Thursday, October 29, 2015

Some Thoughts on Rear Overhang Growth

E.T. "Bob" Gregorie, head of Ford styling from around the mid-1930s into the mid-1940s, had the following opinion regarding overhang (the parts of a car's body extending forward of the front axle line and aft of the rear axle line):

"I think the wheels belong as far fore and aft on a car as practical and as looks appropriate, not only for appearance but for what it does.  It gives a car a footing, a stance."

This was from an interview by C. Edson Armi in his book "The Art of American Car Design" (p. 239).

Current automobile design roughly follows this concept if the qualifying words "as practical" and "looks appropriate" are strongly emphasized.  Certainly the "wide track" placement of wheels close to the sides of a car helps to provide a firmer stance than was the case in Gregorie's Ford days and for many years after.  But cars with front-wheel-drive tend to have considerable front overhang due to engine placement.  In compensation, they usually don't have excessive rear overhang.  This is in contrast to some American rear-wheel-drive cars of the late 1950s and 1960s where front overhang was short, and there was plenty of rear overhang.

Now for some data.

To begin, let's consider the length of a car's overall (both front and rear) overhang expressed as a percentage of its length.  For various Chevrolet Impala models, we find the following percentages: 1958, 42.4%; 1971, 45.5%; 1994, 45.9%; 2000, 44.8%; and 2014, 44.5%.  During most of the period covered, the overhang / length ratio was fairly steady even though Impalas were rear-wheel-drive until the 2000 model year switch to front-wheel-drive.  So, whereas the overall amount of overhang remained fairly constant, rear overhang lessened while front overhang grew.

I might deal with that in a future post.  But the subject here is rear overhang, something that became extreme on some cars by the late 1950s.  It got so extreme that the affected cars looked unbalanced, probably giving Bob Gregorie fits during many of his Florida semi-retirement years.

To illustrate this quantitatively, I'm using the rear overhang as a percentage of the length.  I also include the total overhang / length percentage for a kind of context.

Data are approximate because I took measurements from photographs, and those are potentially subject to lens-based distortion.  So the percentages presented below are rounded to the nearest whole percent, and should be regarded as indicative and not precise.  The images below are not necessarily the ones I used for measurements; some of those photos were found in my collection of automobile books.


1932 Chevrolet
Total overhang as % of length = 28; rear overhang as % of length = 17.

Bumpers were not counted in car length.  This Chevrolet is fairly typical of American cars before streamlining and placement of the back seat ahead of the rear axle became the norm.  The numbers are probably very close to the absolute minimum.

1935 Chevrolet Master De Luxe
Total overhang as % of length = 30; rear overhang as % of length = 19.

Bumpers are not counted in car length because they are separated from the car body.  Rear overhang and overall overhang increase from the baseline data above.

1941 Pontiac Custom Torpedo
Total overhang as % of length = 38; rear overhang as % of length = 23.

Again, bumpers are not counted in car length.  Overhang continues to increase.

1954 Buick Super 4-door sedan
Total overhang as % of length = 39; rear overhang as % of length = 24.

Starting here I include bumpers as part of the length, as they are closely related to the body unlike the tacked-on bumpers of the earlier examples.  Rear overhang of this Buick is about the same as that for the '41 Pontiac, but front overhang increased, dropping the wheelbase/ length ratio further.

1958 Buick Limited Riviera 2-door
Total overhang as % of length = 44; rear overhang as % of length = 29.

Here is an extreme example of rear overhang that creates the unbalanced appearance noted above.  Rear overhang is about half the length of the wheelbase.

1954 Ford FX-Atmos concept
Total overhang as % of length = 49; rear overhang as % of length = 26.

By the 1950s, some stylists and styling executives were looking at jet fighter planes and science-fiction space ships as inspiration for future (and futuristic) car designs.  In design renderings, scale models and even full-size concept cars, wheels were secondary to the overall design, as was the case for Ford's Atmos, shown here.  This, and the dream cars shown below, lacked motors.  The Atmos' rear overhang was half the length of the wheelbase which, in turn, was half the vehicle's length.  We are a long way from the 1932 Chevrolet in the top image.

1955 Chrysler Ghia Gilda concept
Total overhang as % of length = 44; rear overhang as % of length = 25.

Extreme, but not quite as extreme dimensionally as the Atmos.

1964 General Motors Firebird IV concept
Total overhang as % of length = 48; rear overhang as % of length = 23.

Shown at the 1964 New York World's Fair.  The statistics are bit iffy due to the camera angle (I couldn't locate a clean side view), but this is probably the most extreme overhang example.  The lowest length / wheelbase percentage on a production car that I've calculated so far is 46.7 % for a 1974 Chrysler New Yorker.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Pontiac's Silver Streak 1935 Debut

Luxury or prestige automobile brands usually maintain continuity of certain styling details.  Entry-level brands are more likely to change styling themes fairly often, perhaps in an effort to appear "fresh" or "new."

Most often, continuity has to do with the grille which is a major element of the face a car presents to the world: think Rolls-Royce, Mercedes, BMW and others.  Sometimes other parts of a car are given styling continuity.  In recent years BMW has used the shape of rear side windows in this manner.

An earlier instance is the Pontiac "Silver Streak" brand-establishment motif used for model years 1935-1956, inclusive.  A short history is here, and I might write about how the streaks varied over time in a later post.

One factor in General Motors' success during the period 1925-65 was that a hierarchy of brands was established.  For most of that time it was Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac in that order from entry to luxury.  The concept was that a young adult buyer might start with a Chevrolet or Pontiac, then had a path within the GM lineup to buy more expensive cars as his income grew over time.  On the other hand, Ford offered nothing but inexpensive Fords and luxury Lincolns for most of the 1920s and 30s.

Silver Streaks gave the Pontiac line a measure of distinction during the many years when the brand was little more than a placeholder between Chevrolet and GM's more upscale marques.  Besides the Streaks, Pontiac also had eight-cylinder motors offered on some of its models whereas Chevrolet only had sixes.

The Silver Streak motif usually consisted of a set of parallel chromed ribs running along the hood from front to rear and a similar set running down the center of the trunk.  The initial 1935 version had the streaks cascading down over the grille with no streaks at all at the rear of the car.  This ornamentation recognition device proved highly successful, which was why it was retained for so many years.


1935 Chevrolet at the Berger dealership in Grand Rapids, Michigan
1935 Oldsmobile
1935 Pontiac, actress Helen Twelvetrees
For 1935, General Motors introduced new, all-steel bodies (with no canvas inserts on their tops) for Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and Master series Chevrolets.  As the images above indicate, the cars looked pretty similar, especially when viewed from the side.

1935 Pontiac ad card
Viewed from the front, those Silver Streaks made a huge difference.  Pontiacs became truly distinctive, never to be mistaken for a 1935 Chevy or Olds.

1935 Pontiac advertisement
This shows Pontiacs from more normal viewing angles.  Again, the Silver Streaks stand out.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Plymouth's Themeless Grilles 1947-1955

A while ago I wrote about Chrysler Corporation's Dodge brand and its ever-changing grille designs during the late 1940s into the mid-1950s.  Now I'll deal with grille designs for the corporation's entry-level Plymouth during that period.

With the exception of Chevrolet, American entry-level automobile brands usually didn't retain grille design themes for very long (for instance, I dealt with Ford's short-lived spinner theme here).

So it was with Plymouth during the era of American car sporting grilles comprised of thick, chromed bars assembled into bold compositions.


1947 Plymouth advertisement
From 1946 through 1948, Plymouth styling was static because this was the period of the post - World War 2 seller's market.  The grille was essentially a set of V'd horizontal chromed strips with areas of painted body metal and openings between them.

1949 Plymouth - sales photo
The entire Chrysler Corporation line was completely restyled for the 1949 model year.  Plymouth's grille retained the horizontal chromed-bars theme, though a vertical bar was added at the center.  Missing are the bits of body metal.

1950 Plymouth - sales photo
The thinner grille bars were deleted for 1950, resulting in a "gunsight" composition that Dodge has since used for many years.

1951 Plymouth ad card
This is from the time when advertising artists were told to distort the shapes of cars to make them appear longer, lower, sleeker.  Actual 1951 Plymouths had the same tall, boxy body as seen in the previous photo; the main difference was that the nose of the hood was rounded down.  That said, this illustration clearly shows the grille elements.  Three bars are retained, but the upper two are curved down towards their edges.  Added are three widely spaced vertical "teeth" that were in keeping with the American fashion of bold grilles.  The 1951 grille was unchanged for the 1952 model year.

1953 Plymouth - Mecum Auctions photo
Chrylser brands were redesigned for 1953.  The Plymouth grille is essentially a single bar along with a chromed frame for the upper edge of the air intake.  The center third of the bar is chromed, while the surrounding segments are painted body-color.  Nine small chromed half-bangles are distributed across the length of the bar.  Altogether, a considerable change from the previous year.

1954 Plymouth
A photo I took at the LeMay museum in Tacoma.  Gone are those curious little wrap-around vertical chromed accents.  The large bar is still divided into three segments, but horizontal chromed overlays were added that wrap around to become parts of the side trim.  A smaller, all-chromed horizontal bar had been placed below the main bar.  Sales of all Chrysler Corporation marques were falling and stylists were desperately trying to help tide things over until the redesigned 1955 line was announced.  Perhaps this explains why the elements in the central part of the grille are chaotically themeless.

1955 Plymouth - sales photo
Chrysler Corporation brands came roaring back, sales-wise for 1955, along with most of the rest of the U.S. automobile industry.  The Plymouth line was tastefully styled, including the grille which was still in the American idiom of bold chromed bars.  We see that Plymouth returned to the 1953 recipe of one large horizontal bar along with an upper accent bar.  The three-element aspect is also retained, though I doubt that most people ever noticed this (I didn't until I was writing these words).  The bends of the bar and faux-teeth add interest and strike me as being more in keeping with the notion of the automobile than the tacked-on treatment of 1953.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Tracta: Obscure, but Noteworthy

At the end of the 1920s, most cars tended to be tall.  In part this was because they had high clearance necessary for negotiating unimproved country roads that often consisted of paths worn down by tires separated by a higher, grassy center strip.  Main bodies were tall because drivers and passengers normally expected to be seated chair-high, wearing hats.  Another reason for tall cars was the driveshaft running below the passenger compartment between the front-mounted motor and the rear axle and differential.

Front-wheel-drive eliminated the driveshaft.  With that factor removed, height could be reduced a little.  But what if a car didn't have to be able to drive on unimproved roads?  By the late 20s in much of America and western Europe, most roads between towns (if not between villages) were graded and paved in some manner.  So clearance could be reduced for luxury or semi-luxury cars that were unlikely to ever be driven on poor roads.  And perhaps seat height and overhead space for hats might be shortened a bit too.

The result was a number of low-slung, sporty cars appearing around 1930, none of which was very successful in the Great Depression market.  Sales success came later via the traction-avant Citroën.

An early front-wheel-drive car from France was the Tracta (1926-1934), few of which were built.  Tractas are perhaps best-known today (and the brand remains obscure) because the company was led by Jean-Albert Grégoire (1899-1992), legendary engineer of innovative automobiles.

Tracta in some respects was a racing car company that also built some passenger cars.  Those passenger cars were low and sporty, though their styling was in the same vein as some contemporary American front-wheel-drive brands.


Two photos of a 1930 Tracta Type E that I took a few years ago at the fascinating Tampa Bay Automobile Museum which also has a 1929 Tracta Type A in its collection.
The following two images show contemporary American front-wheel-drive sedans.

In the foreground is a low-height, running board - free 1929 Ruxton.  This photo offers a comparison to a standard American sedan, likely a 1928 Cadillac.

A 1929 Cord L29.  Also low to the ground, but it retains running boards that were standard practice in those days.

This image was taken from the publication Touts les voitures françaises 1982 that contains a section dealing with 1932 French cars.  These sporty Tractas are low, but include running boards.  Click to enlarge.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Volvo's Ford-Like PV 444

It's no secret among the styling cognoscenti and, for that matter, people who were new or used car shopping 55 or so years ago, that Volvos looked a lot like 1940s Fords.  Since many readers of this blog are under age 60, I might as well mention that fact yet again.

The Volvos I'm thinking of are the PV444 and 544 series, and I'll focus on the PV444s here.  Some were built 1944-1946, but mass production took place 1947-1958.  That's according to this Wikipedia entry.

So if prototypes first saw the light of day around late 1943 and early 1944 (before being formally announced late summer '44), this implies that styling was done during the early 1940s.  Surely Volvo staff dealing with body design were aware of the restyled 1941 Ford line and must have been influenced by it.  Below I compare PV444s with 1942 Fords, the last model year before World War 2 halted production.


Examples of PV444s.  The first image might be of a prototype or early production car, the lower photo seems to have been taken about 1948.

A 1942 Ford Tudor Sedan for comparison.  The Volvo's fender/front/grille ensemble sits slightly forward of the front of the hood, a styling touch that usually interests me for some reason.  Ford front end styling is more conventional for its time.  The fender shapes are very similar, as are the profiles of the side windows.  The Volvo's fastback curve is a little more gentle than the Ford's, but the price paid is less headroom for back seat passengers.  Both cars feature divided, flat-glass windshields, though the Volvo's is raked back a bit more than the Ford's.

A publicity photo taken around 1955 (judging by the California license plate).  By this time, the PV444 was about to be introduced to the American market.  Note the revised grille.

1942 Ford Tudor seen from towards the rear (Auctions America photo).

Volvo PV444 photo found on the Internet showing rear styling.  Ford had more advanced glass shaping technology that was available to Volvo, hence the divided backlight seen here.  Aside from that and the shape of the top's curve, the cars are very similar.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pontiac Fiero: A Sports Car That Wasn't

At the time this post was drafted, this Wikipedia entry went into a good deal of detail regarding the birth of the Pontiac Fiero, a small, two-passenger, mid-engine sporty car marketed model years 1984-1988.  If my memory and the entry got it right, key Pontiac management players wanted to produce a sports car, but this was impeded by others in the General Motors hierarchy.  Having it reach production at a reasonable development cost meant performance compromises related to use of some parts from existing models.  At any rate, when introduced, it wasn't marketed as a sports car, though better-performing versions appeared later.  Fieros sold fairly well despite bad publicity related to engine fires.

Regular readers know that I am not a fan of rear-mounted motors or of so-called mid-engine placement.  This is despite the fact that my father owned a Porsche 912 and then a 911, and that I owned a mid-engine Porsche 914.  Mid-mounted motors seem fine for racing cars, but are not very compatible with good use of non-engine space.  Their weight distribution tends to be rear-biased, and this can create control problems such as I once experienced on a snowy road in upstate New York.  Finally, and most important when it comes to the focus of this blog, it is difficult to style a car whose motor sits over, or slightly forward of, the rear axle line.

Regarding that last point, I think Pontiac stylists did a pretty good job.  The Fiero was designed a few years before aerodynamic efficiency became a key determinant of a vehicle's general shape. At that time, the fashion was for a crisp, taut appearance based on simple, slightly curved surfaces joined in beveled-like fashion.  So far as mid-engine cars are concerned, Giugiaro's 1970 Porsche 914/916-based Tapiro concept car that I discussed here might have inspired some of the stylists on the project.


Mecum auction photo front 3/4 view of a 1984 Pontiac Fiero.  Headlights are in flip-up panels just aft of the bumper zone.  When raised, they reduce whatever aerodynamic efficiency the Fiero design possesses.  The rub-rail that extends around the car helps tie the design elements together.

A brochure spread showing internal features of the 1984 Pontiac Fiero (click to enlarge).  The engine placement, besides reducing potential luggage storage space, makes it very difficult to include a large, curved backlight window.  This is due to the need to have access to the motor.

This 1984 Fiero 500 has a slightly different nose than regular Fieros, as can be seen in this Mecum auction photo (the rub rail on the side does not continue around the front end).

Rear 3/4 view Mecum auction photo of a '54 Fiero.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Styling Transition: Amos Northup's 1931 REO Line

Aside from General Motors' styling boss Harley Earl, not many automobile stylists of the 1930s were known very far outside their field.  One of those was Amos Northup (1889-1937) who was responsible for REO's 1931 line.

1931 REOs were the first American automobiles to incorporate a set of styling features that had been previewed here and there and which became virtually standard by the following model year or two.

In the image gallery below, 1930 REOs are  shown first to set the stage for Northup's 1931 restyling.


This advertisement portrays the 1930 line.  Click on the image to enlarge.

Details from 1930 advertising.  REO styling was typical of the time.  Lights, fenders, spare tires and such were distinct elements in those days.  Here the hood is almost, but not quite integrated with the rest of the body.  A moulding along the break in the hood surfaces continues around the car, but this is counteracted by a shiny metal strip along the cut line at the rear of the hood.  The windshield is vertical and surrounded by a lip that, along the top, is the vestige of a sun shield.  The radiator either lacks a grille or else has a flat, clip-on grille immediately in front of it.

1931 REOs: click to enlarge.  The Flying Cloud and the new Royale line shared Northup's styling features.  Windshields slope slightly to the rear while the transition to the roof is rounded.  Perhaps this was considered justification for the word "Aerodynamic" in the headline.  The hood is integrated with the rest of the body with no change in profile or cut-line accent as seen for 1930.  A grille blended into the hood sits well in front of the radiator.

Advertisement showing Royales front and rear with their cleaned-up (compared to 1930) styling.  The next step Northup took was adding skirts to the sides of the fenders, but he did that on 1932 Grahams.

Photo of a 1931 REO Royale Victoria Custom Convertible.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Chrysler's Intriguing 1939 Front End Styling

A clever art director might have had a hand in that Chrysler advertisement shown above.  Note that the illustration shows a woman wearing the same hat as on the model in the photo.  I am not interested in the hat, however.  My concern for this post is the front-end ensemble on 1939 Chryslers.

Context is provided below, but you might also wish to refer to this brief history-plus-photos originally prepared by Chrysler Corporation in 1966.

What interests me regarding 1939 Chrysler front ends is that the hood is set back a short distance from the very front of the car.  Far enough aft so that the hood and remainder of the car becomes one element and the front fenders and a connecting surface containing the main grille opening comprise a separate element.

Until the 1934 advent of Chrysler's Airflow which pushed the motor more towards the front axle line and the rear passenger seat ahead of, rather than above, the rear axle line, the radiator/grille usually sat on the front axle line or a very short distance fore or aft of it.  The area between the radiator/grille and the bumper was a kind of dead-zone where some sheet metal was added as an apron covering the gap and perhaps also draping over the front leaf springs and other mechanical bits.

During the second half of the 1930s engines and radiators were moved forward and grilles became increasingly separated from radiators.  By around 1940 American cars featured front-end styling where the front of the hood, the grille and the fenders were merging into a unified massing.

But not 1939 Chryslers.


Here is a 1938 Chrysler C-19 New York Special that arrived at the end of the mid-late 1930s bulbous look that stemmed from the introduction of all-steel bodies and limitations of metal stamping technology.  Headlamps are separate elements.  The hood-grille unit thrusts almost to the very front of the car.

For 1940, Chrysler front end elements are blended, and the grille and leading edge of the hood are now forward of the fenders with their integral headlights.

Here is a 1939 Chrysler Royal where the radiator is fairly close to the front axle line.  The front overhang seems slightly greater than on the 1940 model which allowed Chrysler stylists to achieve the two-element front design mentioned above.

Mecum Auction photo of a 1939 Chrysler Royal.

Sales photo of a 1939 Chrysler Imperial.  Imperials were powered by inline eight cylinder engines, so long hoods were needed to accommodate them.  This reveals the marketing-related flaw in Chrysler's 1939 design.  Long hoods and straight-8 and V-16 motors that required them connoted power and prestige to 1930s car shoppers.  But 1939 Chrysler hoods were slightly stubbier than they needed to be, this working against buyer expectations.  Which might be one reason 1940 Chryslers reverted to hoods that were as long as possible.

Hood length and marketing considerations aside, I have to say that I've always liked 1939 Chrysler front end styling.  The various hood details are not well integrated, but the thrust imparted by the lower fender-grille-bridge ensemble echoes in a diminished way the emotion 1936-37 Cords have always evoked.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

1954 Ford FX-Atmos Concept

The cars shown on the July 1954 Motor Trend cover, above, are: top, the 1954 Dodge Firearrow IV; lower right, a pre-production 1955 Packard; left, the 1954 Ford FX-Atmos concept car that is the subject of this post.

I couldn't find a really good web reference dealing with the Atmos, so what follows are my memories and opinions regarding it.

When I first saw pictures of it, I thought the Atmos was sensational.  This was during the time that American "dream cars" and even production models had details and even larger elements inspired by jet fighter planes.

Recall my contention that the evolution of automobile design had reached something close to an end-point in the late 1940s.  Designs as collections of discrete elements (headlights, fenders, spare tires, etc.) were replaced by designs featuring the "envelope" body concept where those previously discrete details became incorporated into what was largely a simple mass.  I normally cite the 1949 Ford as the archetype for this evolutionary endpoint.

So it was that stylists groped for new themes, and jet fighters, science-fiction space ships and perhaps some other exciting, technically glamorous sources of inspiration became styling themes.  To my mind, aside from General Motors' gas turbine powered Firebird series, the Atmos was the blue-sky dream car that came closest to the jet fighter ideal.

Unlike the Firebirds, the Atmos had no engine; it was what some folks deride as a "pushmobile," though Ford's public relations people suggested that a future, operational, Atmos might be powered by a small nuclear reactor.  Ah, those were the days when imaginations were allowed to run free.

Here are some images of the Atmos found here and there on the internet.


These two photos give you a pretty good idea of what the Atmos was like.  The driver sat in the middle, apparently slightly forward of passengers on either side.  The fenderline is largely higher than the rest of the body.  The passenger area and the zone trailing behind it, where that nuclear engine would be, are nested between the fenders with catwalks as transition.  The cabin is essentially completely transparent in the mode of jet fighter canopies.  No headlights are apparent (perhaps that frontal bar that looks like a grille is actually a light fixture).  The front edges of the fenders mimic jet air intakes with centerbodies.  At the center of the rear are what appear to be jet or (if there was atomic power) heat exhaust pipes.  Atop the rear part of the fenders are tail fins resembling that of the F-86 fighter plane.

The Atmos at the Chicago auto show being admired by what I assume are Ford executives.  If the image was larger I might be able to guess who one or two of them might be.  Here they provide scale to the car.

Profile view with a model at the controls (hand grips, no steering wheel) and more executives.  Note that there is almost no room for vertical wheel movement and that the front wheels have little freedom to steer.  If you look closely, you can spy the door cut lines.

A 1955 photo of the Atmos on display in the Ford Rotunda.

Despite that fact that the Atmos was utterly impractical, I think it succeeds as a dream car.  By that, I mean it creates a "Wow!!" reaction setting the imaginations of viewers on fire.  Moreover, even though it's outrageous, the design is actually clean, graceful and conceptually coherent.