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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Etceterini Files Part 2: Golden Arrow, the Moretti that Broke the Bank

The few people who recall the name Moretti appearing on something other than beer probably associate it with some stylish custom bodywork which appeared on modified Fiats in the 1960s and 70s.  This Moretti 2500s Spider from 1963, for example, hit the spot for Henry Manney at Road & Track, perhaps because it looked so much like Giorgetto Giugiaro's one-off Ferrari SWB for Bertone from a year earlier.  Underneath the sinuous curves of the body shell is an enlarged version of Fiat's 6-cylinder 2300 engine.  Earlier, though, Giovanni Moretti designed and built his own sports racers to compete against OSCAs, Stanguellinis and the like, and the expense of this bankrupted his company.  What's left of this period is a handful of almost forgotten cars and the saga of the Frecchia d'Oro, or Golden Arrow...

Moretti started building motorcycles in 1925 and graduated to microcars (before they were called that) in the late 1920s.  After building some electric vehicles during the war, Moretti launched a line of utilitarian small cars with his own 600cc 4-cylinder engine in the late 40s.  The first Moretti to get attention from sports car fans in the USA was the tiny 750 twin cam from the early 50s. Giovanni Michelotti has been credited with the design on the coupe below, from 1953-'54.

There were also spyder versions in both 750cc and 1200cc engine sizes, and these were credited to the same designer…

And there were a handful of slightly larger and very handsome coupes with the 1200 Grand Sport engine.  These could have competed against the then-new Alfa Giulietta Sprint, had Moretti been able to produce them in greater numbers.

Instead of tooling up to produce any of these promising designs in large (or even noticeable) numbers, Moretti decided to produce a sports racer to compete with the OSCAs, Maseratis and (increasingly) Porsches in the 1500cc class.  This was the Frecchia d'Oro, the Golden Arrow from 1956. Like other Morettis, it featured an all-Moretti engine, but this larger unit featured an alloy block, twin ignition with twin distributors, and twin carburetors.  The tubular chassis and the alloy bodywork were also the product of the Moretti shops, an unusual accomplishment in an era when race car bodywork was usually subcontracted to specialists like Scaglietti, Motto or Zagato.  With the exception of the Fiat 1100 transmission, then, this was an all-Moretti Moretti.  Three cars were produced in response to an order from a client in Argentina.  The Argentine client never paid for the first car delivered, and before Moretti could devise a way to repossess a car in faraway Latin America, the deadbeat client added injury to insult by demolishing the car.  The was the last straw for the fragile finances of Moretti, and the second and third Golden Arrows were seized by creditors in a bankruptcy reorganization.  Golden Arrow #2 disappeared in a trade for an Alpine Renault in the late 60s, but car #3 came to the USA in amazingly original condition, and shows up for car shows and vintage races today.  Moretti, reorganized post-bankruptcy, shifted to using Fiat engines entirely by 1960, and focused on providing special bodywork on the small end of the Fiat line, producing a few exceptional cars on the big 6-cylinder Fiats, and one body on a Maserati 3500 chassis.  Moretti continued to build specialist Fiats until 1985, and their nearly 6 decade run marks the Moretti team as champion survivors in the competitive world of etceterini.

Photo IDs and credits:
Top and 4th from top: Moretti 2500s and 1200 Sport (Moretti Automobili)
2nd from top:  Moretti 750 Grand Sport (Coys Auctions + Sports Car Digest)
3rd from top:   Moretti Grand Sport Spyder (www.abarth-germany.de)
Bottom:  Moretti 1500 Frecchia d'Oro (the Williams family,  www. gwandrw.com)

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Etceterini Files Part 1: Ermini

The term "etceterini" is often associated with Fiat-based road racing cars, in two-seater and single-seater format, which appeared in great profusion after WWII and mostly disappeared by the early 1970s, when Fiat purchased Abarth, the biggest producer of etceterini.  They were usually small and lightweight to take advantage of their small (mostly 750cc or 1100 cc) power units, though some cars were built to take larger engines from Fiat, Alfa or Lancia and a few were built with American V8s.  Today's focus is on one of the rarest examples of the etceterini phenomenon: the Ermini, which fitted form to format so well that fiberglass replicas of Erminis likely outnumber originals by more than ten to one, making the arcane, dauntingly scarce Ermini seem exotic and yet oddly familiar all at once.

Pasquale Ermini made cars in such tiny numbers that there were almost as many types of Ermini as there were specimen Erminis.  One thing they apparently all shared was a twin overhead cam head designed and built by Ermini; in the early days this was fitted to a cast iron engine block sourced from Fiat.  During 1952, Ermini engines began to feature their own alloy engine blocks.  Around 1955, in response to competition from the Maserati brothers' OSCA racers,  a new twin-ignition head appeared, designed by Alberto Massimino, also of Maserati (250F) and later of Ferrari (Dino) fame.  There were more Ermini engines than Ermini cars, as some engines were supplied to other race car builders.  The lovely 1390 GT coupe below was bodied by Frua in a style very much echoing their work on the Maserati A6G2000, and was shown at the San Remo Concours in 1954.  The body shell appears as a tight skin over the machinery; note the deft integration of bumper protection with the grille and fog lights.  According to the Ermini website it's the only 1390 GT built, and may also be the only Ermini intended for touring as opposed to racing. 

If any Americans of a certain age remember the Ermini at all, however, it's because Californian Bill Devin used an Ermini sports racer as the model for his series of fiberglass bodies in the 1950s and 60s, forming his molds directly from the alloy Scaglietti body of a Tipo 357.  He offered these bodies as kits for people wanting to streamline the appearance (or just reduce the weight) of their MGs, Triumphs and even VWs.  Many of the resulting kit cars wound up on the race circuits supporting the burgeoning road racing schedule sponsored by the SCCA, and some may have even raced against actual Erminis. The first picture below shows one of only three 1431cc Ermini 357s bodied by Scaglietti from 1955; the second shows a Devin-bodied special from 1957, this one on an MG chassis.  Devin's exercise of artistic license occurred at least three decades before the phrase "intellectual property" became commonplace…

Photo ID & credits:
Top: 1954-55 Ermini 357 Sport 1100 (Ermini Automobili)
2nd:  1954 Ermini 1390 GT (Ermini Automobili)
3rd:   1955 Ermini 357 Sport 1431 (Bonhams)
Bottom:  1957 Devin-MG-Chevy (Wikimedia)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Cars & Ethics: A Word or Two on VW

This is being written because I've been asked so many times about the Volkswagen emissions software scandal that it seems a good moment to organize my notes.  The story in question is the recent revelation that VW and Audi (and now, it turns out, Porsche) had installed software in some vehicles with sensors which allowed the emission controls to operate only when the engine was under test, and which shut off controls under normal driving conditions.  The result was that VW-Audi's turbo diesel engines, advertised for their power and efficiency, were allowed to emit up to 40 times the pollutants under use as permitted by EPA regulations.  We might have expected something along these lines, I thought, around the time a class action suit cited the divergence between EPA mileage ratings and actual mileage in use…the first suit affected only Hondas, but the mileage discrepancies, which were explained by auto makers as a function of inadequately designed tests, were seen across a wide variety of makes.  (Of course, the VW scandal is not about the design of EPA tests, but about software designed by VW to cheat on tests).  And we certainly should have expected something like this when VW told us all about Soundaktor. Soundaktor is the software that pipes enhanced engine noise through your speakers when you nail the accelerator in your VW GTI or Beetle Turbo.  The software allows you to dream for a moment you're driving a Porsche Carrera GT at LeMans, and you can hear the engine's song over Garth Brooks or Beyoncé (or even Wagner's Twilight of the Gods) without touching the volume control. Similar systems featuring enhanced (or pre-recorded or even completely synthesized) engine drama are in use at Ford, Lexus, Audi, BMW and even Porsche. VW defends their system by noting that they only amplify "real" engine sound, unlike some of their competitors, who offer a completely fake experience. Perhaps consumers should have become suspicious when minivans began sounding like Formula 1 Ferraris when speeding down expressway on-ramps.  At this moment, however, it might be helpful to review how Volkswagen came into the world in the first place...
Have a close look at the little blue car pictured above.  It looks a bit like one of those die-cast scale models of the original VW Beetle, doesn't it?  But it's a real car, a Czech Tatra V570 prototype from 1933, five years before the first production Beetle turned a wheel. When Hitler launched the People's Car project, he presented it to the public as a subscription program.  You'd make monthly payments into a KDF account (that's for Kraft Durch Freude or Strength Through Joy, by the way) and eventually, when your account was paid up, you'd have your shiny Beetle to drive on the new autobahn, the first completed section of which would soon extend to the Polish border.  Possibly in anticipation of a surge of joyful motorists  clamoring to visit Poland, the Nazi government urged engineer Ferdinand Porsche to come up with production-ready prototypes for public display.  He short-circuited the process by generously cribbing ideas from rival Tatra engineer Hans Ledwinka.  Among the features of Tatra's V570 are a rear mounted, horizontally opposed, air cooled engine*, with an independent rear suspension of the swing axle type. Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it?

It certainly looked familiar to Hans Ledwinka when he saw the first VW.  Tatra sued Porsche for patent infringement.  Porsche shrugged and admitted he had "looked over Ledwinka's shoulder," and suggested paying off the claim.  Hitler said that he would settle the problem in his own way. This involved invading Czechoslovakia, a program which offered the added benefit of taking over the Tatra truck factory and Skoda tank works for the planned war effort.  In taking over Tatra, the Germans discontinued production of the new Tatra T97, which also featured a rear-mounted flat four, but larger and more powerful than the Bug. Only just over 500 of the T97 (red car below) made it onto Europe's highways, along with something like 240 of the glorious air-cooled magnesium ohv V8 Type 77 which came before it.  The successor V8 Type 87, another Car of the Future ("Zukunft") featuring Deco teardrop dorsal fin styling like something out of Bruce McCall's Zany Afternoons, was made in over 2,000 copies owing to popularity with wartime German overlords as well as postwar Russian ones.  It made it into the 1950s before being replaced by the Tatraplan; Czech for airplane is "eroplan."  Only 650 civilian VW Beetles were delivered between 1938 and war's end in 1945, and these were reserved for Nazi party officials.  The VW factory, using about 12,000 slave laborers, did somehow manage to produce 65,000 military vehicles during the same period.  A real civilian offering of the People's Car would await Allied takeover of the VW plant in 1945; the Allies also instituted the novel practice of paying assembly line workers for their labor.  And what happened to Tatra's lawsuit against VW and Ferdinand Porsche?  Volkswagen AG  paid Tatra one million deutschmarks in 1965.  At that point, several million VW Beetles had been manufactured.  It would end up being the world's longest-lived production car design, with over 21,500,000 cars delivered when production finally ended in Latin America in 2003.

*Correction:  Our first posting credited the 570 with a rear-mounted air-cooled four.  The rear-engine prototype was called the V570, and featured an air-cooled opposed twin.  The air-cooled opposed four went into production as the T97, and an air-cooled opposed four was also featured in the postwar Tatraplan.

Photo ID and credits:
Top:  1933 Tatra 570 (Wikimedia)
2nd:  Tatra Type 77, 1934-35 (Tatra)
3rd:  Tatra Type 97, 1936-39 (tatra.register.co.uk)
4th:  Tatra Type 87, 1936-50. 1941 shown (road&track.com)
5th:  Tatra T87, 1950 version (hemmings.com)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dreyfus and the Million-Franc Delahaye vs. the Third Reich

In 1937 the French government sponsored a competition to persuade French car builders to produce a Grand Prix racer that could compete against the then-dominant Mercedes and Auto Union single seaters which had been funded by the Nazi government.  A million franc prize was offered for anyone who could beat the record for 200 kilometers at the Monthlery course at a minimum average speed of 146 kph (about 91 mph).  Delahaye designed a new power plant for this contest, a triple-cam 4.5 liter V12 with magnesium engine block and 24 spark plugs, to power the Type 145 race car.  In August of 1937 driver René Dreyfus risked his life to break the record, wearing the tires down to the fabric, and then risked it again after a tire change, defending his position against a late-arriving Bugatti entry driven by Jean-Pierre Wimille.  But the Bugatti broke, and the million francs went to Delahaye.  An American expatriate couple, Laury Schell and Lucy O'Reilly Schell, financed the construction of four of these new racers for a semi-official Delahaye factory team (called Écurie Bleue) to beat the German cars.  Success was not widely predicted for Écurie Bleue.  The Mercedes and Auto Union racers had twice as much power as the 240 hp Delahaye, and the Nazi government offered much greater financial support for their racers.  On April 10, 1938, Dreyfus and his Delahaye team were ready as promised for the season-opening Grand Prix of Pau, with 100 laps to be run through the streets of a French village.  While Auto Union was not ready, Dreyfus and his teammates faced the full force of Mercedes-Benz, and less organized opposition from Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Bugatti and Talbot.  And whatever their engineering merits, the Delahayes didn't look like world-beaters; their body designs evoked an afterthought left to the engineers.  Looking down the track at the Mercedes Silver Arrows, the blue Delahayes probably seemed like big sheepdogs facing a pack of sleek, hungry wolves.  Once the starter's flag dropped, however, something happened that perhaps only Delahaye's engineers could have predicted.  The lightly stressed, seemingly underpowered Delahayes hurtling over the winding, twisty course kept nipping at the heels of the 480 hp Benzes, and most significantly, over the entire 172 miles they never needed to stop for fuel.  The Mercedes team needed to stop, and also suffered from fouled plugs.  Their thirsty engines proved fatal to the German team's race plan, and the cool, methodical Dreyfus finished nearly two minutes ahead of the nearest Mercedes.  Proving this was not a fluke, Gianfranco Comotti brought his Delahaye into 3rd place, just behind Rudolf Caracciola and Hermann Lang in Mercedes.  The French crowd went wild.  The Nazi-supported effort had been derailed by the combined efforts of a relatively obscure truck manufacturer, a couple of American amateur race fans, and above all (and most irritating to Hitler) a talented and heroic French driver of Jewish parentage, who went on to win the Grand Prix at Cork, Ireland in the 145. In 1940, the French team, hearing that Hitler had demanded the destruction of the offending cars, dismantled and hid them, concealing one under the stands at the Monthlery track.  All four Type 145s survived, along with two luxurious Figoni-bodied Type 165s with a detuned, 12-plug version of the same V12 engine…one of these was stranded as a static display at the New York World's Fair after the invasion, and was not given its original engine (strangely found in Germany) until long after the war.  Only one racer retains the original body design; two cars were re-bodied by Chapron as coupes of somewhat sinister elegance after the war, and a third car was enhanced in 1947 by a spectacular Franay cabriolet body.  The individual who had ordered this car never took delivery of it, as he was jailed for collaborating with the Nazis.  Both the 145 racer and the Franay roadster are now in the U.S., where they appeared in Monterey, California during this past August's historic races and Pebble Beach Concours.  Intriguingly, it is not absolutely certain that the lone car with the GP body is the Million-Franc Delahaye, though the engine number matches.  Some Delahaye experts, including the owner of the Franay cabrio, claim that when the 145s were retrieved from hiding and reassembled after the war, chassis parts from the Million-Franc car wound up hiding under the chrome-edged Deco curves of the Franay.  No matter; the GP-bodied car won an award reserved for historic racers that weekend, and the silver-blue Franay was a finalist for Best of Show at Pebble Beach.  It won its class and an award for most elegant convertible, but lost top honors to an imposing but somewhat trucklike '31 Isotta-Fraschini, a decision proving that concours judges, like Supreme Court justices, can be just plain wrong.  As for René Dreyfus, there's no question about what happened to him: he joined the French Army in 1940, was sent by the French government to the U.S. to race at the Indy 500 in spring of 1940 (France was already at war with Germany, and invasion was weeks away), joined the American Army in 1942 and served as an interrogator in Italy, and founded Le Chanteclair (a great place for car talk over fine food) in New York City after the war.  He died at age 88 in 1993. 

Errata:  The original version of this post erroneously indicated that another Delahaye driven by Comotti finished in 2nd place.  The correct order of finish was Delahayes in 1st and 3rd place, with Mercedes-Benz in 2nd.  I apologize for the error.

Photo Credits:
Top & 3rd from top: motortrend.com
2nd & 4th from top (Dreyfus in the 145):  forix.com
5th (145 Chapron coupe):  wikipedia.fr
6th from top (145 coupes): carbase.com
Bottom: silodrome.com

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

When the Sixties Really Began: 1961 Lincoln Continental

It's hard to think of a 5,000 pound car nearly 18 feet long as an exercise in minimalism, but this one is, and in a couple of different ways.  When introduced in the autumn of 1960, Elwood Engel's design for the Continental was a startling departure from the finned, over-chromed excesses of 50s Detroit, perfectly complimenting the spare, elegant steel and glass buildings from that era's International Style architects.  It was like a Bill Evans piano solo rendered in metal, with decorative flourishes pared away so you could sense the structure beneath the lines. And just in case one feels guilty about wanting something so vast by today's standards, it may be helpful to recall that this new downsized Continental was based on the Thunderbird's unitized body shell.  As a result, when future Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara approved the idea of turning an early prototype for the '61 T-Bird into a Lincoln, the new car came out nearly 15 inches shorter than the previous year's Continental.  This relative compactness, along with the taut lines, distinguished it from contemporary Cadillacs and Imperials as well.  And the top of the line was the only line: all Lincolns were Continentals, offering customers a choice of a sedan with center pillar or the rarer convertible, both models with 4 doors opening at the centerline of the car ("suicide doors").  The 4 door convertible was unique among American production cars, and the warranty on the new Continental was twice that of its competitors.  The Fifties were over…

Photo credits:  Ford Motor Company top, Motor Trend center, Automobile Magazine btm.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Bubble Market: A Talbot and 3 Porsches

Today it is widely suspected and occasionally reported that the mania for collecting vintage cars has led to a "bubble market", with astonishing prices being paid at auction for "barn finds" which (whether they were found in barns or not) are often in extremely shoddy condition.  The justification for the record prices paid is that the cars in question are so rare that condition matters less than it would for more common vehicles.  If you are looking for something like a Saoutchik-bodied Talbot Lago Grand Sport fastback and there were never more than 6 on the planet, you may need to take whatever condition you find.  The car in the photo below sold for over $1.9 million at a recent auction of cars found in the barns of French collector Roger Baillon.

The other side of this car was in even worse condition; it's presented here so the reader can get some sense of the epic task which faces the team of mechanics and metal workers who will attempt to make this ruin into a car.

Just in case the reader wonders how the completed car might look, and why it might be worth a lot to some car enthusiasts, below is a shot of one of the surviving T26 Grand Sport coupes.  Prior to the recent Artcurial auction in Paris, the record price for one of these coupes (more like the car below than the one above) was about $1.5 million.

The "barn find" virus has now infected the market for more ordinary production cars, originally made in the thousands, which are now offered as restorable projects, when not so long ago they would have been sent to the crusher on their way to the metal recycler.  The Porsche 912, the 4 cylinder kid brother to the illustrious 911, has finally come into collector favor now that prices of early "small bumper" 911s have ascended into the stratosphere.  A dealer in Beverly Hills now offers the 1967 vintage 912 below as a restorable project for $6,950, with the faintly apologetic but redundant note that it's been sitting awhile (it's hard, after all, to imagine what else it might do in this condition) and airily suggests that it represents "great value."  One supposes that compared with $1.9 million for an even rustier (but incomparably rarer) box of parts from the Paris auction, this might be true…

Again, just in case the reader needs some prompting to recall what the box of parts on the garage floor is supposed to resemble once assembled into a car, we present a red '68 model 912 below, the product of a complete nut and bolt restoration, which was offered recently for $73,500.  This amount would have bought a similarly perfect 911 not long ago, and not too many years before that, one of the exotic production racers like the 911 RS.  One thing that seems certain is that it would take a professional restoration shop more than $73k to make the blue car above into the red car below.  If the lucky buyer of the blue car elects to do the work at home, he or she should be anticipating years of dedicated labor, and the purchase of a truckload of parts and tools. By this time, the patient reader may be wondering what refuge awaits the car enthusiast with less than 400 free weekends to spend on a restoration, or less than a small fortune to spend on a perfectly restored car.

It turns out that one possible solution is called a new car.  One wonders if the escalating fiscal and temporal demands of the collector car scene will eventually cause new cars to make a comeback.  Never mind the self-driving Google robocars on the horizon (they'll be here sooner than we might like); you can get a new Miata or Mini Cooper that will run figure 8s around that red 912, and for something less than 40% of the money.  Or splurge on the base model Porsche Boxster pictured below for around $20k less than the car pictured above.  All these new cars have antilock brakes, air bags, and something that not even the perfectly restored show cars have: a warranty.  And if you miss the charm of that old car smell, the oil spots on the garage floor, and the well-worn leather seat that squeaks when you sit behind the wheel, you can take comfort in the fact that young cars get old at the same rate that young people do.  Enjoy the drive...

Picture credits from top to bottom:
1.)  The Guardian
2.)  Artcurial Auctions
3.)  Wikimedia
4.)  Beverly Hills Car Club
5.)  Hemmings Motor News
6.)  Porsche of North America

Monday, September 7, 2015

One of One: A Brief History of Singular Cars

In this survey of unique cars, we have focused on cars that were actually driven on public roads for at least part of their careers, as distinct from cars used only for racing, experimental cars used only for testing, or show cars used only for display.  We've defined "unique" examples as ones with significantly different outward form (and sometimes mechanical elements) than their siblings from the same manufacturer.  And we've defined "car manufacturer" as any concern which made automobiles with (at least) engines of their own design, and offered them to the public.  We didn't disqualify anyone who was bankrupted by the effort, as this would have eliminated too many interesting cars.  Coach builder's names, in parentheses, are preceded by the designer's name where known. 

1.)  Hispano-Suiza H6C Targa Florio "Tulipwood" (Nieuport Astra, 1924)
Apertif king Andre Dubonnet wanted to race in the Targa Florio, Sicily's high-profile, high-hazard road race.  He ordered a big, six-cylinder 8-liter Hispano-Suiza and had French airframe builder Nieuport Astra construct a lightweight body of thin wood strips adhered to a wood subframe with thousands of tiny brass rivets.  The tapered boat tail feature appeared on other cars during the 20s, but the teardrop fender forms anticipated shapes that were to arrive in the mid-30s.  The completed body allegedly weighed around 160 pounds, and the engine in this car made 195 hp.  It finished 6th in the Targa Florio.  Dubonnet used it as his road car for awhile, and today it seems less a forecast of later road racers than a sort of land-bound yacht, with all the beauty and maintenance headaches of a wooden boat.

2.) Hispano-Suiza Xenia (Andreau for Saoutchik,1938)
Dubonnet was also an amateur inventor.  In 1927, he patented a system of independent front suspension which was later used by General Motors and licensed to Alfa Romeo.  Later in life, he nearly went bankrupt financing solar energy experiments.  But in the meantime, he must have noticed that his old Tulipwood Hispano was beginning to look like a used car.  So, in order to showcase his patented suspension and his ideas on aerodynamics, he commissioned Jean Andreau to design a body using his ideas (sliding doors, curved panoramic windows) and had Hispano supply a new chassis.  Jacques Saoutchik's Paris workshops formed the complex curved panels, and Dubonnet named the result after his late wife.  Compared with the tulipwood Hispano, Xenia is another step away from the horseless carriage approach to car design, with teardrop forms flowing around a glassy canopy which anticipated those on jet fighters.  The doors, sliding on cleverly hidden pivoting arms, would appear on minivans in the mid-80s, and the lifted, elongated tail section predicts Le Mans streamliners of the 60s. It seems Dubonnet forgot to patent the panoramic glass, which General Motors borrowed for its own cars in the 1950s.

3.) Alfa Romeo BAT 5, 7 & 9 (Scaglione for Bertone, 1953-55)
Struggling coachbuilder Nuccio Bertone wanted to get Alfa Romeo's attention, so he had Franco Scaglione design a series of experimental cars to test aerodynamic theories (the Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnicas).  Three of the cars were built and tested, and they worked as Bertone had hoped.  BAT 7 had a Cd of 0.19, which means it had unusually low wind resistance even by today's standards.  The wild fins recall manta rays more than bats, and were supposed to increase directional stability.  Just after the series began, Bertone got the contract to build Alfa's breakout mass-market sports coupe, the Giulietta 1300 Sprint. The BATs were later sold and exported to the United States, where #7 performed regular duty hauling kids to high school in LA.  Where else?  The car probably fit right in with a generation that watched "The Jetsons" on TV…

4.) Ferrari 375 MM for Ingrid Bergman (Pininfarina, 1954)
Movie director Roberto Rossellini liked Ferraris, and had raced one in Italy's thousand-mile race, the Mille Miglia.  When his fate collided with that of actress Ingrid Bergman, he decided to give her a similar car, but one with more comforts than a racing car could offer.  He commissioned Pinin Farina to design and build this one-off coupe.  The parabolic coves behind the front wheels were adopted by GM for the 1956-62 Corvettes, while the flat rear window with flanking sail panels appeared on 1966-67 GM intermediates, the 1968-77 Corvette, and on the Jaguar XJS in 1975.  As GM Styling VP Bill Mitchell later suggested in connection with the Cadillac Seville, "If you're going to rob somebody, rob a bank, not a delicatessen."

5.)  Nardi Lancia Blu Ray II (Michelotti for Vignale, 1958)
Enrico Nardi built race car chassis, modified engines for racing, and most famously built wood and aluminum steering wheels.  The first Blu Ray was built to publicize this business, and used a race-tuned Lancia V6 engine and transaxle under a wild alloy body.  It toured the show circuit and was then sold in the U.S.  Three years later it was joined by Blu Ray II, also with a Lancia drivetrain but this time tuned for road use, and with a steel body. Two-toning was a 50s theme, but usually applied as a sort of afterthought to slab-sided cars and bordered by chrome strips.  Blu Ray is different in that the contrasting colors follow the forms of the air intake and roof, as well as the indented panel on the car's flanks which leads the eye forward to the trim, tapered snout.  Blu Ray II also made its way to America, and in the 70s was sold by a collector to 18 year-old enthusiast Jim Simpson at the exact moment it was in transit from Captivating Used Car to Captive Museum Exhibit.  Jim had been discouraged to discover that minions of Harrah's Museum had arrived on the same day to make an offer.  Still, the owner suggested he take a test drive.  He must have liked the way young Jim handled the car, because he sold it to him for $500 under the asking price, and well under Harrah's offer.  I like to think this guy was betting on his old car giving more enjoyment on the road than as a static museum display.  As it turned out, Jim Simpson restored Blu Ray II and drove it for 16 years, in the meantime tracking down and restoring Blu Ray I as well.  And later on he designed and built a Blu Ray III as a tribute to his first automotive love.

6.)  Alfa Romeo Canguro (Giugiaro for Bertone, 1964)
Bertone's new twenty-something design chief Giorgetto Giugiaro designed this car on the tubular chassis Alfa made for its TZ series of road racing cars. Cutting the door windows into the roof made entry easier, and along with the arc of vents marching down the fender flanks, helped emphasize the pleasingly tactile curvilinear  forms.  It's always seemed a shame there was only one Canguro built.  Alfa's competitors (as in Porsche) must have sighed with relief when Alfa declined to advance the project beyond the prototype stage.  The Canguro (Italian for kangaroo) was later sold, wrecked, and rebuilt, but it still looks like a fresh new idea…

7.) Serenissima Ghia (Tjaarda for Ghia, 1968)
Depending upon whom you believe and how you count, at least 3 and maybe 4 car companies were started by unhappy former customers of Enzo Ferrari: A.T.S., Lamborghini, Iso and Serenissima.  Two of these companies received financing from Count Volpi di Misurata, a customer for Ferrari race cars who offended the big man by financing A.T.S., a competing sports and race car outfit staffed by Ferrari exiles.  After building maybe a dozen cars with bickering partners at A.T.S., the Count decided to build everything for his own team, including chassis and engines.  He also supplied engines for the McLaren Formula One team for awhile, gaining them their first point in GP competition.  The relevance of Serenissima to the history of one-off cars is that they are possibly alone among modern car makers in that they never built even two cars alike.  All of the 7 cars I've been able to track were different.  The Ghia-bodied car was especially unique in that according to Volpi, even its 4-cam engine shared no parts with the other Serenissima V8s...not that even these devices were common; there may have been less than a dozen in all.  American Tom Tjaarda's design resembles a glassy interpretation of the DeTomaso Mangusta (also built by Ghia), with its steeply sloped windshield and strong horizontal crease connecting the wheels, and adds engaging details like an exposed roll bar which appears to have been drilled for lightness.  Ghia attempted to interest Volpi in producing this prototype road car for sale, but he quickly realized that building cars might do to his bottom line what open-ended science experiments had done to Dubonnet's.  So he took the car home after its tour of the auto shows, and used it to drive to the races…

8.)  Maserati Boomerang (Giugiaro for Ital Design, 1972-3)
After graduating from running design at Bertone and then Ghia (where he designed the Mangusta discussed in #7), Giugiaro started his own firm, Ital Design, and his explorations of form moved away from compound curves and parabolic sections to what's commonly called The Wedge, eventually giving us the VW Golf 1, Lotus Esprit, and BMW M1.  Before those cars, however, he launched the Boomerang, a mid-engined V8 show car based on the running gear of his then-current Maserati Bora production car.  Boomerang seemed to harbor references to 2001: Space Odyssey as well as the architecture of the day, with its glass infill between slim metal framing elements.  The overall effect grabbed the attention of potential clients among the bigger car makers as hoped, and brought more attention to the interior design of cars; note that the stationary instruments and switchgear are encircled by the spokes and rim of the steering wheel.  This car was eventually sold, disappeared and was thought lost.  Many years later it resurfaced in Spain, where a wandering car-spotter spied it in a disco parking lot, a perfect place for a well-loved relic of a lost future we thought would involve personal helicopters and supersonic travel for Everyman.  Today it's back on the auto show circuit, where the red carpet rolled out for Maserati's 100-year anniversary.

9.)  Postscript: Dream Makers
This picture shows the Serenissima team between races, gathered in front of their workshops and maybe 75% of their total production; the 6th of 7 or 8 different cars is barely visible on the right. Technology experts have predicted that rapid progress in 3D printers, as well as computer-guided tooling, may make it economically feasible to tailor cars to order again, reviving the era of the one-off. One wonders if they will be self-driving electrics...

Photo credits:
1.)  Wikimedia 
2.)  Front and rear views: Wikimedia; side view: Fabwheelsdigest.com
3.)  Classicdriver.com
4.)  Front view: Stuff.co.nz; rear view: Carbar.no
5.)  Imageshack.com
6.)  Wikimedia
7.)  Serenissima Automobili
8.)  Overhead view: Ital Design Giugiaro; interior: Ototrends.net 
9.)  Serenissima Automobili

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Looking Back: When Indy Was Indie

Most Americans think Detroit was always the center of the American car industry, but in the early years there was plenty of competition from car producers in other states (Mercer in New Jersey, Pierce Arrow in upstate New York, Nash in Wisconsin), with Indiana taking a strong second place to Michigan.  A big concentration of independent manufacturing was in Indianapolis, with its history of carriage and bicycle builders.  Prior to about 1909, Indiana was in real contention for the industry hub.  It's probably not mere coincidence that Indiana's clout in the industry waned after that year, because Henry Ford put the Model T in production in October of 1908.  While the Ford juggernaut settled into a pretty successful run up in Detroit (15 million of the cranky but durable T's eventually drove off the assembly lines), Indiana's car makers seemed to shift towards an emphasis on craftsmanship and engineering.  The labor-intensive craft approach died earlier in America than in Europe, and the custom coach builders who had turned out bodies for the likes of Duesenberg, Marmon and Stutz were mostly gone by World War II, along with many of the independent car producers.  But to understand the impact of the independent Indiana car makers, you might want to take a quick look at the Honda, Nissan or Ford sitting in your driveway.  Do you enjoy the responsiveness of that light-alloy V6?  Well, the real credit for that concept goes to Howard Marmon of Indianapolis, who experimented with V4, V6 and V8 engines in the early 1900s and put a successful air-cooled V4 into production in the century's first decade.  Marmon used then-exotic light alloys to minimize weight, and adopted water-cooling (possibly for its noise-reduction aspect) long before he produced his epic, budget-busting V16, in 1931.  Italy's Vincenzo Lancia gets credit for mass-producing the V4, but Marmon's V4 happened first.  Now let's get back to your daily driver.  Maybe it has, instead of a V6, an inline four cylinder with dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, perfect for optimizing performance and fuel efficiency while keeping emissions down.  The official history of modern production cars credits the Lotus engine in the Jensen-Healey with this innovation in 1972 (Toyota and Saab would follow with their own interpretations in the early 80s), but it was really the Duesenberg brothers at Auburn Cord Duesenberg who first brought this idea off the race track and onto American highways.  Starting in 1929, the twin cam 4-valve per cylinder design they'd pioneered on racing cars became available on the massive 8-cylinder Duesenberg J.  Fred Duesenberg sketched out a similar cylinder head for Stutz Motors over in Indianapolis, and it powered the Super Bearcat and DV-32 to fame, but sadly not fortune.  All the independent manufacturers were swimming upstream during the Great Depression, and because companies like Marmon, Stutz and A-C-D were places where engineering held more sway than bean-counting, their answers to tough times often involved doubling down on engineering.  Just before his company went bankrupt, Howard Marmon invested his personal fortune in a final attempt to establish a new template for the modern car.  His HCM prototype featured four-wheel independent suspension, a torque tube driveshaft and a light alloy V12 engine.  In a way, Marmon was trying to do for large American cars what Lancia was doing for smaller European ones (it didn't work much better for Lancia, which went bankrupt about 20 years later).  Three years later, Cord succeeded in making three thousand of its most futurist effort before the effort bankrupted them.  Everyone takes the all-weather traction of front-wheel drive for granted, so it's easy to forget how many early efforts failed or bankrupted their sponsors.  In America, E.L Cord tried it as early as 1929, and France's Andre Citroen improved on the L-29's traction with his unit-body Citroen Traction (for traction avant, or front drive) in 1934.  By the time the revolutionary Cord 810 showed up for the 1936 model year, front-wheel drive was combined with a modern V8 and a pared-down, streamlined form with trademark hidden headlights and horizontal radiator slats replacing the old "radiator grille".  As one admirer claimed, it looked "like it was born and raised on the road" but it was heartbreakingly expensive to build.  While the effort to explore the frontiers of engineering and production possibilities had its financial drawbacks everywhere (France's Citroen had to be taken over by Michelin after putting the Traction into production), it left us with advances we take for granted today.  Indiana's independent car makers often led Detroit (if not Europe) in bringing advanced features into production.  Besides the front-wheel drive, overhead cams, and multivalve engines we've already mentioned, examples of innovations from independents include supercharging (Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, Studebaker) and disc brakes in mass production along with integrated rollover protection.  The Last Man Standing of Indiana's indie car makers, Studebaker gave us these last two items* before closing the old South Bend carriage works at the end of 1963, along with some features we might like to see return (example: a sliding station wagon roof for tall loads).  Along with their weight saving and performance efforts, they'd also made it easier for drivers to see out of the car (note the glassy cantilevered roof of the '47 Starlight Coupe).  If you've ever been frustrated by the near-horizontal mail slot backlights of modern cars, you might enjoy backing this puppy down your drive.  But maybe the "vision thing" was itself an Indiana tradition.  If you look at the 1911 Marmon Wasp that ran the first Indy 500 over a hundred years ago you'll note the prominent rear-view mirror, often cited as the first, and perhaps evidence of old Howard's confidence that driver Ray Harroun would wind up with a bunch of cars trailing along behind him.  In fact, he won the race.  Who knows?  If Marmon had charged other car makers even a dime every time they replicated this feature, maybe his company would still be building cars today.




*In 1949, another independent, Crosley Motors, first standardized modern caliper disc brakes on all their cars.  These were aircraft-type Goodyear-Hawleys; corrosion proved to be a problem and Crosley reverted to drums a year later.  Chrysler standardized disc brakes on the Crown Imperial in the same year, but these were not the modern caliper type, and didn't stay in the product line.  And while Studebaker successfully brought the caliper type into mass-production first in America, Citroen and Triumph offered them in 1956.

Photos and credits:
1.)  1911 Marmon Wasp (Hemmings Motor News)
2.)  1932-34 Stutz DV-32 Monte Carlo (Google + User Content)
3.)  1932 Marmon V12 prototype (RM-Sotheby's Auctions)
4.)  1937 Cord 812 Beverly (Barrett-Jackson Auction Company)
5.)  1947 Studebaker Commander Starlight Coupe (Studebaker Corporation)
6.)  1963 Studebaker Avanti (Studebaker Corporation)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

What Defines a Production Car, and Why Would Anybody Pay $3 Million For One?

At Mecum's Monterey auction two weekends ago, someone bought a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible for $2,250,000.  At last year's Monterey auction, a similar car from 1971 brought a jaw-dropping $3.5 million.  The Plymouth Barracuda was a production car by any reasonable definition; production in 1970 missed 55,500 by one car; 2,785 of those were convertibles.  Only 14 convertibles, though, were ordered with the tire-shredding 426 Hemi engine (named for its hemispherical combustion chambers), because it added about 35% to the cost of the car.  So scarcity, along with a reputation for blazing speed (at least in a straight line) mean that today a car which was a hard sell when new is avidly sought by collectors who dream of finding one in a barn somewhere.  Their odds of being hit by lightning are probably better…Chrysler wasn't the only outfit offering expensive performance options in this era; Ford offered the Shelby Mustangs and Chevy actually offered an aluminum racing engine, the 7 liter ZL-1, in the Camaro.  It had the distinction of being more expensive than the car, adding roughly $4,200 to the Camaro's $2.800 tag, so it took around $7k to drive this Chevy off the showroom floor.  Amazingly, some people did this, and GM built 69 ZL-1 Camaros for 1969.  One of my high school classmates bought one (I'm sure he's wondering where it is now).  All right then, production cars are made in the thousands from standardized parts, but some can be tailored with exotic options.  Does that make them works of art?  Well, at your local high-zoot hotel, let's say the dessert menu offers an ice cream sundae with a Courvoisier topping option to go with the usual standard components (plain vanilla ice cream, nuts, cherries, whipped cream).  The option costs twice as much as the basic sundae. If you check that cognac box, are you getting the equivalent of something tailored by a three-star Michelin chef?  Well, no.  What you are getting is an unforgettably powerful ice cream sundae...
So now, having defined "production car" in my usual shambling manner, we move on to the more arcane task of defining real works of art, those dessert offerings which are somehow more than just plain vanilla ice cream with something special on top.  Here are the Dodge Fire Arrows III and IV. The photo shows 50% of the total stock of Fire Arrows built by Ghia for Chrysler in 1953-'54.
The Fire Arrows were part of a series of show cars created by Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner and Italian coach builder Ghia's Luigi Segre to perk up Chrysler's stodgy image.  The hemi V8 engine was also part of that effort, and the smaller but related Red Ram is under the tapered hood.  There were 2 roadsters (weather protection zero to minimal), one coupe (Fire Arrow III, background) and the convertible IV in the foreground (wind-up windows, radio, folding top).  Both the roadsters were different in detail, so all four Fire Arrows are pretty special.  Fire Arrow III, in perfect condition, was sold at auction in 2011 for $852,500.  Some people thought that was a crazy price.  Take another look at the stock Barracuda convertible in the color shot above it, repeat the phrase "2 to 3 million dollars", and then tell me if you think so.  Here's how Fire Arrow III looks now, just in case you can't decide which you'd rather have.
The Fire Arrow story, like most stories, runs parallel with its era.  Postwar optimism pacing an economic boom, allied with technical progress (and cheap gas) that led to new V8s at GM, Chrysler, Ford and even little Studebaker, coincided with the demise of some European carriage trade marques like Bugatti, Delahaye, Delage,  and Talbot.  This in turn left coach builders who'd been supplying bodies to those old firms searching for more modern chassis with cheaper power, and led to experiments with American power in European chassis.  In Italy, Siata tried Chrysler, Ford and even the 4 cylinder Crosley.  In France, Facel used a Ford V8 in its Comete and then graduated to the Chrysler hemi for its Facel Vega.  The Ghia Chryslers hit the show circuit right before that Facel Vega, and showed that you might save time (and francs or lira) by adopting an entire American chassis, not just the engine.  Maybe you could undercut Ferrrari and Aston Martin by adapting something reasonably simple, strong and powerful; possibly a Dodge convertible...
This Dual-Ghia resulted from that thinking, and it happened when Chrysler, in a close (and probably wrong) call, decided not to put the Fire Arrow into production.  By 1955, frustrated Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth dealers watched as Ford sold over sixteen thousand new Thunderbirds.  Paul Farrago, Ghia's ambassador to Motown, and Eugene Casaroll of Dual Motors (military vehicles and car transporters) decided to develop the Fire Arrow into their idea of a production car.  Their first pass, the Firebomb (this was way before the War on Terror) added real bumpers.  On their second try they added embryonic fins, interior space and headroom, and wisely ditched the Firebomb moniker.  This is the car you see above.  Their goal was to build 150 cars a year to test the market, possibly based on the example of Aston Martin, then building that number of cars, as well as Ferrari and Maserati, both introducing their first production GTs in 1957.  The price was set at $7,750…about a thousand dollars more than Imperial's posh convertible, but a couple thousand dollars less than Lincoln's Continental Mk. II.  Lacking a budget for advertising, they released the first cars in a slow trickle to Hollywood celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Dean Martin.  At the time, a gossip columnist commented that stars unable to get on the waiting list for a Ghia "would just have to settle for a Rolls-Royce."  But Ghia's small workshops weren't suited to anything like series production (one reason VW had offloaded production of Ghia's VW prototype to Karmann, resulting in the Karmann-Ghia), and the intensive hand labor and expense of sending each chassis on an Italian vacation meant that Dual Motors lost money on every car.  Total production for 1957 and '58 was only 117 cars, which makes the D-G not quite a production car.  Customers, though, were generally happy, and a high percentage of the cars survived because of the easy maintenance and parts supply for the Dodge chassis and running gear.  Ronald Reagan eventually lost his Ghia in a poker game to President Lyndon Johnson, which might have made a good headline if anybody had leaked it, and proved that, while these guys couldn't agree on the need for a big, powerful Federal government, they agreed that big, powerful cars were still in the cards.  Happy clients encouraged Dual Motors and Ghia to try again, this time with the glassy and elegant Ghia L6.4, from 1961 to '63.  By this time, production and transport costs resulted in an eye-watering $13,500 price tag, which was in Maserati territory.  Dual Motors drifted away from the project while Farrago and Ghia soldiered on, selling only 26 cars, mostly to repeat Hollywood Rat Pack clients and affluent swingers.  The classic car market has been slow to catch up with these cars, but finally has embraced them. The red convertible recently brought $412,000 at auction, and the black L6.4 coupe below rolled off the stage for $297,000.  Paul Farrago and Eugene Casaroll might be happy to know that their brainchild is finally earning money.
Photo credits:  Top: Mecum Auction Company (catalog).  
2nd from top:  Chrysler Corporation.
3rd from top: RM Sotheby's Auctions (catalog)  
4th from top:  Russo and Steele Auctions (catalog).  
Bottom:  RM Sotheby's Auctions (catalog).