Monday, February 29, 2016

Ford's Controversial, Good-Selling Pinto

Ford Motor Company introduced its first American-designed four cylinder compact car in the fall of 1970.  It was called the Pinto and was sold over the 1971-1980 model years, total production exceeding three million units.  A link containing useful detail regarding the Pinto is here

Initial Pintos were two-door sedans.  Hatchback (three-door) and station wagon models were added later.  For the 1979 model year Pintos received a facelift.

As best I recall, the only Pintos I ever drove were station wagons equipped with automatic transmissions.  The German-based motors didn't have enough power to cope with that transmission, so performance was sluggish (a problem shared by many other four-cylinder cars during the 1970s and 80s).

Pinto styling was professionally pleasant.  A more detailed evaluation of 1971 Pinto styling follows:


Pintos had a rear-wheel-drive layout, but the amount of front overhang seems more consistent with front-wheel-drive cars.  I would prefer a slightly longer wheelbase and larger wheels, but it seems Ford engineers had other ideas or priorities to deal with.  The large windows give the Pinto a light, airy look when viewed from this angle.  The fold along the middle of the side helps unify the design.  It and the fading crease lower down help to further lighten the appearance.

The thick C-pillar and fastback make the rear seem heavier -- in contrast to the frontal view.  The trapezoidal shape of the panel housing the tail lights echoes the treatment of the headlight housing area up front.

Side view in which the artist reduced the height of the car.

A nice publicity photo taken from a higher-than-normal point of view.  This shows the simple grille design, part of the clean, uncluttered look of the Pinto.  But the styling has enough curves, creases, angles and other details that the overall composition is interesting to look at.  No wonder the car sold well despite some serious engineering flaws.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

American Motors' French-Based Eagle Premier

The car itself was normal, but the organizational circumstances surrounding it were not.  It's the Eagle Premier (model years 1988-1992) developed by American Motors using technology from its part-owner Renault.  But around the time it was introduced, American Motors was acquired by Chrysler, which was mostly seeking American Motors' Jeep line.  Eagle Premiers were marketed by Chrysler for several years, some as Dodges, but the car was unsuccessful in terms of sales.

That and more is dealt with in this Wikipedia entry that mentions the styling was by Giugiaro.

Eagle Premier styling is not distinctive, being one of many clean, "three box" efforts by the Italian master in the 1970s and 80s that look pretty much the same at first glance.  Perhaps the main difference from other ItalDesign creations was that it was larger due to its being for the American market.


Renault 21
Renault 25
These Renaults furnished mechanical and other parts for the Eagle, but not complete bodies.

1989 Eagle Premier
A brochure spread when it was a Chrysler product.

1989 Eagle Premier
A glimpse of the rear styling.

1990 Dodge Monaco
The Eagle Premier in Dodge clothing; note the badge-engineered grille.  "Monaco" was a model name long-used by Dodge and probably slapped on the car to legitimize it as a Dodge.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Austin-Healey's Original Sprite

Here in the States we called it the Bug-Eye, and over in England the label was Frog-Eye.  It could have been a thin line between affection or derision, and I came down on the derision side in those days.  The car in question is the original Austin-Healey Sprite (produced 1958-1961), intended as an entry-level sports car.  Wikipedia's take on its development is here.

When I was a young man I really, really wanted to buy a new sports car.  But being in the army and, later, graduate school, my income made that a marginal proposition.  As a grad student with teaching assistant and summer research pay, I could (barely) afford a later version of the Sprite.  I rejected getting one because I thought it was too small from a safety standpoint, not to mention its limited capacity for carrying things such as suitcases or even groceries.

As for the first-generation Sprites, the bug-eye feature was an additional turn-off.  They made the car look cheap.

From various sources including the above link, it was originally intended that the Sprite's headlights would be hidden when not in use.  They would pivot upwards when turned on in the manner of cars such as the Porsche 914.  However, this feature was rejected for reasons of cost.  Another solution would have been to place headlights on the front fenders, and this was done on the second-series Sprites.

In summary, the Sprite was designed under extreme cost restrictions, its shape greatly influenced by engineering and production considerations.  The Wikipedia names two designers who had to work under these circumstances, so it seems that the Sprite was not a total product of engineers.

Like a number of cars considered odd in their day, surviving Sprites have affectionate owners and fan clubs.


A British advertising card showing key aspects of the design.

Seems to be more than one boatload worth of Sprites here.  Why weren't they in dealers' hands?

Publicity photo taken in England, but the car has left-hand drive.

Three views of a 1958 Sprite for a Barrett-Jackson auction.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Rolling Analogy: 1973-77 Oldsmobile Cutlass

This post deals with the Oldsmobile Cutlass, model years 1973-77, a subset of Cutlasses sold over model years 1969-1999.  The Wikipedia entry on the Cutlass line for 1973-77 is here.

An interesting styling detail for that Cutlass vintage was side sculpting that clearly seems to have been inspired by the shape of the blade of a cutlass sword.  Actually, I don't know for certain if this was a conscious borrowing, so informed readers are invited to set the record straight in Comments.

Evidence follows:


Cutlass sword, late 17th century English - image via Wikimedia

1975 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Colonnade Coupe
Compare the blade shown in the upper photo to the sheet metal sculpting aft of the front wheel opening.  The raised area (relative to the side curve seen at the center-rear of the door) has a horizontal fold that roughly corresponds to the blade's dull edge.  And the curved lower folds aft of the front wheel and forward of the rear wheel are quite similar in character to the cutting edge of the blade near its tip.

1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Colonnade Coupe
General view of an Olds Cutlass.

1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Colonnade Sedan
The same sculpting was on sedans as well as coupes.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Separated Twins: 1938 Graham and 1938 Douglas B-18A Bomber

Yes, one of these "twins" isn't actually an automobile.  It's a U.S. Army Air Corps bomber built in the late 1930s.  They served in World War 2 mostly in an anti-submarine role due to being obsolete for other combat roles. Some background is here.

The B-18 was designed shortly after the Douglas DC-2 airliner, but had little in common other than wing structure and tail elements of the DC-3.  First-series B-18s featured a rounded nose, but the B-18As had the nose redesigned in a manner resembling the "Shark-Nose" 1938 Graham automobile.  B-18As reached production in April 1938, though design was probably essentially completed in 1937.

The Graham (company history here.) was styled by Amos Northup but, due to his accidental death, some details were designed by other hands.  The concept of the hood-grille ensemble was Northup's, however, and this work was probably done in 1936.

So even though the two designs were revealed late 1937 or early 1938, there is no reason to believe that one inspired the other.  What we have here is a curious design coincidence.

1938 Graham - Shannons Auction photo

Douglas B-18A Bolo

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Toyopet Crown: 1st Toyota Export to the USA

Toyota's Toyopet Crown (1955-1962) was first exported to the USA in the fall of 1957, marking the start of the Japanese automobile "invasion," as it was commonly called for many years. One of the first American Toyota dealerships was within sight of the Seattle house where I grew up.

Background on the Toyopet Crown is here.

Toyotas didn't sell well at first, perhaps because foreign cars were still a rarity and some of which quickly gained reputations for poor reliability.  The only really successful import was the Volkswagen Beetle which dominated the market through the 1960s.

Toyota had to regroup its American effort and the rest, as they say, is history.


1958 Toyopet Crown Custom advertisement
Yes, here it is in America!  Isn't that SanFrancisco's Golden Gate Bridge in the background?

1955 (ca.) Toyopet Crown
I think this is a 1955 Toyopet Crown: note the divided windshield not seen on later models.  The fenderline is dropped below the belt in Harley Earl's General Motors 1950 B-body fashion.  The dog-leg C-pillar is one of many that predates BMWs signature sedan feature.  The strip above the front wheel opening is awkwardly-placed.  Plenty of glass area gives the car an airy appearance.

1957  (ca.) Toyopet Crown ad card
Only the grille features the fussy detailing often found on 1950s Japanese cars.

1959 Toyopet Crown Custom
I don't have a source for this photo, but I'm using it because it clearly shows Toyopet rear styling.  Note the almost-tailfins that serve to make the car look a little longer.  That seems to be a dent between the tail light and the backup light at the left.

1959 Toyopet Crown Custom
The grille design has been cleaned up a bit here.

Monday, February 8, 2016

First-Series Ford Ranchero: Half-Car, Half Truck

Ford revived the 1920s practice of creating pickup trucks from sedan platforms with its Ranchero line (1957-1979; first series in the 1957-59 model years).  Some background can be found here.

The link suggests some reasons why Ranchereos were phased out at the end of the 1970s.  I'd add that Ford Motor Company was entering a period of financial losses and was motivated to trim its product line.

First series Ford Rancheros sold well enough (140,000 over the three model years) that the concept was continued.  Chevrolet got into the same concept in 1959 with its El Camino line that lasted through the 1987 model year, with a 1961-63 interruption.

So far as styling is concerned in the abstract, the concept of a Ranchero-like vehicle is that of a low, sleek pickup truck.  Both Ford and Chevrolet stylists were able to design somewhat sleek versions now and then over the lives of the models.  But the basic architecture of a pickup truck works against sleekness, and for that reason none of those vehicles can be considered a design classic at the level of a 1940 Lincoln Continental or a 1936 Cord 810.


1957 Ford Ranchero ad card
One might also say "Less than a car!" (you only get half of one) "Not much of a truck!" (compared to a regular Ford F-Series pickup).  Note the modernistic ranch house in the background, an effete touch to the marketing

1957 Ford Ranchero - Barrett-Jackson auction photo
Trim and tail fins are from Ford Custom 300 Tudor sedans, the middle Ford models.  Rancheros also were available with entry-level Custom sedan trim -- or actually the lack of any trim on the sides.

1957 Ford Ranchero - Barrett-Jackson auction photo
The tailgate is down, showing the truck bed.  Not very deep, but fairly long for late-50s pickups.

1957 Ford Ranchero - Mecum auction photo
This shows a Ranchero with the tailgate closed.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ford's 1946 Facelift of Its 1942 Model

Most American 1942 model year cars were introduced in the fall of 1941.  The federal government ordered production ended during February 1942 in reaction to the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the country's World War 2 entry.

When the war ended in 1945, many Americans had both money and an old car that needed replacement.  So there was a pent-up demand for new cars, a demand that took about three years to dissipate.

Car makers were supposed to focus on war production during the war and not work on postwar automobile development.  Although some some development work was probably done, the sudden surrender of Japan in August left little time to do more than rush 1946 models into production.

Given that buyers were happy to get almost anything on wheels, there was little need to do much in the way of new features for '46.  So all companies that made 1942 models released 1946 models that were facelifted '42s and not total redesigns.  As for Ford, the only noteworthy new styling feature was a redesigned grille.

When I last visited the LeMay America's Car Museum in Tacoma, I discovered that the staff had thoughtfully placed an example of a 1942 Ford next to a 1946 Ford.  This allowed me to take the following comparative photos (click to enlarge):

The 1942 Ford is gray and the '46 is maroon.  The '42 has a stamped panel that surrounds the grille opening and rises in the upper center to meet the hood cut.  This same stamping is on the '46 Ford, but more difficult to see because the ends of the horizontal grille bars hide its sides.
This is a clever facelift because the 1942 Ford had thin, vertical grille bars and the 1946 has thick horizontal ones -- a strong visual change.  Yet almost every other bit of the front end, including that stamping, was already on the 1942 model.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Oldsmobile's Curious Vista-Cruiser Station Wagon

The Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser station wagon and the similar Buick Sport Wagon were built in three series, 1964-67, 1968-72 and 1973-77, as this reference mentions.

Only the first two series concern us because they featured a raised roof aft of the C-pillar with slit-windows at its front and sides.  These cars featured a third row of seats, so perhaps the raised roof and its fenestration were marketed as amenities for the passengers stuck in back.  The third-row seatbacks (and the seats, presumably, though they were placed over the differential) were at the same level as the other seats, so the extra height was probably not necessary for headroom purposes.  But the feature might have lessened any claustrophobia for passengers during daylight hours.

The "Vista" label was borrowed from a railcar concept (see here), marketed as Vista-Dome by at least one railroad, the Burlington.  So it was a short marketing step from Vista-Dome to Vista-Cruiser for Oldsmobile.

Sales of nearly 60,000 first-series Vista-Cruisers (plus perhaps 25,000 Buick Sport Wagons) were enough to justify continuing the concept when Oldsmobiles and Buicks were redesigned for the 1968 model year.

Although there was nothing really wrong with the Vista-Cruiser concept, there was little that was right about it either, so far as I am concerned.  It was basically a fairly small market niche that General Motors could afford to fill in those days.

As for styling, the raised roof added bulk to the overall design of the car and unbalanced it somewhat.


1964 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser

1964 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser advertisement
This links the car to the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, where General Motors had a pavilion.

1967 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser, rear 3/4 view

1968 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser
The style appeared again when Oldsmobiles were given redesigned bodies.

1972 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser
The final version.