Monday, June 30, 2014

Paper Napkin Doodles

I suppose there are many readers of this blog who wonder about my qualifications for critiquing car designs.  Certainly from the experience standpoint, I'm leagues behind Automobile Magazine's long-time styling critic Robert Cumberford, who is a styling professional.  In my introductory post for this blog, I stated:

"As for my qualifications, at one point I considered making automobile styling a career. However, I came to realize that I didn't have the stuff to be outstanding in that field. At the University of Washington I stared as an Industrial Design major, a field that required a year of basic architectural design. But I eventually shifted and ended up graduating in commercial art. After serving in the army, I entered graduate school and ended up as a Ph.D. (from Penn) demographer specializing in developing population forecasting software systems. This gave me a more rigorous scientific/engineering mindset than my undergraduate training offered. Throughout all those years my interest in automobile styling continued and I followed developments closely. I leave it to you, the reader, to judge the quality of the articles I will be posting here."

Maybe I should have offered something more tangible.  For instance, whether I could actually draw cars and come up with designs.  The answer to that is: Perhaps -- at the advanced amateur level at best, even maybe just as a run-of-the-mill amateur.

I'll let you judge.  Above is a collection of ballpoint pen doodles I made recently on Starbucks paper napkins while having coffee.  Nothing fancy or refined.  Essentially the same sort of thing I doodled on margins of notebooks back in high school and college.

More ballpoint pen work here, but on a better grade of paper.  I made these sketches back in 2007 to illustrate a post on the old 2 Blowhards blog on the subject of continuity of brand details using Packard as the example.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Factory-Frenched Headlights

A Wikipedia entry discusses the practice of "frenching" headlights in terms of American hot rod customizing in the late 1940 and subsequently.  According to the entry, frenching (a term supposedly derived from "french cuffs" on men's shirts) primarily was the practice of having headlights be inset into the car body instead of being essentially flush with the surface.  An alternative was to leave the headlights in their original place, adding extended bezels or body sheet metal to create the effect of sunken lights.

Frenched headlights became an American styling fad in the 1950s.  The practice was to extend the front fender over or around the headlight to lengthen the car body both physically and visually.  The latter had to do with the longest body line seemingly set near the car's "shoulder height" rather than having the longest massing down at bumper level.  (Actually, the bumpers were at the extremes of the cars, but stylists diverted attention to the highlight line just mentioned.)

The fashion aspect was dying out by the early 1960s, though frenched production cars sometimes emerged until as late as the 1970s, when the need for aerodynamic efficiency was forced on the industry due to high fuel prices and government dictates.  Frenched headlights are not normally compatible with airflow smoothing.


1949 Lincoln Cosmopolitan
Headlight frenching on 1949-51 Lincolns was unintentional, the story goes.  It seems that the plan was to have the headlights hidden behind doors (a feature on 1942 DeSotos and a common practice in the 1960s and later).  But technical issues prevented Lincoln from incorporating this feature, so sunken headlight bezels were substituted.

1951 Pontiac
This 1951 Pontiac illustrates normal headlight appearance before the frenching fashion got underway.

1952 Mercury
Frenching came on strong for the redesigned 1952 Mercurys and Fords.

1952 Cadillac
At the time, a few other brands also began to "french," but much more timidly.  You have to look closely at the Cadillac image above (try clicking on it to enlarge) to see the hint of frenching on the upper part of the chromed bezel.

1953 Buick
Frenching soon became bolder for Ford-Mercury competitors.

1955 Mercury
Here is an example of leaning the frenched bezel forward to extend the length of the car at fender-top level.

1958 DeSoto
Examples of late-1950s frenching.

1977 Chevrolet Camaro
The re-styled 1971 Camaro featured traditional frenching somewhat like on the '55 Mercury shown above, but more subdued with the largest extension below the headlamps, rather than above them.  The '71 body remained in production through the early oil-crisis years, so stylists reworked the frenching to make the front of the car seem more aerodynamic, even though actual improvement was probably minimal.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Separated Twins: VW Scirocco and Alfasud Sprint

The two car models I'm featuring here weren't quite born at the same time, but the timing was very close.  They actually did come from the same styling womb, so to speak.  But they were products of competing manufacturers, so there was indeed separation.

The cars in question are, on the one hand, two versions of Alfa Romeo's Alfasud ("Alfa South") and on the other, Volkswagen's fist-series Scirocco.  Links dealing with the Alfasuds are here and here.  A Scirocco link is here.

All the designs were by the ItalDesign firm headed by famed designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (1938 - ).   For that reason, it shouldn't be surprising that similar-vintage designs were created in the same spirit.   What is somewhat surprising is that the designs are quite similar.  Shall we take a look?


1974 (ca.) Alfasud TI
1978 (ca.) Alfasud TI
The TI, a two-door version of the initial Alfasud, appeared towards the end of 1973, according to the Alfasud link above.

1974 VW Scirocco
1974 VW Scirocco
Sciroccos went on sale in 1974, but their development timeline probably overlapped that of the TI to a considerable extent.  The TI is slightly more rounded than the Scirocco and the rear side windows are shaped differently.  Both cars have ridges around their wheel openings as well as a crease running along the upper sides.  Grille ensembles are full-width in both cases, and simple in form.  Details such as these aside, the Scirocco can be characterized as basically being a crisper-looking TI or the TI as a softened Scirocco.

1976-83 Alfasud Sprint
1976-83 Alfasud Sprint
A couple of years later, Alfa Romeo introduced a sportier two-door Alfasud, the Sprint model.  Again, Giugiaro was responsible.

1981 VW Scirocco (second series)
1992 VW Scirocco (second series)
The Scirocco got a restyling for the 1981 model year.  The Wikipedia link above states that this time, the designer wasn't Giugiaro, but instead Herbert Schäfer, chief designer of Volkswagen's styling section.  Even though Giugiaro was out of the picture (so far as I know), the designs are still surprisingly similar, though this time, it's the Scirocco that has the slightly softer appearance.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Airflow and its Variations in 1936

This is hardly a new topic to hard-core automobile styling buffs, but it's still worth posting for those unfamiliar with events from nearly 80 years ago.  The 1930s were a time of turmoil for the American automobile industry and, indeed, for the industry elsewhere, thanks to the Great Depression.  Although there were beginnings to the trend toward integral car bodies and streamlining to aid fuel economy at speeds new superhighway systems allowed, the Depression accelerated the trend as manufacturers became desperate to attract customers through innovation.

The most infamous such attempt was that of the young, engineering-savvy Chrysler Corporation.  It introduced a line of cars with advanced engineering features and an unusual appearance resulting from aerodynamic testing in wind tunnels.  By "unusual," I'm referring to how different the cars looked when compared to cars potential buyers were seeing on streets and highways.  Early 30s cars were rather square, boxy-looking affairs with distinctly separate fenders, headlamps, spare tires and other bits.  True, this was being softened as valances were added to fenders and windshields and grilles were tilted back slightly as hints of attention being paid to reducing wind resistance.

This is covered in more detail with regard to the Airflow here. As it happened, the Airflow was not a sales success, though its layout of the drivetrain and passenger compartment quickly influenced the rest of the industry. Some blame the sales failure on production delays and criticisms planted by competitors, but it's hard to deny that styling was a good part of the problem. The 1934 Airflows had rounded, stubby-looking hoods and grilles that contrasted sharply with the high, long hoods on competing cars. So a crash facelift was put into place for 1935. The most cost-effective solution was to raise the hood and attach a more conventional grille.

Despite its market problems, the Airflow was inspirational to three carmakers in other countries. Sales success of these cars is hard to evaluate. For instance, the Toyota AA was Toyota's first car, so there can be no comparison to previous sales. Sweden's Volvo was an existing car maker, but its 1935-38 PV 36 Carioca didn't sell very well, in part due to its high price. On the other hand, The French Peugeot 402 was successful enough that a smaller, very similar 202 series was introduced a few years later.


1934 Chrysler Airflow
This is the original Airflow shown in a publicity photo with the radical-at-the-time Union Pacific M-10000 streamlined train.

1936 Chrysler Airlow
The rear of the car hadn't changed much in two years, but the hood and grille were redesigned for 1935 and further facelifted in 1936.

1936 DeSoto Airflow
There was a DeSoto Airflow line introduced in 1934 along with Chrysler's. The DeSotos had a shorter wheelbase, the appearance difference having to do with the distance between the dash cowling and the front axle line, as can be seen in this car auction photo. There too was a 1935 facelift focusing on the hood and grille, but the 1936 DeSoto Airflows had only detail changes in the grille for 1936 because the line ceased after that year. Chrysler Airflow production continued through 1937.

1935 Volvo PV36 Carioca
Production versions for 1936 were the same as the car pictured here.  Unlike Chrysler and DeSoto four-door sedans, the Carioca was a four-window instead of a six-window style.  Airflow similarities are many, including the rear fender skirt treatment and the positioning of the headlamps.

1936 Toyota AA
Toyota didn't place the headlights in the body, instead having them freestanding, a practice still common in 1936.  The AA was a six-window affair and the sheet metal shaping on the front is very Airflow-like.  One missing item seems to be rear fender skirts.

1939 Peugot 402
The 402 model Peugeot debuted for the 1936 model year and was little changed in 1939.  The hood/grille treatment is more in line with the original 1934 Airflows, but there is no "cheek" panel on either side of the grille, as seen in all the cars shown above.  Headlamps were placed behind the grille bars, a feature unique to Peugeot.  Perhaps most important is that the 402 has a sleeker appearance than the others.

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.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

What Were They Thinking?: 1959 Buick Grille Proposal

The late 1950s marked a crisis point for General Motors styling.  Its long-time leader, Harley Earl, was nearing retirement and, perhaps coincidently, running out of ideas.  As I state in my e-book "Automobile Styling: From Evolution to Fashion":

* * * * *

The tepid public response to GM’s 1957 senior line resulted in a set of garish, panic-induced 1958 facelifts that a younger Earl likely would not have tolerated.  My belief is that Earl’s success from the end of the 1920s to the mid-1950s was based on his ability to formulate a valid concept of styling evolution. ...

Earl’s real problem by 1956 or thereabouts was that he could not think of any valid new evolutionary styling path.  And he could not do so because no such path existed.  So he floundered, not being able to deal with a directionless styling environment.

* * * * *

A number of garish, bloated styling proposals were prepared for the 1959 model year.  The story goes that some young stylists spotted a lot full of not-yet-announced 1957 Chrysler Corporation cars that were lithe and gorgeous, in marked contrast to the ponderous proposed 1959 GM designs.  Earl being off in Europe at the time, the styling staff essentially revolted and a crash effort was made to have the restyled 1959 GM line competitive with Chrysler's.  GM styling for 1957 and 1958 was largely finalized and could not be changed in mid-1957 when the Chrysler cars were seen.

One of those curious proposals under Earl's direction involved putting a version of the front of his famed 1951 LeSabre dream car on the 1959 Buick.  This seems bizarre for at least two reasons.  In the first place, the LeSabre's front was an awkward piece of styling, its elements ill-suited to one another.  Secondly, the LeSabre was an extremely low car, much lower than a big Buick sedan, and whatever charm the LeSabre had was lost on the differently proportioned target.


Views of 1958 Buicks
This design was pretty well locked in when the events mentioned above took place.  The basic shape was rather heavy-looking due to some large-radius rounding.  Chrome accents were too abundant, questionably styled, and often poorly sited.  Altogether, an unfortunate design.

LeSable-faced proposal for the 1959 Buick: Special-Interest Autos magazine page
Special-Interest Autos, when Michael Lamm was editing and writing, was a great source for American styling lore.  This page from its October 1991 issue shows a version of the LeSabre front grafted onto a Buick clay model.

LeSabre head-on view
Here is the front of the LeSabre for comparison.

Publicity photo of LeSabre mock-up
I include this image to show the entire LeSabre.  The car itself still exists in GM's possession.

1959 Buick Invictas
Finally, here is what 1959 Buicks finally looked like.  Not a great design, but as we've seen, it might have been far worse.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Disconnected Roofs

This is a "nothing new under the sun" post.  The subject being a type of detail shared by two concept cars introduced around 60 years apart.

Earlier this year at the Detroit auto show, Nissan unveiled its Sport Sedan Concept, a car that a number of observers thought might be a preview of a future Nissan Maxima.  Nissan's web site has it here and Automobile Magazine mentioned it here.

That was in January.  Robert Cumberford, the magazine's longtime styling critic devoted a column to the Sport Sedan Concept in the magazine's May 2014 printed issue.  Among his observations was this: "I hope the 'floating roof' remains [in a production version], as it greatly helps lighten the overall aspect of what is, after all, an overly thick and heavy-looking lower body."  Elsewhere in the column he calls the thin, black gap between the C-pillar and the lower body a "Very nice workout."  I agree.

What was Cumberford talking about?  We'll just have to take a look.


This is the Sport Sedan Concept in profile.  Note the thin, black line that acts as an extension of the line running along the top of the windows.  Alternatively, you can see the gap between the bronze-colored roof and the lower body of the same color.  The usual practice is to blend the two surfaces.

A three-quarter rear view.  The gap shows more clearly here; this was the image Cumberford used in his column when discussing the feature.

Transparent roofs have been styling fetish on dream cars for many years, and the Sport Sedan Concept continues the practice.  This view shows how the black separation band continues around what is the backlight (rear window).

In 1953, Packard introduced its Balboa show car (see here, scroll down).  It was based on Packard's Caribbean high-end convertible, with a special top crafted to create a two-door "hardtop convertible" (a body style popular at the time).  The truly non-production Packard details have to do with the rear of the top.  Rather than a conventional backlight, the Balboa has a flat, slightly reverse-leaning rear window.  This feature eventually appeared on American production cars such as the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser.

Now notice that there is a grooved, rectangular block towards the bottom of the C-pillar.  As with the black line on the Nissan, this serves to more strongly separate the roof from the lower body.  So far as I'm concerned, this detail was not really necessary because 1953 Packards had lower-body "hips" that, when juxtaposed by a top that was inset and had flat widow glass on its sides, already defined visually distinct elements.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Lancia Thesis: Latter-Day Lincoln Zephyr?

As in other countries, the Italian automobile industry consolidated.   But it consolidated further than most, because today it has been reduced to Fiat plus a few small brands controlled by foreign manufactuers.  The venerable Lancia firm was absorbed by Fiat in 1969, but continues in production as a distinct marque.

Lancias come in various sizes.   For 2002-2009, there was a large (for Italy) sedan marketed as the Lancia Thesis, the subject of this post.

From the front wheels back, the Thesis was a conventional, even conservative design for the times.   But the front end was unusual and distinctive.   I don't know why it emerged from the styling studio they way it did, but am struck by its resemblance to the Lincoln Zephyr of the late 1930s.


Front view of a Lincoln Zephyr for 1937, the model year after it was introduced.  Note especially the shape of the headlights and their housings and compare these to those in the Lancia Thesis images below. Even the grilles display similarity in that they narrow towards the bottom, though this is because Lancia grilles traditionally are tapered, whereas Lincoln stylists were placing a sharp prow on what originally was a downward-curing nose of a rear-engine experimental car.  (Note the character line running below the side windows that curves downward towards the front of the car.  It approximates the nose profile of the John Tjaarda experimental car design.)

Front view of Lancia Thesis.

Front three-quarter view of Lancia Thesis.

Lancia Thesis side view.

Rear three-quarter view.  Note the vertical tail lights; recent Jaguar XKs feature something vaguely similar.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Nash Keeps Pace With Fashions, 1939-41

Life is almost always tough for a small automobile maker.  Compared to the largest firms, their sales are small, yet tooling, advertising and other expenses are similar, so these costs are often higher on a per-vehicle basis.  This also means that it is more difficult to afford complete redesigns, which in turn could lead eventually to comparatively old-fashioned appearance and sales lost to more stylish rivals from large companies.  I wrote here about how Hudson stretched a 1936 design out through the 1947 model year.

One of America's lesser brands was able to keep pace with Big Three automaker styling at the end of the 1930s.  That company was Nash, at that time part of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, an automobile / home appliance combine.  A fairly detailed description of 1939-1940 Nash models can be linked here.

The first link, from Wikipedia, mentions that "George Walker and Associates and freelance body stylist Don Mortrude" were responsible for Nash styling at that time.  Walker became Ford styling vice president in the 1950s.

Below are images I found on the Internet comparing Nash with some of its Big Three competition.  Note the similarity of the general forms of the cars.


1939 Nash Lafayette Special
1939 Ford De Luxe Tudor Sedan
Both designs shown here are more advanced than those for 1939 model General Motors brands, despite GM in those days being considered the style leader in America.  Moreover, they are better integrated than 1939 designs from Hudson, Studebaker and even the Chrysler Corporation's brand portfolio.  The only retrograde styling feature on the Nash was the hinging of the rear door.

1941 Nash Ambassador
1941 Oldsmobile Dynamic
Two years later, GM was back to ruling the styling roost.  Yet Nash was still able to keep up with the leader.  Also note that the Ambassador's rear doors are now hinged on the center post.

1941 Nash 600
1941 Nash publicity photo
More views of 1941 Nash models.  The vertical 1939 grille theme has been replaced with a more horizontal layout, though the upper sections feature vertical bars.  The four-door sedan in the lower picture has a rear-hinged door.  It was shown open so as to reveal the folding seatback car-bed feature touted by Nash through the 1940s.