Monday, September 29, 2014

Spinners Upon Spinners: Early 1950s Ford Grilles

Although I wasn't fond of it at first, I now find the 1949 Ford an important, emblematic design (I discuss this in my ebook on car styling).

A distinctive feature (but not what was really important historically) was the grille design that featured a central element that was likened to an airplane's propeller hub spinner.  This spinner gave the front of the car a distinct focus in an otherwise somewhat bland design; imagine how the car would have looked were the spinner absent.

Ford stylists retained the spinner theme for several years, for a while elaborating it in an almost predictable manner, as seen below.


1949 Ford
Here is the original version of the spinner grille.

1950 Ford
Almost nothing was changed for the 1950 model year.

1951 Ford
The final facelift of the '49 Ford featured a two-spinner arrangement.

1952 Ford
The completely restyled 1952 Fords had what amounted to three spinners.  That set some people to thinking that even more spinners might be expected in future years.

1953 Ford
But no, the '53s dropped the spinner count down to one.

1954 Ford
Oops!  The 1954s reverted to three spinners.

1955 Ford
Finally, central spinners disappeared in 1955, though the running lights at the sides of the grille retained the spinner style.

1956 Ford
Spinners were finally gone for 1956.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fiat's Ugly Turn-of-the Century Multipla

Fiat's Multipla (built 1998-2010) was a compact, but wide, utility vehicle for hauling passengers and their belongings in a highly space-efficient manner.

Its styling was ugly as sin.

Some background and technical details can be found here.  I've never driven one, but I've read here and there that it was an okay vehicle if one was inside it.  I was in Italy a few months ago and noticed that a number of Multiplas were still on the streets of Rome and Palermo.

The odd styling was recognized as a barrier to sales, so the Multipla was given a facelift in 2004 that eliminated its worst quirks.


Front view of the initial Multipla design.  The windshield is nearly flat, but kept comparatively small in this age of aerodynamically-dictated sloped greenhouses.  What we see here is a strange metal roll under the windshield that houses some sort of running lights.  The purpose of the roll is to mask the cowling while allowing for a low hoodline.  It is this ensemble of windshield, roll and hood that makes the car ugly.

Side view with a driver to indicate scale.  The wheels are too small for my taste.  The car has plenty of glass-area -- probably a little too much.

View showing the rear.  Yes, a slightly higher beltline might be helpful.

Here is an example of the facelifted Multipla.  The main change is a new hood that aligns with the lower edge of the windshield, a likely aerodynamic improvement.  Headlights and front air intakes are also revised.  I would still like larger wheels and a higher beltline, but those items would have made the facelift cost more than Fiat was willing to pay.  I wonder why Fiat didn't use a design similar to this in the first place.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Cascading Curves: 1949 Buick

Legendary General Motors styling boss Harley Earl could order instant changes in the design characteristics of the corporation's product lines.  On the other hand, he held a few preferences regarding how GM cars should be styled.  Most famously, he liked cars to be low -- either in actuality or via styling devices that could give a taller car a lower appearance.  He also liked high, long hoods that suggested a powerful motor lurking beneath.  And he was fond of large-radius curves that created a rounded look.

Even though he had such preferences, Earl was not a slave to them, particularly the rounded look.  After 1935 or thereabouts when the appearance of streamlining became the norm for American automobile style, his GM cars had curves, but there were usually crisp or angular surfaces and details that contrasted or complemented the curved parts.

An interesting example of Earl's styling ideals is the design of the 1949 Buick.  I think its styling can be characterized as being a series of curves cascading from the high point of the car's top.


The notion of "cascading curves" is well illustrated in this side view of a Buick Super.  Towards the front of the car, a curve descends from the high point of the roof, breaks, and then continues down the windshield.  The hood is fairly flat for a ways and then curves downwards, a theme echoed by the front fenderline.  To the rear, there is the downwards curve of the top, followed by a similar curve for the trunk lid.  What interests me the most is the treatment of the tail lights and aft part of the rear fenders: Note that there is a double set of downward curves here, enhancing the overall cascade theme.  The horizontal chrome strip serves as a contrast to the cascading.

Another view of a 1949 Buick Super four-door sedan.  More cascading can be found at the front of the hood and the adjoining curves of the vertical grille bars.

A Buick Roadmaster hardtop convertible.  Note the cascading elements towards the rear of the car.  A set of downward curves flows from the roof to the trunk to the taillights to the aft part of the rear fender.

Rear view of a 1949 Buick Roadmaster four-door sedan.  This provides another perspective of the cascading at the rear of the car.

I don't consider the 1949 Buick a great design.  But for its era, it is a good one.  For some reason, the cascading curves theme has always appealed to me even though I suspect that it is not a good general-purpose design practice.  That's because it would usually yield a too-soft appearance.  1949-vintage cars tended to look a little soft anyway,  perhaps due to the state of sheet metal stamping practice, so the Buick design theme works well in that context.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tata's Ultra-Cheap Nano

India's Tata company startled the automotive world a few years ago when it announced what they claimed was the world's least expensive car, the Nano.  As the link indicates, the Nano cannot yet be considered a market success.

The car was intended to be an entry-level car for Indians who rode two-wheeled vehicles.  But all the publicity regarding the low price drove away potential buyers who didn't want to be seen in a "cheap" car.  Another problem with the Nano has to do with its lack of features that are standard even in entry-level cars from non-Indian firms.  Plus there were a number of safety-related concerns mentioned in the link.

One fact I couldn't locate on a not-too-diligent Google search was the name of the styling team or lead stylist of the Nano.  That's too bad, because the car is cute and contemporary looking despite the severe aesthetic constraints imposed by the extremely small package.  Ordinarily, I would complain about the small wheels because most cars look best if their height is about two or two and a half times the diameter of their tires.  But those packaging constraints make that relationship impossible for a Nano.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Counteracting Turret-Top Visual Bloat

Automobile design changed drastically during the decade of the Great Depression as manufacturers accelerated evolutionary trends in an effort to regain the sales levels experienced during the late 1920s.   One innovation was the abandonment of the "composite" body, where wooden framing was covered by sheet metal.  The replacement was all-steel construction, in part facilitated by improvements in rolled steel sizes and stamping techniques.

General Motors launched its all-steel "Turret Top" bodies on much of its 1936 line, as this link indicates.  The Turret Top design was strongly rounded, in part because the large, one-piece top stampings were intended to be stackable, and also because GM engineers thought that the shape would lessen acoustical "drumming."  (Previous tops had center sections with treated canvas inserts that dampened structure-related noise.)

Since the all-steel cars had rounded shapes, styling boss Harley Earl must have felt that having rounded windows would enhance the theme.  But the resulting designs seemed too soft-looking, and GM hurriedly tried to counteract the bloated effect in its 1937 models.  The basic body shapes could not be easily changed, but other parts such as hoods, grilles and fenders could be altered, and were.


1936 Buick Century
Here is a Buick four-door sedan sporting the rounded look.

1937 Buick Century
This is a two-door Buick from the following model year.  Its roof has a slightly different shape than that of the four-door.  But note the model year changes.  Fenders have more blunted rear ends.  The hood extends over the top of the grille, yielding a longer, more squared-off look.  The grille has horizontal rather then vertical bars and its shape is now two squared-off panels.

1936 Oldsmobile
Oldsmobiles also got the Turret Top and a rounded appearance not very different from Buick's

1937 Oldsmobile Eight
The 1937 facelift also incorporated an extended hood line.  Fenders are more squared-off at the rear then those of the '37 Buicks.

1937 Oldsmobile Six
Six cylinder and eight cylinder Oldsmobiles each had different grille designs for 1937 (and 1938 as well).  Both designs are a crisp contrast to the 1936 "fencer's mask" grille style.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Mid-1960s Datsun Bluebirds

My first encounter with a Datsun 310 Bluebird was as a distinctly ill-at-ease passenger in one of Yokohama's famous kamikaze taxis as the driver snaked back and forth between the passenger car portion of the street and the central streetcar zone, narrowly averting the trolly passenger-waiting islands.

"Damn good car," I thought.

Months later, I rode a Tokyo taxi, perhaps a new Datsun 410, though the trip was less scary because traffic was so thick the driver couldn't speed.  It seems I have a soft spot for Datsuns from the time I was in the Army in the Far East.

The Wikipedia entry on the Datsun Bluebird (its name in Japan) line is here.  It mentions the change from the Datsun name (a contrived one -- no meaning in Japanese) to Nissan, a change that displeased me.  I dislike the name Nissan because I find it harder to pronounce than Datsun.  Besides, it has a weak sound to it, whereas Datsun has spark when spoken.

As for the styling of those early-1960s Bluebirds, it was neat and practical.  I think the 410, produced starting in 1964, was the better-looking car.


The 310 appeared for the 1959 model year and lacked the fussy ornamentation found on a number of Japanese cars in the early postwar years.  I think the greatest visual failing has to do with the small wheels.

410s seem to have slightly larger wheels, and the wheelhouse openings have ridges around them, adding interest (contrast with the plain-sided 310).  Another improvement is the indented section along the sides.  It also adds interest and makes the car look a little longer and less tall, though I might quibble with the extent of its drop-off aft of the rear doors.

I include this image because its shows the rear of the 410 (click to enlarge).  For its time and market position, the 410 was a nicely styled car.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Cadillac Tailfins Legend, Updated

The most successful styling gimmick for American cars was probably the tailfins that appeared on 1948 Cadillacs.  They were controversial at Cadillac before the 1948s reached dealer showrooms, but the fins proved to be wildly popular.  For a few years, cheap copies could be purchased at auto accessory stores and screwed onto fenders of other makes of cars.  Cadillac continued use of tailfins of various sizes and shapes through the 1964 model year.  And Chrysler famously added fins to its entire automobile line for 1956 and made them the strongest styling element on its redesigned 1957 models.

A legend of sorts deals with the origin of the 1948 Cadillac tailfins; here is one version, and I have read other accounts over the years.  The story goes that GM styling chief Harley Earl learned of the then-futuristic Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter and took some members of his styling staff to see an example.  Most accounts mention that the P-38 was top-secret at the time.  That last item is not true, which is the point of this post.

Edson Armi's book on automobile design (Amazon link here) has the following account on page 76 of the hardcopy edition:
* * * * *
At GM the wartime preoccupation with the monocoque fuselage had been reinforced by Earl's personal fascination with the P-38 Lockheed Fighter.... In 1941 Earl and a group led by [Bill] Mitchell visited the still-secret fighter.  As Mitchell tells it: 'We absorbed all details of [its] lines.  Every facet of the twin tails and booms stretching out behind the engine enclosure was recorded mentally.  After returning to the studios, Mr. Earl immediately put designers to work adopting the ideas to automobiles.  Small models of automobiles embodying the P-38's characteristics were made.'  Earl impressed upon his men the significance of the bulky pontoon shape of the P-38 and encouraged them, as he later wrote, to 'soak up the lines of the twin booms and twin tails.'  The fishtail, he said, 'helped give some graceful bulk to the automobile.'
* * * * *
The Wikipedia entry on the P-38 is here, mentioning that the prototype P-38 first flew early in 1939 and that the first production models entered service in September of 1941.  A service-test batch of YP-38s appeared between September of 1940 and June of 1941.  The aircraft that Earl and his crew examined was surely at the Selfridge Field Army Air Corps base located not far northeast of Detroit.  Selfridge hosted P-38s in 1941, and Earl knew about them, not because he had special connections with the Army Air Corps, but instead because the P-38 was not in itself "top secret" and examples were flying around the Detroit area.

Furthermore, images of the P-38 had been publicly seen for at least two years previously, so the plane's appearance would have been known to Earl and the stylists before they made their Selfridge Field visit.  That visit probably served to create a greater visual impact for team members than photos would have yielded.


XP-38 prototype - early 1939

Model Airplane News magazine cover - May, 1939

1948 Cadillac brochure page

Cross-posted at the Art Contrarian blog.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Bill Mitchell's Razor-Edge Cadillac Seville

The 1980 Cadillac Seville was among Bill Mitchell's last hurrahs as General Motors design vice-president.  Like some other designs created under his direction, it was controversial.

Biographical information on Mitchell can be found here and here.  The Wikipedia entry on the 1980 Seville is here and a Hemmings article about a 1985 Seville is here.

Styling of the '80 Seville was controversial because Mitchell, enamored of circa-1940s "Razor Edge" coachwork on Rolls-Royces, slapped an interpretation of that style on the rear of a 1980 automobile.  With mixed results, as we see below.


1983 Cadillac Seville Elegante
Seen from near the front, the Seville is a crisp design with some areas of ornamentation to provide interest.  Not all Sevilles had two-color paint schemes, which were more of a 1940s and 50s fashion, but this is one of those rare cases where that practice enhanced the styling.

1980 Cadillac Seville
Here we get a better idea of its version of Razor Edge styling.

1982 (circa) Cadillac Seville
This shows the rear of the car from nearly end-on.  I consider this the viewing angle where the design looks the most awkward.  Seen in person, the styling makes the car appear a little too narrow and high by 1980 standards, even though the vehicle is generally fairly sleek.

1948 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith by Freestone & Webb
There are many examples of English Razor Edge custom bodies.  I offer this because of its similarity to the later Seville styling.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Renault Dauphine: A Semi-Success

One of contributors to les trente glorieuses years of French economic growth following World War 2 was Renault's Dauphine model, produced 1956-1967.  A usefully detailed Wikipedia entry on the Dauphine is here.

Dauphine sales exceeded two million units worldwide.  In the United States, it was introduced as an alternative to the fast-selling Volkswagen Beetle.  Initial Dauphine sales were strong, but lack of power and other defects soon resulted in a marketplace collapse.  These and more are chronicled in the link above.

The Dauphine was not a beautiful car nor was it even especially attractive.  But for a small mid-1950s car with a rear-mounted, water-cooled motor and its attendant packaging requirements, its styling was not bad.


Dauphines hit the American market for the 1957 model year.

This illustration offers a general view of the rear.  The VW Beetle was a two-door model only, but French buyers strongly preferred four-door passenger cars.

Like the Volkswagen, the motor occupied all the rear area behind the passenger compartment.

An interesting, rather comical view of the spare tire location and access.

The Dauphine's trunk was at the front, wedged between the wheelhouses.  Still, it was capable of holding some interesting, though small-size, cargo.