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Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Etceterini Files, Part Eleven----Cisitalia: Fiats as Fine Art

I'm looking at an exhibit catalog from 1951; it's from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and depicts 8 automobiles from what may have been the first exhibition focused on automobile design by an art museum.  It was almost certainly the first one featuring actual cars. 

Perhaps the most modern and predictive of those cars was the Cisitalia 202 Gran Sport. Designed largely by Giovanni Savonuzzi and introduced in 1947, it was industrialist Piero Dusio's first attempt  to market a road car.  His initial foray into car production had been the single-seat racing model D46, which despite the humble Fiat origins of its 1100 cc engine, had achieved competition success in the hands of drivers like Nuvolari.  Ex-Fiat designer Dante Giacosa had come up with a lightweight, nimble chassis which made up for the modest power. The 202 coupe used the same engine and similar multi-tubular chassis, but the body design, executed in light alloy panels by Pinin Farina, seemed to announce a revolution in automotive form, as innovative and fresh as designs by Felice Anderloni's Superleggera Touring (initially on Alfa Romeo chassis), and those by Raymond Loewy's group for Studebaker.

Curator Arthur Drexler noted the way the car's hood and grille sat below the peaks of the fenders, very unusual in 1947, and also the way the grille seemed a section through the ovoid shape of the fuselage.  Perhaps more significantly, it echoed the shape of air intakes which had already appeared on race cars.  Today, of course, we notice the seamless integration of fenders and center section into one piece of very expensive handwork.  And expensive the Cisitalia was, with a U.S. list price of $6,800, which would have easily bought two Cadillacs in 1949...

…the year the Museum's catalog car was built.  The catalog text also takes note of the way the rear fender arc relieves the unadorned flanks, and the way the bottom edges of front and rearmost fender extensions lift a bit from the horizontal base line established between the wheels.  This gives the impression of the bodywork as a tight skin which just barely fits over the car's structural and mechanical elements.

It was a theme to be repeated on many subsequent postwar designs, especially Italian ones.

Savonuzzi took the opportunity to refine some of these themes almost immediately, as Dusio requested competition versions of the 202.  In the 1947 Mille Miglia, Tazio Nuvolari held the lead over much more powerful cars in an aerodynamic spider featuring pronounced tail fins. After a rainstorm he finished in 2nd place and first in class, ahead of many cars with engines two and three times the size.  This success led to numerous orders for the SMM, or Spider Nuvolari, as it was then called. 

Overall, about 20 of this design were produced, and at least two CMM coupes featuring even more startling tail fins (remember, it's1947), and a greater inset between the upper and lower bodywork than on the Gran Sport to minimize air resistance.  Also notable on the CMM is the boundary layer air control, an airfoil device which appears just above the rear window on the car below.  Raymond Loewy would adopt a similar device on his design for a special Lancia Flaminia a dozen years later (see "Avanti Antecedents" in our archives for Feb. 18, 2016).

1947 was a busy year for the Cisitalia crew, which included future stars of the car building firmament like Carlo Abarth.  In addition to launching groundbreaking road and racing sports cars, Piero Dusio commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to design a Grand Prix single-seater for the race series that would become Formula 1. The resulting Cisitalia Porsche 360 featured driver-selectable four-wheel drive and a supercharged, 1.5 liter flat 12 cylinder engine which had been intended for Auto Union before the war.  The car first appeared in 1949, and only one example was built. Development  costs for the 360, which included money Dusio paid to obtain Porsche's release from a French prison, bankrupted Cisitalia, and by 1950 the company was in receivership.

Dusio moved to Argentina and later built some Fiat-based cars there, most of them styled in Italy, where production of the 202 ended in 1952 after 170 cars had been built to the original Gran Sport design, including 60 cabriolets.  After the bankruptcy reorganization, other cars appeared sporadically in Italy under the Cisitalia name into the 60s, but none had the impact of the original Gran Sport Pinin Farina coupe.  It was the first car acquired for MOMA's car collection, which also includes a Willys Jeep, a Volkswagen Beetle, a Series 1 E-type Jaguar, a Smart Car, and a Ferrari Formula 1 racing car from 1990...

Photo Credits:

Top + 3rd thru 5th from top:  Alexandre Georges for Museum of Modern Art
2nd from top:  Automobili Cisitalia
6th from top:  cisitalia.com
7th from top:  Wikimedia
8th from top:  Von Reinhard Kaiser, reprinted in Fotocommunity
9th from top:  Wikipedia
10th from top: the author, from the Collier Collection at the Revs Institute

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Moment Too Soon: The Cars of Briggs Swift Cunningham

Four years before Briggs Swift Cunningham II captained the winning yacht in the 1958 Americas Cup, his efforts to win the biggest prize in road racing landed him and his namesake cars on the cover of Time.  By 1950 American cars had been absent from the 24 Hours of Le Mans for an age; a Duesenberg J entered by a Romanian prince had lasted 38 laps in 1935. For the 1950 event, Cunningham entered a largely stock Cadillac coupe he nicknamed Le Petit Pataud ("clumsy puppy") as well as a Caddy roadster with a slab-sided, boat-like body which reporters quickly named Le Monstre.  Le Mans regulars criticized the size and weight of the American entries but admired Cunningham's sense of humor.  Clumsy Puppy finished in 10th place, with Le Monstre in 11th, having lost some time while Briggs dug it out of a sand bank with a borrowed shovel.  The next year he would be back with a team of purpose-built cars.  The prototype C-1 set a pattern with its Ford-based independent coil-sprung wishbone front suspension, De Dion rear end, and Cadillac drum brakes.  Wheelbase was 105 inches and overall weight 4,000 pounds. This was pudgy compared to the Jaguars, Ferraris and Mercedes contesting Le Mans, where the new C-2s raced with the latest Chrysler hemi V8s replacing the Cadillac unit in the externally similar C-1….


Of three C2s entered, one car finished 18th after running in 2nd place as late as the 20th hour; the 250 hp engine, suffering from valve problems, needed to be nursed along in the final hours.  So Team Cunningham went back to the drawing board in their West Palm Beach workshops, and came up with the C-4R, with similar tubular chassis with a live rear axle replacing the De Dion, and shaving 5 inches off wheelbase,  4 inches off width, and a whopping thousand pounds off overall weight.  Body design was by George Weaver.  At 3,000 pounds it wasn't a lightweight, but for persecutive one is reminded that's about 400 pounds less than a modern VW Passat, and the modified Chrysler 331 hemi was now up to around 300 horsepower...


Cunningham sent the two C4-R roadsters and C-4RK coupe to Le Mans in 1952, and Briggs and co-driver Bill Spear took 4th place.  The team did even better at home, where the C4 cars won a high percentages of races entered, including the 1953 Sebring 12 Hours...

The fierce-looking coupe was the product of a design collaboration with German aerodynamicist Wunibald Kamm, a proponent of managed air flow and the source of the "K" in the name.

Dr. Kamm was also the source of the abrupt tail surfaces on the coupe, which featured the then-novel division of the rear window into two surfaces by a metal arc.  The lower window surface is nearly vertical, and the transversing arc  presages the tail spoilers of the 1960s...

Cunningham entered a C-4RR roadster and coupe again for the 1953 running of the 24 Hours, and also brought the new C-5R, lighter than the previous roadster by over 400 pounds, and making 310 to 325 hp.  The new car was swiftly dubbed the "smiling shark" by spectators at practice, where the new radar guns introduced that year showed the car to be faster on the Mulsanne straight than the rival Jaguars. The Cunningham team had been extremely careful during pre-race preparation, so they were confident the cars could last the distance.  What they hadn't reckoned was that Jaguar would introduce Dunlop disc brakes at this race, and Cunningham driver Phil Walters noted that this allowed them to brake later for the corners. The result was that the Jaguar C-types finished 1st, 2nd and 4th, with the Cunninghams in 3rd, 7th and 10th places.  It was a tribute to their preparation and reliability of their cars that among the teams in real contention only Jaguar and Cunningham saw all their cars finish.  This distinction was also shared with the French Panhard team, whose two-cylinder cars were never in contention for the overall win.


The torsion-bar suspended C5-R, the only one built, was piloted by John Fitch and Phil Walters to 3rd place in the '53 Le Mans race; the C4-R roadster finished 7th and the coupe 10th. Along with the intrepid Fitch, the C-5R survived flipping end over end at the subsequent Reims 12 Hour race. The car was rebuilt in the US with this original body design in aluminum.  As with the Jaguar racers of the era, the front fenders and hood is an impressive piece of hand-formed alloy that tilts forward to allow easy access to the engine. Unlike the Jaguars, the Cunninghams returned to Le Mans in 1954 with drum brakes, because Jaguar exercised its veto option when Briggs approached Dunlop about supplying them.  Still, they finished well, with the C-4R of Spear and Johnston in 3rd behind a Ferrari and D-type Jag, and the other C-4R in 5th.  It was driven by J.G. Bennet and a guy named Cunningham...


During this period there were Cunningham road cars too, and one was chosen by the Museum of Modern Art for its design exhibit, called "Ten Automobiles", in 1953*.  The C-3 coupe and convertible were based on the C-2 chassis, and the bodies were produced by Vignale to a design by Giovanni Michelotti..  The C-3 was offered to the public because Le Mans race regulations would only count the C-2 as a production car if 25 examples of the same chassis were offered to the public.  Cunningham's original plan was to build 25 cars in '52 and another 50 cars the next year.  But sales were limited by prices in the $9k to $10k range, and ultimately only 27 were sold*. Even at these prices, Cunningham lost money on every C-3, the result of sending the chassis on an Italian vacation for treatment by craftsmen who took 2 months to complete each body.

Cunningham made one last attempt at Le Mans in 1955 with this C-6R, a new chassis design with drastically reduced weight at 1,900 pounds, a return to coil springs with independent front suspension, and a De Dion rear suspension with inboard drum brakes.  Most interesting was a special version of the Offenhauser twin-cam, sixteen-valve four of Indy 500 fame, reduced to 3 liters and reconfigured to run on the mandated French pump gas rather than methanol.  Chassis and alloy body were designed by Herbert Unger, and the car ran Le Mans in the open-headlight, flat-grille form shown in the photo on the wall.  In the event, pilots Cunningham and Johnston went 196 laps before the engine burned a valve;  the Offy had consistently run hot after the switch to gasoline.  But at least they had run safely, and in a race overshadowed and then defined by an appalling accident which killed 84, mostly spectators, and prompted the retirement of the Mercedes team from all racing before it ended. At Cunningham, Phil Walters and Sherwood Johnston retired from racing, and Briggs indicated he could not blame them.  Back in the States, Briggs finally got his disc brakes, but only attached to Jaguars after signing on as a Jaguar distributor and running the firm's US racing program, where he had plenty of success.  The nose on the lone C-6R was changed to a D-type Jaguar profile with enclosed headlights, and it received a Jaguar engine transplant after blowing another Offy at Sebring.  Tax laws would have classified the money-losing Cunningham manufacturing operation as a hobby after 1955, and so perhaps a change was inevitable.  Still, it is tempting to wonder what might have been…If Cunningham had persuaded Dunlop to sell him disc brakes, or Goodyear-Hawley to make bigger ones (they had made the discs on the tiny 1949-50 Crosleys), or if Chrysler had spent the kind of money on racing that Ford spent in the 1960s.  In the interview for the Time cover story in April 1954, the reporter noted that it appeared that Cunningham had made a small fortune in the specialized business of building and racing sports cars.  Briggs replied that this was only true because he'd started with a large fortune...

                                C-6R Offenhauser engine

*Footnotes:  Other American cars in the "Ten Automobiles" exhibit included a Loewy-designed 1953 Studebaker Starliner and a Nash-Healey coupe from the same year.  The latter car had an English chassis to go with its Italian body, however.  The Cunningham Registry indicates that 25 of the C-3 model were bodied by Vignale, and 2 "pre-production" prototypes were bodied by Cunningham.  The $15,000 cost of these convinced the team to outsource bodywork to Vignale.  Counting the single C-1 and 8 race cars, total Cunningham production amounted to 36.  All photos were taken at the Collier Collection of the Revs Institute, which houses the most complete collection of Cunningham cars anywhere.

Photo credits:
Top:  Paul Anderson
2nd:  the author
3rd:  Ian Avery-DeWitt
4th:  Paul Anderson
5th:  Ian Avery-DeWitt
6th:  Paul Anderson
7th & 8th:  the author