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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Roadside Attraction: Rolling Sculpture at North Carolina Museum of Art

The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh has an exceptional exhibit covering cars of the Art Deco  period, and the show closes on Sunday, January 15, 2017, so this would seem to be a good moment to hit the highlights.  The show encompasses cars built in the 1930s and 1940s, and while the curators have identified the prevailing style as Art Deco, there are also examples of Streamline Moderne, as well as a style Raymond Loewy long ago christened "Borax."  We'll get to that in a moment.  First, some distinctive faces which may be familiar to longtime readers of poeschloncars...
This spectacular 1938 Xenia, built for aperitif king and inventor Andre Dubonnet on an Hispano Suiza chassis by Saoutchik to a design by Jean Andreau, was covered in detail in our essay "One of One, a Brief History of Singular Cars" from September 7, 2015.  Among its innovations: sliding doors, compound curved windshield and curved side glazing, and teardrop fenders which (at the rear anyway) flow out of the body sides before merging into the tapered tail.
The Tatra T87 from 1936 to 1950 was the product of Czech engineer Hans Ledwinka, and featured a rear-mounted, air-cooled overhead cam V8, along with aerodynamic bodywork along lines pioneered by Paul Jaray.  The triple headlights, 3-piece wraparound windshield, flush sides and single dorsal fin were very advanced, and betray a confident (and misplaced, for Central Europe in 1936) faith in the ability of technology to solve all problems.  The car, along with Ledwinka's rivalry with Porsche and lawsuit against VW for patent infringement, is covered in our essay "Cars and Ethics: A Word or Two on VW" in the archives from November 27, 2015.
This Delahaye Type 135M* which was bodied by Figoni & Falaschi with spatted wheels in a style inspired by cartoonist Geo Ham seemed, like the Xenia, designed for a jet set that would have to wait awhile for those jets.  Like the Tatra, the exuberance and confidence of the design reminds us of cartoons of a lost future by artists like Bruce McCall.  But that's with the benefit of hindsight. The Delahaye, with its outdated mechanical brakes and pushrod engine, was a poem about the future, while the Tatra, with its alloy engine and overhead cams, was an attempt at a blueprint for it…
The1930 Ruxton is early Deco, with a horizontal striped, very American multicolor paint job attempting to distract us from the very upright, un-aerodynamic bodywork.  Streamline Moderne it's not.

The 1936 Peugeot 402 Darl'mat, designed by Georges Paulin for the coach builder Pourtout, has more of a kinship with the Delahaye.  The two-toning and portholes in graduated sizes lend the design a whimsical air; the metal roof is practical, and Pourtout pioneered the retractable metal roof on the 402.

Over in the States, at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, designer Phil Wright attempted to pull the conservative Pierce Arrow firm into the future with the SIlver Arrow V12, and deleted running boards for flush sides, integrating tubular headlight nacelles and teardrop rear fenders into a budget-busting composition that found only a handful of Depression buyers.

A car similar to the Packard V12 Model 1106 coupe was also shown at the Fair.  Unlike the Silver Arrow, it has separate fender forms.  But the teardrop form of those fenders, echoed in the side window shape, is in the spirit of the times.
Jean Bugatti tried to predict the future for Bugatti with his 1935 Aerolithe; this green phantom is a faithful replica on a Type 57 Bugatti chassis from the period.  The original was lost, as Bugatti's future in Alsace Lorraine involved a German occupation, and no customers for magnesium-bodied twin cam dream cars.  

William Stout tried, like Ledwinka at Tatra, a rear-mounted V8 (here, a Ford) format to maximize interior space. The Stout Scarab anticipated minivans in its efficient, cavernous interior.  But the application of Egyptian themes, overlapping wing motifs, and the bathtub approach to streamlining echoes its own times (the first alloy-bodied Scarab was built in 1932; later cars were steel) and anticipates the next decade.  The unconscious humor of the design shows a naive faith in streamlining that Raymond Loewy labeled "Borax".  Perhaps he thought of this as the style was supposed to be clean, and Borax was a cleaning product...  Only a few Scarabs were built at $5,000 a copy; five survive.

The 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt is firmly in the late Streamline Moderne period, with its alloy envelope body designed by Alex Tremulis (later the designer of the Tucker), its fully enclosed wheels, and its retractable metal roof following Georges Paulin's innovations at Pourtout and Peugeot.  Six cars were built as "cars of the future", but there was a war in America's future instead.  After that war, a Thunderbolt appeared in the TV series "Boston Blackie."

*The Delahaye's brief moment of heroic achievement was covered in our essay "Dreyfus and the Million-Franc Delahaye vs. the Third Reich", on Nov. 22, 2015.  

Photo Credit:  All photos but two are by longtime reader George Havelka, who reports that the Xenia's paint job is a knockout for depth and luminosity.  The detail of the Scarab hood ornament is from the website aerodynamicsproject.com, and the rear view is from remarkablecars.com.

Happy New Year to all our readers, and thanks for your over 23,000 visits.  We look forward to reporting on new and old Roadside Attractions in 2017, along with features on the Frazer Nash, the cars of Briggs Cunningham, and some cars we hope will be completely new to you...

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Forgotten Classics-----AC Part 2: There Was Life Before the Cobra

At the end of the our feature on the AC Ace Bristol you probably thought we were going to talk about the Shelby AC Cobra which came next.  But before we visit that subject (which has never suffered from a lack of attention) we are going to take a detour down some seldom-trod paths which eventually led to the famous Cobra.  In 1937 AC made a kind of MG for grown-ups called the 16/80.  It featured the then-still-advanced single overhead cam 2 liter six designed for the firm by John Weller at the end of WWI, and elegant proportions in the long hood / flat vertical gas tank / no trunk English tradition.  The 80 horsepower allowed a fairly nippy zero to sixty time of 15 seconds, and if you needed more power supercharging was available, as well as a Wilson pre-selector gearbox as a substitute for the non-synchro 4 speed.  Stateside, one of the grown-ups attracted to the 16/80 was Frank Lloyd Wright*, here shown with Olgivanna at the wheel in their AC which he had painted in his trademark Cherokee red. 

The appearance of the new Ace for the 1954 model year must have seemed like a revolution to the company's traditional clientele, because it replaced solid axles with four-wheel independent suspension, and the upright style of the prewar and early postwar cars with Italian-inspired modernism.  The Aceca, introduced later that year for a mid-1955 production start, added full weather protection and more space for passengers and luggage.  Even in the US, at prices ranging from $4,000 for the base-engined Ace up to around $6,000 for a Bristol-engined Aceca, there was nothing comparable until you got to the more expensive Aston Martin, which also offered handmade aluminum bodies and that distinctive rear hatch.  And the visual impact of the cars' carefully contoured, minimally decorated alloy body forms was such that only one was ever re-bodied in another style.  This was a car sold in Switzerland, and it was bodied by Zagato…

This fastback design, which featured Zagato's trademark "double bubble" roof, shared the purposeful, aggressive look of the original Aceca, which had been designed in-house at AC. Another effect common to the lone Zagato and all the AC production cars on the 90 inch wheelbase was the impression that the aluminum shells had been wrapped tightly around the mechanicals and wheels with no space to spare.  The Zagato had a lower hood than the standard Ace, and the air intake bulge was contrived to clear the carbs on the Bristol engine.  In 1959, AC decided to expand its appeal by releasing a true 4 passenger car called the Greyhound. Wheelbase was increased to 100 inches, and weight went up a bit, to just under 2,200 pounds.

For perspective, that's still about 150 pounds less than the original Mazda Miata.  In order to offer the expected levels of performance, the 2 liter Bristol six was supplemented by a 2.2 liter version and also, late in the run, the 170 hp Ruddspeed Ford.  But the graceful lines of the Aceca lost something in translation to a larger car, and as a result of that, as well as the compromised handling from a new semi-trailing rear suspension, only 83 cars were made. The year before the Greyhound appeared, the LM 5000, made to a John Tojeiro design and entered at Le Mans in 1958, did not suffer from any deficits in speed or in visual impact...

Tojeiro's design owes something to the Costin-penned Lotus Eleven in aspects like the high tail, Perspex-shrouded headlights and one-piece alloy bonnet, which like the Zagato featured an intake blister to clear the Bristol engine.  The latter unit was nearing the end of its life in competition and production cars, but coaxed the unique LM 5000 to 150 mph on the Mulsanne straight. Weaknesses in the rear of the tubular frame meant that the car retired from the '58 running of the 24 Hours, while the "standard" Ace Bristols did well, finishing 8th and 9th behind a pack of Ferraris including the winner, a lone Aston Martin in 2nd place, and three Porsches.  The following year, a lone Ace Bristol finished in 7th place.

The conventional wisdom cited these race results, along with the commercial failure of the Greyhound, as evidence of AC's last hurrah. When Bristol finally discontinued their engine in 1961, lots of car enthusiasts expected AC and its products to follow their favorite power plant into oblivion.  What happened next proved how wrong the conventional wisdom can be...

*For a discussion of some of Frank Lloyd Wright's other cars and also his showroom design for Max Hoffman, see our essay entitled Max Hoffman: An Eye for Cars and the Studebaker Porsche, from May 1, 2016.

Photo credits:

1 & 2:  hemmings.com
3:  pinterest.com
4:  wikimedia
6 & 7:  acownersclub.co.uk

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Happy Accidents with Bristol Power: AC Ace and Aceca

When I was a grade school kid there were two cars in my neighborhood that I really wanted. One was a brand new black 1959 Citroen DS-19 owned by one of two mysterious sisters who lived across from the Catholic church; they'd traded in an almost equally new-looking black 1934 Chrysler Airflow for it, and that seemed a pretty appropriate move to me.  Around that time, I floated away on a hydropneumatic cloud when a substitute teacher treated me to a ride in her own gray DS.  Perhaps I'd finally turned in a decent book report to deserve this; I can't remember. The other automotive lust magnet was a metallic blue AC Ace Bristol roadster which was almost too pretty to behold.  Now and then I'd spy it parked near the bank; perhaps it was owned by a banker. I didn't have anything to trade for a ride in that car, but I would've given anything except my dog…

The Ace, first shown by AC in 1953 and in production until 1963, was a kind of lucky accident. Race car builder John Tojeiro had been building specials with alloy bodies closely modeled on the Ferrari Barchettas by Touring Superleggera.  AC (for Auto Carriers) had been building (mostly by hand) a traditional-looking saloon powered by their long-stroke overhead cam six, designed by John Weller and dating from 1919… 

One Tojeiro special which caught the eye of AC management was a slightly larger car powered by a Lea-Francis engine, and then a Bristol unit. AC adopted the car as a prototype, and it appeared at the Earls Court show with a transplanted 2 liter AC engine developing all of 85 hp. It's the last black &  white photo below.  Other than the full-height windshield on the Ace, the main change from Touring's Ferrari Barchetta body (top photo below) is the elimination of the stiffening rib formed into the alloy and linking the wheel arches. This line was, however, featured in the early Tojeiro Bristol (#76) and Tojeiro MG (#62).

Tojeiro's cribbed design was soon updated by raising the headlights, imparting the famous "mustache" line (hand-hammered out of aluminum) around the grille, which was now tilted forward at the top edge.   At the same time, AC raised the boot for more space, and angled the lower edge forward.  The happy effect was to give the car its own character, an external sign of the modernity underneath the skin; on launch in 1954 it was the first English production car to feature four-wheel independent suspension.  The car found popularity with English club racers, and the demand for more power led in 1956 to the availability of the 2 liter Bristol six, with its odd cross-pushrod design allowing hemispherical combustion chambers and decent power despite the long stroke. With this engine, the car gained 35 to 45 hp depending on state of tune, and while lighter and faster than any production Bristol model, it was also a lot cheaper.  Disc brakes became optional, and the revitalized car now found success with racers across the pond…

In a move calculated to appeal to Jaguar and even Aston Martin clientele, AC introduced a fastback coupe around the same time.  The resulting Aceca featured a glassy, hinged hatch for access to the luggage area, and Italianate styling which also seemed a reference to early 50s Ferraris, in this case the ones by Vignale.  It was available with both the AC and Bristol engines, and a handful of late ones were made with a Ford six.

Just when it seemed that Bristol's decision to stop production of its famous old six signaled the end of the party for AC, racer Ken Rudd got the idea to substitute his tuned version of the 2.6 liter Ford Zephyr inline six, now with up to 170 hp.  All of the three dozen roadsters built with the Ruddspeed Ford engine featured handsomely revised styling, with the curved windshield and lower snout shown below.

But while Ken Rudd and the Hurlock brothers at AC deserve credit for the idea of popping a Ford engine into their car in 1962, someone else gets credit for finally making AC famous. In that same year, a Texan working out of a SoCal garage was scheming a Ford transplant  for the same car, but this time with a V8.  That, however, is a story for another chapter…

Photo credits:
Top:  pinterest.com
2nd:  AC Cars, on myntransportblog
3rd:   wikimedia
4rh:   laluneta.com.ar
5th:   AC Cars
6th:   co1000.com
7th:   momentcar.com
8th:   hemmings.com
9th:   wikimedia

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Roadside Attraction: Dolphin Club in San Francisco

One wants to say Dockside Attraction in Old San Francisco, because visiting the Dolphin Club feels a bit like time travel.  Especially once you get through the front door and see the rooms full of wooden boats.  The Dolphin Club, founded in 1877, is not only a rowing and swimming club, but also a place to learn how to build and repair these boats.  The club has 20 wooden Whitehall-style rowboats of the type originally used in New York to taxi goods out to ships in the harbor. Whitehall rowboats (named after the eponymous street in NYC) performed a similar function in old San Francisco, and the club has Jon Bielinski, a master of the boat builder's art, to maintain them. Mr. Bielinski has also built several of the club's Whitehalls, which range from 14 to 22 feet. The oldest boat in his charge was built in 1917.  

Where else can you find someone to show you how to build a wooden boat these days? Especially at the membership rates offered by the Dolphin Club.  I was invited to swim there on a recent Sunday morning by a friend who had joined at the "out of town" annual rate of $119. Locals pay $475, and there's a $111 initiation fee.  There's got to be a catch, right? Well, not exactly a catch, more like a hallowed tradition…

The Dolphin, while it is a swim club, does not have a pool.  Members swim in the same place they do their rowing: San Francisco Bay.  On the day I was there, a lively group of men and women stroked smoothly through the water, some of them going impressive distances, including my friend Alfred, who cranked out half a mile.  The water temperature that day was 56 degrees F. Wetsuits?  Nobody was wearing one.  They aren't prohibited, but a sign indicating that wetsuits are not allowed inside the building conveys the message that bringing a wetsuit for your swim might be considered a failure of tone, like bringing a bottle of Ripple to a wine-tasting event.   

The Dolphin Club is located at 502 Jefferson Street at the Aquatic Park.  The creaky old wooden building smells of salt air and varnish, and if you can wrangle an invitation it's worth a visit just to take in the artifacts and the atmosphere.  It's also not far from the Maritime Museum pictured below, a 1939 WPA project and a stunningly pure example of Streamline Moderne style, which deserves an essay of its own, and will get one soon.   

Footnote:  The author left his wetsuit fifty miles south with his surfboard, and couldn't persuade himself to experience the joys of water temps in the mid-fifties without it.  Maybe next time

Photo credits:

All photos by the author.