin prototype with designer Howard "Dutch" Darrin, 1953

Kaiser Darrin - 1954
Kaiser was on its way out as a mainstream manufacturer, so the Kaiser Darrin can be seen as one of the company's last-ditch dice rolls.  Darrin himself had been involved in custom coachbuilding for many years (think Hibbard & Darrin of Paris, late 1920s) and had been a styling consultant to Kaiser.  The fiberglass-bodied Kaiser Darrin sat on a Henry J (compact Kaiser line) chassis and also hewed to the prevailing sports car fashion -- but with several distinctive twists.  Most obvious is the tiny grille that makes me wonder if the radiator was given as much cool air as it needed.  Then there are the sliding doors that, according to the link, proved troublesome.  The back fenders had a falling-to-the-rear shape that terminated in standard Kaiser sedan tail lights.

Chevrolet Corvette - first production car, 1953
Finally, we have the American sports car that survived the early 1950s.  During the first 30 or 40 years, this was because Corvette was made by a fairly prosperous General Motors, and its sales levels proved just substantial enough to justify continued production.

The first Corvettes featured pleasant, professional styling.  Their failing was mechanical: in-line six cylinder motor, automatic transmission and a sedan-based suspension system.  Bodies were fiberglass, and suffered from quality control problems.

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