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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Before the Birdcage: Four Cylinder Maseratis, the 150S and 200S

Most people who like cars remember the four-cylinder Birdcage Maseratis from the late 50s and early 60s with their swoopy alloy body shells not quite hiding complex space frames of fragile-looking tubes. Even people who don't like cars (maybe especially those people) remember "Chrysler's TC by Maserati", a late 80s project cooked up by DeTomaso and Iacocca which was definitely not a Maserati*, but it seems only race fans or enthusiasts of a certain age remember the Maserati 150S and 200S. What all these cars had in common was a four-cylinder power unit with the Maserati name on it. Maserati was more famous for straight sixes and V8s, but had built engines in a wide (some would say wild) array of configurations, including a V16 in the 1930s, the straight 8 that won the Indy 500 twice, and the V12s that appeared in late versions of the 250F and also in mid-engined versions of the famous Birdcage and the 3 liter Cooper F1 car.  Back in 1947, just as the Maserati brothers' 10 year consulting arrangement with the Orsi family (to whom they'd sold their car factory and name) was ending, Maserati introduced its first postwar A6 cars. These were powered by a single overhead cam inline six of 1.5 liters. For another decade, Maserati road cars held to the theme of getting performance from small displacements, with touring models never exceeding 2 liters.  The four-cylinder cars, however, were an answer to road racing Ferraris of the era, like the 4 cylinder 500 Mondial, and to the successful OSCAs, which were built by the Maserati brothers after they left their namesake firm*.  In 1955, the first 150S appeared with Bellantani-designed twin-cam aluminum 1.5 liter four, aimed directly at the OSCA MT4 1500 which had won the Sebring 12 hour race outright the previous year. Initially the car was raced with a live rear axle, but this was later replaced by a De Dion type. The early bodywork on the car below was by Fiandri, while later cars were built by Fantuzzi...

There was also a lone 150S spider from 1957 with full weather protection and bumpers, also bodied by Fantuzzi in a style reminiscent of Frua's contemporary Maseratis.  The car was built on an A6GCS chassis, and only released by the factory after they'd decided to make the larger and more luxurious 3500GT their production car.  

An earlier version of the car sported a cleaner, less orthodontal grille treatment...Around two dozen of the 150S were sold to customers between 1955 and 1957.

During the same years, Maserati offered a similar sports racer for the 2 liter class, with the twin-cam aluminum four employing dry sump lubrication and 2 spark plugs per cylinder to make a claimed 190 hp.  As with the 150S, the fully developed racer substituted a De Dion rear suspension with transverse leaf spring for Maserati's trusty live axle, and front suspension was by coil springs.  Bodywork suppliers were also shared with the 150S,  with early bodies by Fiandri, and later ones, like Dennis Varni's 200SI from 1957 (the red car below) featuring bodywork by Fantuzzi.  

The Varni example is actually a 200SI, with the "I" signifying International (no, not Harvester) and meaning that it was one of the series built to comply with then-new FIA racing regulations requiring full weather protection, full-width windshields, and bigger doors. Early versions of the 200S featured 4 speed gearboxes, while later ones were offered with 5 speeds.  

Bodywork had a family resemblance to the legendary 300S road racers, also by Fantuzzi, especially at the shapely, tapered tail with its brake cooling vents behind the rear wheels...

This four-cylinder Maserati road racer has been in the Varni collection since 1989, meaning that it has survived at least one earthquake, as well as restoration after a lot of road races. And there aren't many cars like it; most sources claim 28 examples of the 200S were built, and marque historian Richard Crump counts 33, including the late 200SI versions like this one.

* Footnotes:  See "The Etceterini Files Part 7-----Almost Famous: OSCA" for details on the Maserati brothers' second career and its products.  The 4 cylinder engine in the Chrysler Maserati TC was actually unrelated to the other Maserati 4s and V8s, and was based on a Chrysler engine block with Cosworth-designed heads, all assembled by Maserati.  It was supplemented by a Mitsubishi V6...The engine design featured in the 150S and 200S was developed further in the Tipo 60 and 61, the legendary Birdcage.

Photo Credits:

Top:  the author  
2nd:  The Revs Institute Stanford University Archive
3rd:  maserati.alfieri.co.uk
4th:  carfolio.com
5th thru 7th:  the author

Monday, September 25, 2017

Hispano-Suiza: Swiss Precision, Spanish Drama, French Style

Ken Purdy, writing in the early 50s about that select group of cars already considered classics, noted that Americans tended to confuse the Hispano-Suiza with the Isotta Fraschini*. The cars shared the same 1920s heyday and a similar clientele (movie stars, moguls, crowned heads), and while there were some sports models in both lines there was rarely anything you'd call modest, either in size or ambition.  Both Hispano and Isotta were the kind of cars that silently and smoothly conveyed partygoers from Paris to the French Riviera in F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories during those brief years of sunny optimism between the end of a great war and the beginning of an economic collapse...

Hispano-Suiza, which was credited with creating the first sports car before World War I, cemented its place in history by making the most advanced aero engines in that war.  Swiss engineer Marc Birkigt obtained financing in Spain and founded a factory there in 1904.  King Alfonso XIII of Spain was a patron, and the company named its first sports car after him.  The short wheelbase version below featured a 4 cylinder T-head engine of 3.6 liters developing 64 hp, making it a bit more efficient than the similar Mercer Raceabout from the same era. Top speed off the showroom floor was 75 mph while race-tuned versions hit 90, and that was flying in 1912. Soon enough Hispano was involved in real flying. A factory in France followed, and that's where the pioneering aero engines were first built, establishing the single overhead cam head design for a water-cooled V8 which was followed after the Great War by the inline six which appeared in Hispano's automobiles.

Few Hispano-Suizas would ever be described as compact or nippy, but this short wheelbase version of the T15 King Alfonso roadster managed to hit those marks.  The long wheelbase version also from 1912, in gray below it, gave a taste of the grandeur that would follow.

Both Hispano and Isotta were early adopters of single overhead cam engine designs as on the inline six in the H6C pictured in blue and as a bare chassis below, while Isotta favored inline eights.  Chief engineer Marc Birkigt introduced servo-assisted four-wheel brakes with alloy drums on the six-cylinder cars, and these brakes were effective enough that Rolls Royce licensed the system for use on their own cars.  By the time the blue skiff-bodied roadster was crafted by Kellner in Paris, Hispano was known for advanced if conservative engineering, scrupulous attention to detail, and the immaculate craftsmanship shown on the H6C chassis shown below...

Hispano-Suiza's stork mascot paid tribute to the squadron emblem of WWI French fighter  pilot Georges Guynemer… 

The H6 engine block and head were fabricated from aluminum, and featured a single overhead cam as well as a crankshaft milled from a single steel billet, and which ran in seven main bearings.  Originally displacing 6.6 liters, it grew to 8 liters for the H6B and this H6C, where it developed 190 horsepower at a leisurely 3,000 rpm.  

This H6C chassis from 1928 closely resembles the one that won a $25,000 bet between Paris coach builder Charles Weymann (famous for patented fabric bodies) and Fred Moskovics, the president of Stutz in Indianapolis*.  The bet centered on which car would win a 24 hour match race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 8 cylinder Stutz Blackhawk, also a single overhead cam design, gave away 3 liters to the Hispano, but was lighter and better suited to Indy.  The race was decided when the Stutz broke a valve in the 20th hour.  The details of the race, and a subsequent 4 hour contest which a Stutz won, are well told on the web site for the Revs Institute, which houses the two examples each of the Alfonso Hispanos and H6C pictured here...

The rear view of Kellner's H6C sums up why the coach builder catalogued this body style as a skiff.  Steering was on the right, as it was for most prestige cars in France and Italy during this period...

The J12, also called the Type 68, arrived in time for the Great Depression, and its shrinking market for luxury cars, in 1931.  This new Hispano, powered by a 60 degree V12 engine with 7 main bearings, was available in sizes ranging from merely enormous to truly vast, with wheelbases from 135 to 158 inches, and engines of 9.4 or 11.3 liters (that's 690 cubic inches). Unlike the K6, the valve gear featured pushrods rather than an overhead cam, out of concerns for noise.  Bodies were all built to special order by coach builders like Saoutchik (the blue car below), Van Vooren (the two cars below it), Fernandez and Darrin (in black and gray  below, with design by Howard Darrin, later of Packard fame), and Kellner.  Despite the fact that the chassis price was several thousand dollars higher than a Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza's French factory was able to find customers for around 120 of these cars before production halted in 1938 so the firm could concentrate on providing airplane engines for the French government.

The most striking Hispano from this period (or any period, really) was the Xenia*, commissioned by Andre Dubonnet and named after his late wife.  Built on a 6 cylinder H6B chassis in 1938, it featured Dubonnet's patented independent front suspension (a first on an Hispano, and also licensed to GM and Alfa Romeo), and a spectacular, streamlined body with sliding doors and sweeping curves which extended into the wrap-over side windows, and a panoramic windshield of the type that appeared on GM cars a decade and a half later... 

This creation, designed by Jean Andreau and built by Saoutchik, seemed to predict the jet age, and a future in which technology might solve all of mankind's problems, not unlike the exhibits at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Sadly, the Xenia would remain a solitary prototype for that future. Two years before it appeared, civil war broke out in Spain, Hispano-Suiza's first home, and two years after it appeared, France was invaded by Germany. Other than a small number of cars built by the Spanish factory during and after the civil war, and a few cars built by a subsidiary in Argentina, the Xenia might have served as Hispano-Suiza's closing automotive statement to the world.

*Footnotes: For more on the Isotta Fraschini, see "Forgotten Classic---Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa: Sunset for a Dream" in these posts for Sept. 4, 2016.  The products of Stutz and other Indiana manufacturers are surveyed in "Looking Back: When Indy Was Indie" from Sept. 1, 2015. And the Xenia appears twice, first in "One of One: A Brief History of Singular Cars" from Sept. 7, 2015, and more recently in "Roadside Attraction: Rolling Sculpture at the North Carolina Museum of Art" from Dec. 31, 2016.

Photo Credits:
Top:  the author
2nd thru 4th:  Ian Avery-DeWitt
5th thru 7th:  Paul Anderson
8th & 9th:  Ian Avery-DeWitt
10th:  car-reviews.com
11th & 12th: pinterest.com
13th:  wheelsage.org
14th:  George Havelka

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mass-Produced Customs-----Nissan Pike Cars: Pao, S-Cargo, BE-1 & Figaro

Professional writer Dan Baum*, the guy who originally suggested this blog, sent me the pictures of the pink and white car below with the note that one couple owns all six Nissan Figaros in Colorado. Hmm, that's understandable in a way.  The Figaro has an affable good humor about it that appeals even to people who don't normally notice cars, and it appeals even more to collectors. Like the bathtub Porsches and bathtub Ramblers four decades before it, the Figaro looks like she might follow you home if you whistled (and yes, we know Tesla already has a car that will do something close to that).  The Figaro and her sister cars, the Be-1, Pao and S-Cargo, were all developed at the end of a period of safe and stale design at Nissan in the late 1980s. The aim was to cast the company's offerings in a new light by emphasizing distinctive design in a line of cars to be made in small series.  These Pike Cars, named for the factory that was dedicated to spearheading these limited runs of boutique designs, are attracting attention again today, in an era of computer-generated automotive forms often differentiated only by the absurdity of their graphic fright-mask grille and lighting designs...

The Figaro, produced for the model year 1991, was actually the last in the Pike series.  By that time, the other Pike cars had set the chassis formula with their front wheels driven by small, transverse four cylinder engines. The Figaro body design, credited like the others to Naoki Sakai*, wraps this urban transit econo package in what Nissan called a "fixed profile convertible" (you could also say it was a coupe with a very big folding sunroof) which recalled that first bathtub Rambler from 1950, the German Goggomobil coupe, and various Fiats and Renaults. Significantly, however, it recalled the feel of those cars without copying any of them.  Sold on a lottery basis as a sort of urban lifestyle accessory, the car featured leather seats and upgraded the 987cc engine of its Pike stablemates Be-1 and Pao with turbocharging which upped power by about 50% (it shared their front disc brakes).  But the driving experience was not the point; it was instead the cheeky attitude expressed in the simple, almost naive contours and details, and in the slogan "back to the future."

Nissan planned for a production of 8,000 units, but had to expand this to over 20,000 to keep their potential customers satisfied.  The success of the car may have cleared the way for VW's somewhat less subtle  "back to the future" effort, the New Beetle.

The very first Pike car, the Be-1 ("be the first") was shown as a prototype in 1987, sold on a lottery basis, and made only as a 1988 model.  Around 10,000 units were produced...

The deft clarity of details like the wrap-around rear window and incised tail lights is worthy of a more expensive car, and the simple oval headlights appeared later on products from other manufacturers, during a brief period of sanity before the current craze for torturing innocent lighting fixtures and air intakes into threatening Transformer shapes.  

The next effort was the Pao, a  hatchback that raised the cheap and cheerful utility theme to a level of reverse snobbery.  It was built for two years starting in 1989, and sold more than any other Pike car, at a bit more than 51,600 units. The flat windshield, embossed sides and external door hinges emphasize the theme (or maybe the pose) of spartan utility...

The S-Cargo shown below took the cheerful utilitarian theme firmly in the direction of "zany". In that regard the little 1.5 liter van (the bigger engine made more torque for hauling stuff) may have been the ideological precursor of today's Nissan Cube.  Even the name is a pun; allegedly standing for Small Cargo, it also sounds like Escargot, French for the snail which became the nickname of the slow, useful Citroen Deux Chevaux.*

Production figures during the two-year run starting with the 1988 Tokyo Motor Show announcement have been stated as 8,000 to 12,000 (you'd think it would be hard to lose track of something like the S-Cargo).  Design critics, even those who liked the cars, have credited them with being the first postmodern cars.  I wouldn't go so far as that*, but would suggest that they may have marked Peak Innovation at Nissan Design.

*Footnotes:  Dan Baum has written Nine Lives, an engaging history of New Orleans told through the stories of  9 survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the more recent Gun Guys, and other high-quality stuff you won't find on this blog.  The Figaro is the only Pike car which has another designer than Sakai listed in the credits: Shoji Takahashi.  For notes on Nissan design collaborations with Zagato (including some pretty zany ones) you might try "Whatever Happened to Nissans Bodied by Zagato?", our post for September 25, 2016.  For some insights into the form of the Citroen 2CV which inspired S-Cargo, see "Architect-Designed Cars: Part 1 of 2" from May 7, 2017.  And for my candidate for the first postmodern car, you'd need to check out "The Italian Jobs Part 2" from Feburary 27, 2016. Giving you the whole title would give the story away...

Photo credits:

Top & 2nd:  Dan Baum
3rd photo through bottom: wikimedia