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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)