Monday, March 30, 2015

Cadillac Sixty Special: First-Generation Endpoints

Back in the days when noticeable annual model changes were the norm in America, even successful designs received facelifts.  More often than not, such facelifts resulted in design degradation.

Today I deal with an exception, the first-series Cadillac Sixty Special.  Rather than do a year-by-year analysis, the focus is on the styling of the first (1938) model year and the last (1941) where the same body was used.

The Sixty Special's styling was by Bill Mitchell early in a career that culminated in the General Motors styling vice-presidency upon the retirement of Harley Earl.  At the time the Sixty Special first appeared, American sedans tended to have awkward, lumpy styling.  But the Sixty Special had a nicely integrated lower body where the ample-for-the-times trunk blended into the side panels.  But it was the upper body ("greenhouse") that set the car apart.  It featured a distinct, all-around separation from the lower part, and its side windows featured light, chromed frames that were distinct from one another -- not visually tied together around the door center posts.  These features are best explained in reference to the images below.


1938 Sixty Special advertisement (part)
The illustration is by Jon Whitcomb who is best known for his portrayals of glamorous women.

1938 Sixty Special - Auctions America photo
The blending of the principal lower body elements is shown clearly in this image.  Also note the side window treatment.  The car might seem unexceptional to present viewers, but that's because the Sixty Special helped set the pace for future designs by GM and many of its competitors.

1938 Sixty Special - Auctions America photo
Even though it had a distinct body, the Sixty Special's grille, hood and fenders were those used in other 1938 Cadillacs.  This component sharing continued to be the case through 1940.

1938 Sixty Special - Auctions America photo
The trunk blending is featured in this view, as is the distinctive three-piece rear window -- a feature carried over through the 1940s.

1941 Sixty Special advertisement
Sixty Special component-sharing was given a slightly different twist for 1941.  Other '41 Caddies had squared-off "suitcase fenders" that terminated next to the front door opening, but the Sixty Special's fenders extended part-way over the front doors.  This previewed a styling feature found on GM's 1942 line (aside from senior Buicks, whose front fenders extended to the leading edge of the rear fenders).

1941 Sixty Special - Auctions America photo
Front end styling on 1941 Cadillacs was outstanding, setting themes that were used for years.

1941 Sixty Special - Barrett-Jackson photo
Rear wheel opening covers were pretty much standard for 1941.

So why do I claim that the first-generation Sixty Special generally survived the annual facelift procedure?  Because the car's distinction was in the body itself, from the cowing to the rear end.  This remained essentially unchanged and was as distinctive in 1941 as it was in 1938.  Future Sixty Specials never struck me as being nearly as special as those from the first design generation, in part because their bodies differed little from those of other Cadillacs.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

2015 Buick Avenir Concept Car

The Buick Avevir concept car, first shown earlier this year at the Detroit auto show, is likely to strongly resemble a future Buick production model.  That seems to be the reason its styling was commented on by two knowledgeable observers.

Peter M. De Lorenzo of the influential Auto Extremist web site dealt with the Avenir here (scroll down) in his discussion of some of the vehicles presented at the show.  His take was that the styling was too traditional, implying that Buick should have come up with a more innovative approach.  "The big rear-wheel-drive sedan bristled with absolutely every crease, roll and heavily nuanced detail that has been on every Buick concept from the last fifteen years" he observed.  However, "What should have GM Design done with the Avenir? First of all, they should have made it an elegant, flowing coupe. And secondly, they should have called it the Riviera. If they had done that all would be forgiven."

In the May issue of Automobile Magazine, design critic Robert Cumberford was more charitable, being especially intrigued that the Avenir lacked chromed framing for the windshield and backlight.  His analysis can be found here.

My take on the Avenir is closer to Cumberford's than De Lorenzo's.  The styling is, as usual nowadays, on the baroque side, but the detailing is nicely done for the most part.  More importantly, I do not object to the incorporation of Buick styling cues, some of which date back nearly 75 years.  That's because a function of a car design is to sell cars.  One way of selling cars that has proven successful for the higher-price range is continuity of styling cues.  In olden times, Packard was a prime example of this.  For brands still in existence, examples of continuity include Porsche, Rolls-Royce, and Cadillac (the egg crate grille has been continuously used since 1941).  So why not Buick?

Some of Buick's publicity images of the Avenir are presented below for your inspection.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Jaguar S-Type & Lincoln LS: Brothers Under the Skin

The top image is of a 2000 Lincoln LS, the lower shows two 2000 S-Type Jaguars.  All share the same 114.5 inch (2.908 m.) wheelbase body platform.  Spreading brands and models across the same platform architecture has been a near-necessity in recent decades for automobile makers facing increasingly high development costs.  The LS and S-Type are from the time Ford Motor Company owned Jaguar, and represent a particularly clever case of platform-sharing.

The Wikipedia entry for the S-Type is here, and that for the LS here.  Geof Lawson is credited for the Jaguar styling and Helmuth Schrader is cited regarding the Lincoln.

Lawson used the 1950s Mark I (2.4) and Mark II (3.4) basic design as the basis for the S-Type.  The result was criticized by some as being too derivative, not innovative, and so on.  And Jaguar did indeed finally change its styling theme starting with its 2008 XF model.  Nevertheless, I always liked the Marks I and II, so had no problem liking the S-Type too.


The upper photo of the LS is from the Institute for Highway Safety.  The main visible similarities with the S-Type below are the windshield, front door and A- and B-pillars.  The unseen cowl, an expensive and critical part of the body, was also probably essentially the same, as might be the floor pan, insides of wheel wells and so forth.

Similarities are not easily found on these rear 3/4 views.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Triumph's Stylish Spitfire

English sports cars were popular in America from the late 1940s through the 1960s and even a few years beyond.   They came in a variety of sizes, capabilities and price points, the latter including entry-level machines.  Up through the mid-1950s, the MG was considered entry-level.  But the marque began to creep upscale, so in the early 1960s the tiny Austin-Healey Sprite and MG Midget were introduced.  In 1965, Triumph, maker of standard size TR-series sports cars, brought its smaller Spitfire to the market.  When I was in graduate school, I really wanted to own a sports car, but the MGB cost more than I could afford, and Sprites, Midgets and Spitfires were marginally affordable, but too small and impractical for my taste.  A few years later when I had a real job, I bought a Porsche 914.

A link dealing with the Spitfire is here.  It states that its styling can be credited to Giovanni Michelotti, who did a good deal of work for Triumph during his career.  Indeed, its styling was the Spitfire's best feature.  (As an aside, I and some others cringed over the name "Spitfire" that evoked Britain's famed, graceful interceptor that generally matched the performance of Luftwaffe fighters during the Battle of Britain and thereafter during World War 2.  The Triumph Spitfire was no Spitfire.)

Below are images of a 1965 Triumph Spitfire Mk. I that I found on a website with the irresistible title "Dutch Gentlemen Racing Society."


Michelotti's design follows standard 1950s sports car styling practice.  The hood (bonnet) is as low as the motor allows, in this case dropping below the fender line.  Front and rear fenderlines (wings) are distinct, with the latter represented by an upkick as well as a delimiting crease and bulge to the fore.  The grille area is nondescript, and the use of body paint on the windshield frame makes that item heavier and more old-fashioned looking than nececssary.

This profile shot shows that the Spitfire's layout was in line with other 1950s and 60s British sports cars.  The driver is positioned slightly aft of the car's center, the seats being close to the rear wheel opening.  As I pointed out here in a discussion of the MGA's styling, this area can become an awkward, cluttered design problem.  Michelotti's solution was better than the MGA's, but not quite as good as that on the earlier Austin-Healey 100 that I will analyze in a future post.  Note that the tail light profile does not blend with the rear fenderline -- I suspect the lenses were sourced from another car for reasons of economy.

Aside from those tail lights, the Spitfire's rear is cleanly and logically done.  All-in-all, a nice design for a car that was a little too small for its own good.

Monday, March 16, 2015

1955 Imperial: Big, but Well-Styled

Yes, they were large.  And yes again, they had a lot of chrome trim.  Nevertheless, I've always enjoyed their design in spite of some flaws.

The automobile I'm referring to here is the 1955 Imperial.  Prior to the 1955 model year, Chrysler used the name for its top-of-the-line model, but for '55 it registered Imperial as a separate brand.  In later years, Imperial was folded back into the Chrysler line.  Details can be found here.

Chrysler Corporation redesigned all its brands for 1955 in an effort to reverse the collapsing sales pattern of 1953 and 1954 due in part to bland styling.  Virgil Exner was put in charge of corporate styling in late 1952 and given the task of creating designs that could (and did) reverse the sales trend.

Model years 1954 and 1955 saw most American cars given panoramic or wraparound windshields.  Unlike General Motors and Ford designs which had the A-pillar either vertical or leaning forward, Exner's cars had it leaning backward in the normal fashion, though placed farther aft relative to the cowl than perviously.  The result was a panorama that suffered less from curved-glass induced distortion.  (When my father shopped for a 1956 car, he found he hated looking through GM windshields and ended up buying a DeSoto.)  Another result is that Chrysler Corporation cars from that era look more "normal" than most of those from their competition -- who eventually phased out extreme wraparounds by the early 1960s.

Chrysler used two basic bodies for the 1955-56 models, one for lower-price Plymouth and Dodge, and another for its more upscale DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial.  Because three brands had to use the same basic body, stylists worked hard to make each brand distinctive while paying attention to the growing fad for multiple paint colors on the same vehicle and the longer-term American fashion of plenty of brightwork.  The simplest variant was the original Chrysler 300 that used elements from various Chrysler and Imperial trim packages.  The Imperial was fated to look flashier because it had to show that it was expensive, while at the same time retaining a degree of dignity and reserve presumably characteristic of its potential buyers.


A 1955 Imperial four-door sedan image from an advertisement.

What appears to be a factory image of the two-door "hardtop convertible" model that was sleeker than the sedan.  The fender line / character line arrangement along the sides of all the large Chrysler Corporation cars did a nice job of reducing visual bulk.  Wire wheels were fashionable in the early-mid 1950s.

Side view from Mecum auctions.  I find the area where the lower top sheet metal, the rear fender curve and the side chrome strip's decorative dip are located to be a bit busy-looking, though not quite a fatal design defect.

Two more Mecum photos.  Both the front parking light and rear backup light housings feature wrap-around chrome slabs that might either have been made much narrower or eliminated entirely.  The large eagle-motif elements on the trunk and below the hood cut-line are also too heavy-handed -- especially the latter.  The raised "gunsight" tail lights have been a subject of criticism since the '55s were introduced.  However, I always liked them as being distinctive brand-identification items, though they probably wouldn't pass aerodynamic muster today.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Renault's 4CV Non-Beetle

Before World War 2 as well as in recent decades, Renault offered extensive product lines ranging from small, entry-level cars to standard-size models to, on occasion, near-luxury automobiles.  But in the aftermath of that war, the newly-nationalized firm focused largely on one model -- the 4CV.

This Wikipedia entry discusses the development of the 4CV.  It was a clandestine wartime project that neither the Germans nor Louis Renault would have approved of, though it seems both got wind of it -- but didn't squelch it.  I won't go into the revanchist government takeover of Renault and the death of Louis, but the entry does, and further mentions the strange episode where Ferdinand Porsche got dragged into the 4CV situation and might have paid for it in terms of jail time.

As for the 4CV itself, its engineering designers got caught up in the rear-engine fad of the 1930s that spilled over into the postwar years, so the 4CV had its motor placed in the rear.  The car was about the same size as the pre-war Juvaquatre, and so was to that degree in line with previous Renault practice.

The slightly earlier in terms of design, if not market entry, Volkswagen Beetle had its engine at the rear, but it was air-cooled, whereas the 4CV motor was water-cooled.  The Beetle had two doors, but the 4CV yielded to the strong French preference for four doors.  Aesthetically, the Beetle had aerodynamic pretensions, while the 4CV featured cramped conventional styling on its small layout.  The 4CV sold well by prewar French standards and the Beetle was a fabulous marketplace success.

Let's take a closer look at the 4CV's styling.


These publicity photos are from 1948 or thereabouts: note the Dior-inspired "New Look" dress on the model.  The other model is demonstrating the 4CV's sun roof with Paris' Notre Dame as backdrop.

The 4CV featured contemporary styling touches, the main one being front fenders that flowed into the front doors.  This potentially created hinging problems that Renault avoided by installing "suicide doors" hinged on the centerposts.

The front "grille" was artifice, as there was no radiator behind it.

Rear three-quarter view showing the rear door's awkward shape, sliding window panel, and the rain channel that doesn't do a good job of tying the roof to the rear end.  The car would have looked nicer if it had followed the upper door opening instead.

Monday, March 9, 2015

AMC Matador Coupe: Unexpectedly Stylish

For the 1974-1978 model years the perpetually struggling American Motors Corporation produced a sporty car with a unique (and therefore expensive) body.  It was called the Matador Coupe, unrelated to AMC's existing Matador line.  All Matadors are dealt with here.

The Matador Coupe probably would have looked at bit better if it were a little smaller.  Nevertheless, I think its design is pleasing.  No doubt some people would object to what some call the "tunnel" headlamp treatment.  But I'm something of a pushover for sheet metal that is styled to flow over "hard points" such as those headlights.

Sales were fairly good -- about 100,000 Coupes were built -- but I suspect that AMC lost money on them.


1974 Matador Coupe
The 1970s were a time when fashion called for graphic add-ons such as those stripes along the side character line shown above.

1975 Matador Coupe
Then there was the contemporaneous vinyl top fad.  This tacked-on feature added nothing to the Coupe's otherwise nice styling.

1976 Matador Coupe
This advertising image shows a Coupe thankfully void of those add-ons.  Note how the character line flows over the rear wheel opening and continues across the rear, closely aligned with the trunk lid cut line.

1974 Matador Coupe grille ensemble
At the front, the character line aligns with the top of the grille, another nice subtle touch.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

1950 Buick Grille: My, What Big Teeth You Have!

For much of the 1940s and 50s, General Motors' Buick brand had a grille theme featuring vertical bars.  I wrote about that here.  The boldest variation -- or the most outrageous (depending on one's taste) -- was found on 1950 models.  As the image above shows, the grille's "teeth" were draped over the front bumper rather than being protected by it, as was the case in other years.

The grille style was controversial in some circles, notably the anti-automobile, anti-American snob set that thought chrome-laden grilles on American cars of that vintage were icky or evil "dollar-sign" embodiments.  And there was the more practical matter of the ill-protected grille bars being easily damaged even in trivial "nerf" bump collisions with objects.  That aside, 1950 Buicks were a sales success, as this link indicates.

From a styling standpoint, the grille design gave 1950 Buicks an unnecessary nose-heavy appearance that was corrected for 1951 and later models based on the same body shells.  But some things never quite change: current Audis also have a nose-heavy look thanks to large grille formats that drape over front bumper (but without the heavy, chromed teeth Buicks had).


Here are front and rear three-quarter images of what seems to be the same car, a 1950 Buick Super Riviera two-door hardtop convertible.  No, the top didn't retract; the term was used because the side doors were pillarless, in the mode of convertibles.  The result was a sporty appearance that was popular, but this ended when rollover safety standards could not be met minus door pillars.

A publicity image showing part of the 1950 Buick model line.  Click to enlarge.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Styling Crime: BMW i3

Ugly cars do sell nowadays, though not necessarily in large numbers.  Even though they've been marketed in the USA since the spring of 2014, it wasn't until early January of this year that I finally encountered BMW's new electricity-powered i3 here in Seattle.  I found the styling horrible, yet a pack of international journalist voted the thing winner of World Car Design of the Year for 2014, as this link attests.

As I've mentioned more than once on this blog, automobile styling is in what might be called a Baroque or Rococo phase of the pendulum swing along the complexity versus simplicity design continuum.  The i3's styling is little more than a melange of clashing details crammed onto a too-small body.  The only reason I can think of why it won any awards at all has to do with politically correct worship of electric vehicles.  Had it been conventionally-powered, the i3 likely would have been considered some kind of joke like the Nissan Juke.

Below are images of i3s I found on the Internet.  The car I saw differed in that it had fore and aft amber reflectors curving near the wheel openings; any other detail differences were obscured by the visual clutter.


Because it's a BMW, the double grille motif is preserved even though the purely battery powered car has no radiator.  An optional gasoline-powered auxiliary motor can be had, but I don't know where its radiator is placed -- I'll guess below the front bumper.

Aside from the pure wheel openings, I cannot find any coherent or appealing styling theme or detail set on the i3.  For that reason, I won't attempt to mention all the problems.  However, two of the worst are (1) the rear door area window shape and side shaping, and (2) the rear quarter window and surrounding body panel shaping: illogical in every way.

The i3 features what was termed a two-tone paint job back in the 1950s.  The hood, part of the lower side panels and most of the back face are darker here than the main body color.  The inclusion of the basic color on an oddly-shaped rear strike panel is poorly placed.  I assume the intent was to reduce the slab effect of a monochrome rear, but that would have been better accomplished by having the hatch door be body color and the bumper area dark -- the usual styling convention.  Apparently BMW styling staff considered the Old Switcheroo to be a "creative" solution.