As human civilization begins to envision the end of an era dominated by the internal combustion engine, we take a look back at the masterworks and follies of the Automotive Century, detour onto the meandering two-lanes to visit a few roadside attractions, and comment on the architectural and urban planning consequences of car culture.
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 thiswhen 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)
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.
Top & 3rd from top: motortrend.com
2nd & 4th from top (Dreyfus in the 145): forix.com
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.
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...