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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Forgotten Classic: Salmson 2300s

In the 1950s, the French specialist car makers hit a wall.  High taxes on luxury vehicles slowed sales to a trickle.  Delahaye and Delage merged with Hotchkiss, and then discontinued production of all but trucks and jeep-style military vehicles after 1954.  Bugatti built fewer than a dozen Type 101s before giving up on passenger cars, and the mid-engined (but unwieldy) Type 251 GP car from 1955 was the last high-profile effort from the Bugatti family.  Gordini was bought by Renault in 1957, the same year Talbot-Lago gave up on making its own engines and adopted the BMW V8 to use up about a dozen chassis, and also the same year that Salmson discontinued car manufacture, which by then was concentrated on the four cylinder 2300s.  While Salmson was largely unknown outside France, their modern twin overhead cam engine, under the tax threshold at 2.3 liters, would have seemed to offer a decent chance for popularity, at least inside France. This somewhat Alfa-like engine had some performance potential, featuring an aluminum head with hemispherical combustion chambers.  But the company was slow to adapt to changing tastes; they stayed with right-hand drive, for example, like some other upper-crust makes, and continued offering the heavy Cotal electromagnetic preselector transmission even though it wasn't well-suited to smaller and lighter postwar cars.  In the postwar era, they managed to produce around 230 of the 2300s model (1953-57) and a couple thousand of the more sedate S4 which preceded it.  Of the sportier 2300s, there are a few with special bodywork, like Henri Chapron's cabriolets based on his "standard" 4-passenger coupe…

...and some rally cars and club racers with bodywork reflecting Italian influence.  These included a Talbot-like, supercharged one-off by Pichon & Parat, which ran in the Monte Carlo Rally…

Few were ever exported; even the spider and coupe bodied by Motto in Italy went home to France, where they raced at Le Mans. 

Salmson offered the competition-focused Grand Sport on a shorter wheelbase, but sales of these stayed in the single digits because of the high price, which would have bought a Jaguar XK120 in Paris.  GS bodywork included a glassy bubble top with a low belt line and a more Farina-inspired fastback, both by Pichon & Parat

In 1955, Phillipe Charbonneaux styled a fiberglass-bodied barquette for the Paris dealership.  It remained a one-off like the Motto Le Mans spider, but has survived along with that car…

These cars were rendered extinct by mass-produced performance machinery, first from Jaguar and then Alfa-Romeo.  Today, however, they might seem a bargain compared with the last Delahayes and Talbots from the same era.  Just finding one of the Salmson Grand Sports or the long-lost supercharged coupe would be a reward for any car detective…

Footnote:  Historian Fabien Sabates gives a total production figure of 234 units for the 2300s.  Of this total, 217 were the 4-passenger coupe first bodied by Esclasson and then in larger numbers by Chapron.  The remaining 17 cars include 5 Chapron cabriolets, 3 Motto-bodied cars, and the rally cars and Grand Sports bodied by Pichon & Parat.

Photo Credits from top:
1954-57 Chapron Cabriolet:  Henri Chapron, reprinted in patrimoineautomobile.com 
2nd & 3rd:  1955 supercharged coupe for RenĂ© Cotton, from Amicale-Salmson.org
Red 1955 Motto Le Mans spider:  Amicale-Salmson.org
5th & 6th:  Motto Le Mans spider in road trim, from liberallifestyles.com
7th:  Motto Le Mans coupe, from www.les24heures.fr
8th (on left):  Grand Sport bubble top, from rarefrenchsportscars.files.wordpress.com
9th (on right):  GS fastback, from blogdoctissimo.com
Bottom:  2300s Barquette Nadaud, from largus.fr

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Jetsons at Home in Boulder, Colorado (Part One)

Possibly the first national media attention ever to land on Boulder, home of the University of Colorado and also of aging hippies increasingly outnumbered by tech zillionaires, happened because TV directors picked a Queen Anne house on Pine street as the televised home of Mork and Mindy in 1978.  But Robin Williams' Mork character, a space alien from the planet Ork, might have felt more at home in one of the futuristic concrete shells designed by local modernist Charles Haertling beginning in the 1950s.  Haertling (1928-84) is often described in terms of philosophical parallels to Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff.  But before the decade of the 60s was over, he had developed a distinctive visual language of his  own.  A few Haertlng-designed houses, like the Menkick house (1970) on Boulder's western edge, reflect the horizontality and rectilinear massing of some of Wright's Usonian houses.  The crisply defined spaces and forms of the house are clustered around a huge rock outcropping which was left intact by the surrounding construction. The '59 Plymouth Suburban pictured would have fit nicely at the height of Haertling's career, but it actually lives at the Menkick house now.  

Other Haertling works, like the Brenton House from 1969, take a more uninhibitedly futurist approach to the idea of organic architecture, so that the result recalls science fiction of the era.  In a way, the Brenton house anticipated one work of science fiction, as it was featured four years after its completion in Woody Allen's Sleeper ...

To the best of my knowledge, all the Haertling-designed houses in Boulder are occupied, and are not normally open for tours.  But local historians sometimes organize tours of Midcentury Modern homes in town, and there's always the hope that one of these will be featured.

Photo credits:  the author

Roadside Attraction: Car Arch: Palo Alto, CA

You're wandering along a downtown Palo Alto street when you notice something odd about the two-story arched entry to a brick, Post Modernish law office headquarters.  The decorations on the arch are not carved stone faces, or animal or plant motifs...they're cars.  A kind of history of the automobile, in fact, told with castings of different models.  You identify a Chevy Impala from 1990 or so, a Ford Taurus, an early 80s Pontiac GP, a '73 Buick Century, a '59 Chevy, and on up to the top of the arch, where 1930s streamliners with helmeted fenders give way to stately creations from the Roaring Twenties and thence to horseless carriages.  Each series of 3 cars is separated from the series above it by sculptured tires (a deft touch) and these get narrower and rounder (reflecting a reverse march of technology) the higher (and thus earlier) your eyes travel along the sides.  Just above the base on each side there's a Car of the Future, and below each one, the sculptor has crafted a quizzical egg, which implies some unanticipated idea technology may hatch for us.  As the date on this piece is 1990, perhaps Emeryville artist Scott Donahue hadn't expected the autonomous, driverless cars now being incubated in the nearby labs of Google and Tesla.

The Car Arch is located at 390 Lytton Street in Palo Alto, CA. 

Photo credits:  the author

Monday, June 6, 2016

Pininfarina Abarth Scorpione 2000: It Looked Like Rocket Science

Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design* was the original proponent, and widely considered a master, of the wedge form for cars.  His Maserati Boomerang from the early 70s (featured in our 9-7-15 essay "One of One: A Brief History of Unique Cars") was a pure expression of the tapered, unified form the French call "monospace."  But one of the most persuasive uses of the wedge theme appeared in 1969 from the older and usually more conservative design house of Pininfarina.  This was the Abarth 2000 Scorpione show car.

Unlike the Boomerang, or Marcello Gandini's Alfa Romeo Carabo for Bertone, the PF Scorpione was not a monospace or a single sculptural form.  Instead, the separate forms of the front fenders, glass canopy roof, and the louvered rear engine hood were integrated into a unified composition with a wedge profile.  At the front, the sharp slope of the fenders matches that of the hood, which is edged with a band of retractable rectangular lighting units.  The windshield slope matches that of the hood, but a subtle break is introduced into this plane for the big single wiper, and this scooped-out surface continues around the rear of the front fenders to form a wide ledge at the window sill. Just aft of the cabin, the leading edge of the engine hood projects beyond the sides of the inward-sloping glass canopy in a master stroke of visual form serving mechanical function: in this case, engine air intakes.  That engine is articulated as a distinct element, as is the Abarth free-flow exhaust system.  The latter item provided good publicity for Abarth's high-volume accessory business, with the added benefit of making the Scorpione look like some kind of rocket car...

Pininfarina built only one Abarth Scorpione, and it was based on Abarth's 2000 SE sports racer. And though mid-engined race cars had taken over the tracks by 1969 (the year this car appeared), and mid-engined show cars were a popular draw at auto shows, the Scorpione mounts its engine at the rear, in the traditional (for Abarth) position. This makes it more visible as a design element. The upward-pivoting entry canopy recalls jet fighter practice (as well as a couple of earlier show cars; see "Getting Over the Corvair: Part 2" from 3-18-16). While the lift-up canopy design was no more practical here than it was on the Corvair Testudo or Monza GT, it did reinforce the Space Age visual theme that runs through all the other details: rocket science for the road.

*Footnote:  Giugiaro had earlier laid the foundations for the wedge movement while at Ghia.

And Filippo Sapino, who designed this car for Pininfarina, also spent some creative time at Ghia.

Photo credits:
Top:  carstyling.ru
Bottom:  autoevolution.com