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The Italian Influence On American Cars, part 1: Some Examples Of Inspiration And Inspired Efforts

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The unmistakable and elegant front end of the Flaminia, sort of Italian answer to the MKII Continental, and a highly influential theme. Photos by Matteo Giacon.

[Editor’s Note: Matteo Giacon returns this week with the flipside of his recent two-parter, this time examining what influence Italian cars had on American automobile design.]

While it is undeniable that American automotive design represented in the years between 1925 and 1960 is the very best from a sheer industrial point of view, it is undeniable also that from a strictly stylistic point every major car-building country tended to offer many examples of “autonomous” ways of designing and engineering cars, this because once the “new” product was constantly developed and its secrets became better known to a mass of engineering and design disciples, a large number of absolute geniuses began to show all the world around what they could do, and the way they could work.

This becomes quite logical once a close look is given at the efforts of the best men in the three distinct and preponderant segments of the old automotive world (in nowadays industry, there should be included by default only one category, not cited here because it was not overtly dominating in those days just like it is today: marketing men, or bean counters as they are better known) and whether they were idealist industrialists (let’s call them in such a way, after all the lives of renowned builders like Ettore Bugatti, Anthony Bruce Colin Chapman, Vincenzo Lancia, Carl Borgward, Andre Citroen, William Lyons, Jean Daninos, Herbert Austin, Lord Nuffield, Voisin, and , of course, Enzo and Ferruccio are, very well, mystical sagas in their own ) or talented designers (Battista “Pinin” Farina, Mario Revelli De Beaumont, Luigi Fabio Rapi, Flaminio Bertoni, Riccardo “Dick” Burzi, Franco Scaglione, Sixten Sason, Giovanni Michelotti, Trevor Fiore, Tom Karen, the well known duos of Figoni & Falaschi – and they were still Italian ones, albeit expatriated in France! – or Hibbard & Darrin, or Franay, just to name the first ones coming to my mind), or supremely creative engineers (Hans Ledwinka, the Porsches, Dante Giacosa, Francesco De Virgilio, Giulio Alfieri, Giotto Bizzarrini, Aurelio Lampredi, Vittorio Jano, Wilfredo Ricart,  and apologies if I concentrated on Italian names mainly), in sum thanks to them almost every European country had surely a good multiple dozens or so as average of exquisitely brilliant advocates of intriguing automotive technology, brave enough to continually develop and introduce new things not related to the typical American products, and this precisely just while what was needed for the proper and modern, efficient and long-lasting mass manufacturing of vehicles had obviously to copy or follow every Detroitesque input, strategy or hints, because what was already solved by the United States helped Europeans also. After all, how could otherwise be considered somewhat obscure personalities like Eric Ubelacker, one of the fathers of the Tatra 77, or the Romanian Aurel Persu, who in 1920 (!) devised the incredible Streamliner bearing his name (seeing it for believing, this “car” predates everything that later would be considered as mandatory for a modern-looking car, with a style that for an unsuspected onlooker resulted just like a more rounded VW Type 2 pickup with the rear portion enclosed!).

As I already assessed in previous texts, however, under some circumstances there is the neat impression that even the most brilliant talents in Europe more often than not tended to follow American circumstances rather than inventing totally new and groundbreaking concepts. Sure, all the European experiences about alternative sources of power, the Diesel and the Wankel heritage, the aerodynamics experiments, Ledwinka’s Tatras, the Rumpler Tropfenwagen, the Wikow Kapka and the Praga Super Piccolo, the Wimille, the Pahnard Dynavia, the Claveaus are gorgeous monuments more akin to conceptual arts than to automobile world, just like the faboulous French coachbuilt creations of the Thirties, the various Voisins, Bugattis, Buccialis, Delahayes, Delages and so on, and they are here to let us see how independent Europeans can be. Pinin Farina’s Cisitalia 202, the various Mercedes Benzes and the Horches, all those legendary BMWs seen in many competitions, the Porsches (this time the cars, not the men), the SS/Jaguars, the Bentleys, the Rollses, the Alvises, the Lagondas, the Daimlers, the Isotta Fraschinis, the Ansaldos, the Hispano-Suizas, the Citroen DSs and those undisputed desirable Ferraris , Maseratis, Lancias, Alfas, and Lambos are good examples of Continental genius, often good enough to propel into deity status their lucky owners; after all, even the whole concept of a self-propelled chariot was undisputedly an European affair, first and foremost (Barsanti and Matteucci’s engine, Lenoir’s experiments, and clearly, the Daimler & Benz simultaneous efforts, just to name some of the most important stages).

Before the Italian Style became an example to follow, Italian cars, like this ’34 518 Ardita, often looked contemporary but with no daring flashes

However, without the urgent need for a practical horse or mule substitute, able to do everything a grass-eater would and something not linked to disturbing rails or coal, in other simple worlds, basically the American idea of what an automobile had to be, European automotive industry as a whole would indefinitely been anchored still to the vision of building “toys for riches” instead of a product to be exploited by masses, really giving contribution to significant improvement to the life of so many people. This American vision was undisputedly the single most significant civil improvement of the 20th century because it contributed to a whole new concept of freedom, and also contributed to an improved self-consciousness regarding what people could effectively achieve or aspire to. In my opinion, the automobile changed the world in such a way that all other significant inventions or events are secondary when they are compared with it. With it, we have seen a new way to live, a new way to build things, a new way to market things and services and a new way to consume them; before its introduction, the world had never changed so much in the topography, as well as in the climate and in such a short time, like the last 140 years. And of course, all of these changes significantly improving the whole human race also contributed to its proliferation. In sum, without the mass production of the automobiles, people would still linked more to 1880 rather than to 2050, also electronics are things that without the automotive world (and all what was linked to it) would be confined still to an esoteric world.

We must give credit to the American automotive industry for all of this because without this kind of vision the car as we know it today would be a no-no proposition. So it became quite clear to every serious European automaker that some sort of standards had to be quickly adopted, just to follow the huge production numbers of Detroit, and also the vast majority of techniques became very much alike those used across the ocean. It is no marvel to discover that body shapes , chassis and drivetrains were also affected by this, and while the latter elements soon began to be more diversified, following in many cases more the local taxes or the local schools and universities’ way of thinking than the American tastes, the bodies remained for a while pretty much close to the American principles. However, on both shores of the Atlantic, during the mid-to-late Twenties, it became quickly clear that to lure more buyers (or simply, to lure them again, after they had already experienced the thrill of car-owning) that there was need for more diversification than the one provided by the traditional mass-produced vehicles. Testify to this the downturn on what seemed to many like a never-ending success, the Ford Model T, the success of pouring once expensive ideas onto more popularly-priced cars (like the adoption on stock vehicles of brilliant new hues), and a general trend to see a large number of details usually confined to one-offs or limited production vehicles coming into the general lines of the mass-produced ones. Enter the car design as we know, because finally the beauty appeal usually found on cars for the happy few now had to be put into something popularly priced, something viable for the masses and something relatively easy to transfer from paper to reality using the already available techniques, workforce and plants.

Another example of a conservative but nice Italian car of the Thirties, at the dawn of the Italian Style, a Lancia Artena

Once it became clear that this also worked in markets where the saturation was still a distant target in the future, like the European ones, in other words markets where the typical car buyer remained of the affluent type, or, at best, a moderately affluent one, but not strictly a low-income type like instead had somewhat happened in America (not that the American one was already saturated by the time the Depression arrived, but surely it was at least two decades of success ahead, and those able to afford a car remained way more than in other countries), the idea of using style to sell cars became a very important one, and in some cases, it became the most important one. This phenomenon is usually associated with Fifties United States, but in reality it happened way before, and almost everywhere. Style sells, and if there was a period good to test this, surely this was the Depression Era, with its unexpected and sudden lack of demand, and way too many offerings, thus creating that competitive streak that condemned those not brave enough, not strong enough, to be cancelled from the market.

This happened in America, but also in other countries, quite obviously. This happened also in Italy, a country with quite a few idiosyncrasies back then, but that after its heavy industry prospered during the 1890-1919 period, was surely going toward a future very similar to the one already endured by the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and most other middle European countries. Not that the Thirties saw a good numbers of experimental lines fortunate enough to last for long and with success on the market; sometimes, the novelties experimented to make salable a car were the exact reason why they floundered. What in effect the crisis taught to every worldwide automaker was the importance of the balance: progressive developments and novelties, to differentiate the cars and to stimulate public attention, but never too much daring so the same public would be afraid of buying them. As we will see, one of the great Italian Style achievements was exactly this term: balance.

Here’s a ’38 Fiat 508 C, the third Fiat to bear the aerodynamic style; sadly public didn’t like it and the following year there would be the debut of the prow-like 1100

The Depression in fact challenged the same idea that everything new could sell well. The Airflow flop is here to witness this; what in effect could work well, in those days, was the combination of solid and safe engineering with design novelties linked also to the public will, and not only to the designers’ own ideas. So the concept of “progressive” style also entered in the automotive world; in the Thirties those engineers and designers really brave enough to be considered great ones were usually those able to elaborate novel ideas that could also appeal to a public in need of a bit of safety as far as their invested money was concerned. The Airflow ideas were a bit too daring, but the Lincoln-Zephyrs, with their ’36 debut, were the right thing with some touches not so daring, but just because of this, appealing to the public. The same happened in Europe, of course.

In Italy, however, mass production cars already translated as “Fiat,” and Fiat was always rather sensitive about the public tastes in those years: its cars had success not only because of the inner Turinese financial and political strength, but also because they didn’t appear too much old-style, or to the contrary, too much avant-garde as to create disconcern among dealers and prospective buyers; those few times this happened, like the weak mechanicals of the early 509s, or the aerodynamic first generation 6C 1500, the Fiat execs followed the market “suggestions” and quickly reverted to solutions; in the case of the 509, a thorough reworking of the engine (which became notoriously strong), in the case of the 6C 1500 the adoption of a more conservative but more salable front end, with few other corrections. In effect, Fiat could afford to make relatively minor corrections, for its products were sound and well accepted. However, the experiments that brought us the so called Italian Style were often done on other firms’ cars, because their smaller structure offered more chances to coachbuilders. The other notables in fact included Alfa, Bianchi, Lancia, Isotta Fraschini, and what precious few remained of once glorious early period marques, like SCAT, Itala, Diatto or unlucky latecomers like Ansaldo, Saba and Fod.

The car that brought Lancia at the forefront of European automotive technology , the Lambda

All of them offered great possibilities to the thriving coachbuilders that were beginning to prosper, even more so in Italy thanks to the low labor costs and to the lack of foreign competition, but above everything else, because those smaller companies (smaller when compared with Fiat) had often relatively few possibilities to offer a wide range of models to their would-be buyers, if there weren’t outside sources to be called for help. These outside sources were, obviously, the carrozzieri; in effect, until late in the Teens, also many “affordable” or supposedly “standard” production cars had outside-sourced bodies; once the Fiat supremacy became clear, the Turinese need for typical mass-production compromises meant, first of all, the construction of a spectacular factory, the massive Lingotto,  built after the American experiences, and the subsequent use of modern methods in fabricating car bodies – nothing bold indeed, but a relatively advanced system when likened to others’ efforts, Lancia aside – meant also relatively minor need for pure coachbuildings efforts. However, typical owners of high-end marques still had to rely upon Carrozzeries forces, and this kept them alive and prosperous – prosperous, that is, in modest dimensions, compared to other countries, and compared also to the Depression effects. In fact, although it did hit Italy hard, sometimes there is the sensation among those not-in-the-know that the relatively poor average Italian, already used to lower levels of prosperity, was not strewn by the Depression. In reality, crisis arrived and did hit, and this can be clearly seen when Italy entered WWII, in June 1940, with even worse a military production shortages than the already weak material efforts taken just before entering WWI. As a whole, the country endured a long crisis, starting in 1929, ending only when peace finally returned. The fact that Fiat became a giant and others bit the dust is symptomatic of this, but some marques resisted and helped to keep afloat many a concern busy at furnishing bodies for cars. Fiat, during those years, also put to its best use the latest design trend, if not exactly in the way of sheer innovation, surely in the way a car’s chassis and body combination had to be designed, built and marketed. If it’s true that Fiat was still predominantly an engineering-driven company, its designs were at least contemporary, as we’ve seen, showing a mature if conservative marketing approach, and thanks to its huge dealer network and its financial status, it was also more keen than others to introduce typical mass production-ready novelties, usually American ones. However, true technical tours de force, like those of a Lancia Lambda, or Augusta, weren’t tried by Fiat in the Thirties. And when there was a choice to experiment with some new shapes, Turinese execs often asked tutorial advice about designs, let’s call it in such a way, and the Revelli De Beaumont-penned 1935 6C 1500 is the best known example among them. As we know, it was an experiment, and the most daring Fiat did in those years. After that tentative effort, the largest Italian car maker continued in its progressive conservatism, even with otherwise intriguing cars like the 500 and the 508C. This, at least, when considering its mainstream cars. Some sporty Fiat offerings in effect, were as bold and advanced as something that could have been built in the Lancia factory in Borgo San Paolo, so the dawn of the Italian Style, despite all, saw Fiat as a star of that exciting movement.

Lancia, in effect always ready to innovate, during the Twenties and the Thirties let both its in-house talents and the outside coachbuilders to make the most from every single project or drivetrain, and the most advanced, or most imposing, or most interesting cars offered by a plethora of coachbuilders often had the Lancia badge, while the monumental Twenties Isotta Fraschinis forced Italian talents to become accustomed also with specific owner requests and detailing care. Not that this was absent from other specially built cars, even if they were done on a Fiat 509 or 508 chassis, but clearly those paying sums good enough to buy villas with whole villages around for a complete Isotta surely wanted the very best, and considering how many foreign possibilities were offered to this kind of connoisseur, Italian maestros had to put their best talents busy at work on these efforts to make their patrons happy (and proud of). Also Alfas in those days relied heavily on coachbuilders, and in effect the most beautiful design efforts done in Italy in those years often are considered those clothing Milanese mechanicals: After all, here a coachbuilder had to put grace, elegance, stamina, innovation, luxury and a considerable amount of prowess in a car that from some point of view was always considered as the mechanical incarnation of the typical Italian people flavor. There was a urgent need to do this in the best possible manner, as to offer the world the best possible visiting card, alongside sun, climate, aeronautical progress and geography.

The rear view of this Alfa 6C 1900 shows that the typical Italian Style was still to be fully developed; however, this didn’t detract Italians from building nice cars

Thus, when peace returned, the Italian coachbuilders were (more often than not) already well experienced enough to offer complete turn-key bodies, following the latest and most dynamic ideas, all of this while trying also to offer research and development help, which was already a boon for those marques that in the prewar years weren’t able to afford the giant Fiat structure. In my opinion, the experiences done in America, Great Britain, France or Germany by firms like Briggs, Fisher & Ludlow, Pressed Steel, Facel, Ambi Budd, were done, albeit in a smaller scale but likely spread on a larger number of involved firms, by those famous or soon-to-be Italian names. This experience came in handy once the relatively ample foreign coachbuilding competitors began to shrink, for one reason or another, leaving Italians as the main players in this automotive sector, until the American-conceived in-house studios became common, and the contemporary need for distinction could be done by almost everybody simply through the purchase of a foreign car, instead of running with a 1100 drivetrain to the nearest body artisan available. It is also important to see that, thanks to the initial difficult to adapt their construction methods to the novelty of the unibodied platforms that soon began to spread in Italy, many adopted a two-way solution to avoid their ruin: Working on foreign traditional separate chassis (think about the various Chrysler cars made by Ghia, or some Pinin Farina cars made on GM drivetrains; Pinin also developed in 1951 a nice fastback Packard, for that matter…easier to work on than on a monocoque Fiat 1400 indeed) and in the meanwhile, studying newer and newer solutions to cope with the formidable financial and technical problems induced by this “novel” body construction. This two-way approach did wonders for both the reputation and the creativity of the Italian carrozzerie. Without the stings to find far-reaching solutions to this sudden problem, it is doubtful that a plethora of firms would continue for so long to prosper. In effect, what really did lead to oblivion most of them, let’s say around the end of Sixties, beginning of the Seventies, was the excessive rise of labor costs, and not an exclusive lack of ingenuity or fantasy. Simply put, during the heydays of the Italian coachbuilders, the costs for a one-off were low, while as the time went by, they became higher and higher; so much for the smaller firms. But while it lasted, it was quite an adventure, a vast movement.

The Fiat Topolino, with its peculiar A and B shield-like grille; Italian cars had officially discovered the streamline trends with the 35 Fiat 6C 1500

The fact that nowadays scene is much less thriving, apparently, leaves us mumbling about how vast this carrozzerie movement was during the 1945-’75 era, but the aforementioned needs surely are a good explanation for their successes and their prosperity. Many of them also experimented, using also patrons’ desires to explore new ideas, new possibilities, in sum, to do what only great automaker were supposed to do. Many of these ideas also caught the attention of the renowned inventors of the Science applied to Art, (what industrial design is), our beloved body carvers spread along the Great Lakes shores, and many also saw application , and enduring ones too, on production cars. Considering that well into the Seventies, strong echoes of what Detroit created in its assembly plants were still heavily influencing Turin and Milan execs, sales people, designers and engineers, (and also quite a few in Maranello, Modena or Sant’ Agata) this sounds strange, yet it is. What follows is a number of some simple examples of this, I wanted to take a look at them although this has been already explored, and often in a monumental way, because these are my personal impressions and I lost memory of the first time I began to ponder about this or that “influence”, “coincidence”, or the like; the fact that others already hit my same target makes me somewhat happy, because so my first impressions are confirmed, even if I had these ones when I was still very, very young.

I hope some novelty and some surprise can still appear, just to make interesting pieces of conversation for readers also…

This is it, the Lancia Flaminia Coupé by PF

The Lancia Flaminia Coupés Were Pretty Influential Cars: Ask Bill, Virgil And Brooks About Their Distinguished Profiles.

While it is undeniable that the Florida/Flaminia concepts were heavily influenced by American experiences and ideas, it is also remarkable to see how these Italian creations were also forerunner of their own, and not only in the European automotive scene. One could almost think that thanks to the spectacular job done by Pinin Farina and his men while creating these masterpieces, the previous American ideas were reworked in the best possible way to afford them to become longer lasting, and also much more influential than one could suppose. On the other hand, this process showed at its best the Italian School of Design possibilities and the talents linked to it. So, it is not surprising to find the Florida/Flaminia among both the followers and the influencers. I have previously described what made the Florida/Flaminia a follower. Now it is about time to look why it was also an influencer. Let’s see why.

The influence of the Flaminia Coupé by Pinin Farina on the global automotive scene was and is still considered a most important one, and this is pretty much clear once this most beautiful of all Italian late Fifties cars is confronted with some later equally pretty designs coming from other countries. Before deeply diving in taking a closer look at this influence, it is important to remember that the Flaminia’s original concept, first seen on the perfect ’55 Florida prototype, was more a joint design, with definitive inputs coming from Mario Revelli De Beaumont, once again able to stun the Italian automotive scenes after his two-year stints in Detroit with the GM during the glorious days of Motorama dreamcars (so, it is clear where some of the Italian prototype’s most striking details originated from, namely the wraparound windshield with dog-leg A-pillars and the extended rear portion of the wheelwells with contrasting hue – although as we will see, this wasn’t an entirely American idea – and last but not least, the pillarless four door hardtop formula). The contacts with the Detroit world and the already mature experiences of Pinin himself (many Florida features were predated by the equally spectacular prototype based on Nash Ambassador drivetrain, including the original Florida’ inset headlights and the trademark dihedral line running for the entire sides length, ending in subdued, yet iconic, finned taillights), surely left an enduring legacy in the Florida’s lines, but it should be an interesting study trying to discover what deep heritage Revelli on his own left at this point within the most renowned automotive design studios in the world, precisely during the same time while they exerted their undisputed hegemony over the whole planet, just a few years before it was seriously put to a (temporary) halt. All things considered, I would dare to dream that some of his efforts (apparently, he was consulted to develop new ideas for the small cars segment), were used once a cleaner, sleeker design – indeed an Italianate trend toward lighter doses of ornamentation and less excessive dimensional traits – was needed to be used in lieu of the fins-and-chrome-throwing so dear to the latest Earl’s period, when the GM’s trends were seriously put in discussion by George Walker’s and Virgil Exner’s ideas.

The dihedral mid-height line running through the entire car’s side found many imitations, here an Alfetta

Now, a quick look at the aesthetics of the Flaminia and at those of that spectacular masterpiece that’s the ’63 Buick Riviera makes things easier to understand: Viewing both cars, we can see the same roofline, with delicate, similarly raked and slim A-pillars and a robust, formal yet sleek C-pillar; a visual prominence in height of the rear volume while the belt line remained low (nothing really new in effect, this whole concept was already seen since the early Fifties on GM cars with their dips, but the Florida II and its production sister, the Flaminia, showed a new way to use the same concept, and the combination of both ideas concurred to the developing of the so-called “Coke Bottle”- shape); they share the same uncluttered side lines, including the full length dividing dihedral line seen at circa half height on the metal of both cars, although this is in itself another old idea which became new again, mainly because the dihedral dividing line can be considered as the virtual heir of that style fad that, first seen on some ’42 Buicks and then used by others, including  ’49-’51 Mercuries and baby Lincolns, made the front and rear fender a single, pontooned-style unit, albeit in a peculiar manner, thanks to the linking of both elements at half the side’s height instead of making this at a height closer to the car’s natural belt line. In effect, from Step Down Hudsons on, slab sided cars in need of a less heavy-looking style, relied upon the use of a character line, a chrome strip molding, or both, at more or less the same height like the treatment seen on those Buicks and Mercuries, but not because of linking front and rear fenders between them; instead, their use came in handy to give some relief at the sudden heavier look of the new slab sided cars. Fender lines of GM cars of that era, while being of the pontooned type, were always lower than the lower window edge, so avoiding to look too much heavy: typically slab-sided cars, like ’53 and ’54 Mercuries, ’54 and ’55 Lincolns,’54 Fords, and many Chrysler products too, started to have a simple chrome strip, all this while Blue Oval designers were busy at proposing concepts showing the next step in this technique, which entered production with the ’56 Lincoln, and with maybe the most interesting car once it is compared with the Florida/Flaminias general lines and concept, the intriguingly close Continental MKII, a technique somewhat related to the one adopted by the Florida, to lighten up the profile of the car; but at this point, there appear to be an important difference: the Lincoln solution made its sides appear concave, the Continental stylist opted for a two-step solution, with no differences in the sides curvature , just a slight step, that is; on the other hand, the PF-Lancia solution makes its sides appear convex again, but with an interruption in the continuity of the sides curvature (think of it like a ’47 Studebaker Commander convertible windshield, a one-piece glass obtained by a simple central indenture where the usual dividing bar was omitted) or, in other words, the Italian car used a solution quite opposite to the one used by the American car to obtain the same purpose). However, and maybe even more important to remember, the same dihedral solution as the Florida, but at a lower side height, was adopted by Citroen DS also, and with the same aim well in sight. And please, let’s not forget the purely Italian barchettas built by Touring: the character line running through the entire side length is there to be admired !

In fact, all of these cars, as a whole, from a purely conceptual point of view, are pursuing the same thing: relying on side creases instead of on tacked-on ornamentation to obtain a sensible reduction in perceived height and a general perceived lengthening of the entire body. However, it becomes quite evident that also this style detail can owe much to the general American experience, not because it was contemporarily adopted by PF and Lincolns alike, but because earlier Blue oval concept cars wearing something like that were already appeared, and something similarly conceived was already used by others on both sides of the Atlantic to obtain a similar effect. All things said, the era of the creases instead of the chrome strip on pontooned cars, used as a gimmick to make less heavy to the eyes what was now a continuosly never-ending big chunk of metal, started in 1955-‘56, what with these important cars to be seen and sold.

The original Florida

But dihedral side line or not, what makes the Florida/Flaminia so important are its general proportions and the way its rear roof pillar is attached to the rest of the body: it is practically a continuation of the rear quarter, and its use of a chrome strip to delimitate it was in no way a compromise, it was instead another masterful trick to make the tail appear lighter. Obviously, the vestigial flying buttresses and the inset back window were another pair of innovations soon to escape from this Lancia and make the entire automotive world sit and copy, but this is quite another story. The final concept closest to the final Riviera’s lines that has to be taken in consideration is the general appearance of its front and rear overhangs and the general resulting proportions. They are, for lack of a better word, the same.

However, before thinking that Bill Mitchell’s Buick cohorts simply copied a Lancia-badged car, it is important to remember that in the same years PF was extolling the Florida/Flaminia concepts, the same Buick asked the Italian firm to design a pair of cars wearing its badge, and while the famous XP-75 can be seen as the forerunner of the stylistic ideas then used on 1959 and 1960 Flint production models – almost likely the result of a reinterpration by Turinese factory of the ideas already locked for the production Buick line – the 1957 Lido has a style that, in profile especially, reminds the the later Riviera. In itself, this Lido (not to be mistaken for the Lincoln-badged car of some years earlier) was, more than a direct descendant of the Florida/Flaminia ideas, a neat car offering a through reworking of them, combined with typical style features of the days (the low full width grille, for example: It looks massive, but it was not far from the ’58 production GM cars and, what’s more, it was somewhat comparable to the one seen on the Florida II. Needless to say, this and the Lancia badged duo surely made clear what path to follow for the Mitchell’s men while devising the Silver Arrow concept and the production Riviera.

The simple and elegant interior of the Flaminia Coupé

And in effect, the most enduring heritage this Lancia left to America was its deep influence through its “Less Is More” mantra. A close look at other contemporary GM cars easily confirms this idea, especially once the Pontiac Grand Prix is taken in consideration. After tons and tons of chrome and aluminum moldings, contorted lines coming out directly from some B-movie sci-fi set, and interiors designed more with a look at gothic art rather than at a sensible living room, this and other kind of “personal luxury” cars began a slow but unstoppable trend toward more sensible transportation, slightly later best exemplified by the debut of pony cars. Unstoppable, that is, until vinyl roofs, opera windows, hood ornaments, absurd external dimensions and silly internal proportions, all this combined with good-for-facepalm-only designs, returned for one more time 10 years later.

In the meanwhile, however, there is at least another American firm that back in those days had a few styling details looking very close to what Lancistis were already trying since the late Fifties: Chrysler.

In my modest opinion, a simple profile view of a ’63 300 two-door hardtop and one of those Turinese coupés soon makes the impossible appear at least feasible, if not obvious: The proportions are remarkably close together, and even more intriguing, the Chrysler is one of the few American cars of the day to have a C-pillar completely and “smoothly” integrated in the rear quarter sheet metal, quite like the Flaminia and somewhat unlike those aforementioned GM cars, what with them now offering the Coke-bottle hump and a decidedly prominent rear quarter, but with a belt line strongly dividing the roof from the rest of the body sides. The idea of a smoothly slab-sided C-pillar directly mated with the rear fender –just what PF had showed with Floridas – was decidedly a brilliant one, and made the new Chrysler instantly different and very much avant-garde, at least when it is considered against its recent ancestors. The long hood-short deck proportions first seen on the much more “uncommon” looking standard Dodges and Plymouths of one year earlier are here much sharper and much more striking, and the lack of unnecessary absurdities makes this one of the finest Chryslers of all time (albeit it is often an overlooked one), and much closer to what Ex had in mind while he was busy remodeling the early Sixties Pentastar offerings – until fate decided for a different arrangement.

Notice how the Flaminia’s front gently protrudes from the main volume of the front end, giving an even sleeker stance

In effect, the whole ’63 Mopar range still had “classical” touches very much in tune with the late Exner’s way of thinking, but this time vestigial things of the past like “suspended” front lights, “spare covers” and the like were confined to a restricted space (in the Imperials, of course), and this time the ideas used by Virgil and his staff were much more sophisticated rather than being simple traces of naivety. Virgil’s men were now trying to achieve a more European look courtesy of cleaner, sharper lines and somber use of the long hood-short deck mantra, and, at least until he was still a company’ employee, under his watchful and competent eye.

The rear pillar lines of the standard Dodges and Plymouths, and those adopted on the new Dart can therefore attest how these cars were changed (even if the basic underpinnings remained pretty much the same) when they were compared with earlier efforts, and how the simple substitution made to the roof lines worked to their best. In effect, the ’62 Plymouths and Dodges already had a neatly different rear roof pillar, at least in the way it was attached to the remaining body’ sheetmetal, but the changes made to the ‘63s, and the adoption of a similar concept by Chrysler brand too, quite were (and still are) a revelation.

While the fashion of a large, formal C-pillar was something quite familiar to American average motorists (it was indeed already well exploited by Fords at the time, whose execs and designers alike thought that following their experiences with the original 1940’s Continental-style shapes, a likewise design theme could still some in handy after a flirtation with GM-like cockpit designs and things like the two seater T-bird’ hardtop, the Continental MK II, the Turnpike Cruiser, the ’57 Skyliner and the Squarebird show how well and how successful this formula was for the Blue Oval, all this without resorting too much to European ideas by default) so it could well be considered more a marketing touch to link Chryslers to something successful and much more viable for the American tastes than the “Insect That Ate Tokyo” look of only a few months earlier, the initial idea of Virgil Exner (and his faithful staff) was very much in line with the latest European trends, and a quick look at the prototype 1961 Dodge Flite Wing makes immediately clear that the lines of this concept car, which was considered (despite some rather zany features) as the most visible incarnation of what the famously stillborn S-line Mopar cars would’ve looked if they would be put in production without the ill-minded decision of shortening them, with the loss of original beauty, are more or less a sort of Exner’s homage to the style originated with the Flaminia lines.

The perfect proportions of the Flaminia had many imitators

Of course, what made things even more interesting was the fact that these ‘63s were the last Mopars to receive the great Ex’s imprinting, because they were practically already finalized by the time his sacking by Lynn Townsend (November 1961) happened. In other words, these ‘63s Mopars were done in record time, more or less a crash redesign program which was started as soon as Townsend took “full control” of the company (July 1961) and all of this while the idea to avoid the latest Exner’s design excesses became almost a hysterical obsession in the new president’s mind.(in reality, a fault of major executives asking him to make ‘62s on shorter dimensions than those originally conceived, and all of this because during a party, then ChryCo president William Newberg gave mistaken attention to the new “smaller” Chevrolets Ed Cole was talking about; this, plus the well known news of a Ford “returning” to the market with a 116-inch wheelbase, convinced Newberg to follow suit, but obviously neither Chevrolet nor Ford would sack the true full size cars. With the new Chevy II and the new Fairlane, they simply entered the conventional compact market and redefined the mid-size segment, respectively.) Thankfully for him – but not for Exner himself – there was already a solution to all the problems born out of the miserly drawn cars of the ’61 and ’62 model years, and this was another stint at one of the most hearted project Exner had: trying to evoke classical theme of the Continent, or designs coming from the good ol’ days, in packages perfectly suited for the coming space age, but this time with moderation, no excessive creases, better proportions and a very European flair. If the initial plan Ex had in mind before Newberg’s modifications would’ve worked, the end results would’ve also had another new name, Forward…Flair indeed, but as we know, in the end what really was the closest thing to those Ex’s dreams was to be the “Crisp, Clean, Custom Look” ’63-’64 Chryslers. Those words surely aptly describe not only the Chrysler brand offerings, but also those with a Dodge or a Plymouth badge. From strictly a design perspective, the similarities between all of them, the Flite Wing concept and the Flaminia coupé are quite a few, and crisp and clean are surely two good terms to start a discussion about the aesthetic merits of these cars.

In effect, and to the contrary of many other American cars, not only the character lines seen over the 119-inch Dodges/116-inch Plymouths/122-inch Chryslers (and the new Darts, while Imperials and Valiants didn’t have this feature) were way under the belt line, but the rear roof pillar also smoothly mated with the rear quarter well below the belt line itself , quite a rare fact among American cars of the time, and incidentally very much alike what was already offered by the Flaminia. The rest of the Chryslers were much more in tune with traditional Chrysler (or Detroit) fare, but it is always nice to see a pair of things. First, the trapezoidal grille was soon to be offered by Lancia for its newbie, the Fulvia sedan; second, vestigial fins came back for ’64 on Chrysler, giving the rear deck a look not unlike the Flaminia’s upper edges. Clearly, the finned taillights of the Italian car were not to be seen in both ’63 and ’64 Chrysler (the former using another clean example of the rounded taillights that were somewhat booming in the entire industry, as I already said courtesy of simultaneous efforts by Ford, some Italian and French cars, and the little Rambler American…), but for me this doesn’t detract any from the simple fact that the most intriguing Chrysler of the Sixties was indeed a sort of homage to that most beautiful car that was the Flaminia. And it is quite nice that PF, a gifted man always able to work on others’ concepts to make them even more beautiful, “inspired” another genius like Ex. I already said that only the greatest can do this, don’t I ?

With this last idea in mind, I think there is at least another great design guru (yes, I think that guru is perfectly suited for him, thanks to his formidable ability to encompass almost all the industrial design needs) that showed his admiration for the basic Flaminia principles and obtained an altogether new, yet unmistakably classic, concept loosely following the initial Lancia experiences: not Raymond Loewy, who already knew a thing or two about Flaminias, rather Brooks Stevens, the man behind the definition of “genius used to use shoe string budgets” (words good also to describe Dick Teague’s working career indeed). But this definition aptly describes Stevens’s life as a Studebaker consultant, and although his Hawk redesign bore some conceptual similarities with the Flaminia Coupé, I need here to describe the concept car named Sceptre, and built in 1962 thanks to the obscure Sibona-Basano, an Italian coachbuilding firm mainly renowned for its work on…Abarths, Simcas ( a delightful li’l sports car based on the 1000 predates the general look of the Matra M530), and Exner’s Mercer Cobra! Of course, history tells us that the other two concept cars designed for Stude in those very months were also built by this firm, and the original idea of the Wagonaire was developed with its help.

This because this car looks like a latest reincarnation of the original Florida concept: It has almost everything the Florida had (and in the case of the original Florida II, also the black paint matches).

The rear of the Flaminia, with many cues ready to be used, like the slightly inset back window and the flying buttresses

Stevens was approached by his friend Sherwood Egbert to work his magic over a beleaguered Studebaker back in those days, and his touches are clearly visible in the ‘62s, including that jewel of a restyling that is the Gran Turismo Hawk. To some, the new roof and the detail work reminds more an Americanized Lancia Flaminia rather than a Loewy Coupé using a Thunderbird roof, and in effect, the recessed back window, the rear wings upper edges and the single headlight still perched ahead of the front fender are very much Lanciaesque. However, Stevens had also a budget of $50,000 to make some proposals for the future, something in theory closer to what styling ideas South Bend was already using and something somewhat concurrent to the Avanti-based cars under Loewy’s development. In fact, we must always think that the Avanti was always considered as a halo car, done in fiberglass using existing chassis, but its splendid new style was such a watershed event that Egbert decided to give Loewy some credit for developing an entire full line of models using the basic Avanti principles. Clearly, the Stevens prototypes have to be seen as the Tradition, against the Innovation of the radical Avanti models. Although it appears a strange maneuver for a near-collapse company like S-P’s, it is always important to remember that as a corporation, the frenzy and massive take-over fever of non-automotive firms done in those years meant that profitable ventures could be found outside of the automotive division, and so it was hoped that the would-be models envisioned for the future years could find enough money to be produced through other divisions. Sadly, the automotive losses more than offset other divisions’ gains, and the most enthusiastic man in the board about cars was Sherwood Egbert himself, now stricken with the worst of health problems such a charismatic and energetic executive could ever endure. His departure from active duties meant the end for South Bend cars, as we know, and the two years of Hamilton production showed us another interesting iteration of the original ’53 sedans. But the Sceptre, a totally convincing concept, offering us both a good view at a reincarnation of the original Florida features, a nod to the dawning wedge-shaped movement and some soon-to-be-used ideas (the front grille and rear lights traits, predicting Dodge’s ’66 Charger, for instance), at least is still with us to remind all the world how beautiful the future for South Bend could have been, regardless of Avanti success or not. So, we must give credit both to Egbert, Stevens and this small Italian firm that accepted the shoe string budget offered by Studebaker to execute work on such an interesting theme. In itself, the car is similar to the Florida principles in profile only, but the profile principles are closer to what Italian designers were offering back then, rather than what ideas could be extolled by previous American designs. The American touch can be seen in the peculiar front grille treatment, but the Sylvania-designed headlights anticipated a sort of revolution that the American motorist was not ready to see (literally) for quite a few decades (only today’s headlights, coming mainly from the experiments of German firms, can be compared with that nice early Sixties effort), while the full-width rear lamps were soon to be imitated, thanks to their striking simplicity. Of course, the well-known concept of a “hood badge” was reworked in truly an original way, putting one of gigantic proportions deeply offset in the center of the hood in horizontal position, quite a blatant statement of the understatement, if a similar description can be used.

The Coke-bottle fashion soon made the beautiful profile of the Sceptre looking like another blind-alley design proposal in the American automotive world, but it is undeniable others, especially in Italy, had the idea of using some of its lines, and its prodigiously large glass area, as an inspiration for some of their creations, going one step further the concepts initially originated with the Flaminia. As an example, I must cite the Bertone-bodied Jaguar FT 420 built in 1967 (FT means Ferruccio Tarchini, then the Italian Jaguar importer), or the similarly conceived Frua-penned Glas 2600 (Frua also made quite an excellent work on some contemporary Maseratis, including the Quattroporte, could the work of Stevens have influenced somewhat the final appearance of some of them? I doubt, but I like to think otherwise). So, if for no other reasons, the dream of seeing another new design coming from South Bend, could live on still a few more years. We all must thanks Brooks Stevens for his masterful interpretation (and Sibona and Basano for developing it in a full scale prototype, nicely detailed and fully tangible), also remembering that it was also seen in wagon form and that the other Studebaker concepts proposed by Stevens weren’t exactly spectacular (albeit one of the proposed one ended to have the Wagonaire roof and the ’64-’65 front end look, in themselves a nice thing).

The Flaminia Coupé showing its slightly recessed back window

P.S. If you have some doubt about the irresistible attraction some designers, or to be more precise, some major automakers execs, had for the dihedral line running through the Flaminia’s sides, please take notice of the following examples: ’65 Chevrolet Corvair (especially in the four door sedan format), ’65-’70 full size Pontiacs, ’67-’68 Firebirds, and (to compensate a bit), the splendid Lancia Fulvia Coupé (in itself a pal of the original ‘Vair “small soap” school of design), or the ’72 Alfetta and the relatively obscure ’79 Alfa 6. The fact that this same feature is well visible on the 130 Coupé doesn’t count, there is a discreet “F” badge over it…Also, as noted, the success of the relatively easier Ford way to lengthen and lighten up the body profile won many hearts too. How many two-toned European cars of the Fifties can you count? And if someone would like to know more about cars offering both traits, what about at least three generations of Mercedeses?

Also, it is not mere coincidence to have mentioned the Continental MK II in this chapter, for the Florida II and the subsequent standard production Flaminia Coupé owes much to the concept of the Fifties Continental, the idea of a grand touring luxury specialty coupé with superb workmanship and room for five, one that oozes unmatched quality and exclusivity on par with custom one-off jobs, but possessing the virtue of being backed by an official dealers network, in case some “difficulties” could hamper the exceedingly dignified feeling, and also being quite tractable and quite (and, as already seen, many a styling attribute can be equally found in both cars too: the formal shape of the roof, the wide and low rectangular grille with simple round headlights, the rare for the day lack of wasted bright moldings). In sum, if someone wanted in 1958 Italy finding a car at least close to the general feeling of the $10,000 Continental, there was also the Flaminia to be chosen, and not an obvious Ferrari which could be more exclusive, but also a lot more difficult to handle. And in those days, a Lancia was often the more logical proposition when compared with what Ferrari could offer.

Last but not least, the original Florida II prototype also had an intriguing feature, rarely seen up until these last decades: hidden small rear side doors. Does this sound familiar? Every owner of a plethora of American pickups, maybe the most undiluted Stars and Stripes vehicles today available to Joe Public, can experiment every day this kind of idea. I am not sure if it was thoroughly invented by PF, Revelli or their men, but it is sure that in the end it did catch on too, because it was eminently practical. After all, didn’t I tell about the role of these Italian cars as a sort of link between the best the two worlds of Fifties design could offer back then? Here’s one further proof.

The Fins Are An Italian Invention?

The title says it all, and in effect, the answer should be a resounding NO! That is, if we don’t consider the delightfully cute ’25 Fiat 509 Delfino, an one-off sporting quite a similarity with a fish’s body (or a cetacean; “delfino” means dolphin in Italian), huge rear fin included. But this remarkable effort wasn’t likely the first one to date.

In fact, Europe and America were always full of geniuses, or simply, of people able to innovate, in the glorious early years of the motorization, and nowadays every part of our small planet has someone still devoted to fulfill his extroverted need to do something new, or even simply to dream something never seen before. But the idea that the fins, when applied to automobiles, were conceived this side of the Alps seems apparently difficult. Difficult, that is, just like the idea that they were first seen on a certain American car of the late Forties. This can sound debatable, but it is a good idea to take a deep look at this subject starting at least back in the Thirties.

In effect, single dorsal appendages were nothing new even back in the Thirties and a very quick look at standard cars coming from Tatra reminds us why. An even more spectacular dorsal rudder (that’s right, an aeronautical rudder was the inspiration behind this kind of shape) can be seen over the rear body of the 1935 Peugeot 402 Andreau (since the “standard” was hardly a conventionally-styled car, what with also offering the ancestor of the Skyliner convertible hardtop, it was almost a need to make something even more outrageous to go one step further the already avant-garde stock 402), or decorating the roof of a stunning ’25 Rolls Royce Phantom rebodied in 1935 by Jonckheere, or the ’37 Delage D8 Aerodynamic coupé by Letourneur Et Marchand (in this case coupled with the absence of B-pillars as well). Speaking of French carrossieres, what about the 1937 Peugeot 402 Portout Cabriolet, what about some ’48 Delahaye 135 Ms, the Narval or the one dubbed “El Glaoui,” done by F & F (magnificent monuments, more statues rather than vehicles of some sort indeed)? These are important because they show us a fact that left me always thinking, and I am pretty sure many others had already thought about: If the fins can be considered as mere extralarge extensions of the rear fenders, then they were in existence well before the ’47 Cisitalia 202 SMM and CMM and ’48 Cadillac made their debut.

So much so that, even without that iconic coachbuilt Peugeot, there can be traces of the phenomenon also on more unsuspectable cars. At least since the days of the beautiful teardrop-shaped fenders and tail cars of the mid-to-late Thirties: Take a look at one of the most iconic cars of this type, once again of the Italian bunch, the immortal Fiat 508 Balilla Berlinetta Mille Miglia (a car closely resembling a very aerodynamic coupé version penned by Mario Revelli de Beaumont and built by Siata as early as 1933), with its rear fenders protruding ever so slightly off the body, with a teardrop shape and their terminal portion clearly separated from the rest of the rear of cars, or at least one of those most extreme of all Bugattis, the Type 57 SC Atlantic. Also other cars of the same type had a similar treatment so that, under a certain light, the introduction of real fins towering also through the sky and not only protruding through the rear was only a matter of time, sort of anxious wait for the next step, this time even more closely related to aeronautical vestiges and the quest for better beating the air. So it is easy to imagine every car with boattail or teardrop body mated with teardrop separated rear fenders (maybe with full covering skirts, just to enhance the “drop” shape) as an ancestor of the cars with proper fins: They can always lend a look of a bird’s wings in reclined position, rather than something connected with aquatic life, but the overall look isn’t far behind the effect obtained in later decades.

Speaking of decades in effect, the first one where the rear of a car received dignified attention, and it started to become a car’s part with equal importance with the front and the profile, as far as personality was concerned, was the period between 1930 and 1940, a time during which the rear of the common cars became at least palatable to look at (in other words, it now contributed in adding something to the car’s general personality), and the rear of some coachbuilders (or some automakers prototypes) were downright divine, perfectly able to show that the rear was effectively the best of a car, as polarizing as the front end or the profile. Considering this, even the granddaddy of all the modern concept cars, the same Buick Y-Job, has a rather prophetic rear fenders treatment, with its “thumbed” conical red lens molded into the ending upper edge and the thin lower hashmark-type chromed profiles, for all the world looking very much like a prototype of the proper fin (this very same feature would be later seen on the same Nash Ambassador by Pinin Farina that duly anticipated many Florida/Flaminia concepts…), and its rear deck was effectively a deck, enormously long, even if the whole Y-Job is a nice reinterpretation of the Classic-era-Buehrigesque boattails.

The next step I made hint above was a step where the rear of many a car would be its best design feature, quite a revolution indeed! And this is why the Savonuzzi-penned Cisitalias or the “I Get You To Look At The P38 And Then Try To Work Some Ideas Starting From It” ’48 Cadillacs (effectively proposed by Franklyn Hershey) are so important: They were the first thanks to the role of the fins, otherwise simple and very common looking rear ends assumed a life of their own; this “common look” becoming vastly changed (and with the time, becoming even beautiful, before being killed by the excess and garishness of later uses) is important to consider, because before its use, only very peculiar cars like Tatras and some other radically styled aerodynamic cars (also Czech ones: seems like they were crazy with aerodynamics back there in Praga’s neighborhood) had quite interesting and very personal rear end traits. Once the aerodynamic lessons were learned by every automaker, and the bursting effect of the teardrop shape began to appear diluted, way too much to ensure longevity of personality to a given automobile, the fins helped for a while designers and stylists to resume the already tried benefits of a beautiful and personal car from stem to stern, with every single body volume and shape contributing to this effort.

As for Giovanni Savonuzzi, his portfolio comprises not only the decisive hints at that absolute masterpiece that’s the Pinin Farina-bodied Cisitalia 202, but also the well-known series of Ghia-built Supersonics, the one with the rear taillights looking for all the world like jet exhausts (seen also on the DeSoto Adventure II, another car styled by this Italian artist, for once not a purely Exner creation), and of course the adventurous Ghia Gilda. Savonuzzi loved very much the fins, he was really an admirer of them, even more so than Ex, Earl or George Walker. His technical background and aerodynamics knowledge always coming in handy to pen the latest variant of them, but his most iconic car was an interesting Ferrari built by Ghia, a 410 (a car that was also seen with fins on bodies by none other than Pinin Farina), looking very much like those Chryslers proposed by our old friend Virgil Exner. In this case, it is also interesting to see not only the fins, done in the Savonuzzi-trademark style of sharp triangular devices (to be more precise, something quite akin to what was used on ’59 Plymouths), but the front end. The “typical” Ferrari egg-crate style was inserted in a front end that could also be seen as an ancestor of one of the most “peculiar” faces ever put on a production automobile, the one adopted by the 116-inch 1962 Standard Dodges…I leave open to opinion this idea, my very own is that the Dodge in that model year concocted a compendium of ideas directly taken from Ghia’s jobs done in the mid-Fifties, and the 410 Superamerica is likely among the spiritual mother of those ’62 Mopars…it is also interesting to notice that the name of Savonuzzi is cited among the creators of the Chrysler Turbine, usually considered an Elwood Engel and his close staff’s job. It should be nice to know exactly where the merits of Engel end and where those of Savonuzzi begins…

What Came First, The Chicken Or The Egg ?

After a consideration on the role of the Ghia-built Ferrari to provide something to look at for American stylists, I couldn’t resist to watch also into another kind of Italian-developed front end treatment reputedly considered as source of inspiration for a quintessential American vehicle. In this case, it’s the rather well-known grille used on the immortal ’55 Chevrolet. And I also couldn’t resist to use such a title, altho it is clear that it describes only a part of this chapter. However, from there I also thought there were more things to describe, hence the necessity to keep my mind set first of all on that target. Let’s take a look at it.

In those years, Ferraris sported examples of them in industrial quantity, also founding their way into 212s, 375s and 250s models, first and foremost because they were practical (practical for cooling the engine, that is, not exactly practical for maintaining a shiny look, what with the need to lose a lot of time playing with a brush to keep them clean, at least this is what was suggested by critics of this solution when adopted by Chevrolet), and secondly because they contributed a lot in the creation of a family-feeling of sort for the sportscar newcomer. Once it became clear that the look worked very well, being not too aggressive and not too bland, giving a clear feeling of being something quite different than your average Lancia or Alfa, it became ubiquitous, with practically every coachbuilder working on Ferraris adopting it, regardless of what the rest of the body looked like.

The last egg-crate Cadillac grille, the one used on the ’49, before being superseded by the later examples Dollar Grin

Seen as early as Touring-bodied 166 Barchettas, the thin-bars affair (but not still protruding in any way, that would come later) was however not the real first egg-crate type grille available to motorists back in those years. Thicker bar jobs were adopted by ’41-‘48 Cadillacs (then, by 1949, the famous, simpler, bolder Dollar Grin mouth made its debut), ’46-early ’49 Dodges, and also Pregnant Elephant Packard contributed to “popularize” them, but it is maybe even more interesting what appeared on Airflyte Nashes because, apart from the bars thickness, these front air intakes looked like they were penned by the same guy that did his drawings for those mounted on Ferraris. However, grilles with thin bars became common on American roads only once the Hot One made its debut, and it is pity of sort that soon they returned to oblivion per popular demand, with Joe Public asking for a little more American look in the front end of what was otherwise considered the very best Yankee car since the days of the Stutz Bearcat. Chevrolet duly obliged and gave the ’56 a look more American, in reality a sort of Ford-like trait (it is curious to notice at this point that the ’57 Ford seems like a ’56 Chevy with some thyroidal problems, because the former looks like the direct heir of the latter front end looks. Detroit mysteries….).

Despite being superseded, at least on Chevrolets, the egg-crate look didn’t vanish into thin air. Ferrari continued to offer it, with many of its most glorious and hyperbolic cars offering them. Not only the mid-Fifties Ferraris, but also the later cars sported it, and, most importantly, those few American cars still offering them were things like the ’57-’58 Chrysler 300 Cs and Ds and the ’59 Plymouths (of course, the egg crate seen on the Letter Series cars were also a clear continuation of the style introduced with ’55 and ’56 models, but starting with ’57 models, the style belonged pretty much only to 300s, with Imperial switching to a much more Great Lake Fashion design). This quintessential Ferrari detail also helped to popularize the adoption of low-slung grilles on sportscars , thanks also to the continuous work to improve the style, reaching new heights of beauty directly proportional to the lowering of the cars’ “mouths.” Although a Corvette fan can always point at the fact that since day one its beloved Plastic Fantastic C1s sported low and wide front air intakes, the combination of slightly protruding contours and thin bars made those Ferraris so equipped the quintessential Sports Cars. So much so in fact, that the egg-crate grille would become such a Ferrari icon that another item often considered as a “first,” the protruding “mouth,” ended to become more a Maranello trademark rather than a PF- (or Boano-) devised detail, soon to be seen on many other cars studied by those coachbuilders and designers; after all, the egg-crate was apparently too polarizing an item to make and onlooker shift instantly on the rest of the remarkable novelties often seen on Fifties Ferraris, and often penned by PF men. Novelties for a production car, or for an Italian car for sure but – using an example among others – headlamps recessed into the fenders and surrounded by transparent covers were distinctive enough to become the talk of the town for sure everywhere else too. If this was somewhat subdued in the case of Ferraris, it was maybe thanks to the sensation caused by those thin smallish, almost delicate framing set within the air nacelle. The eggcrate grille, however, would be seen as the only polarizing Ferrari feature if PF wouldn’t become the preferred carrozziere for Enzo’s cars, this because the various Vignale-Michelotti and Ghia-bodied 212s of the early Fifties didn’t satisfy the identity-consciousness that The Drake pretended from his products. The Vignale-Michelotti duo was especially prolific, and more than one 212 showed variants of the eggcrate grille with headlights well within it or separated by the main fenders edges volumes, this precisely while PF was busy to develop something quite similar for the Nash Healey…so, one can conclude that the early Ferraris contribution to the starting of certain trends was also more than the “mere” use of a large rectangular (with rounded edges) grille using thin criss-crossing bars.

However, once PF bodied a 212 for Georges Filipinetti, it became clear for Enzo that the real coachbuilder for him would be Pinin, the only one to guess what kind of look Enzo desired his creations have to wear. Naturally, there was the already trademark eggcrate grille, but now there was also a combination of sportivity and elegance that would begin to seduce world’s elite, in a way that Touring and Vignale creations hadn’t done so far. Thus, the Ferrari name began to be the “in” thing also among the well-heeled that didn’t necessarily want a car for mere racing, but more for typical jet-set Grand Touring transportation. As we will see, this literally exploded with later, higher displacement cars, but without the 212s by PF that set also the proportions of the grille that robbed the heart of Clare MacKichan and Harley Earl, Ferrari story would be far different.

In sum, what began as just a “suggestion” for the air intake of a highly mass-produced American cars, soon became the best-known of many of the first influences Ferraris were already set to spread all the world over. Considering what Ferraris are nowadays, what kind of mythology they have, what kind of heavy influence since then they exerted, what kind of divine following, it is almost hard to think that all started thanks to Chevrolet zealots proclaiming that the less understood ’55 design trait was there because Ferraris used it more conveniently than their loved Low-Priced firm. Thanks Hot One!

The ’57 Nuova Cinquecento continued the tradition of an easy-to-build convertible with the possibility to only open the central roof portion

Of Mice And Ramblers

In our story, a small chapter must belong to the interesting similarity between the first original American postwar compacts, the Rambler and the Crosley, and the Fiat 500 Topolino, aka Mickey Mouse. I was always surprised to see that the Crosley and the Rambler convertible had a rag top assembly pretty similar to the one offered by the super small Italian car. While it is another of those cases with too few proofs, it is undeniable that Crosleys and the new car from Kenosha (the latter introduced just a month after the first all-new Fiat postwar car, the 1400) have a folding roof assembly pretty much like the one used on Topolinos since their 1936 debut, then adopted on the 600 Trasformabile and on the most famous of the entire lot, the ’57 Nuova Cinquencento. This same kind of solution to obtain a convertible from a conventional sedan was adopted also on other Fiat models, notably the prewar 508C and 1100 (those were the last 4 door convertible sedan of the Turinese firm), and it had the undeniable advantage to offer most of the ragtop fashionable items while keeping most of the typical sedan advantages, with also a relatively higher degree of comfort, a far stronger structure with no excessive needs for added strengthening items, and a relatively low cost of production, all this when compared to a typical drop top, of course.

In effect, the same was true when taking a look at those superb convertible sedans offered by Kaiser-Frazer, also used as basis for the ancestors of the four-door hardtops. But if the need to maintain costs well within acceptable costs were one of the main reasons for Willow Run to proceed with so similar a design, surely the cars’ dimensions and their market position were in a far different league than both Powell Crosley’s cars and the Kenosha’s auto.

Even more from this angle, the ’57 500, just like its ancestor of 20 years before, shows the rolling central roof portion, quite like the original ’50 Rambler

Considering this, it becomes obvious that I don’t believe Crosley and Nash engineering staffs were attracted  toward this kind of construction method only because of the inner charm of those Lilliputian Italian cars, for the cited advantages of deriving a ragtop from a sedan while maintaining virtually every roof pillar to keep costs at a reasonable level and giving the car the necessary strength with no underskin further adds were reasons enough to follow that road. Also, the unibody construction method likely didn’t afford much more if Nash’s engineers wanted to keep development and construction costs at bay while simultaneously wanting to offer a safe, strong and comfortable car at the desired levels, quite unlike the makeshift affairs (and the imports, and the Crosleys) so often announced with much fanfare in those days, but with no real appeal for the would-be buyer. In other words, the roof pillars were even more of a necessity in the Rambler than in all of those other cars, all with separate body and frame (yes, also the 500 Topolino had a separated chassis), even if the Crosley convertibles give even more the impression of having a desperate need to use a similar drop top solution for mere economical and technical reasons.

The original first ’50 Rambler, with its very European-like roll

In effect, the Rambler was thought since day one as an appealing second car for people already accustomed to charm, comfort, fine things and the likes. More or less what some extroverted individuals were looking for when buying a compact car from across the Atlantic, and not just for budget savings measures above everything else. Nash’s head George Walter Mason was well aware of this, so it is no surprise, maybe, that despite all the technical and assembly costs issues, he wanted absolutely to impart a certain magical aura of continental touch to his creation; he indeed succeeded, and so it is no casual that the first Rambler looked like a grown-up Fiat, because the Topolino and the 1100s were diminutive cars, but in no way they looked like thrown-away cyclecars good for a season or two only. Mason wanted a quality car above all else, because he had to lure customers unsatisfied with what was on the market at the time, whether it wore a Chevrolet, a Crosley, a Hillman or a Austin badge. And, most importantly, he went through this successful way before other newcomers in the compact American-made cars, newcomers that lost their way or arrived too late, like the Henry J, or the Hudson Jet and Willys Aero, with the former being a sturdy but dull machine making its driver appear even poorer than what effectively he was, the latter a bit too late, when the market shift toward the more-is-better mantra, the various sales blitzes, the woes of their makers and the excessively high prices when related to the offered contents put them out of the market). And clearly, the relatively too small dimensions of the Crosleys were, at least for a while, a no-no proposition. The end result is incredibly similar in dimension to the Fiat 1400, but the whole concept behind the Rambler had more to do with the small Mickey Mouse and the Millecento.

The original first ’50 Rambler; from the rear and with the top

Speaking of imports, in effect, not only the small Italian cars had something like that to offer, relatively to an economical way to go droptop. Other notable European marques had adopted a similar roof treatment; the GM-owned Opel, for example, and this since the mid-Thirties also, but in general all those firms still offering some kind of convertible sedans used this economical and still-charming approach. In the early postwar production, also Peugeot with its 203 Berline Decouvrable, or Renault with a similar 4CV, or Panhard with its Dyna Decouvrable offered truly appealing convertible sedan based essentially on the removal of the inner portion of the roof, and the installation of a soft rolling-up top. Of course, speaking of French cars, let’s not forget that incredible Citroen, the 2CV, which brought literally to the extreme this concept (with a canvas covering the trunk also).

However, it is a well known story (legend?) that in his Michigan estate George Mason himself had a vast amount (collection can also be a proper term) of European cars, usually of the typically low-to-mid priced market spectrum, like Renault, Panhard, the early Saabs, and of course, some Fiats, some British ones and a certain small teardrop-shaped car from northern Germany, all of them broken in pieces by the same Mason in an effort to become acquainted with their inner construction secrets. Mason’s infatuation toward the small car concept was well known, his love for them had far-reaching and (incidentally) lucky consequences for the Wisconsin firm, Mason’s own intimate beliefs that in order to survive against the full-size Big Three the only feasible way was to offer something they didn’t, and something somewhat more generous with the comfort-seeking American public (and the subsequent results) are too much known to have a further need to come back to them, but I think that a fast excursion on the interesting similarity between many an European car and the Rambler regarding the way the roof folded was indeed worthy. After all, this kind of mechanism always looked like the typical wood writing desk rolling cover so much fashionable in certain 18th and 19th century houses, and George Mason knew a thing or two about house furniture and appliances…

An interesting car spotted 15 minutes from my hometown, the original Boneschi Monterosa waiting for a beauty treatment

That Long Lasting Isotta Fraschini Heritage

Let’s call it the Italian Tucker, that’s no problem, for the last Isotta Fraschini, the 8C Monterosa (Via Monterosa was the street where the firm was located, and it is also the name of one of the most famed Alpine mountains) is without question the closest thing ever to the ’48 Torpedo. An ill-fated, very short-lasting super advanced grand touring sedan, with the engine in the rear, stunning looks that made competitor far older than usual, peculiar interiors, performances to match, and a too weak organization for building and marketing it? Well, in those early postwar years it was very difficult to find something similar to these two cars elsewhere in the world. Sure, Lancia fans can always remind the rest of the world of the equally revolutionary A10 protoytype, a quite advanced rear-engined car with a 2 liter V8 developing 70 horses, and clothed in a very nice fastback coupé designed by Mario Felice Boano and built by his Ghia firm (this before Americans took notice of Ghia ability; important also to remind that the success, from a stylistic point of view, of this advanced but ill-fated rear engined Lancia led Italian car maker execs to ask for a following job by Ghia and Boano: the prototype of the immortal Aurelia B20 GT. This car was originally developed without the famous Pinin Farina intervention, which happened once it became clear that its overwhelming success had overtaxed both Ghia and Viotti capacity, hence the important contribution to redefine some style traits by PF also, and not only the start of a much larger production). But as said, it remained pretty much an obscure one-off in Italy, virtually forgotten.

Clearly, I need not to forget the Tatras, but these East European Tuckers, always considered the Czech flagships, sort of Bohemian Isottas, since the first day they had been sold they had began to show their supremely stunning looks and mechanical architecture, and also they endured long lasting success, the only thing making them really far from the Italian and the American cars, because Tatras (despite their early notorious “strange” road behavior, something as legendary as the problems supposedly endured by Corvairs – why Chevrolet engineers didn’t remember how strange can be for an “unscrupulous” driver the roadholding of cars with similar drivetrains will remain a mystery, even considering the cost-cutting measures Corvair had to endure, really limiting its road potential) were always sold in respectable numbers, and this continued even under the Iron Curtain aegis. In effect, Tatras went on quietly to inspire at least another legendary car (the Beetle…incidentally, the Tatras look were always considered as the closest inspiration for the definitive VW shape, even by those working on it, but those looking at the profiles of a Chrysler Airflow two door and a Beetle, will find some interesting surprises…), so it is no strange to see that the beleaguered Italian firm adopted enthusiastically the general layout of the Czech beauty.

Many a rear engined car of the Forties owes a thing or two to this one

It is also important to consider the immense importance in the prewar motorsport the 16-cylinder rear-engined Auto Union had, so the idea that the future lie behind instead of ahead was seen as viable by many a carmaker back then, and it is noteworthy to remember that obscure yet quite advanced 1930 English car named Burney, with many similarities with the various Tatras, Monterosas and Tuckers. Let’s not forget the incredible Romanian machine, the Persu Streamliner too, which gives a sort of compendium of all things aerodynamics. In effect, one common trait among all of these incredible cars was their apparent direct descent more from aeronautical concepts, rather than from road cars of sort. Can you imagine what a self-propelled zeppelin gondola could look like? A Tatra, a Persu or even a Monterosa could work pretty well. Last but not least, it is at least curious to see that in Eastern Europe, more precisely in Soviet Union, just before the war, a team of engineers set up a pretty radical car with a truly advanced shape –no running boards, fully integrated fenders, fastback tail, rectangular headlights and so on –  and layout; the engine was in the rear, the general look was one of those spacewagons to be see 50 years later, and the general idea was one of a grown-up Tatra. So, it is no wonder that the Czech marvel surely was seen at the forefront of technology, if also Russian technicians in the midst of the Stalin era were amazed by it, to the point of producing something quite close in concept. No wonder either, if Preston Tucker took a close look at the ideas behind the whole Tatra production, albeit he could also use a more American car, the Stout Scarab, as a starting point to develop something remarkable and extra-ordinary like the car that bore his name. But now, back to the Isotta.

The nude body, sans doors and lids, of the Monterosa convertible

The force behind the Monterosa was Luigi Fabio Rapi, a young and gifted engineer, and, as we will see, a very inventive stylist, who was in charge of the Monterosa project, with effective development work on it starting as early as 1942, after a tentative initial approach to offer a “new” Isotta, with a 3 liter inline six by Giuseppe Merosi, came to nothing in 1937. The platform-type chassis devised had four-wheel independent suspension (initially conceived with elastic rubber elements in lieu of the conventional coils later adopted) and it was available in both 122 and 126 inches wheelbases. The engine was aft of the rear axle, and it was a large bore/short stroke 90 degree V8 unit, initially devised in 2.5 liter format, then in 3 liter and finally in the definitive 3.4 liter displacement (respective bore x stroke measurements are 75 x 72 mm, 78 x 78 mm and 82 x 80 mm), with hydraulic lifters and hemi heads. Clearly, the engine alone is quite enough to set this car apart, predating the ’49 Cadillac, ’49 Oldsmobile Rocket and ’51 Chrysler offerings. But what it is most important is the look of the six examples produced, and of the splendid supposed-to-be models range, these ones penned by Rapi himself. The two remaining examples are a spectacular convertible by Boneschi, with a nice profile impressively close to the Baby Lincoln/stock Mercury of the ’49 model year ( both the American cars and the Italian one are 1948 creations, with the American Lincoln debuting as early as April ). As it is always the case in these occasions, it is difficult to say how the new Dearborn offerings influenced Boneschi, or how much the Italian convertible was merely a medley of the latest and most modern design ideas then available (also by American firms, hints of Clipper and ’42 Buicks are evident, while the whole immense rear proportions, needed for keep the engine at bay, resulted to be quite close to those of the Y-Job).

The cavernous engine bay of the Boneschi Monterosa

Another intriguing fact is in fact the way too long tail, predating those enormous rear overhangs that 10 years later would begin to become commonplace. Don’t let the frontal grille fool you, that’s there because of the front radiator, a nice thing to help the otherwise weak cooling of the rear engine, and this last aspect surely forced Boneschi to put more inches than desired in the car’s back. The convertible was the sixth (and sadly last) Monterosa built, the only ragtop of that restricted bunch. The others were even more intriguing, starting with the first one, a svelte fully pontooned six-window fastback sedan which resembles Tuckers also because of the central third headlamp (first example had two lateral rear radiators, once their inability to do their job became clear, a single frontal unit was adopted). In effect, the second car was still pretty much clothed in the same manner as the first, but now there was a nice and simple rectangular grille. The end result was more attractive, while the entire look was altogether more elegant than Tatras offering too, maybe thanks also to it being more “traditional” in sides and tails (both first and second examples were bodied by Zagato). The third one is a masterpiece by Touring, which debuted in green hue at the Paris salon in September 1947. It was (and still is ) an imposing two door sedan/coupé, with many touches seen on both sides of the Atlantic. The general design was comparable with some Chrysler or DeSoto club Coupé of the early postwar years, but the general details drive an onlooker to think about an Alfa 6C 2500 Villa D’Este with testosterone. In fact, this Isotta is a masterpiece by Touring, also because Bianchi Anderloni and his men were able to mask the rear engine with a tail not outdimensioned like in the Rapi’s ideas or the Boneschi convertible. Also, this car offers, a full six years before the original Skyliner, a large portion of the roof over the front passenger in Plexiglas (that’s the Aerlux system, a Touring trademark, which also offers the possibility to open it). So next time you see a ’54 Skyliner, please not forget that something close to that concept had already been seen (the Skyliner design remains unique and peculiar, however). The general ideas seen on this Isotta were again to be seen on another remarkable Touring-bodied car, the Alfa Romeo 1900 C Sprint. If it is easy to understand the obvious parentage between the 6C 2500 Villa D’Este and this 1900, it is also easy to forget how similarly looking they were when compared with the far more difficult to work upon Monterosa. Yet Touring did.

Apparently the engine bay, in reality the luggage compartment of the Monterosa

But what was likely the most intriguing of the Monterosas was yet another version , always a Touring creation and molded in the same format on a slightly longer span (the 126-inch chassis), but this time it was a formidable six-window notchback sedan, likely the most beautiful and surely the most balanced of the lot. While it is difficult to think it influenced the nice Lincoln Cosmopolitan (the styling of the Blue Oval most prestigious line was pretty much defined by the time this Monterosa appeared), its roof lines were still able to predate the C-body GM six-window sedans offered starting in 1950, in other words the Cadillacs and the Buick Super and Roadmaster four-door Rivieras. Although literally dozens of advanced clay models done during the war and immediately after it by Harley Earl and his pals show advanced six windows-type sedans, often looking more like greenhouses with covered wheels, one of the most excellent early type of this most elegant style – yet still imposing and formal enough to convey an immediate luxury aura – was the one wore by this last of Isottas. In itself, offering three windows per sides on luxury cars was very much an old and trusted fashion, what was interesting in all of these cases was the slim pillars and the impressively high amount of glass surfaces, at least for the time. Also the general proportions between front, rear and center of the body predates the Riviera-type big GM sedans, and the fact that the BMW 501 of ’51 sported a nice reworking of the traditional Munich style blended with the kind of lightness linked to this kind of roof says a lot about the nice looking formula offered by Touring. But in Europe the formula set by this Monterosa was later exploited to its maximum best by the immortal Mercedes 300 Adenauer and by some six windows Fifties and Sixties Bentleys and Rollses: no need to say more, just the satisfaction to see that the passage from conservative and formal to glamorous and exclusive didn’t hamper any of the features these kind of Mercedes, Bentleys and Rollses were taken for granted to offer their clientele.

In this respect, the six-window Monterosa was perfectly up-to-date, more likely it can be considered a perfect forerunner, what with its ability to link the ponderous and heavy pillared six windows formal past to a future where thin pillars and acres of glass would have made the six windows sedan looking sportier and less formal, quite a contrast of fashions.

Inner secrets of the Monterosa by Boneschi

In effect, other cars of the time with six windows roofs, trunkback tails (or something like that) and pontooned or semi-pontooned fenders, like Austins, Hudsons (the pre-Step Down models) or Nashes have quite a different proportion. Not that elsewhere in Europe only Touring could be able to do so, also others in Italy could, and also the great French names (Franay, Saoutchik, F & F , Letourneur et Marchand, to name a few) still had inventiveness to show, but these two last of Isottas (well, next to last, the last one is the Boneschi) are too pretty to be forgotten, and they have too interesting features soon to be seen elsewhere, to be easily dismissed.

The same can be said about that beautiful would-be range of cars that Rapi himself drawn for the marque’ catalog back in 1947 (or even earlier…). What an eclectic and dynamic offerings they were! Among them, for the American car lovers, there are at least three types of style coming under immediate attention: The first one was a group of variants offering ’47 Studebaker general lines (and this is no marvel…), the second one included variants with roof and general glass surfaces treatment close to those seen on another stillborn Forties dream, the ’46 Beechcraft Plainsman (and this quite interesting, witnessing both the possibility of how visionary was Luigi Fabio Rapi, or how far reaching were the Plainsman’ design proposals), while the third one, surely the most outlandish, saw two cars with immense tailfins, one of them of gargantuan proportions (more giant flying buttresses ending far higher than usual), the other bearing a striking resemblance to those seen in ’54 on the awesome Fiat Turbina (but in this case, guess who styled the Turbina? Yes, the man himself…Rapi!). So, in the never-ending quest for the discovery of who effectively was the first one to put or thinking to put aeronautical dual fins on the rear of a car, our engineer hero can surely be a good bet (although, with no sure data, I wouldn’t dare bet on any name!).

And speaking of Isotta Fraschini of the postwar eras, let’s not forget that the Milanese firm belong since 1932 to the Caproni Group, the well-known Italian builder of many famous WWI bombers, and later, of many an exceptional airplane. The Caproni Group had also acquired in 1936 the Cemsa firm (Cemsa was an acronym, and initially it means Costruzioni Elettromeccaniche di Saronno S.A., then, since 1941, Caproni Elettromeccanica di Saronno ), in other words the Monterosa and the Cemsa-Caproni F11, so admired by Preston Tucker himself, to the point he studied the possibility of selling the compact front wheel drive in America as a valid stablemate for his own Torpedo, were born under the same patronage; sadly, between 1948 and 1949, the financial ills of the Caproni Group, sort of retaliation for Gianni Caproni’s role during the Mussolini era, resulted in the final bankruptcy of the whole venture. As we know, both the Monterosa and the F11 had nothing more than pre-series production, but ideas for the reawakening of the glorious Isotta continued, with some intriguing sketches done by Rapi himself in the Seventies, and with the prototype T-8 of the Nineties, continued to pour here and there.

Sadly, despite this remarkable efforts, we are still waiting for a suitable Italian supercar with the grandeur of the glorious Isotta, a car able to fight against the (literal) giants of the Belle Epoque world: Rolls, Hispano, Bugatti, Delage, Horch, Delahaye, Maybach, Duesemberg, Packard, Marmon, Pierce. You name it, Isotta could defy it!