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Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Etceterini Files Part 6--- Gordini: French Connection, Chicago Subplot

You may be wondering what the Gordini, made on Boulevard Victor in Paris in the 1950s and known (if not famous) for Grand Prix cars, is doing in a series on etceterini, which were Italian road racers, usually small and often based on Fiat engines.  At first glance the Gordinis, painted French racing blue and often with 6 or even 8 cylinders, don't seem to fit.  But founder Amedee Gordini, known in France as "le sorcier de la mecanique" for his wizardry with machines, was born in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna (home to Maserati, Ferrari and Lamborghini), and moved to Paris in 1926 after Italian army service during the Great War.  He surprised race fans with the performance he coaxed out of a  Fiat Balilla in the early 30s, then in '34 approached Italian-born Simca director Henri Pigozzi about going racing.  He persuaded Pigozzi to support Gordini's racing efforts by making running gear available from the Simca product line…which consisted entirely of Fiats built under license at their big factory in Nanterre.  So the Gordinis fit the etceterini pattern because they started small and were Fiat-based in a roundabout way.* This pattern continued into the postwar period.  Below is a Type 15 from 1950, based on a Simca 4 cylinder block and with Gordini head incorporating twin overhead cams. 

The pattern changed after the 1951 season when the light, nippy Gordinis blew up a lot of their supercharged 1.5 liter engines and Simca withdrew its support, forcing Gordini to finance his operation by selling the occasional car, collecting starting money, and selling seats in his racers to wealthy privateer enthusiasts.  For the 1952 season, there was a new Gordini Formula 2 engine, a light alloy inline six with gear-driven overhead cams.  The engine had opposite effects on Gordini's fortunes at the bank and on the track, as it was expensive but gave the little blue cars a fighting chance.  For '52 and '53 the governing body for the World Driving Championship had decided to run it by Formula 2 rules after Alfa Romeo dropped its participation and narrowed the field, so Gordini's new engine would allow his cars to be more competitive in a variety of settings. You're likely wondering how a tiny, cashed-strapped machine shop could develop a new engine in such short order.  So we need to look at another Italian connection, the one to the Maserati brothers…

Earlier, in 1949-50, Gordini had explored a project with the Maserati brothers at OSCA to jointly develop a 4.5 liter V12 for the then-current Formula One, and after failing to persuade Simca to finance the engine, obtained funding from Emperor Bao Dai of Indochina.  Only a handful of the OSCA Type G (for Gordini) had been built by the time the rule change obsoleted them, and by then Gordini had dropped out of the shared engine program.  But he salvaged something of value from the effort anyway, as his deal with the Maserati brothers allowed him to share the basic architecture of the new OSCA F2 engine (it was like one bank of that 4-cam V12), and allowed twice as many cars to challenge the new F2 Ferraris and Maseratis.  Why did the Maserati brothers want to beat the Maserati cars?  Because years earlier they'd sold their name along with their original car company (you're likely beginning to suspect that building race cars is risky business) and were now focused on making OSCAs. Compared with the OSCAs, the Gordinis looked more like the kind of racers that daydreaming school kids would draw (think "The Little Car That Could") and they proved that they could indeed prevail, given a twisty track and a crafty driver who could avoid flying out of the car (more on that later).  The new Type 16 Gordinis had some surprising success in 1952, including Jean Behra's outright win over the new 4-cylinder Ferrari 500s at Reims, and in 1953 American drivers Harry Schell and Fred Wacker bought rides in Gordinis.  Wacker, from the same family for which Chicago's Wacker Drive was named, had formed that city's chapter of the SCCA in 1948, and started racing in an MG. Prior to his brief GP career, he was known as a jazz musician, and for an accident which essentially ended racing on public roads in the United States, and prompted improvements in safety measures for spectators. In the 1952 race at Watkins Glen, Wacker moved left to avoid a collision with a Cunningham, and the rear of his car clipped a curb. Spectators lined the street, and a group of them were actually sitting on the curb.  Several people were injured, and a 7-year old child died.  It's not clear whether the shadow cast by this disaster prompted Wacker to pursue a racing career abroad; what is clear is that he soon encountered European notions of driver safety.  Here's Fred Wacker leading Andre Pilette at the Belgian GP on the first day of summer in 1953...

Note that Wacker's Gordini is taller than Pilette's Connaught, which typifies the lower, wider stance designers were already seeking, and which would lead eventually to mid-engined designs.  Wacker noted that in his first test drive he nearly fell out of the car through that tall side cut-out. Remember, there were no seat belts then.  According to Wacker, the approved technique was to push against the firewall with your left foot to keep your back firmly planted.  You would, however, eventually need your left foot for pedal duty… In his first race, a non-championship event, the GP des Frontieres at Chimay, Wacker took 3rd, the first podium finish in a postwar GP by an American and only 2.5 seconds behind Trintignant's winning Gordini.  In the Belgian GP pictured, his first championship event, Wacker finished 10th, 2 places behind Harry Schell.  It was the first GP race featuring two Americans.  At his next event, the Swiss GP at Bremgarten, Wacker flipped the car on his last practice lap and was rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull, extensive friction burns, and fractured ribs.  

He returned to the GP circus late in the '54 season, and Wacker's two year old, 2 liter F2 car was now competing against the 2.5 liter F1 cars in that year's new formula.  After breaking the transmission at Bremgarten, he managed 6th place at Monza.  This was remarkable, considering he was competing against the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz team, the new Ferrari 625s, and a Maserati 250F.  He ran two more races before retiring from the sport. Gordini plugged their 2.5 liter six, already used in sports cars, into the T16 and saw Jean Behra win at Pau and Cadours, both non-championship races.  Then, in mid-1955, they introduced the new Type 32, with a lower profile, 4 wheel independent suspension and 4 wheel disc brakes, inboard with twin calipers at the rear.  In the photo below, the Type 32 contrasts with the older design. 

The surprise under the hood was a beautiful 2.5 liter straight 8 with twin overhead cams driven by a gear train from the front of the crankshaft.  Along with the Mercedes W196 and ill-fated (though transverse mid-engined) Bugatti 251 from the same year, it marked a brief return of straight 8s to racing, just as they were disappearing from passenger cars, and before designers turned to more compact engine and chassis configurations.  Unlike the Mercedes which won back-to-back GP championships in '54 and '55, the Type 32 was too heavy to be very competitive...

There were a few 3.0 liter straight 8 sports racers too, and a couple of these were sold to enthusiasts, including the writer Francoise Sagan.  Unlike the Formula 2 engines or the stillborn V12, the straight 8s had no OSCA equivalent and have to be considered the purest of Gordinis. The expense of building them hastened the bankruptcy of Gordini's machine shop in the Boulevard Victor, and Renault brought Gordini into its competition department in 1957.  There the Sorcerer worked his magic on hotter versions of rear-engined sedans, and eventually on engines for the Alpine Renaults that won Monte Carlo Rallye and World Rally Championship, as well as the mid-engined Alpine Gordini V8s that raced at Le Mans.  In 1977 the first turbocharged Formula 1 engine, a 1.5 liter V6, contested a GP.  It had Gordini's name on it.  Gordini died in May 1979, weeks before it won its first race.

*Like other etceterini, Gordinis were built in tiny numbers.  There were lots of types, culminating in Type 32, but the highest chassis number I've found in race entries is #44.

Photo credits:

Top:       1950 Gordini Type 15, Wikipedia
2nd:        Fred Wacker in Gordini Type 16 at Spa 1953, 8w.forix.com
3rd:         1955 Gordini Type 32 & Type 16, Wikipedia
4th:         1955 Gordini Type 32 (Chassis #42), the author
5th:         1955 Gordini Type 32 (Chassis #42), the author
Bottom:  1953 Gordini Type 24 (Chassis #37S), the author

Friday, March 25, 2016

Roadside Attraction: The Beach Chalet, San Francisco

During the Great Depression and for awhile into the postwar period, dedication plaques on public buildings often identified the construction firm simply as "builder" rather than "general contractor".  I like this.  With one word choice, it transports the category of achievement from the dry legal realm to a viscerally physical one.  Imagine being able to point to the Empire State Building (or Rockefeller Center, or one of those big WPA dams) and say, "We built that."  Many of these projects were vast, complex and difficult enough that people died to get them built.  It's fitting that the builders are recognized in print, because sometimes they figured out solutions in the field that evaded architects and engineers in the drafting room.  Today's roadside attraction isn't on that huge scale, but it's a work of art whose very nature commemorates the people who made it. This is the Beach Chalet, a great place to end a cross-country journey or just a jaunt across the city.  Situated at the end of Golden Gate Park, it marks the end of the continent as well, and offers a commanding view of Ocean Beach.

Architect Willis Polk designed the original building in a Spanish Revival style for the City of San Francisco.  Built in 1925, it provided a lounge and changing rooms on the ground level, while the upstairs featured a bar and restaurant.  In a 1936 renovation sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, Lucien Labaudt was commissioned to produce a series of frescoes on the ground floor.  These wrap around the main reception lobby, and provide a view of the life and history of the city which is idealized and stylized so that it conveys a kind of innocence.  Models for many of the figures in these murals were provided by the people working on the renovation and also in city government, and their roles are identified in the plaques spotted at intervals along the walls.

After viewing the murals, you can check out the ground floor gift shop or the Park Chalet, which serves light meals in the space behind the main lobby.  Or you can take the stairs instead of the elevator to the Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant upstairs, as this will provide a chance to appreciate the wood railings and balusters with sea creatures carved by Michael von Meyer as part of that 1936 renovation, and the mosaics by Lucien Labaudt and tile craftsman Primo Caredio.

The building served as Coastal Defense HQ for the Army during World War II, and the VFW took it over for a long while after the war, with meeting rooms upstairs and a bar downstairs.  The bar became popular with bikers but not with many neighbors, and the building deteriorated, a process which continued for a few years after the VFW vacated it in '81, the year the Park Service declared it a National Landmark.  Restoration work was finished under a City program in 1989, but the building remained vacant until a 1996 grant from Friends of Recreation and Parks allowed ADA upgrades, and the Truppelli family opened a new craft brewery upstairs behind the bar, with restaurant seating offering spectacular views of windswept Ocean Beach.  Should you make the wise decision to avoid braving the riptides across the Great Highway, you can enjoy a Riptide Red while you watch surf videos on the flat screen over the bar, or linger over dinner while you contemplate the sunset through those big windows to the west.

To get there, set the controls in your driverless Google car to:

The Beach Chalet
1000 The Great Highway
San Francisco, CA 94121

Photo credits:

Top:  Wikipedia
Mural panorama:  matterport.com
Sea creature railing:  artstheanswer.blogspot.com
Sunset from 2nd floor:  yelp.com

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Etceterini Files Part 5---- Chasing a Mirage: the Last Stanguellini

This is the second (or third or fourth, depending on how you count) installment in a series on ways you can lose money by going into the car business.  You may be wondering what the curvy red racer at the top of the page has to do with that dark blue executive express at the bottom.  The answer would be that their chassis were built by Stanguellini in Modena, Italy.  The red car is a Bialbero 1100 from 1957, with tubular chassis by Alberto Massimino (Ferrari, Maserati) while the twin-cam 4 cylinder engine was designed by Oberdan Golfieri. Franco Reggiani designed the body, which was built by Campana.  It's a rare car of course, but also one of those rare designs in which the fins seem a logical outgrowth of the aerodynamics.  

If you still can't recall Stanguellini you may have somehow missed the Formula Junior race series that the SCCA ran from '59 through '63.  Formula Junior cars ran stock 1100 cc engines; Fiat in the case of Stanguellini, which was the most popular ride in the US series until mid-engined Brits took over.  At the peak of their success, Vittorio Stanguellini's shops were building 8 to 10 Juniors a month, and Alfred Momo imported a good many of these through his New York facility, which had managed the Cunningham racing team in the 50s. The white car above is typical of those Juniors in that it looks like a scaled-down Maserati 250F.

Stanguellini also built a 750cc sports racer, and one of those won its class at Sebring in '57. Here's a '53 example, also with those Reggiani-penned fins, but bodied by Allegretti.  The normal sized driver towering over the windscreen certainly gives a sense of scale, doesn't he?  This car is from the Stanguellini museum, which is located above one of the biggest Fiat dealerships in Italy. After the Formula Junior heyday, a less successful mid-engined car, and a bunch of speed records set by the otherworldly Moto Guzzi-engined '63 Colibri spaceship below, it seemed that Stanguellini's car building days were over, and the shop settled down to servicing Fiats and rebuilding old racers...

But at the beginning of the 1970s, developer Peter Kalikow wanted to enter the car business, so he and ex-GM designer Gene Garfinkel sketched something out.  Partnering with Alfred Momo led to Vittorio Stanguellini's firm, which proposed to provide a modern tubular chassis, in this case with 4 wheel independent suspension involving specially cast aluminum uprights and 4 disc brakes.  The engine was a Chevy 350, while Lucas fuel injection, a GM Quadrajet carburetor, and Weber carbs were all tried on prototypes.  Transmissions used were the ZF 5 speed as well as the GM Hydramatic.  The transformation of the concept sketches into a fully detailed and sturdily built steel body was handled by Pietro Frua, who had built a limited run of stunning 50s Maseratis as well as the 60s Quattroporte production car.  The prototype Momo Mirage was featured on the cover of Road & Track in December 1971 and the reception at the New York Auto Show the following April seemed to justify an initial run of 25 cars.

Then things went wrong very quickly.  The dollar vs. lira exchange rate fell, and labor unrest in Italy led to a doubling of prices by both Stanguellini and Frua.  This meant that the chassis and bodywork alone would cost the Momo team around $20,000, when the original target sale price of the completed car with engine had been $12,900.  This tale of woe probably sounds a bit familiar if you read our March 14, 2016 piece on Burt Sugarman's misadventure getting the Ghia 450 SS built.  But bad economics stopped the Momo team even before they could, like Burt Sugarman, deliver dozens of money-losing GTs to happy customers.  Two Mirages have been exhibited at vintage car shows, and most estimates are that only three to six of this last Stanguellini chassis were built.

Photo credits:
Top:  '57 Stanguellini Bialbero 1100, Gooding & Company
2nd:  '59-'60 Stanguellini Formula Junior, Wikipedia
3rd:  '53 Stanguellini Bialbero 750, caradisiac.com
4th:  '63 Stanguellini Colibri streamliner, Wikipedia
5th & 6th:  '71 Momo Mirage, Wikipedia 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Getting Over the Corvair, Part 2: Designer Visions and the Nader Effect

Before the Second Generation Corvairs appeared, the big name Italian coach building houses had shown an interest in the car.  Pininfarina showed a Coupe Speciale in 1960 (shown below) and also a 1962 variant with a taller nose and elongated roof (the green car).  For the 1963 show season, GM design veep Bill Mitchell sent two chassis to Italy in a sort of design competition to see who could design a compelling sports coupe to be marketed in Europe, where the Corvair was viewed as a fairly large car.  The red car shown below was Pininfarina's 1963 version; it seems clear that the PF design staff, still led by Tom Tjaarda, was focused on the fairly conservative clientele who bought Lancias and mid-range Benzes. It predicted the proportions, but not the form, of later production models...

But things got a little more exciting when Bertone showed Georgetto Giugiaro's interpretation in March 1963 at the Geneva show.  The car featured a strong horizontal line echoing the original Corvair's bright trim surround, but here it's repositioned as a sharp crease just above the wheel centers, connecting the front and rear bumpers, which are shaped, along with the glazing of the cockpit canopy and rear hatch, to emphasize the curved plan and section of the car.  The car's name, Testudo (turtle in Italian) is a reference to this sharp division between the upper and lower shell.

Here's a shot of Nuccio Bertone with the Testudo's canopy raised.  No photos seem available of the great man (or anyone, for that matter) attempting to enter this car.  But it seems intriguing that when asked to redesign the Corvair, young geniuses at Bertone as well as the GM Technical Center seem to have said, "This thing is just too easy to get into; let's make it a big production." In their design for the Monza GT show car shown below, Larry Shinoda (see '59 Sting Ray racer and '63 production car) and Tony Lapine (known for his later work at Porsche, like the 928) adopted the same canopy approach, though they sensibly lowered the sill, because the GT measured only 42 inches from road to rooftop.  More intriguingly, they moved the engine ahead of the transmission for a true mid-engine layout, shortened the wheelbase 16 inches to a tidy 92, and planted a disc brake at each wheel.  The seats were fixed in a semi-reclining position, but the pedals and steering wheel were adjustable.  That feature eventually showed up 9 years later on the Maserati Bora, a car drawn by Giugiaro.  Several sources claim that the GM team was inspired by his Testudo, which seems odd because the Monza GT appeared around 9 months earlier, at the Road America race track in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin in summer of '62.  To lots of gear heads, including this writer, it immediately made everything else look quaintly obsolete... 

For once, the American team had stepped out smartly ahead of the Europeans, producing an uncompromising, focused machine with convincing thematic unity reflected in every detail. Unswerving devotion to the theme shows in the crease which divides the windshield and carries the ridge from the pointed nose over the roof, and also in somewhat impractical details like the clamshell headlight doors and the jet fighter-derived entry canopy.  The proportions were as right as the packaging.  Unlike the Testudo, which has the long hood / short deck proportions of a front-engined car (only the small vents below the backlight hint at the rear engine location), the Monza GT declared its engine position (note the vents forward of the wheels) just as mid-engined cars had completed their takeover of Formula 1 racing and were about to challenge the old guard at Indy.

At the rear, the dished and recessed panel containing lights and license forecast the design of the '65 Corvair, while the gutsy use of louvers instead of sloping glass (the actual window was nearly vertical) would show up over 4 years later sheltering a transverse V12 on Lamborghini's mid-engined Miura.  But at this moment in the summer of 1962, kids of all ages who saw the Monza GT wanted one immediately...

There was also a Monza SS Spyder (foreground) with the engine behind the transmission in the usual (for Corvairs anyway) location.  This was on an 88 inch wheelbase.   But the one we hoped they'd build for customers was the mid-engined GT coupe.  What we got instead in autumn of 1964, when the Second Generation Corvair showed up in showrooms, was a remarkably clean, well-proportioned form with slim roof pillars and a peaked, forward slanting nose faintly echoing that GT show car.  The signature horizontal lip had become a crease, and slipped down to a position it would occupy on future BMWs.  Under the skin, a fully independent suspension modeled on the Corvette replaced the swing-axle rear suspension of the earlier Corvairs. A turbocharged engine, introduced midway through the first generation cars, was available on Corsa models.  It now made 180 hp. Finned aluminum brake drums were an option; disc brakes showed up in the Chevy line for the first time in '65, but only on the Corvette.  There was plenty to love about this car, and automotive journalists as well as the general public took to it.  In this, the first full year of competition from Ford's Mustang, Chevy still sold around 235,000 Corvairs.  The car had a whole year to pick up momentum before Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed was published on November 30, 1965...

In the news stories related to the book, mainstream journalists failed to report what automotive writers had noted often:  Swing axle rear suspensions were a feature of many vehicles, including all Mercedes Benz passenger cars, and were combined with rear engine location on VWs, Porsches, Fiats, Renaults and Simcas as well as the 1960-64 Corvairs.  In any case, Chrevrolet had added a camber compensator in late 1963 and switched to a state of the art fully independent system a year before the book appeared.  A 1972 Texas A & M University study commissioned by the NHTSA found that the 1960-63 Corvair had no greater propensity for loss of control in transitional response under extreme conditions than its competitors, but Corvairs were off the market by then. Partly due to the negative publicity, for the 1966 model year Chevy sold only around 103,000 Corvairs.  But damage was also done by GM's introduction of the Camaro and Firebird, which were aimed at the Mustang but also siphoned off Corvair sales.  In the final year, 1969, about 6,000 Corvairs found homes.  The people who drove them home were probably not aware that the last cars were largely hand-built, in a dedicated Corvair Room, by the last loyalists to the air-cooled cause at Chevrolet.  

Photo credits:
Top 3 photos:  Pininfarina S.p.A.
4th & 5th from top:  Gruppo Bertone
6th, 7th & 8th from top:  Monza GT & Monza SS Spyder:  Chevrolet Division of General Motors
Bottom photo:  1965 Corvair Corsa coupe, joescorvairgarage.com


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Getting Over the Corvair, Part 1

In autumn of 1959 when the Corvair appeared, it seemed like fresh air from an unexpected source blowing into a stale design scene.  It's easy to forget that car design was in one of its uninspiring and uninspired periods at just this moment.  A certain kind of conformity had set in, with bluff-fronted rectangular solids floating on inset, sometimes hidden wheels, slathered with chrome on slab sides, and set off with mostly non-functional tail fins.  In Europe & America, wheels were reduced in size and visual importance, partly to save space (Mercedes had begun the move to smaller diameters with 13" just past the mid-50s, and the BMC Mini featured 10" wheels in 1959).  Radial tires were just beginning to make inroads in the American market, and it's worth noting that the Corvair appeared with new, low-profile tires.  It's also often overlooked that when the Corvair appeared, people (engineers are people, right?) were divided about whether the future of mass-market cars would be rear engine / rear drive (the Corvair joined VW, Renault & Fiat) or favor front engine / front drive on either the Citroen model (longitudinal engine behind transmission) or the then-new BMC Mini format (transverse engine over transmission).  The rear-engined VW 1500, Renault 8, Fiat 850, Simca 1000, Skoda 1200, NSU 1000, Hillman Imp (along with the even later Porsche 911 and VW 411) were still to come, and a surprising number of people were betting on a rear-engined future.  Most cars still had front engines driving the rear wheels, but there was also an astonishing variety of ideas (some bad) on the market.  For example, in 1959 you could buy a front-driver with an four-stroke air-cooled twin (Panhard, Citroen 2CV) or even with a smoky two-stroke 3 cylinder (Saab & DKW / Auto Union, now Audi) as well as the German FWD Goliath water-cooled flat four.  This last example influenced later Subarus,  but the Japanese makes were not a factor in the car market of 1959.  Early Datsuns and Toyotas had flopped, and while the American Honda Motor Co. was founded in 1959, it was just here to import motorcycles (a trickle, at first).  As mentioned, the Mini had only just surfaced; nobody but its chief engineer, Alec Issigonis, seemed to believe that transverse engine / front-drive was the future of cars.  Into this stagnant scene General Motors injected its Corvair, a rear-engined, air-cooled flat six, stunningly low and sleek.  The name was a contraction of "Corvette" and "Bel Air", but it may have alluded to the air-cooled, aluminum flat 6 behind the passenger cabin.  Ralph Nader hadn't yet noticed it, and we didn't know about him anyway. 

With this one move, GM went from being the target of comedian's jokes and designer's ridicule...

…to offering industrial designers everywhere a seemingly foolproof template for designing
the Universal Car.

European car designers took a very long time to get over this Corvair.  They loved the glassy greenhouse and especially the horizontal plane just below the window sills dividing the upper from the lower body volumes.  It helped them abolish fins, which they'd never much liked even though they'd really invented them, and gave them an easily adaptable theme for all sizes of cars.  They liked the way the cantilevered rear roof with its wraparound window echoed that horizontal plane, and the way both were outlined with bright metal trim.  

In short order they began cranking out designs which were obviously inspired by the Corvair.  Note that in the photo of the prototype Monza coupe shown above, the B-pillar is eliminated for an open, glassy effect.  On the production cars introduced in mid-1960, the B-pillar was there. Chevy would introduce a station wagon and van the next year, a convertible the year after and true pillarless hardtops with 2 or 4 doors with the 2nd generation Corvair in 1965.  The Monzas were popular enough to stampede Ford into cooking up the Mustang; see "The First Mustang: Ford's Forgotten Mustang I" in these pages, from August 26, 2015.  Not long after the Monzas became available in 4 doors, coupes, and convertibles, they comprised around 80% of the roughly 200,000 Corvairs sold annually.

Germany's NSU adopted the Corvair wholesale for its line of 1000 and 1200 rear engined cars; if the orange 1200 TT above was a sort of MiniVair, the white two cylinder Prinz 4 below it was a MicroVair…

Also in the early 60s, Fiat duplicated the Corvair's chrome-edged horizontal planes for its 1300 and 1500 sedans, and even copied the dropped center hood, but added a grille because its water-cooled engine was in front.  

Ghia's talented Sergio Sartorelli wasn't immune to the Corvair's charm either.  Directly above we see his early 1959 pass at a replacement VW Karmann Ghia coupe for 1960. After seeing the Corvair, Sartorelli simplified the production version (1962-67) of the Type 3 K-G below to something a bit more Corvairlike...

The Toyota design staff claimed that Panhard's more aerodynamic riff on the Corvair was still influencing their work more than twenty years after this red 1964 CT24 was produced.  The Corvair influenced the wraparound windows and belt trim, but the aerodynamic front is distinctively French and influenced later Citroens.  Despite the lack of an obvious grille, the air-cooled opposed twin is driving the front wheels here.  Meanwhile, in 1962 BMW had launched the cars that would save the company, the New Class of fours and later sixes, all with sober, draftsmanlike styling, taller and squarer than the Corvair, but with the signature bright metal belt molding...

The shark nose of the BMW seemed to anticipate the 2nd generation Corvair frontal treatment, elegant but too good at generating front-end lift.  This glassy, pillarless 2000 CS coupe was introduced the same year as that 2nd series Corvair.  That was 1965, the year of Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed...

Photo credits:

Top:  1959 Cadillac;  hemmings.com
2nd from top:  1959 Chevrolet; Chevrolet Division of General Motors
3rd & 4th from top:  1960 Corvair 700 sedan & coupe prototype; Chevrolet Division of GM,
reprinted on carandtruckpicture.com
Photos 5 & 6:  NSU TT & Prinz; Wikipedia
Photos 7:  Fiat 1500; Wikipedia
Photo 8:  VW Karmann-Ghia prototype; leehedges.com
Photos 9:  VW Karmann-Ghia Type 3; Wikipedia
Photo 10:  Panhard CT-24; Cars Database (cars-pics-db.com)
Photos 11 & 12:  1963 BMW 1500 & 1965 2000CS; Wikipedia

Monday, March 14, 2016

Ghia 450 SS: Foreshadowing Fiat Chrysler

It’s often been said that if you want to lose a bunch of money in a hurry, going into the car business is even more effective than farming.  The saga of Burt Sugarman and the Ghia 450 SS is a case in point.  The story really begins sometime in 1963, when Ghia was aiming to attract repeat business from Fiat, which had commissioned their 6 cylinder grand tourer, the 2300 S coupe then in production (first photo below), from Ghia a few years earlier…

So that car’s designer, Sergio Sartorelli, took up the task of sketching out something a bit more like a sports car, and the Ghia Fiat G230 S (2nd & 3rd photos) appeared at the Turin show in autumn of 1963, then quietly got lost in the shifting sands of the car business for awhile, as Fiat prepared to replace the 2300 S inline six with the Fiat Dino V6, with the body contracts for the new spider and coupe going (much to Ghia’s disappointment) to Pininfarina and Bertone.  The Dinos would show up in 1966, but in the meantime Road & Track featured Ghia’s sleek, deftly proportioned prototype on its cover during 1965, and Hollywood producer Sugarman (movies and TV shows, not cars, at least not yet) was immediately smitten. 

He approached Ghia about producing a limited run of cars for the U.S. market, but suggested two changes: making it a convertible and substituting an American V8 for the inline 6.  Ghia had commissioned a tubular chassis from Gioacchino Colombo to be built by Gilco (a team involved early in Ferrari prehistory) that was stout enough to take more power, and the coupe inherited the disc brakes from the production 2300 S.  Ironically, by this time in December 1965, the designer of the new Fiat Dino coupe had arrived from Bertone to take over the chief designer spot at Ghia from Sartorelli.  Georgetto Giugiaro must have seen much that he liked in Sartorelli’s coupe, because he retained nearly everything in his rework except the fastback roofline and glass hatch, substituting a convertible top, flat deck and removable hardtop for the new 450 SS.  The "production" car featured a Chrysler 273 with either Torqueflite or a 4 speed from the Barracuda, and rectangular tail lights replaced round ones.  Giugiaro is often credited as sole designer of this car but a comparison of the green coupe with the convertible below as it appeared at the Turin show 3 years later will help you decide where credit is due…

So a kind of accidental Fiat Chrysler went into limited production in 1966.  It wasn’t the first time Ghia had bodied something with Chrysler power; there were the Exner-designed show cars and the Imperial Ghia limousines (on which Sartorelli had worked) and most famously the Dual-Ghia (see our posting for Aug. 29, 2015) which had been aimed at the same show biz celebrities as this new car.  So you’re probably thinking, “What could possibly go wrong?”  Well, labor costs had gone up a lot since those first Ghia projects had been built in the 1950s, and combined with shipping costs involved in the circuitous supply chain, the delivered price of the car was $13,000 in 1967.  That was close to Maserati territory, and by this time Ghia was also building bodies for Maserati as well.  Still, most people (including Johnny Carson and Wilt Chamberlain) who took delivery of the estimated four and a half dozen cars built were happy with them.  Happier than Burt Sugarman, who lost money on every car he sold… 

Footnote:  The most frequently quoted production tally runs from 52 to 56 cars.
Only two Fiat-engined G230 S coupe prototypes were built, and only one is known to survive today.  For notes and photos on some other Ghia-bodied, Chrysler-powered cars,
see our post in the archives for August 29, 2015 entitled "What Defines a Production Car, and Why Would Anybody Pay $3 Million for One?"

Photo Credits:

Top: 1961 Fiat 2300 S Ghia:  Fiat as reprinted in cartype.com
2nd & 3rd:  1963 Ghia Fiat G230 S:  Wikipedia Commons
4th: 1966-67 Ghia 450 SS:  the author (from the 2012 Concorso Italiano)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Porsche 914: Alternative Visions

One reader of our recent posts wondered when he'd hear more about the Porsche 914 chassis hidden under the twin-rotor Corvette and maybe under its Opel cousin.  When rumors spread in the late 60s that Porsche was readying a mid-engined car for production, many of us expected it might resemble some of the previous mid-engined Porsches, most of which were road racers like the 550 (see the Jan. 18 post, "On a Lonesome Highway in California") .  The very first Porsche 356 prototype pictured below had also featured a mid-mounted VW engine, but for the first production cars made in Gmund, Austria, Porsche  reverted to the rear mount.

Readers of car enthusiast mags like Road & Track, this writer included, were hoping we'd get something like the 904 from 1963-65, which featured modern, lightweight materials (including Porsche's first fiberglass body) and slippery, wind-cheating lines.  The 904 served as a platform for the 4-cam 4 flat 4 racing engine (a mechanic's nightmare of legendary status), as well as a test bed for the then-new s.o.h.c. dry-sump six being readied for the 911 (twenty of the 904-6 variant were built) and even the Formula 2-derived flat 8.  We hoped we'd be seeing something like that level of mechanical innovation (but without the flat eight's exploding flywheels).  Then again, anyone standing next to a 904 might have realized that adding bumpers (or even headroom) might have put an end to its visual fascination.

What we saw instead when the new 914 broke cover in late 1969 was a design apparently driven by concerns about practicality of use and economy of production, in a style best described as Unconscious Bauhaus…

But the new car had some advantages: plenty of space for two people and their luggage, user-friendly handling, and a variety of engines starting with a 1.7 liter VW flat four (this version was sold in Europe as a VW) with an optional 2 liter flat six from the 911, and later including 1.8 and 2.0 liter fours. The lift-off roof panel stored easily in the trunk, and visibility was better than most mid-engined designs, although engine access seemed deliberately designed to discourage or even offend amateur mechanics (a trait shared with the current Boxster / Cayman twins).  But even people who enjoyed the handling and convenience thought it didn't look enough like a Porsche, or even a sports car.  This group included Italian, French and even German designers, which is why, after featuring a rotary-powered 914 disguised as a Corvette in our previous post, we have still not exhausted the trove of eccentric, mostly forgotten 914s.  We can lead off with the Heuliez Murene…

which was designed for the French coach builder Brissonneau & Lotz (which also produced the '68-'73 Opel GT bodies) but built and exhibited by specialist manufacturer Heuliez. It seems to miss both the sports car and Porsche identity that enthusiasts wanted, instead offering even more practicality in a Citroen-flavored package.  A little while later in Germany, Albrecht Goertz, designer of the hallowed BMW 507, offered his prototype of a 914 Eurostyle sports kombiand Porsche execs were interested for awhile, but decided that demand for a sports wagon with almost no rearward visibility would not justify tooling costs…

And then Giorgetto Giugiaro at Ital Design showed the Tapiro, a glassy exercise with gull-wing entry and engine doors on a 914-6 chassis.  Giugiaro claims this design as his first true wedge, and like all but three Giugiaro show cars built though the year 2000, it was painted silver gray, as the master felt this color best showed off the forms and surfaces of his cars.  Tapiro never was seriously considered for production, and suffered a fire after being sold off as a road car.  The shell is now on display at Design Giugiaro's museum.

The most practical offering after the Heuliez effort, and also maybe the least polarizing of this group of designs, showed up on Pietro Frua's stand at the Geneva Show in March of 1971.  It was built by Frua on a 914-6 chassis for the Porsche distributor in Spain, and Porsche brass was so impressed with it that it was considered for a limited run of production cars. It displays Frua's usual deft handling of proportion and detail, with angled louvers in the sail panels flanking the backlight so that occupants could catch more rearward view, but like the other show cars (and like the production 914) looks not a whole lot like a Porsche…   

For their next foray into offering a mid-engined car to the public, nearly 30 years later, Porsche would stay closer to the design vocabulary they established with their Spyder race cars, and the Boxster would find wide acceptance and success.

Photo credits:

1948 Porsche 356-1, 1964-65 Porsche 904, and 1970-71 Porsche 914-6:  Wikipedia
Heuliez Murene 914-6:  Heuliez / Brissonneau & Lotz
Goertz 914-6 Eurostyle:  zwischengas.com
Ital Design Porsche 914-6 Tapiro: Ital Design photo reproduced on flatsixes.com
1971 Frua Porsche 914-6 coupe:  ideiblog.com 

The Italian Jobs Part 4: Saved From the Crusher

The car pictured below is yet another Corvette (sort of) in our series of Corvettes bodied in Europe, and joins the Kelly Corvette in my pantheon of annoyingly desirable Chevies.  But it was denied Corvette status for awhile owing to the fact that it's kind of un-Corvettelike in some departments like the body (built of steel by Pininfarina in Italy) and engine type (it's a two-rotor Wankel built under NSU patents by GM) as well as engine placement (close to the middle of the chassis).  Oh, and the whole assemblage is built on a Porsche chassis; almost forgot to mention that…

Anyway, in a spasm of Revisionist History at GM about a a third of a century ago, it was decided that XP-897GT was an inconvenient reminder of GM's expensive experiment with rotary engines just before the first fuel crisis, and should be sent to the crusher.  Fortunately, a future Jaguar design chief named Geoff Lawson was working at GM's Bedford Truck Division in Luton, England when the order came through to crush a steel-bodied Corvette. He called his friend, automotive historian Tom Falconer, who was able to arrange a meeting in Detroit with Chuck Jordan, then the GM styling chief and someone Falconer had previously encountered during a book project.  And so the unique Corvette two-rotor was spared from the crusher…

The car had been produced in a 6-month crash program to demonstrate GM's new rotary engine concept, and the engine was transversely mounted ahead of the rear wheels, and driving them through a prototype automatic transmission being developed for the forthcoming X-body cars like the (pretty forgettable) Chevy Citation.  Owing to the short development time, GM decided to build the car on a modified Porsche 914-6 chassis, which offered a couple of advantages beyond saving time, like sturdiness and great brakes.  Pininfarina, which had been trying for years to get more special projects from GM, built the body.  The car was finished in April 1972 and displayed at car shows the next year.  Like the Avanti featured in an earlier post, the XP-897 probably owes a lot of its visual freshness to the collapsed schedule.  The overall forms are clean, spare, easy to read, and mostly reinforced by unfussy attention to detail.  Tom Falconer still has the car, has repainted it in its original shade of red, and replaced the unobtainable GM two-rotor engine with a Mazda 13B rotary driving through a Cadillac transmission.  Corvette enthusiasts voyaging to the Mother Country still knock on his door to see it...

And XP-897 had offspring of a sort.  Apparently GM's Opel Division in Germany was two years late in getting the memo about abandoning the rotary engine, and designed its own mid-engine GT-W around a rotary (the "W" is for Wankel).  After rotary engine development was halted, the Wankel was replaced by a 6 liter V8.  Also called the Geneve (it was displayed at Geneva), the Opel GT-W features concealed headlights, eliminating the one distracting feature on XP-897 (those deep light tunnels) and deftly integrates the gill-like vents for the front-mounted radiator with a tidy attempt at a 5 mph bumper (remember, it's 1975).  Not sure if Pininfarina built this one, but there are clear references to other Italian designs, like the dropped window sill and belt line crease echoing Giugiaro's seminal Mangusta of nearly a decade earlier.  At the rear, the Geneve was even cleaner than XP-897; it seems like nothing could be subtracted or should be added…

If there's a lesson in Geoff Lawson's refusal to crush XP-897, or in Opel's not noticing (or pretending not to notice) that their Wankel car project had been cancelled, it may be that it's a good idea to cheerfully ignore stupid orders.  History may thank you someday...

Photo credits:

Top:  General Motors; reprinted in carstyling.ru
2nd:  General Motors; reprinted in corvettes.nl
3rd:  General Motors; reprinted in carstyling.ru
4th:  General Motors; reprinted in cloudlakes.com