As human civilization begins to envision the end of an era dominated by the internal combustion engine, we take a look back at the masterworks and follies of the Automotive Century, detour onto the meandering two-lanes to visit a few roadside attractions, and comment on the architectural and urban planning consequences of car culture.
Joseph Figoni, the designer of the Paris coach building duo that was Figoni and Falaschi, liked to trace sine waves in the air while telling customers, "I like the streamline." He did indeed, and after the mid-1930s his custom coachwork on bespoke chassis (often Delahaye and Talbot Lago) displayed an enthusiasm for the teardrop shapes which were then equated with aerodynamic efficiency. A series of roadsters and coupes showed the influence of auto racing fan and commercial illustrator Geo Ham, who often drew cars with fenders fully enveloping the front as well as rear wheels. Figoni's business partner Ovidio Falaschi brought in celebrity clients like Aly Kahn, who bought a Delahaye roadster in 1936. The wheel spats and sensuous curves were applied to our example car, a Delahaye Type 135 MS belonging to the Collier Collection at the Revs Institute, in 1937...
In keeping with Delahaye's Competition Special designation, the short chassis car (116 inch wheelbase) was bodied in aluminum, and weighed only 2,840 pounds. Compared with the engine designs at competitor Bugatti, and advanced chassis as well as engine designs at Alfa Romeo, the Delahaye* was fairly conservative. Unlike the twin overhead cam eights of these two competitors, the 135 MS featured a conventional, inline pushrod six with a cast iron block. It had independent front suspension, but a rigid rear axle. And unlike their sister cars in the combine that now included Delage, Delahayes delayed adoption of hydraulic brakes, favoring mechanical actuation until near the end, in the early 1950s. In the transmission department, Delahayes departed from convention with the Cotal electromagnetic transmission, a preselector unit not unlike that featured around the same time in the American Cord 810. As a result, the 135 MS offered four forward speeds, as well as four speeds in reverse...
The extravagant, voluptuous curves conceal time-honored, traditional construction methods. Metal bodies were hand-formed over wooden bucks, and wood framing was concealed below the bright metal surfaces. The visual sophistication easily outshone the engineering conservatism. Patented features of Joseph Figoni's invention included the folding top concealed under a metal cover, lightweight tubular seat frames, windshields which retracted into the cowl, and the famous compound curved fenders with spats concealing the wheels. These fenders must have been a real chore to form in alloy or steel, especially as Figoni was fond of adjusting lines and contours by a trial and error method, with the same casual attitude that a tailor might apply to altering a jacket. Note the way the designer superimposes the traditional clamshell fender form repeating the more open designs of the early 1930s over the fully enclosed teardrop around the front wheel, creating a complex concavity above the convex wheel spat, which is decorated with a bright chrome wave form repeated on the hood vents.
Unlike some designers who based their futurist arguments on the inevitable triumph of new technology (those at Lancia and Tatra come to mind), Joseph Figoni fashioned his exuberant visual statements over whatever engineering was readily (though expensively) available. His optimistic, four-wheeled metal poems still form a vivid contrast to the optimized, logical prose pieces built by contemporary engineers.
*Footnote: For additional notes on Delahaye cars, see our Archives for the 12-31-16 post entitled "Roadside Attraction: Rolling Sculpture at the North Carolina Museum of Art" and also our 11-22-15 post entitled "Dreyfus and the Million-Franc Delahaye vs. the Third Reich."
Photo Credits: First 4 photos: Ian Avery-DeWitt Bottom: the author
The number of architect car enthusiasts greatly outnumbers the number of architect car designers, and vastly outnumbers the number of cars designed by architects which made it into production. The latter number, unless you accept the Citroen 2CV, which was produced by a team quarterbacked by an unlicensed architect, is zero. Still, there were some intriguing cars modified by architects, and some design proposals which never made it past the model stage. Frank Lloyd Wright modified a 1940 Lincoln Continental after his daughter rolled it, chopping the top and making it into a sort of coupe de ville (sorry, Cadillac) with odd (but oddly predictive) lunette opera windows. Following their curve, the steel roof actually dips downward towards the two front seats, thus insuring that even with the front roof panel in place, the occupants might experience the water intrusion characteristic of Wright's Usonian homes. Even more unusual is the fact that there was no rear-facing window whatsoever. Perhaps Wright, ever the futurist, was determined to focus only on the road ahead...
Wright did sketch out a car for use on the avenues of his 1930s Broadacre City proposal with the idea of predicting automotive forms of 1960, but none was ever built. Too bad, as Wright's car might have challenged Fuller's Dymaxion in the category of completely unexpected handling response. The wheels were arranged in a diamond pattern in plan, with gigantic driving wheels the size of steamboat paddle wheels flanking the passenger compartment. The telephone dial pattern of those wheels was a few decades ahead of lower-profile units that showed up in the 1970s on Alfas and Porsches...
By the time 1960 actually rolled around, another designer had a go at the diamond plan wheel layout, and this time it was Battista Pininfarina, one of the masters of automotive form. Here the goal was to minimize the air resistance, and PF enlisted aerodynamicist Alberto Morelli in design of the Pininfarina X. The tail fins were intended to enhance stability, and the car had a remarkably low drag coefficient of 0.23. Space utilization was good, and the snub nose anticipated minivans.
It is not recorded if the PF team had seen Wright's diamond plan car, but the casual way the Fiat 1100 engine has been tossed over the designer's shoulder, landing at an odd angle to the single driven rear wheel (thus saving the expense of a differential) at least suggests the presence of an architect. Just think for a minute about the Ford V8 trapped forlornly in back of Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion, struggling to send power uphill to the front driving wheels (see "Architect-Designed Cars: Part 1 of 2"). Then again, neither of these examples is nearly as offhand as what Ferdinand Porsche envisioned. One day, he predicted, engines would be so efficient and compact we could throw them in the glove compartment...
Six years before the X made its debut, Italian architect Gio Ponti proposed a space-efficient car, the Diamante, based upon an Alfa Romeo 1900 sedan chassis. Ponti reacted against the heavy, chrome-laden excess of American-influenced design by proposing an angular profile predictive of the 1970s, but with an even lower belt line and a glassier greenhouse.
Ponti's design studies progressed beyond rough sketches to a section drawing with a more relaxed windshield angle, but no cars were actually built, though Mitsubishi took the name Diamante for a 1990 sedan.
Some cross-pollination still occurred between the worlds of architecture and industrial design, however, and one of the most vivid examples during the 50s and 60s was the popularity of the tubular space frame. When engineer Giulio Alfieri suggested the complex nest of small-diameter tubes which formed the frame of the Tipo 60 Maserati (soon to be nicknamed "Birdcage") in 1959, he was echoing a theme which was beginning to appear all over on high-profile architectural projects...
Like the Lindheimer Observatory (now sadly demolished) at Northwestern University, designed by Walter Netsch and built in 1966. This building happened after the Birdcage Maserati, and makes one wonder what Mr Netsch had hidden away in his garage.
Since the turn of the century, production-ready cars by high-profile architects have made few appearances. A re-imagined London bus designed by Norman Foster with collaboration of the Aston Martin people doesn't qualify as a car, but it was a pretty practical idea for a bus. That practicality, however, made sure it pretty much resembled a bus.
The late Zaha Hadid was apparently unconstrained by practical concerns when she dreamed up her Z Car, a proposal for a 3-wheeled hydrogen-powered two seater. As with some of Hadid's architectural works, form dominates, to the degree that fenders, bumpers, and even windshield wipers have been excluded (or suppressed, depending upon your viewpoint). As with Wright's Broadacre car, nobody has yet stepped forward to produce this urban space capsule.
Wright Lincoln at Taliesin: pinterest.com
Wright Broadacre car: thenewswheel.com
Pininfarina X (all photos): cardesignnews.com
Ponti Diamante: archimagazine.com
Birdcage Maserati: the author (from the Revs Institute)
Early in the 20th century, modern architects established an affinity for automobiles. For the Italian Futurists in the days before WWI revealed the darkest potential of the Machine Age, cars and planes symbolized dynamism. Others saw the emergence of the mass-produced car as a force which would reshape the form and space of cities and the pace of life lived within them. It's impossible to imagine Frank Lloyd Wright's 1932 idea for Broadacre City (which was really a giant suburb) without the automobile.* As early as the mid-1920s, Le Corbusier suggested demolishing central Paris and replacing it with a grid of essentially identical 60-story towers, as this would provide the speed and ease of movement allowed (indeed, demanded) by the new technology. He never explained how anyone would find their way home in such an environment, especially after enjoying a couple of drinks at a bistro…perhaps the bistros and cafés would disappear as "new solutions", in the words of the architect, "imposed themselves". In the photo below, Corbu proudly leans against his late-20s Voisin Lumineuse, parked before his Pavillon Suisse, completed in Paris in 1931. Artists and engineers adopted the Voisin because of its aviation-derived lightness and mechanical elegance, but Corbu actually had nothing to do with the design of this vehicle. Perhaps this is why it already looked dated in 1931, while the Swiss Pavilion still has a certain freshness even today, helped along by the fact that it announced the themes of mid-century modern design (now fashionable again) about two decades early. It's hard for modern eyes to ignore how much Corbu's beloved sleeve-valve Voisin looks like a clunky anachronism in front of his bright new building.
Around the same time as Corbu was rethinking the modern city and completing his project in the Cité Universitaire, Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius was designing a couple of prototype automobiles for the German Adler firm, and at least one of these was exhibited at the Paris Auto Show in October 1930. Beyond 3 Karmann-bodied cabriolets like the one below and 3 sedans built by Neuss, the Gropius-designed cars failed to find an audience. Like the Voisin, they seem an assemblage of distinctly separate, albeit tastefully-trimmed components (reflecting perhaps the "elements of architecture" which were a part of formal education) rather than an attempt to form a unified, aerodynamic or sculptural response to the fact that cars slice through the air as they transport their cargo. At Adler, that approach would wait a few years for the arrival of aerodynamicist Paul Jaray. In Paris, it would be the province of designers like Joseph Figoni, another non-architect.
Meanwhile, back in Paris, Corbu was rethinking the car as a minimum-cost transport module. He placed a small engine and transaxle unit between the rear wheels, with a wide front seat accommodating three modern but necessarily friendly people, with a side-facing seat in the rear. The architect's longitudinal section sketch below is shown superimposed over the Golden Section diagram which formed limits for its Cubist radii and angles, and which also reflects Corbu's obsession with proportional systems. In the background, someone has lightly sketched in an early prototype VW…
Corbu claimed that his design influenced both the VW Beetle and the later Citroen 2CV. As La Voiture Minimum first appeared in 1936, when VW had already appropriated Hans Ledwinka's 1933 Tatra 570 as a template for the Volkswagen Type 1*, the first possibility is unlikely. It should be noted that some features of the Minimum Car were more advanced than the Beetle, including its basic physics. Note that the engine sits betwixt the rear wheels, somewhat like 1970s Tatras, rather than behind them as on the Beetle. La Voiture Minimum might have been a sleepy performer like the 2CV, but probably would have handled better than the Beetle...
It's easy to see how this 1936 design may have influenced the Deux Chevaux, a project which CItroen began in 1937. The flat planes of the sides are joined by a singly-curved arc of roof, which like the later 2CV features a sliding fabric sunroof above the rear window. Glass area is even larger than on the Citroen, and compound curves are reserved for the fenders…here the front ones only, where they cheekily punch through the slanting plane of the cabin (shades of future minivans). The spare tire compartment is expressed by the flat circular door, the horizontal handle of which parallels the front door handle as well as the tubular bumpers which surround the entire car. The spare tire door and those bumpers are necessary elements which are here used as a substitute for applied decoration. Note how much space separates the front bumper from the body. The ample bumpers show that Corbu was well-acquainted with the driving habits of Parisians. It is not recorded that the architect approached Citroen with his design. Voisin, already suffering from Depression-induced financial troubles, declined it, but after WWII, Gabriel Voisin sold his own design for an even simpler, smaller rear-engined micro-car to Auto Nacional in Spain, which built about 10,000 Biscuters. The project chief for the 2CV, Citroen Vice President Pierre-Jules Boulanger, may well have been receptive to another architect's ideas on car design, as he had worked as a draftsman in a Seattle architecture firm before forming his own design and construction firm in Canada. Like Voisin, his experience included aviation, but as a captain in the French Army air corps during WWI. He famously described his concept for his own minimum car project as "an umbrella on four wheels." It was produced from 1948 to 1990 in nearly 3,900,000 examples.
In the United States, engineer and building designer R. Buckminster Fuller proposed his Dymaxion living units and automobile during the same era; the car was displayed at the 1933-'34 Chicago World's Fair. While the form of the Dymaxion was more obviously aircraft-derived than that of Voiture Mimimum, with curved windows and a central fin, the chassis design was an unlikely assemblage. Dymaxion was a rare example of a rear-engined, front-wheel drive car. A Ford V8 sat ahead of the single rear wheel, which provided the steering function. The driver sat ahead of the front wheels, and while interior space utilization was predictive of the minivans half a century away, the handling characteristics were so odd that Fuller decided the car should only be driven by those who'd had an instructional course in its operation. As with the Gropius Adler and Corbu's minimum car, the Dymaxion missed commercial production. The three prototypes were produced at the old Locomobile factory during 1933-'34 under the direction of naval architect Starling Burgess. By funding this project with his own money, Fuller provided temporary jobs for a crew of 27 during the Depression's darkest days; 1,000 applicants showed up for those jobs. One original Dymaxion survives; two near-replicas have been built. One of these is shown below the hovering spacecraft image of the Dymaxion House.
It's easy to forget that as late as the mid-1970s, the basic architecture of the automobile was by no means settled. In the mid-1950s rear-engined cars were increasing in popularity, joining agreat mass of front-engined rear-drive cars, a few front-wheel drive cars like Citroen, a small flock of four-wheel drive utility vehicles, and a barely perceptible trickle of mid-engined racers. Chassis structure included separate frames of various types, unit and semi-unit construction, and stressed-skin experiments like Jaguar's D. To this profusion of competing types we now add architect Carlo Mollino's 1955 Nardi 750 Bisiluro (Italian for "twin torpedo"). Collaborating with engineer Mario Dalmonte and builder Enrico Nardi, Mollino suggested minimizing air resistance by reducing the car's central mass. Reasoning that the wheels and their enclosures would be the biggest contributors to air penetration, he suggested placing the driver and fuel tank in one two-wheeled pod, and the engine and transmission across the way in the other one. A bit like two motorcycles linked by an airfoil…or a land-bound catamaran. The tubular chassis was designed following Mollino's body design, which also featured the radiator's cooling tubes running across the central airfoil as well as a rear-mounted air brake which was replaced by a jump seat at the insistence of Le Mans scrutineers. Mollino's design was fabricated in light alloy by Carrozzeria Motto...
…while the twin-cam, inline 735 cc four cylinder engine, mounted between the wheels in the left pod, was provided by Giannini. In the tragedy-haunted 1955 Le Mans race, the tiny, lightweight Nardi reached speeds up to 137 mph, but proved sensitive to side winds and tricky to handle, even in a straight line. After the first hour, before it could be affected by the horrific accident which nearly ended automobile racing in Europe, the Nardi was blown off course in the wake of a passing Jaguar. It ended its racing career in the grass, with lucky driver uninjured, and today lives in a museum.
*Footnotes: Frank Lloyd Wright's design for Max Hoffman's NYC automobile showroom is featured in our post "Max Hoffman: An Eye for Cars" from May 1, 2016. The sources for the VW Type 1 design are discussed in "Cars and Ethics: A Word or Two on VW" from November 27, 2015.
Bibliography:Automobiles by Architects, by Ivan Margolius, published by Wiley-Academy, Great Britain, 2000. Photo credits: Top: hebdo.ch (featured in Automobiles by Architects) 2nd: autobild.de (featured in Automobiles by Architects) 3rd: lautomobileancienne.com 4th: archpaper.com (model by Antonio Amado) 5th thru 7th: wikimedia 8th: museoscienza.org 9th: slotforum.com