Thursday, July 30, 2015

Streamlined ​Škodas of the 1930s

I'm pretty sure that when the subject of streamlined 1930s cars from Czechoslovakia is raised, most people think only of Tatra and its rear-engine models.

​But Tatra was not alone.  The rival Škoda firm also tried streamlining, but in a more limited way.  The present post present some examples that were either prototypes or very limited-production cars.  I am not very knowledgeable regarding automobiles from central Europe, so will not deal with the backgrounds of the cars.  However, you might wish to consult the following: the 1935 Škoda 935 prototype, here; the Škoda Popular line, here; the 1936-38 Škoda Popular Sport 909 Monte Carlo, here; and the 1938-42 Škoda Rapid 922, here.

Given the comparatively tiny production levels Škoda attained prior to World War 2, I find it surprising that the company was able to afford to fund the interesting cars shown below.


Above are photos of the 935 prototype of 1935.  It had a water-cooled motor located at the rear and looked a bit more advanced than similar cars from Tatra and the 1933 "Sterkenburg" design by John Tjaarda.  This was due to its use of flow-through or pontoon fenders.

Another advanced Škoda design with pontoon fenders was the 1935 Popular Special Sport, two variations of which are shown here.

This is a 1937 Škoda Popular "Malá Dahoda" that is essentially the same as the car shown below.

1937 Škoda Popular Sport 909 "Monte Carlo."  It differs from the "Malá Dahoda" in only a few details, the most noticeable being the headlight treatment and the shape of the trailing edge of the front fenders.  A nice, racy 1930s design for such a small vehicle.

These images are of a 1938 Škoda Rapid 922.  This car needs bumpers, the headlight housings are awkward, and the grille is unimaginatively functional.  Otherwise, it's a nice clean design that's a year or so ahead of its time.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lincoln's Last Mark

At first, there were the original Lincoln Continentals, produced for the 1940-42 and 1946-48 model years (with time out for World War 2).  Then came the ultra-expensive Lincoln Continental Mark II for 1956-57.  After that, Lincoln confusingly branded some of its models as Lincoln Continental Mark this and that, or simply Lincoln Continental or even Lincoln Mark whatever -- the Wikipedia entry on Marks is here, and the entry for Continentals is here, some cars being cited in both.

By the 1990s, someone at Lincoln who also was keeping score had the Mark count up to VII, and so the next Lincoln coupe design became the Mark VIII (1993-1998 model years), and to date, the last of the series. Wikipedia deals with the VIII here.

The Mark VIII looked low, long, and a bit wide, though some curving of the sides kept the sense of visual bulk somewhat under control.  It also was a clean, aerodynamic design without much ornamentation.  I can offer little in the way of criticism.  The first few model year sales were comparable to late Mark VII levels, but then fell off considerably.

Below are images grabbed from here and there on the Internet.


Front end of a 1996 Mark VIII.  Its rounded body shape is offset by the sharp grille and headlight treatment.

1995 model seen from the side.  This shows the folds along the sides that help lighten the bulk of the car.  The rub-rail towards the bottom also helps to counteract the general roundness.  The various wheel treatments seen in the images here all strike me as being much too complicated and out of character with the rest of the car.  At the rear is a hint of the original Continental's spare tire housing.

The spare tire echo on the trunk lid shows up clearly on this photo of a 1996 Mark VIII.  Its rear face's transition to the top surface of the trunk is crisp, a useful contrast to the roundness, and the same can be said for the outline of the backlight.  Functionalist purists would probably object to having a purely decorative, stylized echo of a rear spare tire mount.  They have a point, but it does add interest as well as serving as a brand identifier.

This photo of a 1998 Mark VIII shows the front facelift that appeared on 1997 models.  The crispness of the original detailing is lost, but the new headlights, grille and hood sculpting are pleasantly done.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Long Hood, Front Drive Chrysler TC Maserati

A while ago I wrote about cars with very long hoods.  Those cars were from the days when engines might be long-block straight-eights, V-12s and even V-16s where a good length of hood was necessary to cover the motor.  Today's cars usually have short hoods due in part to more compact engines that are sometime transversely mounted, as well as strongly sloping windshields that take a comparatively large share of a car's length.

For this reason, I've been puzzling over how it might be possible to produce a sensible modern car featuring a long (though not very long) hood.  Then today (as I draft this post) I saw a car like the one pictured below.

It was a Chrysler TC Maserati from around 1990.  Background information on this Chrysler can be found here and here.

It seems that Chrysler Corporation bought a stake in the Maserati firm and launched a collaboration on a two-passenger sporty car combining Chrysler and Maserati elements that would be assembled in Italy.  These sources are a bit vague regarding the styling and exterior metal, one suggesting all this was sourced in Italy.  But much of the outside of the car is clearly the same as that of the 1987 Chrysler LeBaron, as will be seen below.  Please correct me if I'm wrong, but my guess is that the sheet metal on the TC was a combination of stock LeBaron and specially crafted TC parts.

The Chrysler TC Maserati does boast a comparatively long hood.  That's largely due to its front wheel drive with the engine mounted far to the front, a typical arrangement creating considerable front overhang.  However, the TC's hood gets a modest proportional boost over the LeBaron because it's a shorter car (175.8 inches, 4465 mm versus 184.8 inches, 4694 mm).  The difference in length is due to the TCs lack of a back seat.  In effect, a vertical section was removed and a shorter door used.  Body panels fore and aft of the door are those of the LeBaron for the most part.


Here are more views of the Chrysler TC Maserati.

The hood is the same as that of the LeBaron, but the lights and the air intake below the bumper are different.

The grille opening is also slightly different from the LeBaron's.  Note that the Chrysler "pentastar" encloses a Maserati trident, symbolizing the link between the firms.

For comparison, here is a 1987 Chrysler LeBaron convertible.  The TC was also a convertible, but a removable hardtop was available.

A 1992 LeBaron advertisement.  Compare the sheet metal to the TC fore and aft of the door cuts.  Note that the gasoline filler opening is identical for both cars.

The TC did not sell up to Chrysler's expectations.  Part of this might have been due to high price and unexceptional performance.  But a major problem was that its appearance was far too similar to the LeBaron's.  At the time, I wondered what the fuss was, calling what seemed to be a LeBaron a Maserati.  Apparently many others had the same impression.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ford's Nicely-Styled 1965 Galaxie 500

During the early 1960s American automobile styling recovered from the excesses of the late 1950s.  Recovered to the point where some very good designs were seen on the streets, perhaps the best of which was that of the 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix.

Another example of good 1960s American styling was the Ford Galaxie, redesigned for the 1965 model year.  The Wikipedia entry for Galaxies is here (scroll down for 1965 models) and a Consumer Guide take on it is here.

Like the Grand Prix, the Galaxie had a trim, taut look: no visual flabbiness.  Also like the Grand Prix, its quad headlights were stacked and set in angular, "frenched" housings.  I never liked cars with four headlights, but they looked their best on the Galaxie and Grand Prix.


A four-door hardtop Galaxie LTD.  An angular, fashionable "three-box" design with many crisp details.  Offsetting that are subtly curved surfaces.

The front styling is simple, but provided relief from visual boredom.  Note the front bumper: a horizontal bar with faceting above and below the fold.  Especially note the hood's raised section that's slightly narrower than its width. and extends a very short distance ahead of the small shelf with the cut lines.  This bloc is carried down through the grille area, providing what amounts to two "facets" that help set off the headlight ensembles.  Finally, observe the catwalk, the narrow, flat, horizontal separation between the windows and fender top fold.  This appeared on several American cars in those days, especially wide ones.

The rear design is nicely composed.  For example, the character line on the fender transitions to the facet crease along the trunk, being carried through the center of the six-edged tail light assembly that, in turn, aligns at its top with the flat top of the rear fender.  Again, a very simple bumper shape.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Plymouth Valiant: A Later Exner Design

It was introduced by Chrysler Corporation for the 1960 model year as simply Valiant.  The compact (by American standards) Plymouth Valiant (name change starting in the 1961 model year) was part of the Detroit reaction to increasing market penetration of foreign brand small cars, especially Volkswagens.

That same year, Ford launched its compact Ford Falcon and Chevrolet marketed its Chevrolet Corvair.  Competing firms often come up with similar solutions to meet a requirement, but in 1960 the compact / foreign threat had no obvious answer and the three cars differed significantly.  The Falcon was entirely conventional, the Corvair was radical with its rear-mounted air-cooled motor, and the Valiant featured unconventional styling.

Virgil Exner was still in charge of Chrysler styling when the Valiant was developed, though a serious 1956 heart attack reduced his ability to work.  His noteworthy designs while at Chrysler include a series of Italian-inspired concept cars in the early 1950s, a handsome set of redesigned production cars in 1955, and a striking restyling for 1957 featuring tail fins.  After that, Exner-inspired design became elaborately strange and quirky, though his (unused) design proposals for 1962 were somewhat more pleasing and conventional.

The first-series Valiant (1960-1962 model years) included some features Exner hoped to have on 1962 DeSotos and Chryslers.  These included the general shape of the passenger cabin, especially the windshield, and the horizontal sculpted blade motif on the front fenders.  On the other hand, the Valiant included one Exner detail from some of those early-50s show cars, namely a false spare tire cover on the trunk lid.  The bold sculpted rear fender curve that terminated as a small, canted tail fin is another Exner quirk.

All told, Valiant styling was unlike almost anything else on the road -- not necessarily a bad thing.  What was a bad thing was that the design did not hold together very well.  It was more an assemblage of Exner-favored details than a coherent concept where details are related to an overall theme.

Of the three new compact designs, the conventional Ford Falcon was the clear sales winner.  The radical Corvair out-sold the Valiant, but not by a large margin.  This was despite that fact that General Motors' overall market share was far greater than that of third-place Chrysler Corporation.  So the Valiant can be considered a qualified market success, perhaps more due to it excellent "slant six" motor than its unconventional styling.


1960 Valiant advertising.  The grille deviates from the dominant horizontal convention, though other American cars including the 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk, 1958 Studebaker Lark and the 1957 Chrysler 300 featured somewhat square grilles.

Although the Valiant looks long, it was compact by 1960 American standards and its wheelbase was shorter than those of the competing Falcon and Corvair.

Rear view showing the faux spare tire and the tail fin / tail light ensemble.  The Valiant was not quite a fastback design, nor was it a bustle-back.  Nothing intrinsically wrong about this, though I regard it as a manifestation of the lack of a coherent styling theme.

An entry-level Valiant lacking much of the chrome trim and dressed-up wheels shown in the first three images.  This view highlights the fender metal sculpting that contrasts with gently-curved side sheet metal.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow: Something Was Lacking

It can be stated with certainty that the Rolls-Royce automobile brand is legendary, and that an important part of that legend is its traditional radiator grille design.  But that grille design has been a major problem on those rare occasions when Rolls-Royce bodies are redesigned.

Stepping back in time for a moment, the traditional grille design was not a styling problem until around 1950 when post-war designs were becoming the rule.  From the early 1900s through most of the 1930s, luxury cars were conservatively styled, featuring separate elements such as hoods, front and rear fenders, headlamps, and so forth.  The Rolls grille was just another example of one of those elements, its distinctiveness aside.  English automobile fashions being more conservative than in America or on the Continent, Roll-Royce cars continued their pre- World War 2 appearance with only minor concessions to "envelope bodies," "pontoon fenders," horizontal grilles and other design features that became near-universal in the early postwar years.

Sooner or later, Rolls-Royce had to begin conforming to fashion, and its Silver Cloud (1955-1966) appeared bearing many concessions to modern design.  I wrote about it here.  What I failed to mention was that it was styled by John Blatchley (1913-2008), who got his start with coachbuilder J Gurney Nutting and moved on to Rolls-Royce in 1940, where he remained until his 1969 retirement.

The Silver Cloud was succeeded by Blatchley's Silver Shadow, produced 1965-1980 (Wikipedia link here).  It marked Roll-Royce's complete transition to modern design, even to the extent of having unit-body construction.  And it sold well enough for a car in its price range.

If the Silver Shadow can be considered something of a sales success (provided an average of around 2,000 sales per year counts as success), its styling is problematical.  Squared-off "three box" styling was fashionable roughly during the period 1960-1985, and the Shadow's design fit right in.  Its appearance was dignified, as would be expected of a Rolls.  However, to me, Silver Shadows simply do not look impressive -- something the earlier Silver Cloud did.


One obvious problem is the use of quad headlamps.  They are an inherent design problem, almost never looking natural because headlamps are the "eyes" of a car's "face," and what kinds of faces feature four distinct eyes?  Two conventional headlamps would have looked much better, especially if those rectangular auxiliary lights were made smaller.

Auction photo showing the rear view of the Silver Cloud.  Very bland.  There is plenty of glass and a comparatively tall cabin that gives the car a somewhat light look.  This might be a problem.  Were I Blatchley, I would have made the lower body an inch or so (2.5 cm) higher.  That would reduce the height of the top, giving the car a more massive appearance.  Then I would make the backlight smaller and eliminate the aft side windows by enlarging the C-pillar perhaps 4 inches.  That would serve as the basis for other changes to the fenders and other features.

Blatchley was able to retain the traditional grille and hood form by simply making the grille shorter in order to conform to the rest of the Silver Cloud body.  Later Rolls designs continued the traditional grille until BMW acquired the firm and launched new bodies where the grille was blended into the more aerodynamically efficient shape.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

1960s Lotus Elan: Hard to Improve

That's Diana Rigg in the role of Emma Peel and her Lotus Elan in the British TV series "The Avengers."  I find it difficult indeed to image how Diana Rigg could be improved.  Same goes for the Lotus.

The Lotus Elan was produced 1962-1973, and to my way of thinking, the best-looking ones were the early two-person versions.  This is not to say that it would be impossible to design a more attractive sports car with the same dimensions as the Lotus using a different styling theme.  My point is that there is essentially nothing I can think of that could significantly improve the existing theme of the car.


Photo from Historical Auctions of a 1970 Elan Sprint.

Sales photo of a 1966 Lotus Elan.

Sales photo profile view.  This seems to be a later version because it has the hump on the hood and a squared-off, flared rear wheel opening.  These are not style improvements, thus helping to demonstrate the point I made above.

Sales photo of 1965 Lotus Elan showing that the rear is as simple as the front.  Small cars often work best when ornamentation is minimized.

Monday, July 6, 2015

What Were They Thinking?: Ford Mustang II

Calling this a What Were They Thinking? post with regard to the 1974-78 Ford Mustang II requires explanation.

As this Wikipedia entry notes, the Mustang II was well-regarded by the public and sold well.  Furthermore, by a stroke of luck for Ford Motor Company, if not the rest of the USA, its timing was perfect: A small, sporty car launched just as gasoline supplies dropped and prices rose following the oil embargo resulting from the Yom Kippur War of October 1973.  The entry also notes that, whereas it was Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year for 1974, more recent evaluations tend to be less favorable regarding the Mustang II.

The original Ford Mustang, announced in April 1964, was a huge sales success.  Regarded by many potential and actual buyers as a sports car, it was basically a Ford Falcon sedan that was given a sporty, bustle-back body along with some mechanical improvements.  But 1967 and 1969 facelifts and mechanical upgrades turned the car into a heavy-looking high-performance car.  This drift from the affordable, sporty-car concept pleased some potential buyers while discouraging many more.

Ford management decided to redesign the car to conform more to the original theme.  The Falcon was long gone, so the compact Pinto was used as the basis for what became the Mustang II.  Wheelbase was reduced from 108 to 96.2 inches (2700 mm to 2443 mm), making it much smaller than the original.  At first, only a fastback style was planned, but car clinics revealed that many potential customers preferred a bustle-back.  This is explained in this interview with stylist Dick Nesbitt, who was responsible for the bustle-back version.

I have no serious complaints regarding Mustang II styling which Nesbitt regards as not quite as nice as his original concept (see photos of full-size styling models in the interview link).  Because it was a Mustang, cues from the original design had to be included, and I have no problem with that: Nesbitt and other stylists did a tasteful job.  To today's viewers, a major defect would seem to be the awkward bumpers, but they were the result of (1) new government regulations and (2) a lack of time for engineers and stylist to accommodate those regulations.

All told from a What Were They Thinking? standpoint, Ford management's decisions regarding Mustang were excellent from a sales perspective.  But the drastic shrinkage resulted in a car that I and others now regard as not being a true Mustang.  Even Ford came to agree, because recent Mustangs are more evocative of the original in size and style than the Mustang II.


A 1974 Mustang II publicity photo.

Body styles available for 1974.

This shows rear styling.

A 1976 Mustang II Ghia model.  Ford had bought Ghia, the Italian coachbuilder, and in this instance slapped its name on a Mustang II with fancy interior trim and fashionable (at the time) vinyl over part of the roof.  Sad.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Triumph TR4: A Huge Improvement

The Triumph TR4 sports car (produced 1961-65) was a Giovanni Michelotti restyling of the earlier Triumph TR2 that I wrote about here and its mildly facelifted successor, the TR3.  The TR4's Wikipedia entry is here.

The TR4 was progressively refined, with the final version, the TR6, being built as late as 1976.


A Triumph TR3, produced 1955-1962.  It was an improved, slightly facelifted version of the TR2.  The most visible difference was the thin, stamped grille that replaced an open hole with a grid-like grille positioned back near the radiator.  Since the TR2 was an ill-proportioned, bug-eyed (note the headlights), chopped up (those cut-down doors) example of styling ugliness, the phase "putting lipstick on a pig" pretty well summarizes the effect of the new grille.

Triumph TR4 from 1964 (Branson Auction photo).  I liked Michelotti's restyled TR very much when it was introduced, and still think it is nicely done, if not gorgeous.  As I've mentioned before, I'm a pushover for sheet metal draping over hardpoints -- in this case the hood over the headlamps.  I note three defects pictured here.  The bumper guards create too much clutter placed near the headlamps and running lights, though in those spots they offer protection to the lenses.  The body color paint around the windshield makes the car look a tiny bit taller than it should be: more chrome here, please.  Finally, the tacked-on turn signal light fixtures at the tip of the side chrome accent are, well, tacky.

A sales photo of another 1964 TR4.  That car has large wheels, forcing the tops of the wheel openings perhaps a little too near the top of the fenders.  But this helps the car look powerful, so I can excuse that.  The character line near the top of the fender is also necessary but, added to the large wheel openings, things get a bit cramped and busy in those zones.

A 1963 TR4 sales photo, this showing the simple, cleanly-styled rear.