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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Worst Car Designs Ever, Part 2: Plastic Promise, Plastic Perils

The late 50s and early 60s were transitional years for car designers.  It became clear that tail fins were on the way out, but only the initial, pre-Nader success of GM's Corvair provided a ready-made template that could be applied to cars of different sizes and even power plant locations in what was still an era of growing popularity for rear-engine designs (see "Getting Over the Corvair" in these posts from 3/16/16).  There were signs of life, however, including that 1960 Corvair, Elwood Engel's 1961 Lincoln Continental (see "When the Sixties Really Began" from 11/18/15) , Malcom Sayer's E-type Jaguar from 1961, and the Studebaker Avanti delivered by Raymond Loewy's team about a year later (see "Lines of Influence" from 2/17/16).  One of the trends in this period was the increasing popularity of fiberglass to lower tooling costs and get designs into production more quickly. Examples include Corvettes, the Jensen 541, the Avanti, and Colin Chapman's first attempt at a GT car, the Lotus Elite from 1957. The elegant simplicity of Peter Kirwan-Taylor's sketches (he was, ironically, Chapman's accountant) was translated into the production prototype with the help of aerodynamicist Frank Costin.  This was the first use of fiberglass as a structural material in a unitized body-chassis, here reinforced by a steel subframe for the engine and front suspension, with a roll hoop around the windshield to which the door hinges attached…

It was an ambitious project, and early cars suffered from warping and cracking (solved on later bodies built by Bristol), while all Elites were somewhat noisy because of the proximity of the rear suspension uprights to the cabin.  The Elite was produced through 1963, and was much more successful as a race car than as a practical road car. But we're lingering on its design for a moment because it shows what some resourceful and talented people could do with fiberglass…  

You won't find an unflattering angle anywhere on that original Lotus Elite.  But one of the perils of fiberglass reinforced plastic was that you could form virtually any shape you could dream up.  And the fact that you could often translated into the notion that you should, even when your dreams drifted into nightmare territory.  When reviewers at Road & Track first saw the 1960 Lea-Francis Lynx, they complained that the result was what could happen when you gave Englishmen unrestricted access to fiberglass… 

In 1960, England's Lea-Francis, which had not made a car since 1954, attempted to revive its automotive fortunes with this Lynx, which was based on a tubular frame design from 1948, updated with 4 wheel disc brakes and a Ford Zephyr six instead of the old Lea-Francis four. While the name Lynx implies nimble, catlike grace, it appears the uncredited designer may have had the Goodyear blimp in mind instead.  Indecision shows in every detail, from the superimposed circular and oval grille shapes, to the billowing balloon flanks which are oddly subverted by the sagging embossed molding at their center, to the way the whole theme is abandoned at the rear for some halfhearted almost-fins which allow the economy of using what look like Standard Vanguard tail lights.  The usually diplomatic British auto journalist  William Boddy said that the prototype Lynx had a "truly hideous fibre-glass body."  Subsequent accounts by the Lea-Francis Owners Club have claimed that at least 3 prototypes were built, and that steel was used for the body panels on some of these, with alloy doors etc.  Perhaps Boddy and the scribes at Road & Track were hoping it was fiberglass because that material could be easily be remodeled, or even erased...

For reasons which might have ranged from overconfidence to bad lighting at the design studio, the minions of Lea-Francis seemed reluctant to tamper with this masterwork.  All three prototypes had the same styling.  Even the catalogue illustrator, given a priceless opportunity to elongate the stubby proportions, relax the too-vertical windshield angle, and straighten out the saggy trim, left everything exactly as it was.  He (or she) might have taken inspiration instead from contemporary American car ads, where Wide Track Pontiacs looked two lanes wide, and embarrassing details were occasionally hidden by shrubbery.  At least he avoided the color scheme of the original show car, which was mauve with gold trim.  The effect of this road-going trial balloon was to euthanize the Lea-Francis automotive operation, while the company did manage to sell some garden tractors in 1961.  Enthusiast Barrie Price bought the name and a trove of spare parts in 1962, and tried again in 1980 with a Jaguar-engined 1930s-styled retro-car called the Ace of Spades.  But that wasn't really a Lea-Francis, any more than the Bugattis made by Volkswagen are real Bugattis…

Photo credits:
Lotus Elite:  Lotus Cars, reprinted in carstyling.ru
Lynx front:  telegraph.co.uk
Lynx rear:  only-carz.com
Lynx catalogue:  classiccarcatalogue.com

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Worst Car Designs Ever: Part One, A Tale of Two Darts

This is, sadly, the first of a four-part series, because there have been so many inept car designs over the years.  After reviewing a raft of candidates, I realized that it could have easily have been an eight-part series, but winnowed down the candidates by applying some rules.  I decided that merely making an under-engineered or underachieving car wasn't going to get you into the Worst Design Pantheon.  There have always been plenty of those, from the first Chevy V8 (no, not the immortal '55 small block, but the Series D from 1917-18) to the Ford Pintos with their exploding fuel tanks,  with a nod to the "rebuild the engine at 20,000 miles if it lasts" NSU Ro-80 along the way. Also, failed engineering efforts like the early rotary-engine NSU and the aluminum block / iron head Chevy Vega have been well documented elsewhere.  The real achievement, I decided, is to let your engineers do a competent job of designing your chassis and drivetrain, and then make sure you cover up all their efforts with a body design so breathtakingly directionless and inspiration-free that nobody in their right mind will wander into your showrooms to give it a test drive.  Our first Honor Award goes to the very British Daimler Dart from 1959.  It was only called the Dart for a brief while, because across the Big Pond at Chrysler Corp., Dodge was planning its own Dart for the 1960 model year.  Perhaps when they actually saw the Daimler Dart, they were horrified that it might in some way be confused with their own product. They complained that they'd copyrighted the name, and Daimler renamed the car the SP250...

A real tragedy, as Edward Turner's engineering talent was reflected in the 2.5 liter hemispherical combustion chamber V8 which powers the Dart, er…SP250.  This lightweight gem was a miniaturized version of the 4.5 liter V8 that went into big Daimler sedans around this time, and was such a good piece that Jaguar used it to power a Daimler-badged version of its Mark II saloon after the inevitable takeover.  But we're getting ahead of ourselves…That new engine took most of the budget, so chassis design was a lot like a disc-braked version of the already old-hat Triumph TR-3, as Triumph was vaguely connected to Daimler through the latter firm's control of Triumph and BSA motorcycles.  Over this chassis went a slab-sided fiberglass body with some half-hearted embossed character lines, apparently to make us think of vintage Daimlers.  The whole effect was subverted by unconvincing tail fins.  One of the first signs of a failed industrial design is that stylists, often prompted by screams of pain from sales-starved dealerships, attempt some kind of quick fix.  In the case of the SP250, this consisted of little chrome whiskers flanking the grille. Perhaps intended to make the narrow car look wider, they only succeeded in enhancing the homesick catfish look...

Above is the rear view, which some people actually thought was the car's best.  This was a case of a modern engine in search of a modern chassis and decent bodywork, all of which were available not all that far away in Thames Ditton, where the AC people were about to run out of engines for the high performance option on their Ace roadster with its fairly modern 4-wheel independent suspension and alloy body, because the Bristol six was ending production.  These cars would have been a natural for the Daimler V8s, big or small.  AC first tried a Ford Zephyr six*, and then Carroll Shelby got the combination right with the new lightweight Ford V8.  You probably know what that car looked like, but after what I've said about the SP250, fans of the Warm Beer Empire may accuse me of implying the Brits never designed any handsome cars.  So to dispel that impression, here's the AC Ace just before Shelby made it into the Cobra…

Meanwhile, over at Chrysler Corporation, Dodge had just had a very successful sales year with its new Unibody Dart, which featured conservative fins (at least for Virgil Exner's Late Period), the indestructible Slant Six and the usual V8s, and big, round tail lights like an earlier Ford.  Easy to see, right?  Dodge sold better than Plymouth (which had huge Exner fins and goofy scalloped front fenders), and dealers were thrilled.

That is, they were thrilled until they saw the 1961 Dart.  Chief designer Exner inexplicably decided to mess with success and grafted on new front fenders with the headlights in the grille, while at the rear he created reverse, forward-slanting fins which looped around by way of a chrome spear which pointed to, but didn't relate to, the front.  To paraphrase Road & Track, most American cars were so big you couldn't really look at both ends at once anyway...

But when you did look at the back of a '61 Dart, you saw the odd elbow shapes of the backward fins, with little tail lights placed like wraparound afterthoughts just above the bumper, where they were hard to see.

Sales crashed, Dodge dealers complained, and customers blamed rear-end collisions on the invisible tail lights.  So a desperate Chrysler Corp. tried a mid-year fix... 

This involved grafting contrived chrome pods with round tail lights above and inboard of the original ones, a solution which looked even more like an afterthought, because it was.

The bigger Dodge Polara, aimed at Olds and Pontiac rather than Ford and Chevy, got a different backward fin program with the chrome loop wrapping around large round lights.  These lights were pretty visible from the rear, and unmistakable from the side.  Still, customers mostly stayed away, and Dodge dealers were relieved when the 1961 model year was over.  That is, they were relieved until they got previews of the 1962 Dodge

*Footnote to historyApparently, AC directors approached Daimler about their V8s, but were turned down.  Shelby's access to the Ford V8 was welcome when it came.

Photo credits:
Daimler SP250 & AC Ace:  wikimedia
1960 Dodge Dart & front view 1961 Dodge Dart:  Chrysler Corporation
1961 Dodge Dart 2nd photo:  wikimedia
1961 Dodge Dart 3rd photo:  boldride.com
1961 Dodge Polara:  momentcar.com

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Celtic Rainmaker: Connaught Ended the Longest Drought in Grand Prix Racing

The only reason the Connaught isn't appearing as part of the "Etceterini Files" series is that nothing about it was Italian.  In everything but its origin, though, the Connaught fit the Etceterini pattern; Connaughts were engineered and built to race by a dedicated crew in a small workshop that had originally specialized in repairing Bugattis and other pre-war exotica. When the proprietors of the Continental Auto Garage found out that no postwar Bugatti racers would be forthcoming, they began searching for some promising off-the-shelf components upon which to base their own race cars.  The found a fairly modern engine and chassis at the struggling Lea-Francis company. Never exactly a household name even in England, Lea-Francis did manufacture a line of sedans and sports roadsters with a compact twin cam overhead valve engine*.  Connaught was a contraction of Continental Auto; founders Rodney Clarke and Mike Oliver added the extra letters to make a sort of Celtic pun.  That Celtic name matters because it was Team Connaught, not Vanwall or Cooper or Lotus (and certainly not  BRM), who first showed that cars from the British Isles could have a real impact in Grand Prix racing after World War II.  That they did this on a shoestring budget, with driving duties handled by a dental student having no Formula One experience, is just one of those intersections of talent and opportunity that make history worth remembering.

In 1950, Connaught produced the Type A, re-engineering the Lea-Francis engine for their new all-independent suspension chassis for the 2 liter Formula 2 which was adopted for all GP events in 1952.  Drivers who tried it included Stirling Moss.  In later versions, the team installed Hilborn-Travers fuel injection in an attempt to catch the competition, mostly Ferraris, Maseratis and Gordinis.

There were also under a dozen L2 sports racers with semi-envelope bodies, and a couple of the cycle-fendered L3 model shown above, which was even more focused on racing.

In 1954 two late model Type A single seaters were converted into AL / SR sports racers with curvy alloy bodies wrapped tightly around seats for two, a smaller 1.5 liter engine still with around 125 hp, and the De Dion rear axle and long wheelbase of the last "A"s.  As shown above, the AL / SR was a tidy package, echoing the contemporary Aston DB3S, and while only moderately successful on the track, it gave a hint of things to come...

When the new 2.5 liter Formula 1 was announced for 1954, and Connaught could no longer run its Type A Formula 2 car in GP races, the team planned a new mid-engined car built around the new Coventry Climax V8.  When Climax cancelled production of that engine, Connaught designed a front-engined car around Geoff Taylor's DOHC 4 cylinder Alta engine, enlarging the 2 liter unit created for Formula 2 to meet the new formula.  The first versions had the streamlined envelope body shown above; Connaught was the first Formula One team to have its own wind tunnel. Later, the new Type B was raced as an open-wheeler as well.  One feature the front-engined B inherited from that mid-engined design was four-wheel disc brakes, a feature not seen on its Italian and German rivals.

On October 23 of 1955 the last race of the F1 season was run at Syrucuse in Sicily.  The championship had already been decided (Juan Manuel Fangio in a Mercedes Benz), but the 70 laps of the Syracuse road course would allow teams to test drivers as well as design tweaks for the next season.  For a cash-strapped team like Connaught, the starting money was a tempting way to recoup some expenses.  For the race organizers, attracting some foreign entrants became a priority when Enzo Ferrari withdrew the official Ferrari entry, leaving two privateers to represent the Prancing Horse.  The entrants consisted of five 250F Maseratis with full factory support, two French Gordinis from the factory team, those privateer Ferraris, and (because the Brits yielded to temptation) two of the latest Type B Connaughts, one for Les Leston and the other for 23 year old Tony Brooks, who decided it was worth interrupting his dental exam prep to try a Formula 1 car…for the first time.  Drivers to watch included Maserati's two Luigis, Musso and Villoresi, the American Harry Schell also in a 250F, and a guy named Carroll Shelby who, like Brooks, first appeared in Formula One on this day.

The Connaught transporters were late arriving, so Brooks and Leston rented Vespas to check out the track, a roughly trapezoidal 3.4 miles with a tight hairpin at one end.  Syracuse was known as a "driver's track" in that it allowed no margin for error.  There were no real straights in that any apparent straights were either shallow curves or interrupted by kinks, and the course was lined with unforgiving concrete barriers.  Brooks must have learned something on that scooter, though, because when practice times were posted he got within a second of Luigi Musso's best time, averaging right around 100 mph.  This woke the Italian team up, and they went out to shave some seconds, but Brooks tried again and stayed within a second of Musso.  So the Maserati race strategy would depend upon pushing the reputedly fragile Connaughts to break…

But when race day came, that didn't happen either.  Brooks used his disc brakes to make up for the Type B's horsepower deficit (it made 250 hp), braking later into the turns, and staying so focused over the 243 miles that at the checkered flag, he led Luigi Musso by 50 seconds, an eternity in GP racing. Brooks also posted the fastest race lap.  Villoresi and Schell finished 3rd and 4th. Leston brought the other Connaught in at 7th, behind a Ferrari.  Long after the prizes were awarded and the crowds had drifted away, Team Connaught celebrated in the pits.  It was the first Grand Prix win for a British car since 1924, the first Formula One win ever for disc brakes, and the first of 6 career GP wins and 10 podium finishes for Tony Brooks, the man Stirling Moss called "the best driver nobody ever heard of."  One hopes he celebrated with something stronger than his usual cup of tea…

*Footnotes and Postscript:
The Lea-Francis engine featured high cams mounted in the block, operating the valves through pushrods.  Like the Riley engine also designed by Hugh Rose, it was sometimes called "an underhead cam engine."   Some Connaught "A" cars used alloy blocks that Lea Francis had developed in an effort to sell midget racing engines in the US.  The Alta engine was a true twin overhead cam design, and intended strictly for racing.  

In terms of engineering, handling responsiveness and quality of construction, Connaughts transcended the limits imposed by the company's fragile finances.  Seven Type B racers were built, and three additional Type B cars have been assembled from spare and replica parts since Connaught auctioned off its holdings in 1957.  At that auction, two Type B racers were purchased by a young enthusiast by the name of Bernie Ecclestone...

Photo credits:
Top:  Type A, racecarsdirect.com
2nd:  L-3, only-carz.com
3rd:  AL / SR, planetcarsz.com
4th:  Type B Streamliner, classiccarcatalogue.com
5th:  Type B, wikimedia.com
6th:  Tony Brooks, formula.hu

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Phantom Corsair: Shadows Over Tomorrowland

When the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg combine collapsed in 1937, it wasn't because their cars were not attractive enough.  In fact, Hupmobile and Graham paid to use the Cord 812 series body dies in a last-ditch (but unprofitable) attempt to impart some glamor to their products.  It's been said that the rightness of the Cord 810 & 812 design* was proven by the fact that almost nobody ever tried to rebody or restyle one.  Nobody, that is, except Rust Heinz, scion of the ketchup empire with its 57 varieties.  In 1938, Heinz and Maurice Schwartz completed their rebody of Rust's personal Cord, which started out as this 1936 model 810 sedan …

In the photo, Rust and future wife Helen appear happy with Gordon Buehrig's masterpiece.  But it may be that they were mostly happy with each other.  Because following Rust's sketches, Pasadena coach builder Bohman & Schwartz formed something out of sheet steel and aluminum that didn't much resemble that Cord, or anything else outside of science fiction.  And whether or not you like the result, you'll probably admit it's pretty hard to ignore...

For one thing, it's enormous.  At 237 inches, it was 3.5 feet longer than the Cord Beverly sedan, and the 76.5" width was enough to seat four abreast in front (with one passenger to the driver's left) and two in the intimate (or claustrophobic) rear, between built-in cabinets and cabin walls cushioned with rubber and cork.  The cushioned cabin was part of a focus on safety which was mostly passive.  

The cabin was fully instrumented, with an altimeter added to the usual gauges, and featured "door ajar" warning lights on the ceiling, as well as push button controls on the dash for the electrically-operated doors.  The car cost about $24,000 to build at a time when you could buy a new Ford for less than $1,000 and a just-discontinued Cord for $2,500.  Heinz planned to put the car into limited production (which might have used up some leftover Cord drivetrains) at $12,500 a copy, and advertised in Esquire, but found no takers…

Looking at the ad, it's perhaps helpful to remember that this was the era of science fiction comic books, and that the panic-inducing War of the Worlds radio broadcast also happened in 1938.  The Corsair was a product of its time, and while Heinz was unable to pre-sell any cars, he did succeed in getting the car displayed at the New York World's Fair in 1939, and a leading role for it in the Hollywood film The Young in Heart, where it appeared in multiple mirror images as the Flying Wombat.

The whole program came to a tragic halt in late July of 1939 when Rust Heinz, age 26, died as the result of a crash in which his Buick was broadsided by another car.  Ironically, in view of his interest in passive safety, Heinz was a passenger, and a friend was driving. The Heinz family held onto the Corsair well into the 1940s.  It might never have made a very successful production car owing to its size and weight, the expensive hand labor required to build it, and design flaws like the restricted outward view, and small cooling intakes which forced the use of two Lincoln radiators.  But in his sketches for the Phantom Corsair, Heinz reflected, perhaps unconsciously, something deeply unsettling about his era.  It's fairly easy to design a cute car or a comical one, but difficult, I think, to design an ominous one.  The dark, low, hovering form of this car manages to lurk wherever it appears…

     ...and haunts us like the dream of the World's Fair which opened with hopes of technology
lifting the prospects for all mankind, and was interrupted by a terrorist bombing as well as the onset of World War II in Europe.  The Heinz family sold the Corsair in the 1940s, and it now resides in the National Automobile Museum (once known as the Harrah Collection) in Reno, Nevada.

*Footnote:  For more on the design of the Cord 810 & 812, see our first post, "A Review of the Monterey Auction Weekend", from August 25, 2015, and "Looking Back: When Indy Was Indie", from September 1, 2015.

Photo credits:
Top:  torontosun.com
2nd:  carstyling.ru
3rd:   wikimedia
4th (interior):  remarkablecars.com
5th:  carstyling.ru
6th:  vanderbiltcupraces.com
7th & 8th:  carstyling.ru

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Roads Not Taken: Porsche 911s We Missed

In the afterglow of last year's 50th anniversary celebrations for the Porsche 911, it's been forgotten that some people were a bit disappointed when the car was first shown as the Type 901 at the Frankfurt show in September 1963.  Everybody was excited about the new dry-sump flat 6 engine, but a few people (like me) wanted something a bit sleeker and maybe a little less civilized, like the short-lived 356 Abarth Carrera from 1960.
Then dealers were annoyed at the delay in getting the car into production; it was another year before the "production" version (still called the 901) was shown again at Frankfurt, but Porsche was only able to produce 82 of the cars from mid-September to mid-November 1964.  And when Porsche exhibited the 901 at the Paris Show in October 1964, Peugeot objected that it held the rights to 3-digit numbers with a single zero in the middle...they'd obviously missed complaining about all Bristols from 401 through that year's 408, BMWs from a few years earlier like the 503 and 507, and also the Pegaso Z102 and 103.  Nonetheless, in order to avoid renaming (or renumbering) the car just for the French market, Porsche took the simple expedient of changing the middle zero to a one.  Those first 82 cars stayed 901s, though, and the 904 sports racer stayed the 904, but got a name (Carrera GTS) as well.  The later 906 road racer would be named Carrera 6.  As 1965 got under way, Porsche brass was likely heaving a sigh of relief, with their new baby finally rolling off the production line and their order books filled…

Then dealers noticed that there was no convertible version listed for the new 911 and its 4 cylinder kid brother, the 912.  This particularly irritated Johnny Von Neumann, Porsche and VW distributor for Southern California.  After all, Von Neumann's Los Angeles distributorship not only sold 20,000 VWs a year (he'd reluctantly taken on the marque to get Porsche), but more Porsche convertibles than were sold in all of Germany.  So, after obtaining a bare 911 chassis from the factory in Stuttgart, he had it shipped to Bertone with a request for a production-ready convertible.  Giorgetto Giugiaro was in his last year at Bertone, but he left traces of his thinking all over this car...

…which was originally metallic red with the Campagnolo alloy wheels shown above, but was eventually restored in black with Porsche 914 "gas burner" wheels as shown below.

This car was for sale at a classic car shop in Monterey in the early 90s, and my recollection is that in the metal it gave the impression of a big-scale Fiat 850 spider.  Like some of the revisionist 914 designs in our post on "Porsche 914 Alternative Visions" (3-13-16) this car conveys Italian brio more effectively than Porsche parentage, despite clues like the tall rear deck (to clear the cooling fan), air intakes deftly inset behind the doors, the short wheelbase, and ample rear overhang.  When it turned out that the car couldn't be produced profitably even at an $8k target (about $1,500 more than a 911 coupe) the project was cancelled, and so the Bertone 911 remained a one-off.  Fortunately, Porsche management had the Targa up its sleeve, and this eventually placated Von Neumann and other US dealers.  Once the 911 became established, and performance versions like the "S" and "RS" became available, dealers found other things to complain about.  The lack of real space for rear-seat passengers, for example.  So in the late 60s, Pininfarina was called in to try converting the 911 into a true four passenger.  PF's 1969 B-17 prototype proved, like Jaguar's efforts a few years earlier on the E-type 2 + 2, that even a master can have a hard time with proportions when stretching a 2 passenger cabin to seat 4…
It occurred to me that Porsche might have saved the effort, and the money, by fishing around in their garage full of old prototypes to find their T7 (also known as Type 754) from 1959.  Shown below is Butzi Porsche's first pass at a design for what became the 911, and it happened to be a 4 passenger package.  While it failed to meet the approval of senior management (i.e., his dad) it did contain some useful ideas for the car that would define Porsche for at least 4 decades.  And it told anyone willing to look that the new car really wanted to accommodate no more than 2 lucky souls…
Photo credits:
All photos are from Wikimedia except Von Neumann / Bertone 911 cabrio, which is from 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Three for the Road: Jean Pierre Wimille Forecast a GP Car for Everyman

Jean Pierre Wimille gained fame if not fortune racing Bugattis before World War II, winning Le Mans twice before turning his attention to work for the French Resistance during the war.  He won one of the first automobile races to be run after the war, the Coupe des Prisonniers in the Bois de Boulogne, in 1945, again driving a Bugatti.  But by 1946 he revealed a project summarizing his ideas on something he'd been pondering during the long years of the Nazi Occupation: the future of the automobile.

The first Wimille prototype, bodied in Paris by Henri Chapron to Wimille's ideas, didn't much resemble anything that came before it.  All of the surfaces were curved in order to conform to a teardrop profile, including a compound curved windshield, curved door glazing, and a roof which followed a teardrop plan while ending in a sloped finlike element sharing the flavor (and poor rearward visibility) of the rear-engined, prewar Tatra T87.  The driver sat in the center, however, flanked by two passengers sitting a bit behind his control module.  Wimille's goal was to design and build a lightweight V6 power plant, with the power unit mounted forward of the transmission and just behind the 3 seats.  Overall, then, the seating layout and engine position were very much like Pininfarina's two Ferrari 365 Tre Posti prototypes from 1966, or Peter Stevens' design for the McLaren F1 road car which appeared in 1992.   

Because this was Europe in 1946, Wimille had to contend with shortages of nearly everything, and with costs (including the cost of scarce gasoline) in mind he settled for a 4 cylinder engine from a Citroen 11 (Traction Avant) for his first prototype. Subsequent prototypes featured a French Ford flathead V8 (Wimille had attracted the interest of Ford France in the project), the same tubular chassis and Cotal preselector transmission, and somewhat heaver, less aircraft-influenced styling. This revised body design by Philippe Charbonneaux at least attempted to improve visibility to the rear…

Some sources suggest that as many as 8 prototypes were built, with at least 2 cars surviving today.  Photos suggest that no less that 4 frontal styling schemes were tried, including the two different headlight and bumper schemes below…

…and this less appealing Cyclops version.  If these lighting schemes and fender forms reflect different cars, then there were no less than 4 different prototypes.

All development on the car came to a tragic and abrupt halt when Wimille died while practicing for the Buenos Aires GP in his Gordini in January 1949.  His successors were not able to keep Ford interested in producing the car, and the effort was abandoned.  Ironically, just over a year later Lancia released the Aurelia, which featured both the lightweight V6 engine Wimille sought, and a transaxle unit offering savings in space and weight.  Unlike most prewar "GP cars for the road" (the Bugatti Type 55, the Alfa 8C 2300 and 2900), the Wimille design approached the program not by adapting existing race car practice, but by attempting to forecast future trends and then to design a practical package around them.  Combining a compact, lightweight chassis forecasting the GP winners of 1960 with a humble, easy-to-service power plant, Wimille was aiming at a GP car for Everyman.  In retrospect, he came closer than he could have known.

Photo credits:

All photos from carstyling.ru; overhead view of Paris Auto Show from Life Magazine and reprinted in carstyling.ru.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Other America: Talbot Lago 2500

In the 50s and 60s, European car manufacturers eager to expand into the booming American market came up with models aimed at Yankee tastes.  Sometimes they even named these cars after their target market. Examples include the '52 Porsche America Roadster (not a huge success, but 20 of 21 built went to the USA), a whole series of Ferrari Americas* (also produced in small numbers, but finally with the "big engine" importer Luigi Chinetti had requested), and as the 60s faded into the 70s, the Austin America with automatic transmission and cushy "hydrolastic" suspension.  One old-line French manufacturer, frozen out of the French market by high taxes on their big six cylinder cars, belatedly saw the potential of the American market in 1957.  Anthony Lago substituted a BMW V-8 for the disappointingly fragile Talbot 2.5 liter four which had appeared in the sleek new Type 14 LS coupe in '55, and finally moved the steering wheel to the left side while substituting wind-up windows for the racing-type sliders, making the new cars available through Los Angeles importer Otto Zipper.  A Motor Trend test from 1959 praised the car's style and handling, but their comparison test was with a Plymouth Sport Fury, which had twice the power for half the money.  Lago had erred in choosing to downsize the V-8 to meet French tax limits; for the US market the 3.2 liter V8 from the 503 and 507 would have been a better value-for-money proposition.  The car was pretty, elegantly modern with tidy curves and balanced proportions, still with a hint of tradition in the grille and interior details which led many to think of something English like an Aston.  The early 4 cylinder coupes were even more frequently taken for Brits, as they had right-hand drive and overlapped production of the English Sunbeam Talbots, completely different cars which were made by a separate company.  Neither Talbot Lagos nor Sunbeam Talbots did especially well in the American market, and at a lofty $7,000 tag only a dozen or so of the Lago Americas found homes.  After Tony Lago sold out to Simca in 1959, another 10 cars were outfitted with Simca V8 engines (a version of the outdated flathead Ford) to use up leftover chassis, and these cars joined the original 54 Type 14 coupes and the too-little, too-late America as artifacts of a fine old company trying to find its way in a changing market.

                                                    Talbot Type 14 LS coupe, 1955-56

                                                       Talbot Lago America, 1957-59

                                                               Austin America, 1968-72

                                   Ferrari 340 America by Superleggera Touring, 1951

1952 Porsche America

*Footnote:  Ferrari has released a new America series, but it's already sold out at $2.5 million a copy.  You may have better luck finding an Austin America in the $250 to $2,500 range.  The Porsche America provided only a few sales for importer Max Hoffman (see "Max Hoffman:  An Eye for Cars" in these posts) but paved the way for the wildly successful Speedster.

Photo Credits:
All photos Wikimedia except that classic Austin, which is from curbsideclassic.com.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Jetsons in Boulder, Part Two: Charles Haertling Masterworks

Driving, biking or hiking around Boulder, you catch an occasional glimpse of striking architectural forms clinging to mountainsides, perched above canyons, partly hidden by foliage.  These may include Charles Haertling's Volsky house from 1965.  The exuberant curvilinearity of the Volsky house was prompted by the contours of the site, and the dramatic upward sweep of the roof leads the eye towards a spectacular view up the mountainside.  This in itself is unusual in that architects ordinarily prize the downslope views.  Haertling employed curves in plan, section and elevation to reinforce his visual theme; note the curved window sills leading the eye upward to the prow in the second photo.  Neighbors complained that the house would spoil the neighborhood, but the house became a local landmark, and the Volsky house was featured in Life Magazine, from which these photos are excerpted*.

Here the curved approach path follows the site contours, creates a sense of arrival, and leads the eye to the sheltering arc over a shady, recessed entry.  If this constitutes ruining a neighborhood, I wish someone would hurry up and ruin mine…

The forms of the Caldwell house, completed in 1968, were similarly driven by the client's program as well as the topography of the site... 

But a look at the architect's plan sketch reveals a symmetry which is not at first apparent on the main approach...

The lapped boards curving upward and around the soffit of the prow-like cantilevered roof are an unmistakable reference to boatbuilding practice, and also a contrast to the smooth, white verticals of the walls.  This ship's prow is mirrored in the projecting form below the window sills.

*Footnote:  According to Boulder architectural historian Leonard Segel, the Volsky's neighbors hated Haertling's design so much they tried legal efforts to get the house demolished while it was still under construction.  Their collective attitude made a 180-degree turn, however, after the house appeared in Life.

Photo Credits:
Volsky house (top 3):  Michael Rougier for Life Magazine
Caldwell house top photo + plan:  Boulder Buildings & Plans (1.bp.blogspot.com)
Caldwell bottom shot: Mod Boulder (mod boulder.com)