Monday, February 27, 2017

Kaiser's Supercharged 1954 Facelift

Surprisingly often, failing automobile makers will market a strikingly facelifted or even completely new design as one last effort to prevent going out of business.  Examples include the 1936 Cord and the 1963 Studebaker Avanti. And so it was with Kaiser and its 1954 major facelift combined with adding a supercharger to its six-cylinder motor.

Kaisers entered the American market for the 1947 model year and were redsigned for 1951, both designs greatly influenced by custom car designer Howard A. "Dutch" Darrin (1897-1982), about whom here.

Head of Kaiser styling was Arnott "Buzz" Grisinger (1908-2002), obituary here, who worked at Chrysler during the 1930s and was at Ford during the last part of his career.  The 1954 facelift was created under his direction, but seems to have been influenced by Edgar Kaiser, president of the company.  I suspect that left alone, Grisinger might have come up with a different design.  In any event, the result was striking.  But the lack of a V-8 motor and public perception of Kaiser as moribund helped seal Kaiser's fate.  The 1954 model was the last U.S. Kaiser, though the brand carried on for a while in South America.


This is a 1953 Kaiser that differed little from the 1951 redesign.

And here is a 1954 Kaiser Manhattan.

Close-up view of the restyled front end.  It resembles ...

... the 1951 Buick XP-300 dream car.  The XP-300 is far less known than the 1951 LeSabre, though both were developed and displayed around the same time.  Consumer Guide's book "Designing America's Car: The 50s" states that Edgar Kaiser liked the looks of the XP-300, so its concave grille with vertical bars and the headlight housings were adapted for the Kaiser.  Surely General Motors was not pleased.

Besides a new hood, fender fronts, grille and front bumper, other expensive changes included the greatly enlarged back window and rear bumper.  The redesigned tail lights were comparatively inexpensive, as they did not require heavy metal stamping.

Another rear view of the flashy '54 Kaiser Manhattan.

For some reason (perhaps unused body parts and window glass from 1953), entry-level Kaiser Specials retained the 1951-53 rear window.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Tiny Post-War Crosley Sedan

Very small cars are hard to style.  And the results are almost always not nice-looking.  The current Fiat 500 is one of the best of the lot, whereas BMW's i3 is a visual mess.

During World War 2 the industrial design firm Sundberg-Ferar was hired by industrialist Powel Crosley to style the postwar version of the mini-car he launched in 1939.  Sundberg and Ferar were not "pure" industrial designers lacking experience or feeling for car styling because they had spent time at General Motors' Art & Colour group led by Harley Earl.

Some background on Crosley cars is here.

Assembly line with 1947 Crosleys.  The cars are narrow.

This side view shows the tiny wheels Crosleys rode on.  Larger ones would have looked better, but would have been incompatible with the narrow platform and the need to keep the car light due to the 26.5 horsepower of its motor.  Interestingly, the hood is long, giving the car a more serious presence than it would have had with a stubby front.

A nicely restored '47 model.  It features flow-through fenders (1946 Crosleys were the first postwar American brand to have them).  On the other hand, the side windows do not retract into the doors and door hinges are visible.

Rear view of the same car (Mecum Auctions photos).  Flat window glass all around and no trunk lid.

Another model available in 1947 was this convertible (Barrett-Jackson photo).

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Sad Decline of the Oldsmobile Toronado

Oldsmobile's new 1966 Toronado was a sensation to car buffs when it was introduced.  For one thing, it had front-wheel drive, something unseen from the American automobile industry since 1937 when Cord production ended.  For the general automotive public the big excitement was Toronado's styling.

It was built on the new General Motors E platform, shared with the 1966 Buick Riviera and the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado.  Each of these cars was distinctly different in character, masking their common platform origin.  The Toronado's character was sporty, performance oriented.  Due to its front-wheel drive and the horizonal grille bars, it didn't take long for those buffs to make connections to classic 1936-37 Cords.  The strongly sculpted wheel well rims furthered the characteristics noted here.

Then in 1967 facelifting started to take its toll on the Toronado concept.  Vertical grille bars were added, destroying much of the Cord connection.  Toronado character was watered down, eventually drastically, when new generations arrived for 1971-78, 1979-85, and 1986-92.

Let us now view that sad spectacle.


1966 Oldsmobile Toronado
The original, classic Toronado.

1971 Oldsmobile Toronado
Here is the first Toronado redesign.  Not ugly, but not distinctive.

1979 Oldsmobile Toronado
GM cars were being downsized by this point.  Starting the 1948 model year, Oldsmobiles tended to have cleaner, less-ornamented designs than other GM brands (there were some major exceptions: think 1958, for instance).  This holds for the redesigned 1979 Toronados, but the overall effect is not that of the 1966 version.

1986 Oldsmobile Toronado - sales photo
The final Toronado iteration fell into the "compact car" zone as it was understood in the USA.  True, we see horizonal grille bars again, but that does not bring back memories of Cord 810s and 812s.  The Toronado is now forgettable, styling-wise.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Type 4: The Last Air-Cooled Volkswagen

With the rise of the management consultant, many companies and corporations are taught to engage in the aspect of self-analysis having to do with Who We Are.  But I'm pretty sure that some businesses did something like that even before it became something of a fad.  For instance, back in the 1960s Heinz Nordhoff and his top management layer either explicitly or implicitly held the concept that Volkswagen is a builder of rear-mounted, air cooled motor driven cars.

From the original Beetle, the product line was extended in 1961 to the larger, more modern Type 3 with a similar powertrain layout.  A few years later, and even larger car was planned, again using that type of powertrain.   It became the Type 4, marketed as the 411 (produced 1968-1972) and 412 (built 1972-1974).

This proved to be the last of that type of car, as the realization finally seeped in that it was to some degree a technological dead-end.  The acquisition of Auto Union in 1964 led to VW adopting Audi water-cooled motors with front-wheel drive for future models.


Here is an early 411.  The Type 4 link mentions that Pininfarina was under contract to VW and the styling is credited to that firm.  Unlike the Beetle and Type 3, the 411's wheels are small, something I dislike for aesthetic reasons.  Note the shape of the headlight housing: this could accommodate quad headlights as well as the units seen here.  Regardless, they clash with the rest of the design and were reworked for the 412s.

Rear three-quarter view of a two-door 411.  This aspect is basically well done, though the tail light assemblies are slightly at odds with the other elements.

The Type 4 also came as a squareback / station wagon / break.

A slightly rear-oriented view of a four-door 411.  In an ideal world, the beltline should be a little bit higher.

Here is an interesting assembly line photo I stumbled across.

Finally, an image of a 412.  Headlight assemblies are still configured for quad lights, but their design is much better integrated to the rest of the car than was the case of the 411.  Front end sheet metal also has been reworked, creating the slight wedge look.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The First Four-Passenger Ford Thunderbirds

Ford's Thunderbird was launched for the 1955 model year as a "personal" car, seating the driver and one passenger.  It was not to be confused with Chevrolet's Corvette, introduced late in 1953 as a sports car, even though it wasn't much of a sports car.  But a few people did regard Thunderbirds as sports cars, though most accepted the idea that what it was, was sporty.  The Wikipedia entry for Thunderbird is here.

If any Ford marketers, product planners, engineers or stylists had dreams of Thunderbirds transitioning to become actual sports cars, as was happening at Chevrolet, those hopes were dashed forever when the package for the 1958 redesign was approved by management.  Next-generation Thunderbirds would remain sporty, but they would carry four people instead of two.  That change was expected to improve sales -- and it did, to a considerable extent.


This is a 1957 Thunderbird, the best looking of the first generation thanks to the canted tail fins that counteracted a slightly pinched appearance at the rear on '55 and '56 models.

Early Thunderbirds were convertibles with optional removable hard tops such as that seen on the '57 Bird in the first photo.  Second-generation Thunderbirds could be had either as convertibles or coupés.  A carryover from 1957 tops is the blanked (or mostly so) zone aft of the doors.  The '58 Thunderbirds featured touches of jet fighter / science fiction spaceship detailing that was common on fifties' Fords and other American brands.

This three-quarter front view is of a convertible with its cloth top raised.  Quad headlights were nearly universal on 1958 American cars, and the Thunderbird's treatment of them is better than most, the hooded fold transitioning to a side character line that eventually touches some jet fighter detailing.  The grille is a simple opening containing what amounts to a mesh, a variation on the '57 grille.  Barrett-Jackson auction photo.

Two rear views.  Canted tail fins are carried over from 1957.  The large, round tail lights are another carryover from first-generation Thunderbirds and various Ford sedans dating back to 1952.  Their housings seem sci-fi spaceship-inspired.

Finally, a convertible with its top down (Barrett-Jackson auction photo).  Thunderbird styling for 1958 is restrained compared to that of many other American brands.  However, I find its overall appearance to be awkward.  That sort of rocket shape on the sides could have been eliminated and replaced by something more tasteful.  A pair of tail lights could have replaced the quads and the housing simplified or otherwise reshaped.  And of course I would never have allowed quad headlights.  I don't mind discrete tail fins where properly shaped, so a small curve at the front as on '57 Thunderbirds would be an improvement over the fade-out origin fins on the '58s.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Tasco: Gordon Buehrig's Mistake

Gordon Buehrig (1904-1990) was one of the greatest automobile designers.  His best-known and most highly regarded designs were for the 1935 Auburn 851 Boattail Speedster and, especially, the 1936-37 Cord 810 and 812 models. A brief Wikipedia biography is here.

Being human, not all of his designs were so successful, his worst being the 1948-vintage Tasco.

Buehig described his Tasco experience in his autobiography.  Below are some excerpts from pages 120-123:
* * * * *
Someone once said, "Show me a man who never made a mistake and I'll show you a man who never did anything."  It helps a little.

The Tasco, you might say, was my personal Edsel ... it still exists to haunt me...

They [the other Tasco investors] were probably right [that it should be a large sort of MG] and I was probably wrong, because I kept insisting on a closed car with a new type of top which I had in mind, employing twin removable panels on each side...

Ultimately, as we can see now, I was right [that a closed sports car was the way to go].  But had I gone along with my associates' desires at the time, we might have been successful with an open car.  After getting established we could have developed the more complicated closed variety...

[One investor] showed me a lot of pictures he had collected, including some design sketches by Claire Hodgman published in the English magazine Motor.  One of these was a sports car with front fenders that turned with the wheels.  [He] was intrigued with this feature and suggested it be an integral part of the design...

I made two 1/8th scale models.  the first was fairly well detailed, showing the windshield and window layout, the turning front fenders and the first concept of the top I planned to use.  the second model was just a shape which I never finished in detail.  This one lacked the turning fenders and was the one I personally preferred.

As I went into the turning fender problem, I became more skeptical of the merits of the idea... [Showing the models to the investor] his reaction to the second model was that it resembled the Buick fastback and was not sufficiently different to command a market...

At this point I made a crucial mistake.  I should have refused to retain the turning front fenders because I was aware of the problems they would entail.  But at the time I thought I could work them out...

One of my more serious mistakes, which largely contributed to the broken-up lines of the finished car, was the conflict of the daylight openings or glass areas with the overall design.

* * * * *

The prototype Tasco was built by Derham, the well-known Philadelphia-area coachbuilder.  Here are some images of the unfortunate design.


Buehrig with Tasco 1/8th model.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Restyled 1951 Kaiser

A fine, but sadly largely overlooked 1950s American design was that of the 1951 Kaiser and its following two minor facelifts.  Some background on Kaiser is here and more details are here.

Kaiser reached production for the 1947 model year and ceased being sold in the USA after the 1954 model year.  There was only one redesign, that for 1951.  But that redesign was outstanding.  The man generally credited with it was Howard A. "Dutch" Darrin, who designed custom car bodies in Paris following the Great War. However, Kaiser-Frazer had some outstanding stylists on staff, and they helped refine Darrin's concept to its production reality.

Here is an example of a 1948 Kaiser (Autotour blog image).  Darrin had a hand in this design as well, but the final result was heavy looking.  Nevertheless, it sold well at first due to the postwar demand for almost any kind of new car.

A page from Richard M. Langworth's 1975 book "The Last Onslaught on Detroit," a history of Kaiser-Frazer.  The upper image is of Darrin's design before it was refined for production.  Retained were the low hood and trunk lines, the "Darrin Dip" of the fender line and the tall, carved greenhouse profile.  Eliminating the Nash-like covered front wheels was a smart change, and the dog-leg rear door opening was another improvement.

This is the first of three Leake Auction Company photos of a 1951 Kaiser DeLuxe four-door sedan.  The greenhouse is proportionally tall, the main body is low by 1951 American standards.  The large windshield taxed glass-forming technology, so came in two pieces for that model year.

Side view.  The subtle trace of a rear fender gives the car an even lighter appearance.  That heavy chrome band along the lower part of the body offers some door protection while helping to further visually lower the car.  All this helps counteract all that sheet metal in the C-pillar zone.

Rear view showing how delicate the Kaiser's styling was.  The trunk was probably too small for some potential buyers.

Kaiser's 1952 facelift included a one-piece windshield and a bolder grille.  The V on the prow is deceptive, because Kaisers never had V-8 motors, a possible factor in the brand's demise.

1953 saw even more grille chrome, but still tastefully done.  Another change is the addition of little "wings" on the headlight housings.  This helped to subtly lower and widen the frontal appearance.  The thin chrome strip along the side marks this as an entry-level model -- top-of-the-line Kaisers retained the broad chrome band.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

1968 AMC Javelin

The mid-to-late 1960s saw the rise of the American "pony car," an allusion to the highly successful Ford Mustang introduced in April 1964.  It was followed by the Plymouth Barracuda, Chevrolet Camaro and this post's feature sporty automobile, American Motors' Javelin.  Its Wikipedia entry notes that there were two "generations," over the 1967-1974 production span.  The first was sold model years 1968-70, the second, actually a major facelift and not a true generational change, was marketed 1971-74.

Early Javelins were better looking than the facelifted ones.  They also were more attractive than the first Barracudas and all contemporary Mustangs.  I even think Javelins had an edge on Camaros due to the latter's Chevy II-dictated proportions.  I briefly discussed first-generation Camaros here.


Vinyl covered tops were popular in the USA from the mid-1960s through the 1970s and even beyond, so many Javelins had them.

This is one of two images in this set showing a Javelin sans-Vinyl.  It is a fine-looking car aside from the slightly too-small wheels.

Side view.

AMC styling director Richard Teague spent most of his career working for car makers with limited budgets.  Beside ability and good taste, might that discipline have helped him direct the creation of a number of good designs?  The Javelin front end is nicely handled, aided by the fact that government regulations regarding bumper protection were a few years in the future.

Another looking-down view.

This rear view shows how the roof is sail-panel blended into rear fender tops, creating a slightly sunken back window and trunk lid.  Paradoxically, I get the impression that this lessens visual bulk at bit.  The rest of the aft ensemble is very clean, again aided by less-crashworthy bumpers.