Thursday, October 30, 2014

Triumph TR2: Ugly, But Popular

The Triumph TR2, produced 1953-1955, was intended to be built on the cheap.  It was a response to the success of the MG TC/TD in America, a gamble that a sports car from Triumph could bring in a useful amount of foreign exchange to an England still recovering economically from World War 2.

Background sources on the TR2 can be found here and here.  They don't give a date when the design and engineering processes for the TR2 began, but it was probably around 1950, two years before the car was revealed at the 1952 Earls Court Motor Show.  The TR's market niche was between the MG T series and the Jaguar XK120, a wise decision.

Standard Motor clearly thought a Triumph sports car launch was risky, so body fabrication was made as inexpensive as possible.  The result was ugly styling.  Even so, the design didn't seem to hurt TR2 sales.  The car was peppy and got good reviews, so apparently buyers disregarded the car's looks.


A general view of the TR2.  It features sports car styling details de rigueur around 1950: flow-though fenders that fall off to the rear with an up-kick rear fender and low-cut doors.  The bug-eye headlamps are very 1930s and the hole for the radiator opening are results of the small budget.

I include this Mechanix Illustrated page because it shows the TR's rear, home to the spare tire and some space for luggage.  Tom McCahill was the father of American magazine car testing.  He was a colorful, opinionated writer and his many fans (including young me) happily awaited each month's report.  Note that the review's sub-head focuses on performance.

The TR2 doesn't look all that bad when viewed from the side.  I would prefer the front-rear fender intersection to be at least six inches (15 cm) higher.  That dark area behind the driver is part of the tonneau cover.  Like the MG Ts, the TR lacks roll-up side windows; weather protection was a canvas top and side curtains.  In those days, American fans held that primitive cockpit conditions were a necessary, even desirable, part of having a sports car.

Happy TR2 fans on what seems to be a California beach.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Audi's Heavy Grille Design

Volkswagen's Audi brand has traditionally featured clean, conservative styling.  Exterior ornamentation is minimal, and car testers tend to focus their praise on interior aesthetics.  (For an historical summary of Audi, click here.)

Around 2004 things changed.  Former Alfa Romeo styling boss Walter de' Silva joined Audi in 2002 and made a strong, controversial mark in the form of a new grille design.  Visually, the grille appears to drape over the bumper to terminate close to the bottom edge of the car.  In actuality, there are two openings, one above and another below the bumper.  The bumper part of the ensemble is clad in black material and in many cases is hidden by a license plate.  The overall effect is ponderous: a nose-heavy appearance on what had been fairly graceful designs.  I figured at the time that Audi would revert back to a more conventional front.  But it did not.  De' Silva's theme has continued for ten models years and counting.  Moreover, Audi is doing well in the marketplace, slowly closing in on rivals BMW and Mercedes.

The main Audi models marketed here in the USA are the A4, A6 and A8, known internally respectively as B, C and D series.  To illustrate Audi grille design evolution, I'll focus on the A6.


2000 Audi A6 (C5)
Here is the Audi A6 before de' Silva got his hands on it.  A clean, dignified design, but not very exciting.  The Audi identity come in the form of the overlapping Auto Union circles on the grille.

2005 Audi A6 (C6)
What de' Silva did was drape the grille surround across the bumper, tying together what were two separate openings on the C5 series front end.  The result is heavy looking because the shape is large and because it also draws the eye towards the lower edge of the body.

2009 Audi A6 (C6) facelifted
The grille has fewer crossbars, the lower edge of the facing flows, and LED lights are included on the headlamp ensemble.

2013 Audi A6 (C7)
Recent Audis are getting faintly hexagonal grille shapes with the slight squaring off of what were rounded corners at the top.

Auto Union Type C - 1934-37

Auto Union Type D - 1938-39
Auto Union was the ancestor of today's Audi.  I wonder if de' Silva was thinking of these tall grilles when he was pondering the present Audi theme.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

MGA: Cautious Step, Uncertain Direction

By the early 1950s, management at MG must have felt that it was high time that styling of its sports car line should be modernized from what was basically a design appropriate to the early 1930s.  The result was the MGA, produced 1955-1962.  Some details regarding the MGA are here.

The styling theme chosen was entirely conventional in terms of sports cars of the 1950s.  The typical 50s sports car had a long hood, front fenders that passed over the doors in a downwards trajectory, separate or sometimes blended rear fenders that, in both cases, were higher than the intersection point of the front fenders, and the driver/passenger compartment in the form a cockpit.

I never liked MGA styling because I thought it wasn't balanced correctly, as I'll explain below.


Designer Syd Enever voluntarily or otherwise made use of styling cues from previous MGs.  Shown here is a poster featuring the TD series.  (After it and before the A there was the MG TF, a very slightly streamlined TD that I hope to discuss in a future post.)  The main MGA carry-over features are the grille theme and the relationship of the cockpit to the rear fenders.

This MGA sports British license plates, but it's intended for export, having left-hand drive.  The MG grille design is blended into the curved nose.  As with the TD, the seat is only slightly forward of the rear wheels.

A coupé version was also available.  The top is wedged ahead of the trunk lid, probably to avoid the expense and bother of a separate set of stampings for the rear.  As a result, we see an ill-proportioned cabin that seems totally unrelated to the rest of the car.

The dark color of this MGA gives a better sense of its shape.

Here is a more recent photo of a restored MGA up for sale.  I include it because it's a good side view and helps to illustrate why I don't care much for the design.  The problem is this: The front fender seems a little too long and bland, virtually featureless.  But in the area around the rear of the cockpit, we find a busy set of details -- the rear cockpit curve, the door cut-line, the transition to the rear fender, the rear fender itself, and the wheelhouse and rear wheel.  All this attracts the eye, making the front part of the car seem too long.  It also gives the rear a sort of tacked-on look.

Here are some ways to improve the design.  Have the front fenderline blend into the rear of the cockpit.  Fill out the front part of the rear fender an inch (2 mm) or so in order to make it less tail-heavy.  Adding some kind of character line or thin chrome trim along the sides at about bumper level from wheelhouse to wheelhouse (and perhaps extending behind the rear wheelhouse) would help tie the front and rear together. The front could be improved by lowering the headlights slightly.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Design Classic: Cisitalia 202

The Cisitalia 202 coupé is generally acknowledged as one of the automobile design greats.  In part, this was because it was one of only eight vehicles honored in a 1951 exhibit at New York's prestigious Museum of Modern Art.  A PDF file of MoMA's press release for the exhibit is here.   Current MoMA collection Web site items regarding the Cisitalia are here and here.

As for the Cisitalia firm, its Wikipedia entry is here and a Web site devoted to it can be found here.

The Cisitalia 202 was designed in 1946 by Battista "Pinin" Farina, head of the Pininfarina coachbuilding firm.  Many observers think that the Cisitalia was his most significant design, because it set the scene for the torrent of outstanding Italian designs in the late 1940s and through the 1950s.  Let's take a look.


These color images are of a well-preserved or restored Cisitalia 202.  They might be copyrighted, but since they appear on a number of Web sites without attribution, I can only offer a general acknowledgement to the copyright holder, if there is one.

Here are two photos probably taken around the time this car was built.

The main functional defect of the design seems to be the lack of a trunk lid.  Perhaps that's because the car had a very small area available for storage.  At the rear, there is what appears to be an access panel for a spare tire.

The car's proportions are driven by the engineering package.  The hood is fairly long, but that doesn't matter because the car is pretty small.  The steering wheel is placed at about the midpoint of the length of the car, so the driver's head is a short ways aft of center.  The overall concept features an integral, "envelope" body.  However, it is not a bland blob because the front and rear fenders are still somewhat distinct, adding interest.  Allowing the rear fender its own shape relieves what might otherwise have been a slab-sided look such as can be seen on contemporaneous designs such as the 1947 Kaiser.  The 1947 Studebaker also retained a distinct rear fender for the same reason.

The basic body design of this 1948 Oldsmobile 98 was probably nearly set around the time the Cisitalia 202 first appeared in 1947 (trim details were finalized a little later).  This means that its appearance was not influenced by the Cisitalia.  It too has clean looks and a distinct rear fender behind a flow-through front fender.  So Farina's Cisitalia was actually in line with the styling zeitgeist of the postwar 1940s.

Besides its good proportions and carefully stated details, Farina did make one bold move: he dropped the hood to near fender-level, a featured picked up by many later designs.  Here too there was precedent in certain prewar racing cars.  So while Farina was not innovative on the Cisitalia, it was his outstanding design ability that allowed him to pull the various features into one place in an extremely tasteful manner.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Unloved Chevrolet Chevette

For model years 1976-1987, General Motors' American entry-level compact car was the Chevrolet Chevette.  Its Wikipedia entry is here.

According to Wikipedia, the car sold reasonably well, even though it had a number of technical shortcomings.  I rented one once in Toronto, driving it as far away as the New York City area.  That was many years ago, so I don't have clear memories other than it got me around and that I was glad I don't own a Chevette.

As for the styling, Chevette's small package size offered little scope for flashy features.  Plus, the car was engineered to be cheap to build, so styling had to be more subordinate to metal stamping and assembly demands than usual.  GM's styling operation was probably still the best in the business when the Chevette was being developed (even though a few design clunkers were slipping into production), so the Chevette's appearance was competently bland.  Slightly larger wheels would have improved matters, I think.


The 1976 Chevette pictured here has a roof rack and fake wood sides, but I include it because it shows the initial grille.

Here is a 1979 four-door, six-window Chevette.  The grille has been restyled to lessen the cheap impression given by the chromeless original.  Headlamps are now rectangular rather than circular.  The six-window treatment makes the greenhouse a little fussy on such a small car.

A view of the Chevette's rear, this on a 1981 model.  By this point, the tail light assembly was wrapped around to the sides.  Very simple styling without serious technical flaws.

Monday, October 13, 2014

1948 Tucker: Intriguing Styling, But Not Really Ahead of its Time

Intriguing indeed.  That was the design of the 1948 Tucker automobile, 51 of which are said to have been built and nearly all of which still exist.

The history of the Tucker automobile is complicated in itself and further muddled by various theories regarding conspiracies regarding why the company failed.  Two links providing background are here and here.  If you are interested in how the Tucker was styled, find a copy of industrial designer Philip Egan's book which focuses on that part of the tale.

Eagan was a junior employee of J. Gordon Lippincott's New York design firm that was hired for two months in the spring of 1947 on a crash-project basis to provide alternatives to the design that veteran stylist Alex Tremulis was working on.  Other Lippincott team members were Read Viemeister (consultant), Budd Steinhilber, Tucker Madawick and Hal Bergstrom, their manager.  Tremulis, in turn, had been hired to come up with a practical design in the wake of General Motors veteran George Lawson's radical Tucker Torpedo version of 1946.

The basic Tremulis design was good -- a taut greenhouse with crisp fenestration offset by judicious curving on the sides and a unique front fender profile -- all helped by the long (128 inch, 325 cm) wheelbase.  When Tremulis began working out the basic body shape there was uncertainty regarding the placement of the motor, but soon it was decided to place it at the rear.  In the mid-1940s, rear-engines were considered by many as the wave of the future, which is perhaps why Preston Tucker opted for it.  Twenty further years of experience demonstrated that such placement is usually a bad idea, but the main problem this had for the Tucker was that the engineering work helped delay the car's launch.  The choice of engine was an even greater problem in that regard, but that was a side-issue so far as styling is concerned.

The Lippincott team thought that the Tremulis body design was good, and so spent their two months focusing mostly on front and rear details.  They also used half of their full-size clay styling model to propose a design for a future Tucker '50 replacement for the Tucker '48.  As it happened, Preston Tucker preferred the Lippincott front and rear details to those on the Tremulis model.  Later in 1947 Egan was hired by Tucker to work on interior styling.

Conspiracy theories aside, I think that Tucker failed for the following reasons: (1) the project was under-capitalized; (2) too many innovations were attempted, though innovation was Tucker's prime marketing strategy; and (3) development time had to be short due to the financial situation, and it was too short to deal with the car's innovative features.


Early Tucker advertising - ca. 1946
This is the initial design, by George Lawson.  Many futuristic features, but not much practicality.  The wraparound windshield and wrap-over side windows probably could not have been mass-produced at that time.  Plus, the side windows could not be rolled down -- so how could one pay tolls when driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike?  (The central seating position of the driver would have made performing that small task even less easy.)  The front wheels seem to be housed in enclosed versions of cycle fenders that pivot when the wheels turn.  About the only feature retained for production Tuckers was the central headlamp that also pivoted with the front wheels.  The grille theme persisted for much of the development period on the Alex Tremulis version.

Tucker '48 advertising card
The car shown is probably an early one.  The background seems to be part of the factory interior.

Preston Tucker, car, at Chicago factory - publicity photo
This car doesn't have the crossed grille bars.  Nor is the bumper chromed, a defect on the prototype car.

1948 Tucker - auction photo
Despite Preston Tucker's concern for passenger safety, the rear doors are hinged at the rear -- so-called "suicide doors."  However, other 1948 vintage cars such as Chryslers had that same feature.

Close-up view of front - RM Auctions photo
The paint color on this excellent specimen is not original, but it does look good.

Three-view set - RM Auctions photos

In the title of this post I claim that Tucker styling wasn't all that advanced.  In the first place, it was a "fastback" design -- popular at the time, but abandoned by other can makers in the early 1950s.  The front windshield was a two-piece, flat-glass affair when other cars were about to feature one-piece curved-glass windshields.  Tucker opted for its design because it was intended that windshield sections would pop out if struck by the head of a driver or passenger during a collision.  A third feature that was becoming obsolescent was the separate fenders, well-styled though they were. The industry trend was to flow-through fenders that had appeared on 1947 Studebakers, Kaisers and Frazers, and then showed up on 1948 Hudsons, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs.  This problem was recognized by the Lippincott team, and their proposed Tucker '50 did feature a flow-through fender treatment.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

What Were They Thinking?: Cadillac Cimarron

In regard to the present post, What Were They Thinking is more a marketing problem than one of styling, yet the styling was wrapped up in the marketing.

The subject is the Cadillac Cimarron, produced for the 1982-88 model years.  As this Wikipedia entry mentions, the Cimarron was intended as an entry-level Cadillac product.  (And an evaluation by automobile columnist Dan Neil is here.)  This was at a time when American car makers were trying to reduce the size of large segments of their product lines in response to buyer demand influenced by gasoline shortages in the 1970s.  General Motors came up with what they called the J platform for the 1982 model year, and the 101.2 inch (2570 mm) wheelbase cars were offered by all five of GM's American brands as well as for Opel (Germany) and Holden (Australia).

One problem, as the Wikipedia entry notes, was that the Cimarron was rushed into production.  This meant that there wasn't enough time for stylists to distinguish the appearance of the Cimarron from less-expensive J cars such as the bottom-of-the-line Chevrolet Cavalier.  But who knows? -- perhaps the product development budget never would have had room for drastic styling differences.  In the event, the relatively expensive Cimarron and inexpensive Cavalier looked pretty similar, so Cadillac's prestige reputation took a hit below the waterline.


Two views of the 1982 Cadillac Cimarron.

Here are views of the 1982 Chevrolet Cavalier line. Click on the image to enlarge.

The J cars were designed a few years before rigorous attention to aerodynamic efficiency became a common styling practice in the USA.  So they are in line with the so-called "three box" styling of the 1970s where bodies had taut, nearly straight lines, roofs were thin and flat, and greenhouses featured proportionally large areas of glass.

Given that context and the short-wheelbase package, J-car styling was competently done.  The cars were conventionally attractive, but not heart-stoppingly beautiful.  But the Cimarron was clearly a tarted-up Cavalier.  From a marketing standpoint, it was a cheap and cheap-looking Cadillac.  In the omniscience of retrospect, General Motors should never have produced it.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bustlebacks Before There Were Bustlebacks

During the early post- World War 2 years here in America (and even shortly before the war), car buyers often had the choice of styling themes for the same brand, especially if they were shopping for a General Motors automobile.  The themes had to do with the treatment of top ("greenhouse") and rear of a car body.

On the one hand, the fashion of visual streamlining yielded what were called "fastbacks" where the roofline fell off to the rear in a smooth curve that ended near the back bumper.  On the other hand there were "bustlebacks," where the trunk area formed a curve separate and distinct from that of the roofline.  As cars grew longer, bustleback trunks became increasingly large, offering considerably more storage space than fastbacks could manage.  Even in the early years of the fastback fashion, bustlebacks were more practical from a storage standpoint, so all that fastbacks had going for themselves was a sleeker appearance.  By the early 1950s, GM dropped fastback bodies from its product lines due to poor sales levels.

Because of all this, along with an awareness of the usual appearance of pre-1930s sedans, I've tended to think of bustlebacks as appearing on the styling scene as of around 1940.  But I was mistaken.  I failed to take into account what is revealed in the Gallery below.


1948 Oldsmobile 98 fastback

1948 Oldsmobile 98 bustleback
Here are examples of post-war GM cars with the two styles.

A 1928 Chrysler.  Sedans of that era tended to have a chopped-off back, though in some cases a box-like trunk could be added at the rear behind the body shell.

This is circa late-1920s Paramount movie composite image (printed on textured paper, it seems).  Three of the cars seen here are coupes or roadsters with what clearly are bustlebacks containing trunkspace and/or a rumble seat.  Note that these are all two-door and not four-door models: those were usually like the Chrysler shown in the previous image.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Chris Bangle's Provocative BMW 7 Series

Chris Bangle left the top styling post at BMW several years ago and it has been more than a dozen years since his 7 Series (E65) sedan design was introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show.  So perhaps a little perspective on that noteworthy design is in order.

Bangle's Wikipedia entry is here, and here is a collection of interviews and other Bangle-related items.   Background on the 7 Series is here, and more details on the 2002-2008 model years E65-E68 are here.

From a styling standpoint, by far the greatest criticism fell on the treatment of the area around the trunk lid and upper rear fender.  Apparently it was decided to raise the top of the trunk slightly from that of previous 7 Series.  For some reason, Bangle must have thought that this functional change ought to be expressed functionally in the design by way of emphasis.  That is, the raised trunk was made more visually distinct than it probably should have been.  Images below should help me explain this.


Here is an introductory image of the E65.  From the rear wheels forward, it's a pleasant design carrying the traditional BMW divided grille theme and side-window dogleg shape.  The raised trunk can be glimpsed.

Side view.

The design problem is clearly seen in this rear three-quarter view.  The top of the trunk is nearly flat and the upper sides are extended into the rear quarter panel.  I would have been tempted to have the extension blend with top or perhaps would have increased the radius of the trunk top side curve in order to lessen the shelf-like effect.  Instead, Bangle chose to emphasize the side of the trunk lid by extending the fenders aft of the rear doors without drastically softening the side curve.  The resulting intersection is a sharp, deliberate contrast between the curved fender side and the relative flat edge of the trunk lid emphasized by the very crisp transition to the top plane.  That old "functional purity" industrial design argument could have been used to justify these design details, but I find the result clumsy, if not quite actually ugly.

This is the 2009 model year redesign of the 7 Series.  Bangle was still heading BMW styling when this car was designed.  The trunk is still high, but the roof curve extends farther aft and blends with the lid, essentially eliminating its flatness.  On the sides, the front shape of the tail lights has an interrupted alignment with the roof curve, better tying together the greenhouse and the lower body at the rear.  The top of the trunk at its sides lacks the sharp transition from top to sides as seen on the E65 version, thus softening the previous effect even though the fadeaway is similarly positioned.  Also note that the lid cuts are slightly inward from the sides here, whereas the E65 cuts were at the fender line break.  The resulting rear aspect of the car is much more pleasant than previously.  So why couldn't Bangle have done something like this in the first place?