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Friday, January 22, 2016

Forgotten Classic: The Graber Alvis

The car in the picture below is not a Bentley, though it has an English chassis.  And though the frontal design scheme may remind you of a Facel Vega, the body did not come from France.  It’s a 3 liter Alvis, bodied in Switzerland by Hermann Graber Carrosserie.  In the mid-fiftties Graber became the Alvis importer for Switzerland, and the cars were bodied under an arrangment that allowed duty-free imports of foreign chassis (there were no Swiss makes by then) as long as they were bodied by one of the several Swiss coachbuilders.  Graber, active from 1925 until 1970, was the best known and arguably the most successful of these, and also applied his talents to Aston Martin, Packard, Duesenberg, Bentley, Delahaye, and Talbot-Lago chassis.

Designer and critic Robert Cumberford, writing recently in Automobile, commented that no inspired car designs had ever emerged from the Swiss coachbuilding houses.   Based on the work Graber did before the war on a Duesenberg chassis and after the war on nearly a hundred Alvis chassis, I’d suggest that this is a rare case where the esteemed Mr. C. has gotten it wrong.  Perhaps the Duesenberg body pictured below was not a game-changer like Gordon Buehrig's Cord 810 from the year before, but in my view it was the only Duesenberg ever (out of scores of different custom designs, including 3 by Graber) on which the body looked as modern as the Duesy’s engine.  Note the way the tapered slope of the grille harmonizes with the teardrop fenders and the deftly tapered tail section.  The teardrop spare tire cover enclosing the similarly shaped license plate recess is also a deft touch.  Graber shortened the chassis of a 1934 Model J to give it more sporting proportions during this rebody performed in 1937.  In the last year of Duesenberg production, Graber succeeded in pulling the noble beast into the modern era.

After the war, he performed a similar service for England’s Alvis and France's Talbot-Lago, taking on Swiss distribution rights for both makes, dragging both into the midcentury automotive mainstream in terms of packaging, and beyond the mainstream in terms of craftsmanship and attention to detail.  Note the similarity of the black ‘55 Alvis below to the red '53 Talbot-Lago directly above it.  Decoration is limited; Graber relies on control of proportions and contours, along with the exposed wire wheels, to convey a sense of the machinery beneath the shell.  The nearly vertical chrome strip at the beginning of the rear fender forms seems a simplified version of that era's Cadillac, but unlike on the Caddy, the trim leans forward where it joins the sill trim, leading the eye ahead to those long hoods.  Only the grille shape, fog light vents and more subdued fender curvature differentiate the English car from the French one.

Graber designed a coupe with wraparound rear window during the same period and built two dozen of this TC108G model, shown below.  Willowbrook produced bodies to the same design in England, but these were costly and troublesome to build, so Alvis switched English body production to Park Ward after only 13 of these were completed.   Graber's design on the blue TC108G below it served as the template for the TD through TF series produced in about 1,500 copies in coupe and convertible form by Park Ward from 1959-67; these were big numbers for a specialist like Alvis.

Graber continued to produce up to ten special bodies a year during this period.  Later efforts provided a bit more identity to the Alvis, including the reverse slope rear window on the 1959 Panoramic TD21 cabriolet above, and lower stance emphasized by the broad grille and stacked headlights  of the 1965 Super cabrio below.  The 1967 Graber Super Coupe, the last of the line, seemed a perfect modern GT with its tall glassy cabin and Mercedes-like proportions, except for the somewhat leisurely 150 hp provided by the sturdy but aging 3 liter inline 6.  By then, Alvis had been acquired by Rover, which, after toying with the idea of using its then-new aluminum ex-Buick V8 in a replacement model, decided to halt Alvis production altogether.  After bodying a couple of prototype Rover P6-based sport coupes, Graber Coachworks suspended its coachbuilding operations in 1970, the year that Herman Graber died.

Photo credits:.

Top:  pantheonbasel.ch
2nd from top:  hemmings.com
3rd:  ultimatecarpage.com
4th:  alvisarchives.com
5th:  classiccarcatalog.com
6th:  wikimedia.com
7th:  wikimedia.com
8th:  alvisarchives.com
9th:  christophegrohe.com
10th & 11th: alvisarchives.com
12th: supercars.net

Monday, January 18, 2016

On a Lonesome Highway in California

It's the slow season for tourists in central California, two days before the New Year.  You've been droning along sleepy two lane roads for hours since waking up at a tired little motel in the desert.  You'd like to break for lunch, and maybe take the pooch on a little walk.  You stop at a roadhouse that looks like it may not have changed since the 1950s. Given the pace of change in most of the state, it's mildly surprising to find some feature of the landscape that has resisted change.  But here it is...

You walk out back with the hound on a leash, and then you notice all the rattlesnake warning signs on the fences and so you decide to cancel the walk, buying off your floppy-eared pal with a treat and settling him in the car while you go inside to eat. Your phone thrums; a cell phone seems oddly out of place here, and you'd almost forgotten you had one in all those miles of unpopulated desert.   It's a text message from your friend Dan; you're supposed to visit Dan and Margaret in Watsonville later in the day…
"Where are you?"  
"Lunch stop in Cholome; not sure of spelling.  East of Paso Robles."
"Excellent almond waffles in Paso Robles.  You're in Cholame."
"At the Jack Ranch Cafe?"
"Yep.  Too hungry to wait for Paso."
"You know that you're near the spot where James Dean crashed his Porsche and died, right?  The bacon-Ortega chile cheeseburger seems to be the hot call. "  
"Thought JD bought it closer to Salinas."  He'd been on the way to Salinas, anyway.  You remember that much.  Testing his 550 race car with a mechanic friend.
"Nope.  You're right there.  In fact, there's a memorial sign right outside the Jack Ranch Cafe.  Might be worth seeing the spot."

The sculpture outside was commissioned and donated by a Japanese businessman in the late 1970s.  It has a sort of Zen understatement about it, and manages to enhance the dignity of the old tree it enfolds. The stainless letters spell out Dean's lifespan (he was 24) and the sheet aluminum reminds you of how they used to build race cars.  You can imagine the stillness and fly-buzzing heat of early evening in late September just over sixty years ago, broken by the rasp of an air-cooled engine in the distance.  Number 130, it was…


Later on, you'll find out that forensic analysis concluded that Dean, having collected a speeding ticket in Bakersfield, was probably not speeding, maybe going only 55, and that he'd braked and swerved, but that the Ford turning across his path, and driven by a college student, was too big an obstacle to avoid.  That Rolf Wutherich, the mechanic, survived and never talked about it.  Later on, you'll hear that #130's engine and transmission were transferred to another car which was involved in a fatal racing accident, and that #130 fell off a truck on the way to a traffic safety exhibit, killing a truck driver, and that it eventually disappeared completely.  But you don't know any of that right now.  You reflect that it's fine you decided against having that beer with lunch, and you watch for rattlesnakes on the way back to your car.

Photo credits:

Top:  vendorgirl.com
Center:  the author
Bottom:  Porsche AG in welt.de