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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Hillsborough Concours Part 2: Escape Road to the Past

The featured makes at Hillsborough this year were Lamborghini and Buick. Organizing a show around specific makes gives the public a theme, and car club members and historians a field full of textbook specimens to study.  Along with the themes there were some trends on view. One aspect from the earliest concours events (like Italy's Villa d'Este, 1929) enjoying a resurgence of popularity is that people dress up to match their cars. To be eligible for competition, a car must be at least 25 years old, but that means cars as new as 1993 can compete.  Think of that; someone wearing the tee shirt and jeans they wore when washing their '93 Lotus can claim it's "period attire." On the other hand, the owners of this spectacular 1938 Buick Limited Opera Brougham will need to don outfits showing the same kind of Art Deco flair. And that may take almost as much work as polishing its acres of painted and chromed steel…

This Buick was bodied by Fernandez and Darrin, and displays designer Howard Darrin's love of swooping curves and arresting details like the rattan pattern on the rear doors.  The car is owned by the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.  The University's industrial design students participated in this year's show by designing a futurist Buick show car (more about that future some other time). The 1939 Century convertible below is also owned by the University, which maintains a wide-ranging collection of cars.*


The matching 1939 Roadmaster 4-door convertible below was displayed by private owners. Another trend gaining momentum is that some cars are now so valuable that they are owned by corporations or consortia that can afford to pay seven or eight-figure price tags. It's somehow a relief to encounter cars that are still maintained by the families or individuals that in some cases restored them from rusty, abandoned wrecks.

When Buick built its last wood-paneled Roadmaster Estate Wagon in 1953, most people would have laughed at the suggestion that GM's oldest car division would one day help save that corporation by becoming the most popular American car in the People's Republic of China…

But in a world where car makers once covered (and even framed) their products with the material that led to the famous boating slogan "Spend one day sailing, three days sanding and varnishing", anything may be possible.


This Buick Century convertible was one of the more restrained and understated cars of 1957, the year Virgil Exner introduced really big fins to Chrysler's Forward Look, and also the year of Mercury's science fiction Turnpike Cruiser, with its dummy radar antennae. The sunny, optimistic verve of the '57 Buick line was followed by the chrome-encrusted excess of the '58*.  But this was a concours d'elegance, so there were no '58s here.

Pierce-Arrow was a maker of fine cars that represented the pinnacle of prestige from the era of Teddy Roosevelt until well into the Roaring Twenties. By the time this handsome 1934 Model 840A convertible coupe was built, Pierce-Arrow still stood for quality, but its popularity had been eclipsed by Packard as well as Cadillac. This car, built the year after Pierce ended a 5-year union with Studebaker culminating in the release of the V12 Silver Arrow* show cars at the Chicago Century of Progress, shows signature features like headlights integrated with the fenders (introduced in 1913) and the archer hood ornament. Four years after it was built, the Great Depression had reduced sales to the point that the Buffalo, New York factory stopped building cars.

The 1937 Packard Super Eight Touring Sedan meets the definition of "stately"...

Side-mounted spares and deftly applied chrome accents add to the impression of imposing dignity. The cormorant hood ornament seems far away, and it is.  The inline, flathead eight is a long engine...

During the first half of the 1950s, American sportsman Briggs Cunningham contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans, first with stock and modified Cadillacs, and then with Chrysler-powered cars of his own manufacture.  From 1953 to '55, he offered a touring version of his C-2 road racing cars in coupe and convertible versions called C-3, with bodywork by Vignale of Italy.

This example must be one of the first cars completed, as it was built in 1952.  Fewer than 30 of these C-3 road cars were completed. Bodywork, designed by Giovanni Michelotti, resembled a scaled-up version of the bodies Vignale was building on Ferrari chassis during the early 1950s. The Cunningham C-3* was one of the featured cars in the Museum of Modern Art's 1953 show, Ten Automobiles, which also featured a Loewy Studebaker and a Porsche 356.  Power was provided by a 331 cubic inch Chrysler V8.

Having been to a lifetime of car shows without ever encountering a single postwar Armstrong Siddeley, I was startled to find two of them on display. These were early versions of the 3.4 liter six cylinder Sapphire model, which competed in the British market (and almost nowhere else) with Jaguar's Mark VII and various Daimlers.  These offered modern, overhead valve engines, Wilson pre-selector gearboxes, and solid workmanship with wood and leather-lined interiors.

In a burst of good humor, the Sapphire's designers updated the traditional Armstrong sphinx hood ornament with jet engines to reflect the company's aircraft industry involvement. Somewhat like Hudson in America, Armstrong Siddeley gambled on tooling up for a smaller car in the mid-1950s, the 234 and 236 line. As with Hudson's Jet, the smaller car was solidly built but suffered from ungainly styling. Lack of sales may have contributed to Armstrong's eventual closing of their car-building operation.

This Sapphire, also from 1953; features a more typical two-tone paint scheme.  Production stopped with the 1960 Star Sapphire after a merger with Bristol.  By that time, the engine was at 4 liter capacity, with over-square cylinder dimensions, and automatic transmission was offered. The 1961 Jaguar E-type pictured below has features that mark it as one of the first built, and that also make it a Holy Grail for Jaguar collectors. These include external bonnet release latches and a flat floor without the later depressions below the seats for driver and passenger. This meant that unlike on later cars, you had to go outside to open the hood, and that despite the adjustable steering wheel, you might never have enough knee space below the wheel. So two of what might be called "Inconvenience features" actually made the car more valuable in the long run. It's still a crazy world, and it's still a striking car…

Depressed by all this talk of escalating prices, unobtainable cars and an increasingly conglomerate-dominated hobby?  Let's switch to soothing black and white photography, just like Road & Track used in 1961, and for a moment we can dream we're back in the era of four-digit car values and gas prices expressed in cents.  It will be a kind of visual moment of silence for a lost world...

The trio of XK-120s shown above and below display the seductive curves and twin-cam engines that brought Jaguar an American following from their first appearance in 1949. Roadsters came first, followed by the fixed-head coupe and a drop head, a convertible with padded top and wind-up windows. 

If looking at old Jags in vintage monochrome doesn't cheer you up, perhaps a visit to the parking lot will do the trick. This writer has always made a careful survey of parking lots at concours and club shows.  At the old Palo Alto Concours, some intriguing cars for sale could be found there, and at Pebble Beach around thirty years ago I discovered that a spectator had driven a Bugatti T57 coupe and casually left it in the lot, separated from a beat-up Mercedes 300SL by a sea of Volvos, Toyota pickups and Camaros. That old blue Bugatti and the beat-up Benz had a lot of what today's car collectors call patina. Translation:  They looked like used cars.

This Packard 110 wagon, on the other hand, is in superb shape, and seems to be happy sheltering under the shady trees that border the lot. The rear body is actually wood-framed, unlike the '53 Buick, which had a steel roof and doors. The 110 was the entry-level Packard, and featured an inline flathead six-cylinder engine.  The popular, eight-cylinder 120, the car which many credited with getting Packard through the Great Depression, was just above it in the lineup.

This 1953 Mercury Monterey ragtop provided stylish transportation for the Concours organizers;  they'd parked her next to the Packard for company…

The solitary Lotus Elite* shown below waits for a partner to explore the twisty two-lanes that surround the show grounds. This car represented a stunning advance when it appeared in 1957. The sleek fiberglass shell designed by Peter Kirwan-Taylor covered the first use of that material as a load-bearing element in a unitized body-chassis; you'll find better photos and history in the postings keyed in the footnotes.

All in all, a very good show, and we haven't even gotten to the Lamborghinis.  Even though I was admitted to the grounds half an hour before the official opening, the Lambos fell victim to the "I'll come back later" syndrome; by the time I came back they were surrounded by a dense cloud of photographers.  We're hoping for better photographic opportunities at next month's Monterey Car Weekend. 

*Footnotes:  These makes and models have been featured in previous postings; you'll find them in the Archives for the following dates:
1958 Buick:               8/3/16
Pierce Silver Arrow:  12/31/16
Cunningham C-3:      4/15/17
Jaguar E-type:           8/13/17 
Jaguar XK120:           7/16/17
Lotus Elite:                 3/6/17 and 7/31/16
The Academy of Art University car collection was surveyed in our posting for 4/29/18.

Photo credit:  All photos by the author.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Hillsborough Concours Part 1: Abarth, Alfa, Ferrari, Lancia, Siata, and Vallelunga…(and what?)

This was the year for Buick and Lamborghini at Hillsborough, and in Part 2 we'll have a look at a flotilla of Buicks, as well as a Packard and Pierce-Arrow. The $38 entry fee was well worth it for anyone who likes old cars, as there was an eclectic mix of rarities, oddities and masterpieces on the lawn at the Crystal Springs Golf Course. 


The rarities included this Alfa Romeo 6C-2500SS, bodied in 1949 by Pinin Farina (still two names back then). When I was a kid we lived for a year in Whittier, CA, and the people across the street had two similar PF-bodied Alfa 6C cabriolets, along with a 3-cylinder DKW*, a pillarless hardtop with smooth teardrop styling. I wondered at the contrast between the popcorn popper noise of the DKW compared with the silky thrum of those Alfas.  And of course, I had no idea the 6C-2500 was a such rare car, even in car-crazy LA in 1958. These were upper-crust tourers, especially this high performance SS version, in a price class with Delahayes* and Talbot-Lagos*, and like those cars and Lancias, they still favored right-hand drive.

The Alfa's inline 6, with cast-iron block and aluminum heads, offered the only series-produced engine featuring dual overhead cams when production resumed after WWII. Within 3 years of Alfa's postwar revival, a lower-cost competitor would show up in the form of the Jaguar XK-120; we'll have a look at those in Part 2.  Bodywork was generally supplied by the specialists like Pinin Farina, Superleggera Touring, and the Swiss coach builder Graber.* These cars were long ignored by all but the most fanatic Alfa fans in favor of the sports racers, both pre-war and post-war, but today they are seen as the last hand-built descendants of the 8C-2900 of the 1930s.

The word "concours" is followed by "d'elegance" at traditional shows, and this 1958 Lancia Aurelia B24 convertible, another 2.5 liter car bodied by Pinin Farina, seems to sum up elegant understatement.   

By 1956 Lancia was finally offering lefthand drive, and Max Hoffman had taken on distributing the cars on the East Coast. The Aurelia, introduced in 1951, expanded and refined Lancia's reputation for innovative engineering.  The 60-degree V6 with alloy block and heads was the first V6 in a production car, and followed a long series of Lancia V4s and V8s. Also new on the first Aurelia was a rear-mounted transmission (transaxle) linked to independent rear suspension (a De Dion on this B24). The famous sliding-pillar independent front suspension remained.  Sadly, two years before this car was built, Gianni Lancia had turned control of the company to the Pesenti family, his successful but expensive racing program having bankrupted the company.*

One advantage of a relatively egalitarian show like Hillsborough is that visitors get to see more than just what aristocrats and amateur racers were driving decades ago; they also get a good look at family and economy cars from faraway times and places.  This 1960 Lancia Appia is a small, middle class sedan with eccentric engineering typifying that make: a V4 engine, and doors which when opened would reveal no center pillar…  

In 1959 the shield-shaped Lancia grille on the 1st and 2nd Series Appia gave way to a more generic oblong with shield motif in the middle for the 3rd Series. Other charms remained, including the unitized body construction, which Lancia had pioneered even before Citroen, our next mass-produced work of art…

The long-running Traction Avant, introduced in 1934 by Andre Citroen and his engineer Andre Lefebvre and Maurice Sainturat, successfully combined unitized body construction with front-wheel drive for the first time in a mass-produced car.  It followed Citroen's clever strategy of creating a car combining enough real advances that tooling costs could be amortized over decades of production. After some teething troubles, the car proved itself so suited to its function that it overlapped the production of the next big Citroen to reflect this philosophy, the DS.  When it finally went out of production after 1957, it had become the car most favored by the gendarmerie as well as the gangsters they chased. Those gangsters would have had better luck eluding the police in the red car below…

This is a Siata 208S*, a 2 liter spider powered by the Fiat 8V* (Otto Vu) engine, a V8 by any other name.  It's from 1952, the first year for Fiat's limited-production sports car as well as Siata's usually more competition-focused variant. This one was bodied by Bertone, in a style that bridges the gap between cycle-fendered road racers (which were outlawed around this time) and the envelope bodies that offered better aerodynamics.

This pristine specimen was the personal vehicle of Nuccio Bertone for some time.  As with the Fiat 8V, it offered 4-wheel independent suspension derived from a Fiat 4-wheel drive military utility vehicle.  Clever engineering on a shoestring...

This 1958 Fiat Abarth* 750GT is also Fiat powered, but its 4-cylinder engine is mounted at the rear. Zagato's alloy body design, with the signature 'double bubble" roof, features nearly perfect proportions that mask the car's tiny size. Zagato was an early adopter of curved side glass; the twin hump roof was allegedly conceived to minimize air resistance and still allow a bit more headroom than the first "low roof" models. It appears that the owner-driver has decided to take a nap behind the car after the exhausting effort of getting it ready for the show.  Somehow I like that...

Ferrari's 275GTB4 was the first of road cars to feature the four-cam revision of Colombo's original 2-cam aluminum-block V12 design, and was the first Ferrari berlinetta to feature a 5-speed transaxle along with its 4-wheel disc brakes. You probably missed that entire introduction because your mind is occupied by a single thought: "gorgeous"…

Along with the forward-looking drivetrain and chassis, the GTB incorporated styling themes which had appeared on the Tour de France coupes built in the previous decade.  These included covered headlights, vent slots behind the front wheels and side windows, and a fastback roofline.  When it appeared in 1964, the integrated rear spoiler taken from Ferrari's race cars was a novelty on a production car.  Counting all forms, including 80 alloy-bodied cars, 3 and 6 carburetor options, the long-nose versions which appeared in 1965 and 4- cams in 1966, and the ten NART Spyders built for dealer Luigi Chinetti*, around 970 of these cars were built before production stopped in 1968. By Ferrari standards of the day, that made it a popular car.

Unlike the owner of the Fiat Abarth, this Ferrari's owners did not elect to take a nap behind their car. If the keys to this car were mine, however, I'd probably sleep in the garage every night. Appearing at around the same time as the original 275 GTB, the De Tomaso Vallelunga (named after a race track) pictured below represented an effort to transfer the handling advantages of mid-engine chassis design from racing cars to a road car. The engine chosen was the 4-cylinder English Ford Kent unit, in this case without the Cosworth-designed twin-cam heads featured on the competing Lotus Elan...

Design was handled by the underrated Carrozzeria Fissore, which was also responsible for the similarly glassy Elva BMW GT160, another mid-engined 1.6 liter that appeared in the same year. After the prototypes were built, production was handled by Ghia.  This may be one reason less than five dozen cars were completed, including 50 "production" cars, the prototypes and a handful of alloy-bodied road racers. Unlike Pininfarina or Bertone, Ghia had small production facilities, which is why the VW Ghias were built by Karmann, and Fiat 2300 Ghias from the era of this De Tomaso were mostly built by OSI.

As with the later Mangusta, De Tomaso attempted to explore weight-saving structural concepts without the advantages of computer-aided design.  And like the Mangusta, which used an enlarged version of the same chassis design, there were problems with torsional stiffness. But neither car ever had any trouble attracting attention...

This is a very red car. It's so throbbingly red that it looks like it's been Photoshopped.  Details like the Ghia badge, the shut line around the door and even the shine on the immaculate paint job get blotted out. You'll need to take my word for that those details were there...


…as here, just aft of the immense glass hatch that covers the secondary engine lid, where a chromed identification finally appears between the vent grilles and certifies authenticity to the puzzled bystanders who have been never seen one of these, and may not see another. Most sources claim 58 Vallelungas were built, including 3 prototypes, 5 alloy-bodied road racers, and 50 "production" cars. Encountering a car like this is another reason to visit a show like Hillsborough.  We'll ponder some of the other reasons in Part 2.

*Footnotes:   Cars highlighted with an asterisk have been featured in previous postings and can be found in the archives...
Graber-bodied Alfa Romeo 6C 2500:  6/30/17
DKW:  8/29/17
Delahaye:  6/30/18, 5/30/17 & 11/22/15
Talbot-Lago:  7/3/16
Lancia D-Series racing cars:  10/8/16
Fiat 8V and Siata 208S:  11/13/16
Luigi Chinetti Motors:  5/6/18
Fiat Abarth:  1/15/18

Photo credits:  All photos are by the author.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Roadside Attraction: Frank Lloyd Wright on Carmel Beach

Ah, the romance of the ocean.  Monterey Bay offers a bounty of it, plus ideal places for surfing, diving or just walking the dog. Carmel Beach offers a captivating venue for children to investigate sea shells and kelp, and for your pooch to sniff whatever wafts in on the breeze. To enjoy, walk to the west end of Ocean Avenue in Carmel by the Sea (or park your car in the lot at this end), and just follow the tide line as you walk down the sand.  Turn right (north) and you're headed towards Pebble Beach (a hangout favored by sea lions, and also by humans who pay a lot more to be there); turn left and you'll eventually find the only beachfront Frank Lloyd Wright house in the USA, or anywhere...

The first two photos above show overviews of the shoreline looking north towards Pebble Beach. The walk from Ocean Avenue to the Walker House, also known as the Cabin on the Beach, is about eight tenths of a mile, so be prepared for a 1.6 mile round trip...

The house gradually comes into view about a half mile after you turn south along the shore and approach the rocky  promontory with cypress trees defining the southern boundary of Ocean Beach.  The story of the house's origin is that Mrs. Clinton Walker approached Frank Lloyd Wright in 1948, asking him to design a house "as durable as the rocks and as transparent as the waves."

As the house reveals itself on your southward trek, that transparency is less apparent than the relationship to the rocks.  The building walls and surrounding landscape walls are built of Carmel stone, a cream-colored shale that creates a visual as well as physical anchor to the rocky outcropping that shelters and defines the house.  Carmel stone is not the most durable of stones, but despite this fact and depleted local sources it remains popular in this region, nowadays often cladding reinforced concrete walls to meet the seismic requirements of the building code.

As for the question of durability, the house it still here after about 67 years of of exposure to wind, salt air and ever-changing tides. The above view from the north gives some hint of the structure, if not the transparent nature.  The glazing steps outward as it meets the eave line, and the column-free corner detail is made possible by cantilevering the roof from the reinforced core of the fireplace.  Less apparent from the north is that the modest (1,200 square feet) single-story plan derives from repeated hexagons...

The landscape wall facing Scenic Drive, with its asymmetrical wooden gate, maintains privacy as well as mystery. The architect specified a copper roof, but material shortages related to the Korean War resulted in the original roof installation (circa 1951) of metal shingles enameled in bluish green.  This was finally changed to copper in 1956 in response to some roof leaks.  The linear pattern emphasizes the horizontality of the overall form, while the deep eaves provide generous shade.

Walk south past the gate along the wood and stone fence, and you will reach an open space revealing the depth of the roof cantilever as well as the sweeping expanse of stepped glass facing the ocean.  The stone prow, sharply angled in plan and elevation, hosts a modern sculpture as a focal point (a relatively rare feature on a Wright house), but grounds the house firmly in its environment.  It seems to extend the rocky promontory upon which the house sits, and moves the eye towards the vastness just beyond the edge.

*Footnote on safety, privacy issues and tours:  One of our photos shows climbers on the rocks; this is not safe and should be avoided. While you're avoiding the rocks, also avoid facing away from the ocean, as rogue waves can be a dangerous surprise, especially to children and pets.  Locals are justifiably proud of their clean beach, so please clean up any dog deposits.  And lastly, please respect the privacy of anyone who may be inside the house or on its grounds.  For those wishing to see the interior, the Walker House is open to visitors at least one day every summer, usually in June.  For those who may have missed this past June, it's also open for guests who register with the Frank Lloyd Building Conservancy for tours on August 23 and 24, 2018. Registration forms can be found at www.savewright.org/conservancy-events, and the Conservancy can be reached by phone at 312-663-5500.

Photo credit:  All photos are by the author, while the plan drawing is from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and was reproduced at hexitecture.wordpress.com.