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Friday, June 30, 2017

Italian Swiss: Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 by Graber

This 1940 Alfa Romeo 6C2500 was built as the spasms of war seized Europe, and was completed by Hermann Graber Carrosserie in Wichtrach, Switzerland.  For Alfa Romeo, the 2500 series represented the first of something and the last of something.  It was the last Alfa to be offered primarily in chassis form for custom bodywork by specialists, and it was the last 6 cylinder series production model until 1962.  In the postwar period, it became the first Alfa to be offered in sizable numbers with standard bodywork made at the Alfa factory in Milano; around 680 of the Freccia D'Oro (Golden Arrow) coupe were sold from 1947 to 1952.  Then Alfa shut down production of the 6C cars in favor of the newer and smaller 4 cylinder 1900 model, having concluded that their future lay in mass production.  In Switzerland, however, the government aimed to keep their native coach building industry alive by offering to drop the import tariffs on bare chassis imported for installation of bodies designed and built by firms like Graber, Langenthal, Worblaufen and Beutler.  The policy was begun before the war and continued afterward, and it resulted in some remarkable bodywork on makes as diverse as Duesenberg, Bugatti, Delahaye, Talbot, Chrysler, Alvis and Studebaker.  

Dennis Varni's 6C is quite a specimen beyond its carefully-detailed and unique body work. Like all Alfa 6C 2500s, it features a dual overhead cam engine design with valves inclined to form hemispherical combustion chambers in an aluminum head. The 6C was offered in single or triple-carbureted form; this is the higher performance version. Suspension is independent at the front, and by a De Dion tube at the rear.  Most Graber Alfas were built before the war.  By the mid-1950s, Graber had become the Swiss agent for the English Alvis, and concentrated most of his coachwork efforts on that chassis.*  Hermann Graber built about 800 car bodies from 1925 to 1970, but apparently only one Alfa Romeo in this style.


*Footnote:  The Graber Alvis was featured with other Graber designs in our post for 1/22/16.

Photo credits:  All photos are by the author, who thanks Dennis Varni for the tour of his garage, and in particular for opening up this unique Alfa for inspection.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Instrument Panels: A Dash of Design

Early dashboards were just that, flat panels inherited from horse-drawn carriages which kept the mud off passengers, and eventually collected a selection of engine controls, as well as a steering wheel, when horses left the scene.  Gordon Buehrig's design for the dash of the 1936 Cord 810 made the lowly dash into an instrument panel,  and the driver's seat into a command post.  The engine-turned metal panel backing the gauges provided still more focus on the instruments, in a design scheme with little other decoration...

In 1949, Jaguar's XK120 roadsters featured fairly simple instrument panels, while the convertibles and closed coupes introduced a few years later treated driver and passenger to polished wood.  The symmetrical design with central instrument binnacle was easy to adapt to either right or left-hand drive, important during Britain's postwar export drive...

Early Aston Martin DB2s featured a similar symmetry, probably for the same reason, and while the Jag XK120 driver got a bakelite steering wheel, Aston provided a wood rim.  This is a DB2/4 from 1955...

But the Mark III version of Aston's DB2 featured a modern upgrade to an asymmetrical arrangement with instruments grouped around the wheel in a shape which repeated the shape of the famous Aston grille.  No more wood on the dash, but more focus at the helm…and this is the first Aston Martin which appeared in the James Bond novels.  The dash design worked so well it featured in the DB4, 5 and 6...

No survey of modern instrument panels would be complete without Flaminio Bertoni's design for the Citroen DS19.  The asymmetrical design is dominated by the single-spoke safety steering wheel, and appropriate to the hydropneumatically-suspended, front-wheel drive space ship which hypnotized auto show crowds when it appeared in 1956.

Lancia's late 50s Flaminia series featured three different panel designs for the models offered by three coach builders:  Pininfarina, Touring and Zagato.  All featured similar instruments, but the sports models by Zagato and Touring got the wood-rimmed wheel.  This is a Superleggera Touring-bodied 3C coupe; note the symmetrical ovals, one containing speedo and tachometer, and the other a glovebox.  Not obvious is the lack of any kind of labels on that row of switches. During my brief but happy ownership of a similar car, I never managed to memorize the functions. Apparently Lancia decided that if you couldn't memorize the switchgear, you had no business sitting behind that pretty wood wheel...

Loewy Studios angled the '63 Studebaker Avanti's instruments at the ends of the binnacle towards the driver, and also carried the shape of the instrument hood forward through the windshield, providing a kind of indoor-outdoor integration featured in Midcentury Modern architecture, and also a convenient aid for aiming their new GT car.  Studebaker chief Sherwood Egbert, a pilot, suggested moving some incidental switches to the windshield header, as on a plane.*

Chevrolet's Corvette Sting Ray, also from 1963, was hatched from a rough sketch by Pete Brock (see our post for 1/16/17) into an SCCA racer by Larry Shinoda, and by the time it reached production it featured this symmetrical, twin hooded instrument panel with the driver's station balanced by a generous lockable bin, perhaps a compensation for the Sting Ray's missing trunk lid...

This blue example, with extra instruments added for its owner, GM Styling VP Harley Earl, shows how easy it would've been to adapt the Sting Ray design to right-hand drive for export cars.  But GM never made any right-hand drive 'Vettes, so Australian fans had local privateers convert a few cars for use Down Under...

Early in the same year the Sting Ray appeared, Jean Daninos, head of Facel Metallon and provider of special bodywork to French industry (first Ford and then Simca) released the ultimate version of his Chrysler-powered Facel Vega GT series, the Facel II. Also a symmetrical design with aircraft-inspired controls, it was available in right or left-hand drive. Ringo Starr picked a right-hander like this one. Daninos never tired of pointing out that nobody ever restyled one of his Facel Vegas.  And this dash is interesting for another reason: while it is perhaps the most memorable wood-themed instrument panel in any car; none of it was sourced from a tree.  Daninos preferred painted metal for safety reasons. The rim of that steering wheel, however, is wood...

*Footnote:  For the Avanti design story, see our posts for 2/17/16 and 2/18/16.

Photo credits:
Top:  smears.net
2nd:  youtube.com
3rd:   hemmings.com
4th:   topclassiccarsforsale.com
5th:   tradeuniquecars.com
6th:   losson.com
7th:  expertdrivers.blogspot.com
8th:  Steve McKelvie
9th:  mobile.web-cars.com
10th:  hemmings.com
11th:  pinterest.com

Monday, June 12, 2017

Green Streamline Dream: 1951 Bulletnose Studebaker Woody

Lots of car collectors will go through great efforts to find the only example of something, sometimes even recreating cars that no longer exist (the Bugatti Aerolithe for instance), but few of them are willing (or able) to conjure up something that never existed.  Studebaker, a company which got its start building wooden Conestoga wagons, built some wood-bodied wagons in the 1930s, but never offered a wagon in its popular Champion line, or in any postwar car lines until 1954.  There were a couple of wagon prototypes for the dramatic new 1947 Studebakers designed by Loewy & Associates (with a lot of input from Loewy staffer Virgil Exner), including one woody pictured below, but management suffered from a case of cold feet (or wooden hearts) at the last minute*. When the Loewy people gave the new Studey its first facelift in 1950, the whimsical, Jet Age Bulletnose still lacked a wagon model.  Eventually, there was an all-steel wagon for 1954, and this body became the basis of the first Lark wagon in 1959.  But no woodies…

Enter Dennis Varni, who rescued an unfinished project car to produce perhaps the ultimate orphan car: a 1951 Studebaker woody with an Edsel engine using a nearly-extinct prototype fuel injection system.  If you're going to build a hot rod out of a famously orphaned car, you might as well use an orphan engine…

The perfect engine for this car, an Edsel (FoMoCo Series FE*) had been sitting in Varni's shop for 2 decades. He'd recognized the injection system at an automotive flea market, and somehow remembered that it had appeared on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine in 1959…fitted to an Edsel engine. He then found Edelbrock aluminum heads to go onto it.  Then the engine sat and waited for a suitable project car to power...

The '51 Studebaker, started and nursed along by two other enthusiasts, turned out to be that project.  Varni had the car completely rebuilt, starting with a steel roof structure under the graceful arc of wood.  Otherwise, he says, the car would have been insufficiently rigid to handle predictably.  The steel roof structure and door frames also lend visual continuity from front to rear.

Metalworkers* artfully tooled teardrop-shaped 1940 Ford headlights into the Studey's Flash Gordon front end design.  The bullet nose and smiley grilles are original, but the bumpers are completely custom creations.

The real star of the show, even with the hood open, is the woodwork on this car, executed in Birdseye maple.  Shown below is the lower hatch frame, with latch detail...

Here we see the tight shut lines on the upper hatch, along with the nautical paneling of the roof. The result is a unicorn of a car, a near-perfect rendering of a beast that never quite existed, an orphan car that can keep up with traffic anywhere, and gather a crowd wherever it parks.

*An excellent account of these and other forgotten prototypes is offered by J.P. Cavanaugh at curbsideclassic.com.  A detailed article on the Studebaker Woody build, with notes on the craftsmen involved, is at hotrod.com, dated July 18, 2014.  And Ford's FE (for Ford Edsel) family of engines included displacements from 332 to 428 cubic inches. This one's a 427, like the twin FE power plants the U.S. Navy used in their Light SEAL Support Craft. 

Photo credits:
Top:  Studebaker National Museum
2nd, 3rd & 4th from top:  George Havelka
Balance of photos:     the author

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Authenticity vs. Originality: A Tale of Four (or Five) Bugattis

The holy grail for classic Bugatti collectors is the Type 57 S and SC Atlantic, of which fewer examples were built than even La Royale (Type 41), which numbers only half a dozen. Owing to the labor-intensive alloy body on the Type 57S and SC chassis, only 4 Atlantic variants were completed from 1936 to 1938. Some went back to the factory for modifications, and then the death of Jean Bugatti followed by the onset of war interrupted the whole enterprise.  Ironically, the car's lack of commercial success during its production lifetime has made it perhaps the world's most sought-after car today, so that over a dozen replicas have joined three surviving cars. And some claim that one of the three survivors isn't authentic enough.  Before we get into authenticity, a bit of history...


The prototype for the Atlantic was the Type 57 Aerolithe from 1935, shown above. The 4 “production” Atlantics followed the same theme, but on the lower 57S chassis, and used the vee-shaped (in plan) radiator of the 57S / SC in place of the flat horseshoe on the “standard” cars. The Atlantic’s most striking feature, the use of riveted fins or flanges along the car’s centerline and fender peaks, derived from the Aerolithe’s use of magnesium alloy for a body material.  Magnesium can burst into flame when welded, so the rivets provided both a mechanical solution and a handy, ready-made visual theme with a vaguely Jules Verne science fiction flavor. The rivets and crouched, lurking curves also lend the design a certain indefinably sinister aspect; one might not be surprised to find a fictional vampire (albeit an upwardly mobile one) driving an Atlantic. Owing to fabrication difficulties with the magnesium on the Aerolithe (and one suspects, the resulting expense), Bugatti switched to more workable aluminum alloy for the Atlantic, but retained the rivets.   


The first Atlantic, the Rothschild car, shown above in 1936 (monochrome photo) and again about 20 years later (color photo), went back to the factory in 1939 for modifications including a supercharger to suit its second owner.  Note the streamlined headlight fairings which show up in the 1956 photo.  By this time an American owner also had enlarged the rear windows and changed the color to red from the original light blue. This car later became part of Dr. Peter Williamson's Bugatti collection, and late during his time with the car he commissioned a painstaking restoration, removing the streamlined headlight fairings and replacing them with the type shown in the car's 1936 portrait (2nd photo from the top).  The car, refinished in silver blue, then won an award at Pebble Beach in 2003...

The original Aerolithe was lost, its fate unknown (a replica has recently been built), and the second production car shown above was also lost, and may have been dismantled at the factory before WWII to provide parts for other projects, though others suggest it may have been seized and scrapped during the Nazi Occupation. The third Atlantic was the subject of the most dramatic changes before the war, and the most starkly tragic fate after it.  In the photo below, the car is shown in its original state, very much like the second car pictured above.  

Before the war it was modified by famed coach builder Joseph Figoni, who apparently owned the car for awhile, to elongate the rear fenders, add streamlined headlight nacelles, and attach the curved trim that edges the rear fenders...

The Figoni modifications are interesting not only because they echo the proportions and contours of Figoni's work on other chassis (Delahaye, Talbot Lago), but because they run parallel to Jean Bugatti's designs for the next planned Bugatti, the Type 64.  These plans were cut short by Jean Bugatti's death in August 1939, and then the onset of World War II a month later. The 3rd Atlantic is shown as modified above and directly below; one of the  three Type 64s is shown directly below it.


The Figoni-modified car was sold again after the war and was involved in a fatal race with a train in 1955, killing driver and passenger, a clothier and his mistress, and then lost for awhile in a corner of a salvage yard.  The wreck was sold by the clothier's widow to a Bugatti enthusiast in 1965 and the car was reconstituted from pieces from the wreck and another Type 57. 

One question to answer before restoring a car like an Atlantic, or any car that served as a prototype, factory demonstrator or racer, is whether the “original” state should really be the goal. It's never been unusual for race or show cars to go back to the factory multiple times for remodels and retrofits, as these cars can be viewed as mobile laboratories or works in progress.  Some would say this was because the original clients for these cars once did some of the work done today by development engineers at companies like BMW and Honda…Anyway, two of the four Atlantics went back to the factory in the late 1930s for alterations that included adding vents in the doors (to remedy the stuffy interior) and more streamlined headlamp nacelles.  Actually, three went back for alterations if you count being completely dismantled as an alteration.  Back to those headlights: when you look at the photos of the streamlined headlight housings on the cars as modified by Bugatti and Figoni, with their riveted center flange neatly echoing the center flange on the roof and fenders, it’s easy to see why Bugatti preferred this 1939 update to the car’s original lines.  Look at the photos of the Williamson / Rothchild car as modified by Bugatti (the bright red car) and also the restored “train wreck” car above, and it becomes hard to imagine any other scheme for the lights.  Despite this fact, 2 of 3 restorations and also most Atlantic replicas feature some variation of the free-standing headlights shown on the 4th Atlantic, the one now belonging to Ralph Lauren, shown below.  This approach to restoration opens up the question of what "original" means.  In order for the restorers of the Williamson car to return it to its original 1936 state, they had to remove the headlight housings fabricated by Bugatti in 1939 and substitute their own replica of the original.  This approach makes sense if you accept a replica of something seen in a photograph or drawing (even something expertly crafted by modern artisans) as more authentic than a piece fabricated by the original authors of the machine, but produced by them an a sort of addendum to their own original work.  Should some ideal state of originality at any cost be the goal or restorers and collectors, or should they be aiming instead for a kind of authenticity which might reflect the history of the machine in its interactions with the people for which it was designed?

Ironically, it's the "train wreck" car, now restored a second time using more parts from the original, but still retaining the revisions made in 1939, which makes the best argument for a new approach to authenticity.  Even though this car is viewed by some experts as a recreation rather than a true Atlantic, it serves as a snapshot of the direction that Bugatti design would have gone had it not been interrupted by the war.  It is also the sleekest and most modern of the Atlantics, and modernity, after all, was the point of Jean Bugatti's design...

Photo credits:
Top: carbuzz.com
2nd: carstyling.ru
3rd:  Felix Zalenka for Trend Publications
4th:  the wheelsofsteel.com
5th:  bugattibuilder.com
6th:  carbuzz.com
7th:  bugattibuilder.com
8th:  caradisiac.com
9th:  caradisiac.com
10th: imagine lifestyles.com
11th: carpedia.ru
12th: wikimedia
13th: bugattirevue.com

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Roadside Attraction: Psychology of Color at San Francisco's Maritime Museum

Most people would agree that buildings have a subliminal effect on our moods, yet few psychologists are ever consulted on building designs.  Here we have an example of a building with murals and details produced by a psychologist, Hilaire Hiler.  The building, designed by William Mooser Jr. and William Mooser III, was originally a Works Progress Administration project begun in 1936 and launched in early 1939 as the Bathhouse Building at the San Francisco Aquatic Park. Today it's part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

The architects chose forms that were strongly related to contemporary steamship architecture, and added nautical details like porthole windows.  Originally intended to house dining and meeting rooms along with the bathhouse, the building was converted into a recreation center for troops during World War II, and was reconfigured as the San Francisco Maritime Museum by the early 1950s. A long promenade allows spectators to view sailing events on the Bay...

The consulting psychologist Hiler was also a color theorist and visual artist.  He spent years from the 1920s onward in Paris, painting and playing jazz piano before returning to the States in 1934, and while in Paris formed friendships with writers Ernest Hemingway, Anais Nin, Henry Miller and Sinclair Lewis.  His work included paintings reflecting Machine Age themes, but eventually turned toward color abstractions...

Other work reflected organic forms and an increasing interest in the psychological effects of vibrant, juxtaposed colors…

Hiler designed interior murals for the Maritime Museum before the building officially opened in January 1939.  These murals present aquatic forms and themes with a fanciful, dreamlike atmosphere.

Hiler believed that color needed to be treated as a problem of psychology rather than one of physics, and noted that humans were better equipped to perceive subtle gradations of cool colors than warm ones.  Colors are derived from Hiler's Threshold Theory Color System, and the artist painted them on the ceiling of one room in a circle of 30 careful gradations derived from that system.  He named the room with this ceiling the Prismatarium, and both room and ceiling are still intact.

The use of color and nautical imagery extends to mosaics by Sargent Claude Johnson on the second floor terrace overlooking the ocean.  Sargent Johnson, an African-American contemporary of Hiler, was also a painter, sculptor and ceramicist...

Johnson's mosaics project forms of aquatic life into large, semi-abstract patterns that create a backdrop for sculptural pieces.  The animal sculptures reduce the forms of wild animals to a sleekly simplified, streamlined essence.  

Johnson also carved the slate panels which frame and shelter the building's entry...

The Maritime Museum is currently undergoing restoration work, and some of the exhibits have been moved to a temporary location in the Visitors Center located at 499 Jefferson Street, but the original building at 900 Beach Street is still open to the public, and very much worth a look.

Photo Credits:
All photos of Maritime Museum building are by the author except the building entry, which is from the National Park Service, and the closeup of Prismatarium ceiling, from vastari.com.
3rd photo from top, of blue painting by Hiler, is from askart.com.
4th photo from top, of Amazon painting by Hiler, is from alchetron.com.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Your Grandpa's Nash Re-imagined: Nash Cooper Airflyte Wagon

I recently had the good fortune to have a tour of Dennis Varni's garage.  My old friend George happens to live down the hill from Dennis, noticed his '47 Hudson pickup truck tooling around downtown Los Gatos, and asked about it. This led to George's first tour of the premises.  When I got to town, he said, "If I can get you an invite to see this, you've gotta go."  And so, on a recent Saturday morning at eight sharp, we went.  If the Varni collection were a piece of music, it would be one of those modern jazz suites that begins quietly, almost unobtrusively.  The first thing you see it this non-threatening 1951 Nash Rambler Airflyte wagon. That's Dennis pottering under the hood.

I'd thought Dennis was kidding when he'd said, "It's really a Mini Cooper S", but a look under the hood revealed he was not exactly kidding.  The transverse engine, drivetrain and interior of the car are indeed from a modern (as in BMW) Mini Cooper S, and the amazingly tidy installation was handled by artist and fellow gear head Richard Biggs.  The first of these installations was done in Biggs' own Rambler Airflyte wagon.  People of a certain age will recognize the friendly, rounded contours of the Rambler shape from the convertible that Lois Lane drove in the Superman TV series from the early Fifties.  The Rambler, like the Porsche 356 from the same era, was one of those cars that looked like it would follow you home if you whistled.  Luckily for anyone who'd like to hide a modern Mini Cooper platform under one, the Nash Ramblers from 1950 through '53 share the same 100-inch wheelbase*.

One clue which I'd noticed, but shrugged off, is in the detail and mounting of the wheels.  They sit closer to the flanks of the car than the originals, and while they have convincing Nash hubcaps, the round perimeter slots are different from the original rolling stock.  Well, the reason for that is they're special wheels used for ice-racing Minis (mostly by crazy Scandinavians) and are available from BMW in Europe.

At the end of our garage tour, which concluded with the Hudson pickup after we'd ogled a '57 Maserati 200S, '55 D-type Jaguar, an award-winning Graber-bodied Alfa Romeo as well as a unique Studebaker Bulletnose woodie*, Dennis demonstrated the practicality of the Nash Cooper by driving off in it, headed for his San Jose workshop.  The little car slipped deftly and easily into downtown traffic, as smoothly as a piece of banana cream pie sliding onto a dessert plate... 

*Postscript:  We're not going to ignore those other cars, of course, and will feature them soon in another posting.

*Footnote:  At least the 2-door Ramblers shared the 2-door Cooper's wheelbase.  The 4-door Rambler introduced for 1953 had a 108 inch WB.

Photo credits:

Bottom: formtrends.com
All others:  the author