Saturday, February 27, 2016
By 1961, there had already been an example or two of what we'd call "retro cars" today, like the 1956 La Salle show cars from GM, designed to recall the flamboyant designs of the 1930s. Some British manufacturers were still making designs from the 1940s (the Morris Minor) or the 1930s (the Morgan) but these weren't retro cars, and there wasn't anything postmodern about them. They were just obsolete designs made with old tooling. The postmodern attitude goes beyond mere nostalgia for the long ago; it asks us to look at familiar forms and patterns with new eyes, and allows us to appreciate things which may be too new for nostalgia, but perhaps are just old enough to be out of fashion. At the Paris Auto Show in 1961, crowds were stunned by the appearance of the Kelly Corvette on the stand of renowned coach builder Vignale. But, appearances to the contrary, while the car was indeed a material product of Alfredo Vignale's workshops, all of its design, from overall concept to the tiniest obsessive detail, came from Wisconsin. In 1960, an industrial designer named Gordon Kelly, whose day job was at Brooks Stevens Associates in Milwaukee (and whose customers included Studebaker and Kaiser Willys), bought a new Corvette and designed a body which signaled the arrival of the postmodern car, nearly 30 years before Mazda gave us the Miata, and 35 years in advance of Audi's TT. The freshness and bold simplicity of the resulting design, which still startles onlookers, may owe its origin to the fact that this was not a project for a client; from the outset it was to be Gordon Kelly's personal car…
It was clear to many observers, including to this writer, then sketching cars at the back of 6th grade social studies class, that Kelly's real inspiration, his point of departure, had been the Ferrari coupes penned by Giovanni Michelotti and built by Vignale in 1951-52. And it seemed that the motivation behind this was not nostalgia, but genuine admiration for the best aspects of those Ferraris. As evidence, I'd cite the fact that by 1960, the Vignale Ferraris were mostly forgotten, tired used cars, and Kelly could have bought one for $4k to $6k, expensive but much less than he spent on this Corvette. And I'd note that in his design, Kelly doubled down on the signature features of the Vignale designs. These include the pronounced curvature of the unadorned surfaces, the sense in which the exterior skin is tightly stretched over the structure and machinery, and the emphasis on the wheels as a design element, which is aided by placement of the wheels unusually close to the edges of the car in both plan and side elevation. And of course, by selecting Vignale to build the car, Kelly insured that the ideas in his drawings and model would find a sensitive expression in metal...
The front view shows how the grille opening echoes the egg crate oval of the Ferrari; at the same time the shape is modernized by having its boundaries follow a simple section through the bodywork. Note also that at this point, the section through the forward part of the hood is a simple oval. Unlike Vignale's Ferrari 212 shown below it, the fenders do not project above the hood line. At the A-pillar, Kelly's windshield more nearly fills the arc of the roof, and the side windows are a glassier interpretation of those on the Ferrari. The profile of the car on the wall underlines the purity of those curves.
Moving around to the rear, we can see that Kelly has emphasized the roundness and unity of form by erasing the boundary between the roof forms and rear fender forms. Instead of the roof and fender following stacked ovoid sections as on the blue Ferrari 212, here Kelly merges the two forms, and links the front and rear wheels with a crease which fades aft of the wheels. This detail, along with the long wheelbase / short overhang proportions, anticipates the work of Nissan's and Audi's design studios forty years later. It's as if Gordon Kelly has found a hole in the space / time continuum and calmly walked through it. Other features show a straightforward practicality; the substitution of the glassy hatch for the small trunk lid, and the tidy recesses for the trunk latch, license plate and tail lights are simple and sufficient. The 8-lug wheels express finned alloy brake drums (obsolete even in '61 but pretty). The black rubber shapes which form bumpers replaced the bright metal exhaust outlets which doubled as bumpers when Kelly first showed the car. Happy with his handiwork (and Vignale's), Gordon Kelly kept this car for the rest of his life...
When I was a 12 year-old aspiring designer who had just read Raymond Loewy's book, I ranked early 50s Vignale Ferraris with Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water as nearly perfect man-made things. Tiny, lightweight and simple, their design attitude seemed to say, "We don't have time for styling; we're going racing." But Gordon Kelly showed how seeming perfection could be used as a springboard for new explorations. In his obsessive pursuit of his dream, he found the benefits of the quest embodied in Loewy's dictum: never leave well enough alone.
For a video drive in the Kelly Corvette, go to:
Top: Corbin Snyder Photography / corbinsnyder.com
Note: Mr. Snyder did the photos for a forthcoming book on the Kelly Corvette entitled "Driven by a Dream."
3rd & 4th from top: wikimedia
5th from top: coachbuild.com
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
This is the first in a series on cars most people have never heard about: Chevrolet Corvettes that were bodied in Europe (mostly Italy). These cars, a tiny minority of the nearly 1.6 million Corvettes produced from the first year (1953, when Chevy managed to sell only 300) through 2015, are a subset of yet another exclusive category…that being Corvettes with metal bodies. Our first example was actually built in Switzerland by Ghia Aigle, an offshoot of the better-known Torinese Ghia. For a good while before WWII and afterwards as well, Switzerland offered duty-free imports of foreign chassis as long as they were bodied by a Swiss coach builder. The subject car is a rebodied '54 Corvette, meaning it has the unloved Blue Flame Six under that scooped and streaked hood, and was featured as shown (hmm, salmon pink with gray accents and orange interior) at the 1957 Geneva show. Giovanni Michelotti gets most of the credit (and blame, too) for the design. One can only dimly imagine the design brief, maybe something along the lines of, "My wife doesn't know that I blew our new car budget on a used Corvette, so please disguise it as a '56 Plymouth Savoy business coupe…"
Later on, this alloy-bodied car was updated (by Michelotti again) with radiused rear wheel cutouts and a "fin delete" package. With the added vent panes and reworked metal in the front fenders it almost seems a different car, but the records say there's only one. It looks better in silver gray (a bit like a giant Triumph Italia, no coincidence), but apparently the remodel did not extend to plunking a small block Chevy V8 in place of the anemic Blue Flame...
Lack of power is not a problem with our next examples. These are the three 1959 Corvettes bodied at the request of Texas racers by Scaglietti, the same outfit that built many of the legendary Ferrari road racing cars in the 50s and 60s. Gary Laughlin, Jim Hall (later of Chaparral fame) and Carroll Shelby wanted something lighter than a stock Corvette, but with the Chevy's cheap, reliable power. As the resulting alloy-bodied cars were to be raced against Ferraris (see last photo) in the SCCA, Old Man Ferrari made his unhappiness known to Scaglietti, and the cars took over 2 years to deliver. When you compare them with the Ferrari 250 GT Tour de France in the last photo, you'll see that none of the draftsmen at Scaglietti had to put in much overtime scheming up new ideas. They are pretty, though…And one happy aspect of the Italians pulling the plug on this operation is that it may have led, however indirectly, to Shelby shoehorning a Ford V8 into the lovely lightweight AC Ace roadster to make the Cobra.
Photo credits from top:
That would apparently apply to car industry execs as well as cars. The more I reviewed the Studebaker story, the more I was struck by what an extraordinary guy Sherwood Harry Egbert was. The Studebaker board of directors, wanting to diversify and nudge the company out of the car business, picked the 40-year old McCulloch (industrial engines) exec for the job early in 1961, thinking that someone from outside the car industry would be ideal. And Egbert had a track record of getting results. After 2 years of junior college, he'd worked construction pre-war and taken on managing a crew of 800 to build a plant for Boeing, then won a Bronze Star with the Marines in the South Pacific during the war. When he got to Studebaker, he studied the car operation and fell in love with it, moving his wife and 5 sons to the lodge at Studebaker proving grounds near South Bend (that hedge spelling "Studebaker" in the aerial shot isn't a hedge…it's 5,000 pine trees). Within 18 months of taking the job, he had:
1.) Spearheaded the redesign of the Hawk, contracting it to Brooks Stevens Associates, and gotten the redesigned and retooled car into production within 10 months.
2.) Brainstormed with engineers and Loewy's Avanti design team* in a crash program to create a distinctively new performance car, and gotten it into production in about the time it takes General Motors to introduce new Chevy paint options (or discover an ignition switch failure and then cover it up). Egbert's hands-on approach out at the proving grounds had real results: The reason some of the switchgear is above the windshield header is that Egbert, a pilot, liked it there. And the one design flaw the car shares with the E-type Jag (a too-vertical windshield angle) is that way because Egbert bumped his head getting in and out of the prototype...
3.) Subcontracted redesign of the bread-and-butter car, the Lark, to Brooks Stevens and gotten that extensively revised body design into production by summer of 1963.
These initiatives involved epic battles with the Studebaker board, and the fight took its toll on Egbert's health. The directors proved that their hearts were firmly lodged in the same oblivion as their heads by firing Egbert as he was recovering from cancer surgery, on November 24, 1963. Egbert went on to found an industrial consulting firm in LA, and died at 49 in 1969.
*For a more detailed discussion of the Avanti, see "Lines of Influence",
the post from 2/17/16.
Photo credits from top:
1.) South Bend Tribune
5.) Raymond Loewy as published
the post from 2/17/16.
Photo credits from top:
1.) South Bend Tribune
5.) Raymond Loewy as published
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Clifton's was a project initiated in 1931 by an eccentric millionaire named Clifford Clinton (Clifton was a contraction of those names) and eventually became a chain of 8 cafeteria-style restaurants, each with its own theme, serving Californians during the darkest days of the Great Depression. The second facility, known as Clifton's Brookdale but now renamed Clifton's Cabinet of Curiosities, opened in 1935. That construction interval says something about the scope of the project. Clifton's occupied 5 floors of a new building, and was designed as a destination restaurant. It was also the largest cafeteria-style restaurant on the planet. But unlike today's destination restaurants, Clifton's had no fixed prices, just a policy of letting clients pay what they could afford. It shared this philosophy with the other restaurants in the Clifton's chain, which featured neon signs urging customers to "Pay What You Wish"; no one seeking a meal was turned away. At the height of the Brookdale Clifton's 75-year run, it served 15,000 customers a day. But surprisingly, this mission did not result in austere, Soviet-style architecture. Clifton's was a predictor of both Disneyland and Las Vegas. Among the restored features you'll find inside are murals of wild and scenic California, nature dioramas, stuffed wildlife including a lion, plaster of Paris mountains, a faux redwood tree four stories tall, a bar counter impacted by a bronze meteorite, and a floor with fossilized dinosaur eggs. Viewed against the current vogue for spare, clean-lined Mid-Century Modern, Clifton's may seem like over-the-top kitsch, but let's remember that when it opened, average families could not afford travel, and many considered themselves lucky to afford food. Fully 80% of home mortgages were under water during the Great Depression's deepest abyss. Clifton's Brookdale kept its doors open for 75 years, closing in 2010, by which time it was serving around 2,000 Los Angelenos a day. It was the last surviving link in the Clifton's chain...
Clifton's was purchased in 2010 by developer Andrew Meieran, someone with large ambitions and deep enough pockets to fund a 5-year restoration (that's right; it took 2 years longer to restore than it took to build) and the restaurant occupies four floors of the building, as it did in its heyday. Some serving areas, including the bakery, were open during the long renovation process. The new chef, Jason Fullilove (you cannot make this stuff up), a graduate of a trendy haute cuisine outfit in Malibu, found a file with original recipes, and has revived some of them, including the famous Clifton's Jello. The "pay only what you can" policy is gone, but one policy which has been made a permanent fixture is the requirement to choose 10% of all hires from graduates of local shelters for survivors of abuse and homelessness. And there have been a lot of hires; Clifton's 5th floor kitchen occupies ten thousand square feet and employs 50 cooks.
Thursday, February 18, 2016
As outlined in yesterday's post, a crack team of industrial designers managed to get a new car from clay model to drivable test cars for the NYC Auto Show in a year. This effort is even more remarkable when considering the coordination required to acquire tooling, fabricate molds for fiberglass bodies, and line up suppliers for the myriad components that go into a car. What Studebaker had as a starting point was a sturdy and reliable V8 which could form the basis of a performance car. And what Raymond Loewy had was a collection of notions about where car design might be headed, notions he had explored in two previous concept cars which he'd also used as daily drivers to evaluate ideas. Some of these ideas appeared in the first sketches produced by the sequestered Palm Springs design team in 1961. The first obvious source of ideas was a special BMW 507 coupe bodied to Loewy's design by tiny French coach builder Pichon et Parat in 1957.
Cars did not look like this in 1957. Among the ideas which appeared 5 years later on the Avanti are the bumper which surmounts a simple, curved air intake and the asymmetrical raised portion of the hood which houses the logo (in the case the blue and white BMW roundel). The oblong headlight units were prototypes made available by Sylvania and were not approved for use on US highways; on the 1964 version of the Avanti (roughly the last 800 cars built) and on the later Avanti II a similar effect was achieved by placing an oblong frame with glass covers over conventional round headlight units. Here the arc of the fenders over the front wheels flows down and over the bumper / grille assembly, providing continuity of form. This car might have been a bit happier with concealed headlights, especially as these units were illegal anyway...
In both views of this car, it's easy to see the genesis of the horizontal crease linking the front and rear wheelhouses. On this BMW, however, it arcs over the rear wheels and wraps around the tail, linking the curved wheel arches to the echoing wrap of the rear window. As on the Avanti, the body wraps tightly around the wheels, and the wheel openings are not concentric with the wheels. But here the thrust of the openings is forward rather than rearward. Two features clearly visible here did not make it onto the Avanti. One is the pronounced wrap of the door openings into the roof, designed to ease entry into the low cockpit. The wrap-over doors did appear, however, on the Corvette Sting Ray coupe for 1963. The other is the sharp ridge formed at the junction of the upper and lower rear fender surfaces. Richard Teague employed this sine wave / ridge combo on the early 70s AMX3 show cars for American Motors. In its uninhibited curvilinear exuberance, Loewy's futurist design also looks backward, to the teardrop coupes designed for Talbot Lago chassis by Joseph Figoni in the late 1930s. Raymond Loewy was very much aware of those cars…
In 1959 Loewy commissioned Motto of Turin to build his design for an aerodynamic coupe on a Lancia Flaminia chassis. At least in its rear three-quarter view, it provided more links to the themes that were used in the Avanti. Note the clean, tapered tail with short overhangs, blade-like bumper, horizontal tail lights and generously curved window. The boundary layer airfoil above that window was an advanced feature, and only appeared on production cars much later. In this view, the Lancia Loraymo is a more restrained design than the BMW.
Loewy, who never hesitated to experiment with new ideas, was equally ready to discard ineffective ones, and somehow never let go of a good idea. It was this persistence in pursuit of lightness, safety and efficiency which was echoed in the title of his book, "Never Leave Well Enough Alone", and which led to consulting work for NASA as well as work on Air Force One. It also seems to have infused the thinking behind Studebaker's last new production design, one which outlasted the company by a quarter century.
BMW coupe and Lancia Loraymo: Raymond Loewy Associates
1938 Talbot Lago teardrop coupe: Stylepinner.com
Studebaker Avanti: Studebaker Corporation
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
An architect friend who's about 15 years my junior recently saw a car like one pictured below on a street here in Boulder and e-mailed, asking "What's an Avanti?" A good question. In the spring of 1962, when pre-production prototypes were shown to the press, it seemed like a fresh new idea, a break with the over-chromed, bloated and finned barges common up until right about then. To industry insiders, it was a last-ditch effort to save Studebaker, initiated by company president Sherwood Egbert and designed by Raymond Loewy's team in secret at a secluded studio in Palm Springs. That's Loewy in the foreground, with Egbert sitting on the car. The Avanti project went from approval of the clay model in April 1961 to display of the first cars at the New York Auto Show exactly one year later, with the first production cars rolling off the line in June 1962. Despite the insane schedule, the team managed to hang onto the goals from the original program. These included the first caliper disc brakes on an American production car*, the first integrated rollover protection, and engine options which included supercharging. Perhaps the car still looks fresh because it's so close to the "first impression" sketches; nobody had time to argue about stuff.
To those who were not car-crazy high school or middle school kids in 1963, the Avanti only seems vaguely familiar because of the many cars it influenced. Some features showed up fairly soon, such as the "Coke bottle" shape of the body in plan view, with a subtle indent between front and rear fenders, with the wheel arches linked by a sharp horizontal crease front to rear. These items showed up in 1967 on the Camaro and Firebird twins, GM's belated answer to Ford's Mustang. Those cars also echoed the Avanti's shallow, blade-like bumpers, semi-fastback roofline and upswept, tapered tail with short rear overhangs.
In a way, the 1967 Camaro was a Mustang in an Avanti suit; it had the proportions and massing of the Ford, but the handling of form and surface development was much more like the Studebaker. This is especially visible in a comparison of side elevations below. Note that the wheel arches on the Avanti are not concentric with the circles of the wheels; they are rearward-slanting half ovals, leading the eye forward and imparting a sense of movement to the whole composition. They also emphasize the car's "California rake", a nose-down, tail-up attitude inherited from hot rodders. On the Avanti, there's no grille, just a simple air intake below the bumper, while the Camaro has a conventional oblong grille linking the headlights. The Avanti's asymmetrical hood bulge forms the instrument binnacle when it crosses the plane of the windshield. It, like the blade shapes formed into the tops of the fenders, was intended as an aid in aiming the car. Those blade shapes were suggested by Loewy after he saw a preview of the 1961 Lincoln Continental (see "When the Sixties Really Began" in the archive for 11/18/15). This is almost comical, as the Lincoln is a composition of straight, parallel lines, and the only straight lines anywhere on the Avanti frame the backup lights...
In their design for the Camaro, GM's design staff produced a sort of smooth jazz version of the Avanti, erasing most of the cool, hipster eccentricities that were a product of the Loewy team's improvisation under pressure. Some people will prefer the Camaro to the Avanti, but their view is just a reminder of why Kenny G was able to sell more records than, say, John Coltrane. By the time that '67 Camaro appeared, Studebaker had stopped producing cars, but production of the Avanti had been resumed in 1965 by the Altman brothers, ex-Packard dealers. Ironically, their version featured a Chevy engine…Production continued into the 1980s, and the Porsche design team credited the Avanti with influencing their 924 and 944.
*Footnote: Or at least, the first caliper disc brakes that stayed in production during the life of the car. Chrysler had offered disc brakes on the Town and County in 1950, but they weren't caliper discs, and Crosley had offered true caliper discs in 1949-50, but went back to drums for the 1951 model year owing to corrosion and maintenance problems with their discs.
Top and 3rd from top: Studebaker Corporation
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Innocenti, a firm known mainly for assembling a variety of British Motor Company products in Italy, might be passed over for consideration as a bona fide etceterini maker, were it not for the 186 GT. The company was founded in the 1920s and by the early 1970s achieved the second highest sales figures in Italy with its locally-assembled variations on English favorites including the BMC Mini and, from 1961 through 1970, a Ghia-styled version of the Austin-Healey Sprite. Bodied by OSI, a Ghia affiliate, it featured roll-up windows before the Sprite acquired this feature, and was also available in coupe form, unlike the Sprite or MG Midget. The Spider shares the Sprite's 80 inch wheelbase, while the rarer coupe, introduced in 1966, has an 86 inch wheelbase and a roomier cabin…
Mechanical improvements paced the Sprite and Midget during the production run, so the 948cc engine in the original cars was replaced by a 1098 in 1968, and superseded by the 1275 in 1970. But while these cars achieved a bit of success by offering more comfort and style than the Sprite, their temperament was never quite Italian enough for some fans. That wouldn't have been a complaint if their sister car, the prototype 186 GT, had achieved production.
Like the ASA 1000 featured in our previous essay, the 186 GT was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone. Unlike that car, it has some affinity to the Iso Rivolta notchback coupe he designed around the same time, especially in the treatment of the grille, the horizontal character line running across the door and around the rear wheel arches, and the tidy curve of the tail. Apparently only two prototypes were built in 1963, and these differed in details like the rear wheel arch molding, side marker lights and wheels.
But it was under the hood that the 186 revealed its true intent. To go with the enhanced rigidity of a new tubular chassis, the Innocenti crew specified a unique adaptation of the early 60 degree Dino Ferrari engine, here in 1,788 cc, 156 hp form and looking for all the world like half a Colombo V12, which it basically was. To my knowledge, this car is the only place where the 1.8 liter version of this early Dino V6 appeared, though Ferrari had raced a 196S in 1962. That engine was also a 60 degree, sohc design.
The 186 GT can be understood, like the ASA before it, as another attempt by Ferrari to generate revenue by getting one of their engine designs into larger scale production. Unlike the ASA, it had the backing of a larger industrial concern with much bigger production facilities. But it was doomed by a recession that blunted the demand for these kinds of cars. Ferrari would need to wait for the design of a new 65 degree V6, and for an agreement with Fiat, to get that car on the road.
Top: Innocenti 950 Spider / wikimedia
2nd: Innocenti Coupe 'C' / bringatrailer.com
Remainder: Innocenti 186 GT / modelfoxbrianza.it
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
The term "etceterini" usually refers to small, often Fiat-based, sports and race cars built in Italy in the first quarter century or so after WWII. Etceterini were so named because they were not from any of Italy's fabled suppliers of fleet machines, such as Alfa Romeo, Lancia, or Maserati. And they were certainly not from the one postwar upstart which had already achieved universal fame by the early 50s: Ferrari. But I'd argue that one almost-forgotten car straddles the categories of etceterini and Ferrari: the ASA.
While getting his own 250GT into series production in the late 1950s, Enzo Ferrari explored the idea of getting a less expensive baby Ferrari into production. Design proposals from his engineering staff centered on an inline, single overhead cam engine which was, in essence, 4 cylinders from the 3 liter V12 which powered Ferrari's 250. The young Giorgetto Giugiaro, new on the job at Bertone, sketched a clean fastback coupe to clothe the tubular chassis of the little (1,032 cc) car. The divided grille echoed the twin-nostril motif which had just appeared on Ferrari's Formula One racers. Production of the car was licensed to the De Nora industrial concern, and began in 1962.
The hope was the ASA would, at around $6,000, offer the mystique of a Ferrari at half the price. But cars like the Fiat Abarth 1000 and Alfa Romeo Giulietta offered equal or better performance for about two-thirds the cost. De Nora's production capacity was too limited to ratchet up volume enough to offer a more competitive price. Total production over a period of five years amounted to something like 125 units. But in an attempt to garner the publicity that comes with racing success, Giotto Bizzarrini (father of Ferrari's GTO) designed a sleek competition coupe, which was built in tiny numbers...
Near the end, there was also an update on the idea of a dual purpose GT for touring or occasional race use. This was the Roll Bar Spider, offered in RB 411 (4 cylinder, 1100 cc) and also RB 613 (6 cylinder, 1300 cc) versions. The bodywork presaged that of other cars with built-in roll bars (Corvette, notably) and it was a tidy package, but it came too late to save ASA. The 6 cylinder ASA engine is a real rarity, as it was essentially one bank of a Ferrari V12. It makes one wonder if it would have had greater success it they had made a lateral rather than longitudinal slice, for a compact V6. But that's a story for another chapter…
Top: ASA 1000 GT / Wikimedia
2nd from top: ASA 1000 Berlinetta Competizione / Autodrome Paris
Bottom 2: ASA RB 613 Spider / ASA Automobili