[Editor’s Note: Matteo Giacon continues his expansive look into the interplay of American and Italian automotive design. For part 2, click here.]
It Is All A Matter Of Proportions II : The Flint Touch, Jaray’s Touch, And Those Ever-So-(S)light Touches
In Italy there were also those brave enough to work out masterworks without much external consulting help, using their internal masterful resources, talented craftsmen and technicians, founders’ wisdom and just a through look at the most recent tendencies and a wise rework of them. The Carrozzeria Touring was one of them, but what set it apart is also an extraordinary intuition for forging bodies and soon become its most renowned trademark, so much so that the main reasons for adopting it and the subsequent lines this method afforded became the firm motto: the Superleggera construction method.
This debuted after the carrozzeria had developed some cars wearing the famous Weymann system, with all of its benefits and defects. To solve the latter, the Touring technicians, always led by the founder, Felice Bianchi Anderloni, devised a lattice-work of thin chrome-molybdenum tubes, anchored to the chassis, truly light (hence the name) yet sturdy enough to sustain the sheet metal weight. This was usually done in aluminum, and the contemporary application of both a thin tube framing and light alloys clearly show that the firm had also experiences in the parts production for the thriving Italian aeronautical industry.
Once the “Weight Is The Enemy” part of the motto was defeated, it was the turn for the “Air Resistance Is The Obstacle” part of the motto to be faced. This was accomplished through careful aerodynamic research, often done using models in the Milan Breda or Polytechnic wind tunnels, hence explaining why typical Touring creations appeared often so sleek. Not that American influence couldn’t be seen also among this Milan creations (the firm was created by Bianchi Anderloni and Gaetano Ponzoni, the former son-in-law of Cesare Isotta and Vincenzo Fraschini, while the latter was a banker turned car exec. The parentage with I-F makes clear why many an Isotta masterpiece was clothed by Touring, while the same Milanese firm plant was very close to the one of the other renowned Milan son, the Alfa Romeo, thus explaining why, when the Isotta did the way of the dodo, there would be a long lasting tradition of Portello cars executed with the Superleggera method), but this was often diluted in such a way that it was sometimes rather difficult that earliest ideas of a given theme had originally been penned across the Ocean.
And if some Detroit ideas were almost inevitable came also on most Touring cars of the late Thirties and for all of the Forties, it is remarkable to see the vigorously independent application of them, especially when comparing a typical Touring-bodied car’s rear with everything else, albeit it is undeniable also that some aerodynamic shapes tended to appear quite similar, once similar mathematical concepts were used. But at least in Italy, Touring set itself at the forefront of design research, especially when applied to cars devoted to racing or road and not for the sake of mere experimentation, in this taking an approach similar to the one seen on PF creations, but maybe even more vehemently.
So, we can also see the Touring carrozzate as quintessential Italian Style products, bringing all the basis upon which the entire movement blossomed after the war, and still remaining close to its original roots, persevering during the later years with the same beloved themes of less weight, less drag wherever possible, but without becoming a giant consulence and production industry like Pinin Farina or Bertone, in doing so losing the possibility to endure a truly long existence, but surely being closer to the ideals of undiluted purity of ideas. Not that it didn’t try this way, but sadly the fate wasn’t benign with the Milanese firm, for the agreement to produce Rootes Group cars, in a way so similar to the one taken by Innocenti with the BMC, finally a big shot good enough to make Touring able to compete with PF or OSI, came to nil after the sudden death of Lord Rootes. This deal would probably transformed Touring in a big assembler, but surely this would help to finance the continuously running R &D sector.
The last Touring car, the pretty Fiat 124 Convertible, appeared in 1966, then the bankruptcy. Now the firm is reborn, but I want to take a look at some of the cars of the golden days, cars good enough to dilute the best coming from America, and still offering something new, something good for everybody to follow, including the Detroit heavyweights and the smaller European firms. And as with PF, one of its most iconic design, the Monterosa, deserved a chapter all of its own thanks to its merits; here, however, we can see some prewar masterpieces, done on Fiat 1500 and 2800 and Alfa chassis, and a pair of very intriguing touches seen, respectively, on an immortal Alfas with such a poetic name, and on a certain Fifties Lancia… once again, as we will see, the main feature of applying some Detroit-inspired detail will consist in a neat proportions reworking, something good enough to make the adoption of something so foreign as a symbol of Italian creativity, or at least, a good part of it. After all, practically everything connected with the American influence must be viewed also under the way Italian proportions were applied; so, while some later concepts would appear odd, first with PF and then with Touring we can see why some Italian proportions were likely even better than the original American application of a given idea. This works also when Italian talents applied German aerodynamicists ideas. Think about those immensely and intoxicating beautiful Alfa 8C of various displacement, especially those fastback coupés seen around 1937-’38: they were as pretty as any of those “experimental” German aero designs, every bit as fascinating, and also convincingly conservative, if needed and if desired by well-heeled patrons, without the blunt excesses sported by some of their Nordic cousins. In fact, even a renowned Bavarian firm chose to take a second look at the most appropriate way to devise a sculpted, winning and aerodynamically perfect car, after their already splendid earlier efforts…
This alone should convince everybody of the avant-garde thinking that Felice Bianchi Anderloni was bringing to his factory, and all those ideas found on the famous Alfa 8C Le Mans, all those 8C 2900s, and a plethora of other Biscione cars in prewar years were plenty enough to make mind dance with joy. I also spotted a certain intriguing peculiarity with Flint, since early Thirties… but, just like BTO sang, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Well, in reality that special Flint touch needs to be explained, but first, a brief excursion into another iconic Buick feature, for Touring predated its adoption by a full pair of decades. Enter the… sweepspear!
What if an Italian car predates by more than 15 years the adoption of that traditional Flint trademark that was the sweepspear? Well, in the case of the sweepspear, it is also undeniable that this most characterful of touches was already seen as early as 1936 on certain Flamboyant Grand Routieres creations, and it was a sensation on every car large enough to need it for the sake of a bit of balance on otherwise large slabs of metal (just like an early Fifties Buick would have looked without it, or at least it wouldn’t have had such a striking look like the one offered in the end). But this splendid touch, sort of blade with the impetus of a lighting set toward the infinity, was used on some of those magnificent cars devised by the Carrozzeria Touring of Milan by his head, Felice Bianchi Anderloni, and were seen on some very special Alfa Romeos and Isotta Fraschini.
While fitting them on an Alfa 6C 1750 or an 8C 2300 could be considered a fine touch to bring even more exclusivity to an already immortal design, one would expect not to see the name Isotta Fraschini linked with super sporty concepts, yet this is what happened with the Flying Star cars, offered not only with the Alfa chassis and drivetrains, but also on Tipo 8 mechanicals (and more mundane, but nonetheless exclusive, Fiat 522 chassis and engine). And they were quite a departure from the noble, dignified and imposing look we usually take for granted when we try to imagine what an Isotta should look like.
One of the best known example of such a masterwork is the 1931 Alfa 6C1750 sporting also an incredibly swoopy fenders line, what with the rear one acting as sort of running board also, while the front one ended well before joining it, in a two-step way quite revolutionary for the day. The sweepspear was also used with some spiders built upon the 8C 2300 mechanicals, (or at least used on some “official” sketches) and with similarly stunning results. This was not one of those aerodynamic cars soon to become the “in” thing around 1932, this was still a classic car through and through; but what a magical object it was! And its bigger Isotta brethren was, if possible, even more astounding, because if the relatively low-slung chassis of the Alfa afforded such incredibly equilibrate, almost magical proportions, the towering height of the Isotta engine wasn’t easy to negotiate with. Yet the spectacular Flying Star rendition is as good as any, also on the Isotta frame. And the darting bright blade quivering through the metal surely is incredible effective.
However, there would be another interesting detail linking Flint with Touring, and this time it originated from Michigan, not Milan. However, it would be treated in such a way that soon, its adoption by some of the most renowned American cars would have more common traits with the Italian Touring creations than anything coming under the aegis of Harlow Curtice. This time, it’s the turn to speak about the slight offset seen on every Buick hood since 1937, (or maybe even as early as 1936) which, as the time went by, became a shapely feature good enough to give a sleeker, less imposing feeling to an otherwise unassumingly large piece of steel. In effect, with the typically double-sided opening of those single piece Buicks hoods adopted on 1941 models, the ever so slightly central offset, running the entire length of the bonnet from cowl to grille, certainly contributed a bit of added strength and balance to a very heavy object. This peculiar feature of Buicks would endure, restyled, modified, adapted, enlarged or otherwise, up until the 1956 model year, the last to wear it.
But by the time the Specials, Centuries, Supers and Roadmasters were showing it, a certain Italian car bodied by Touring had brought to new levels of elegance and sleekness that old Buick trick: I am talking about the 6C 2500 Villa D’Este, one of the most beautiful cars of the Forties, a masterpiece thanks to the sculpted lines, and thanks also to the incredible formal coherence between the tail and the front end. In effect, while even others in Europe had taken notice of the Flint Touch (’48 Tatraplan, to a certain extent the Standard Vanguard too), I am inclined to think that the Villa D’Este is one of the first cars ever to have a rear end with logical and stylistic direct connections with the front, the sort of things good enough to magically make the entire vehicle appear as balanced as any on the road. The scalloped flanks of the hood and of the trunk, in fact, are ideally linked together through the entire car’s length, and the intriguing shallow-and-full game they play acts as a perfect example of all those ideal lines good enough to make a car looking like it is at full speed even when it is still. The bulges on the sides of the central grille motive further enhances the idea of dynamism, making the car hood appear lower than it really is, and the pure Alfa essence is even more evident here than in many other creations done on the same chassis and drivetrains, including the Alfa’s own Freccia D’Oro. The side “catwalks” are now mere vestigial thin horizontal openings, while the special place found for the supplemental headlights further makes the most of the look and role of the bas-relief bulging hood lines, almost an ideal bridge to link the grille with the rest of the body (a thing still not taken for granted in an era when many Italian cars had their headlamps firmly perched atop fully separated fenders). In sum, a plastic perfection on wheels.
Difficult to find something close to it in the contemporary automotive world, and one of the best examples (among early ones) of how to use carved effects to further provide dynamism to cars. Much more radical use of sculpted effects would be seen later, sure, but it is interesting to see how the Touring car’s front end idea soon found acceptance elsewhere. In our case, a look at the American cars is mandatory. So, I think nobody would object that there is a certain similarity between it and the John Reinhart-designed ’51 Packards… also the cited Tatraplan could have a role in this development, but starting from these Packards, and observing that the Buicks continued along their own path (at least until the ’56 models, when the “offset” hood reached its zenith, at least as far as width is concerned – without forgetting the reverse approach taken in ’55, when the center of the hood was slightly “inset”), one cannot however avoid noticing that the most “carved” effect was reached by the East Grand Boulevard offerings, rather than by the Buicks, and with the ill fated last-of-the-breed 1958 Packards they reached their apex . A breed not exactly throughbred indeed, with also a Hawk model brought in with the almost impossible role of steal some attention from other four-seater personal luxury cars so “in” in that otherwise troubled year. But with such runaway successes like the original Squarebirds and Impalas, the Bonnevilles and the Eldorados, even a competent machine like the Packard Hawk ended to be considered a futile ill-conceived concoction; a pity, both because it sold passably well (with 588 examples, hardly a bad number when compared with the ridiculously paltry 158 units of the Packard wagon) and both because it was a very good machine.
Its “different” front end looks, in effect a portent of things to come, with similar vacuum cleaner air intake becoming all the rage thirty years later, owed much in concept from the Touring Alfa, for Roy Hurley wanted to make the look of the Stude Hawk as low as possible, very close in concept to the looks of the Mercedes 300 SL he awed for. Duncan McRae did his work, and although it always looks strange from some angles and perspective, still it looks like a winner when compared with its stablemates. The most distinctive feature of the car, wide horizontal grille and leather covered upper door portions, was surely the dynamic effect of the curved hood sides, starting from the upper edges of the grille cavity, and running the entire length of the hood. Considering the location of the starting point of their hood creases, the Hawks and the rest of the Packardbakers are ideally the closest thing to the Touring Alfa, albeit in no way there is on the Indiana Packard even a vestigial node to the vertical oxyoke grille. To the contrary, if anything can be considered worthy enough of consideration on those cars, the hood and grille lines were among the lowest among contemporary American products, and every inch as low as certain European sportscars (Ferrari anyone?). So, McRae was able to make Mr. Hurley happy, at least when relative heights are taken in consideration. Sadly, the last of Packards weren’t exactly the kind of masterpieces that were, on the other hand, the Alfa 6c Villa D’Estes – or even the Tatraplans. One last nod to Packard brought by Touring could be the use of a blade-like chrome spear on the edge of a prow-like front end seen on certain Fiat 6C 1500s of the Thirties, some of those cars bearing such a resemblance with some Paul Jaray concepts. It should sound rather strange to know that the very same feature would appear on early Edsel concept drawings and, listen, on Predictor concept car and the proposed full size 1957 Packards… yet it’s there (other Touring creations on the same chassis offered a unique style, what with vertical blades running from high to below for the entire initial length of the prow, something pretty unique for the time).
It must also remembered that the infatuation with certain American ideas found a fertile soil even between the walls of the Touring factory, and this doesn’t sound too much like a surprise or a novel news. Instead, it showed once again how certain ideas could be easily reworked by Italian greats to their own desires. In this case, I am speaking about the shape of some Touring cars’ front fenders, in the period between 1938 and 1940: they surely look like something out of Highland Park, and the typically not-so-round headlight bezels that were all the rage on certain 1939 American cars found a prominent place also on some of the Milanese carrozzeria vehicles: just think of a certain Fiat 2800 coupé, or, more important, just think of the glorious first car produced by Enzo Ferrari with no whatsoever link with Alfa Romeo, the car that made his debut as a proper car maker: the immortal 1940 Auto Avio Costruzioni 815. It is absolutely undoubted that from a certain perspective, this car looks more like a customized or hot-rodded ’39 Plymouth more than everything else. It can sound far-fetched, or worse, but the general look of the front fender, the headlights moldings…in any case, just a nice example of the ability of the greatest Italian talents to use at best foreign ideas. Also, the reworking of the fenders shape would have had a following of sort in nearby future American cars (a certain influence can be seen on some Chrysler Corporation products of the Forties indeed, albeit not exactly inch for inch ), so it is no exaggerated saying that this was a sort of American ideas reworked in Italy and then sent back to be used again across the Atlantic…
There are quite a number of them to be usefully remembered, this time happened to Touring to be remembered for this. The lines seen on the famous Auto Avio 815 were also seen on a plethora of Alfa Romeos too of the same 1939-1940 period, with those “suitcase” fenders and steeply raked “scudetto” grille: In this case, it is remarkable that the general approach of Touring toward this theme was a sort of restyling of the drop-shaped fenders so typical of the immediately preceding years, and in doing so the Milanese carrozzeria once again showed a cool, svelte approach to this, lacking the exaggerations seen on some French creations; I can almost name this school of design as “Levity Of Ideas”, for the general feeling is one linked to a very dynamic yet totally contemporary demeanor, quite a visible testament to the Superleggera construction method. In later postwar years, Touring would make good use of its trademark building formula, and such immortal cars like the Monterosa, the same Villa D’Este and the Alfa 1900 C Sprint and Super Sprint would’ve witnessed it. And when spending some words about the Touring-Alfa link, it is useful to remind also the already cited Disco Volante, another awesomely stunning proposition, albeit more for the novel proportions it offered rather than for the sheer beauty.
If we come back to see genuine novelties introduced by Touring, however, it is impossible to ignore a very interesting touch introduced on a certain superb-looking Lancia car: this is certainly the trapezoidal-shaped rear taillights adopted on their spectacular ’58 Flaminia GT. This car not only is an example of early clever dual quad headlamps integration in the main cars lines (the ’58 was the year of the twin headlights sets, some good and some really, really bad), but, following a Touring tradition seen with the Villa D’Este, the rear fender contours followed the shape of the front ones. The latter were trapeze-shaped, cleverly housing the headlights, so when taillamps had to be created to fill such an unusual line, they adopted a novel shape, likely the first proper use of the modern concept of trapezoidal taillights that 25 years later would become all the rage, thanks to a multitude of cars adopting them in more or less similar formats and, most importantly, in concept (Golf MK II, for example: the shape is different, the concept is the same). This happened during an era where round, triangular, rectangular, quadrangular, oblong and oval-shaped lights were already offered on the market, so trapezoidal (or, to be more pedant, cake slice-shaped) ones were the last important addition to this list. I sincerely don’t know if the title of “first with them” can be applied with safety to the Flaminia GT, but it is for sure a remarkable item, especially for an Italian car. So, if you wanted to know where the ’62 Pontiac lamps could have originated from, there could be an answer : although it is quite clear that the crescent-shape red lens of a Catalina is a well distinct item when compared with the Touring Flaminia GT piece, it is undeniable there can be some coincidence of sort.
Franco Scaglione’s Masterpiece And A Certain Show Called…Motorama
Franco Scaglione, also known as Frasca (his signature name on many of his drawings), is another sort of unsung hero the likes of Luigi Fabio Rapi or Giovanni Michelotti. Even more so likely, because he always was reluctant to become sort of car design “showman” in the same way a Battista or Sergio Pininfarina, a Giorgetto Giugiaro, a Nuccio Bertone did (just to name the most renowned Italian names; our hero was logically miles away from men like Harley Earl, George Walker, Virgil Exner, Gordon Buehrig, Bill Mitchell and the likes, not to mention Howard “Dutch” Darrin or Raymond Loewy, the real ancestors of those stylists that also love to be as recognizable as their same creations). But his place in the automotive history is a truly deserved one, and among the many cars he penned, there is at least one that was able to predate a huge amount of things, not only for the Italian Style, but also for the American one, showing how striking some details could be, and teaching the right way American stylists could later envisage them for production (or for other dream cars): that’s the Fiat Abarth 1500, likely the most spectacular prototype ever built using as a basis the mechanicals of the Fiat 1400.
One could think, after a superficial look at this astonishing concept of a car, that something closer to a Lancia, a Maserati or an Alfa could lurk below its lowest hood: but while it is undeniable that the immortal Alfas B.A.T.s are obviously similar to this car (they were penned by Frasca also…), the much more humble Fiat drivetrain is what really propels this incredible vehicle (although there is a noble tuning by none other than Carlo Abarth, soon to become even more the almost undisputed Small Fiats Magician – in effect, he and Giannini in Rome would become the most renowned names in Italian tuning scene in quite a few years).
This car wasn’t the first one styled by Scaglione (some Balbo-bodied creations on Aurelia and Fiat 1400 underpinnings predate it), but from then on and up until 1959, the bulk of many masterpieces wearing the Bertone atelier badge were indeed, first of all, creations of his own personal hand, (not only the B.A.Ts. One can see hints from Frasca on the Arnolt-Bristol, the first car to make Bertone a renowned international firm – more on this later – on at least one Bertone-bodied Fiat 8V, and then also the Alfa Romeo 2000 Sportiva and the Giulietta Spider prototypes, the production Giulietta Sprint and the Sprint Speciale). There is also a nice Fiat 1100 Sport Coupé bodied by Savio in 1953 that should’ve been made starting from Scaglione’s drawings. Last but not least, let’s not forget that Frasca was eclectic enough to have drawn a certain Ferrari 166 MM born out a co-work with Abarth and the Scuderia Guastalla (an interesting car: in some aspects, it bears a resemblance with some of the Motorama’s sportier cars), an Aston Martin and a Jag in 1957, a Maser 3500 GT in 1959, the Alfa Romeo 2000 “Sole” and a Fiat-Osca 1500 in the same year, the almost unknown Titania Veltro in 1966, and, for a small series production, the ’58 NSU Prinz Sport Coupé and the Porsche-Abarth GTL 356B 1600 GS Carrera Corsa. A very nice portfolio indeed. And even more cars too, as we will see a few words ahead.
Also the link with Abarth remained, with Scaglione creating the Fiat-Abarth 750 Tipo 215A in both spider and coupé versions (in these two cars, the aerodynamics applications were also tested, although in the rather elementary way of road tests rather than proper wind tunnel experiences). These cars were for all purposes quite stunning, and they had special merits because of their lines, because the later Fiat-Abarth 750 Monoposto Record and the little known and truly cute Alfa Romeo-Abarth 1000, both based on Scaglione and Abarth respective knowledge were splendid examples of aerodynamics and dynamics effectiveness (Abarth not only tuned up and co-worked with Fiat: this Alfa with Giulietta-derived drivetrains and the later Simca-derived models testify to this). Sadly, they weren’t commercial success like the Bertone cars, so Scaglione stints at the Turinese atelier were the best known of his many successes.
After the stints at Bertone, our hero went on to design some other remarkable cars, like the very first Lamborghini, the 350 GTV, the cars from ill-fated Intermeccanica – including that intriguing uber-sportswagon of sort that was the Murena 429GT – and, most of all, the ancestor of all those midengined road legal supercars so “common” today: the ATS 2500 GT, another car which met an unlucky fate. The compendium of all Scaglione’s legacy can be considered the Prince 1900 Sprint, a Japanese car so remarkably close to Frasca’s Bertone-bodied creations, yet so peculiar because of the exotic firm that had asked for his help (another well-known Italian-penned Japanese car came also by Prince, it was the first of a long list of Italian-designed Rising Sun cars, designed by Michelotti). But his testament must be considered the voluptuously aggressive Alfa 33 Stradale. No need to say more about what is always considered by real connoisseur as the ultimate roadcar of the Sixties.
Scaglione’s career was in effect launched by the success endured by his first Fiat-Abarth hybrid, an aggressive berlinetta with a low and wide body, acres of glass (moulded in a formula soon to become a GM trademark), the unmistakable profile of three headlights (one in the center of the front end) surrounded by heavy chrome housings, acting exactly like bumpers (wraparound bumpers ? Hmm, Another thing that would see later use), and the magic of what Scaglione called the cofano picchiante (diving hood), or, to be more precise, one of the first example of a hood lower than the fenders’ profiles; while the whole effect of the three headlamps deeply set within heavy bezels (and the central one acting like a jutting nose) was indeed reminiscent of some Raymond Loewy’s and his staff’s traits seen on Studebakers (to be more precise, the bullet-nose Studes of 1950 and ’51), or a far younger reinterpretation of the look sported by the obscure experimental Czech 1932 Wikow Kapka, the resulting look remained decidedly nonconformist.
To all of this we must add the very original taillights, hosted into two oblong-shaped chromed deep-set housings, and the wise use of fins. Another interesting peculiarity is the wheelwell shape, predating some Motorama creations, the Pinin Farina Floridas, and most important, the ’54 Buick Skylark. The real frontal air intake were also somewhat predictive of a radical kind of split grille design, because they practically were the hollow space left between the central and the lateral headlights “bezels”, with a pair of horizontal connecting bars at mid-height. The rear split window was similar in concept to the ones seen in models and drawings proposed by many a stylist, and, more important maybe, it can be considered as the extreme rendition of those seen in some prewar European “dream cars” or, more prosaically, by the same Studebaker Starlights but it was again rare to be seen in metal (something similar was offered in the rather obscure Fiat Padovan 1100 prototype, a curious car also sporting dual frontal vestigial fins, while a better known example of this, in itself another recreation of the original Studebaker theme, can be seen in a 1950 Boneschi proposal, seen on both Lancia Aurelia and Fiat 1400 drivetrains, complete with dorsal fin bisecting the center of the back window…), but in no way the dividing bar could be mistaken for one of those aeronautical-derived fins (rudders, indeed) already shown by certain prewar and postwar aerodynamically-motivated models.
The world-acclaimed Alfa Romeo B.A.T.s, as we’ve seen, owe many things to this concept car, and in effect, if it weren’t for the enormous fins (real wings indeed), the Milanese-badge dream cars could appear as very, very close relatives of the Fiat-Abarth 1500, and in effect, from a conceptual point of view, they are closer to it than one could initially think. With a bore and stroke of 84.4mm x 66mm (against the stock 1400 measures of 82 x 66), the engine had a 1.5 liter displacement (1.492, to be exact), developing 70 hp at 5300 rpm (versus 44 at 4400), helped also by the Abarth tuning (using a compression ratio of 8.5:1, versus the much lower 6.7:1 used in the stock powerplant) complete of two Webers DR4SP. The wheelbase was shortened to 2396 mm, while front and rear tracks were respectively 1307 mm and 1320 mm (curious that while the wheelbase was reduced from the stock 2650 mm measurements, as expected, the front tread was in reality narrowed somewhat, while the rear one remained unchanged – knowing this, it is even more intriguing to see that the general look of the car was astounding: It was all a matter of styling, after all, and a matter of global proportions also, helped in a no small way by the low height and by the very sporty, super long hood, combined with a decidedly short and compact tail). The interior of the car was quite traditional for such a supercar, with a “normal” instruments panel and seating (but Scaglione had devised the 1500 as a futuristic-yet-practical sportscar of sort, aimed at the sportsman clientele, desiring a car good enough to be driven and not to be admired only). The top speed was in the nearby of 105 mph, not bad considering the puny 75 or so offered by the standard 1400, and the acceleration was expected to be proportionally good too.
It is no surprise then, that soon after its introduction at the 1952 Turin Auto Show, Packard execs bought it (in effect, they bought the car while the kermesse was still going on!). It is more surprising, perhaps, to see that the American firm more sensible to the rash of new (at least in metal) ideas offered by this Bertone-bodied car was the General Motors Corporation, for it is difficult to find few, if any, ideas of this car in production Packards of the Nance era. The car was surely well studied and well evaluated, yet nothing quite similar to this concept ever came into Packard’s showrooms. However, as anticipated, some ideas found hospitality in others’ showrooms, showrooms belonging to Buick, first and foremost, and then all the dealers involved with those ’57-’58 GM cars with a neatly similar roof treatment (similar in no small measure to our smallish Italian concept), then with those peddling a certain fiberglass-bodied ’63 sportscar, and last but not least, dealers involved in commercializing a plethora of cars offered with “loop” wraparound bumpers.
So why did I mention the Motorama show in this chapter title? Simply because every time I take a look at the Cadillac El Camino, or at the Oldsmobile Golden Rocket, I have the impression to look at a sort of bigger stablemates of the little Italian Fiat/Abarth car. While it is undeniable that the talented fantasies of the GM designers were among the best then available in the whole world, it is also unavoidable to see a certain family feeling of sort between all these three prototypes, especially considering the whole roof lines and the general proportions (ok, the Cadillac’s fins are decidedly a different item when compared with the one seen on the Scaglione’s creation), and also some Olds front end features can be compared (the pointed, bullet-shaped fenders and central pointed “nose” can be considered as a sort of reincarnation of the Bertone-bodied prototype); so, I always feel very happy to see that a car borne out of the humble and simple Kaiser-inspired Fiat 1400 became an object to be reckoned with, and I feel also pretty sure that Harley Earl and his faithful pals had taken a good close look at the car (or at least at its photos). What I already said about the PF greatness (the firm’s ability to start work with some other ideas, and then skilfully coming up with an original masterpiece of its own) is also good for the GM studio designers: The greatest ones always recognize a masterpiece when they see one, and in the case of the Fiat/Abarth, sure they did their best to improve on its radical shape; the cited Motorama cars are masterpieces of their own, so, compliments for a good improvement work!
Who Drank From The Coke Bottle?
Although it could sound strange, I think that the oh-so-American style of the so-called Coke Bottle shape had some interesting connections with Italian style, and although I don’t dare to say that some Italian designer was the first to use such a swoopy concept while penning a car’s side, it is nonetheless interesting to notice that a famous Italian-American-British hybrid, the Arnolt-Bristol sported them in droves.
What is even more seductive, at least for my mind, is the fact that from some angles, even the immortal Ferrari barchettas moulded by Touring have an interesting and wise usage of curves on their flanks that can be predictive of what would be immortalized on American roads by the ’63 Buick Riviera and its cohort of GM brethren. Think also of the car that the car that propelled into the stratosphere the name of Nuccio Bertone, as anticipated in the previous chapter, was exactly the spectacular Scaglione-penned Arnolt Bristol. Before it, the name Bertone was somewhat obscure, confined well within the Italian borders: Were its swoopy fenders ancestors of the effect the Coke Bottle fad was later known for? I think so. Therefore, this effect can also be considered as the most important touch that made Bertone such a famous name in very little time. The Arnolt-Bristol was the second kind of car, in a trilogy formed by the Fiat/Abarth 1500 and by the upcoming B.A.T.s Alfas, that projected under new lights the whole Italian coachbuilders role, and the Bertone name in particular. The automotive history would be never again the same. Keep in mind that was the Arnolt-Bristol production that kept afloat the Turin carrozzeria. So, if Bertone would do the way of the dodo, like the once great Stabilimenti Farina, it is likely that some great Alfas and Lambos would never see the light of the day, and worse still, people like Scaglione himself and Giugiaro would create something far different that their renowned masterpieces (if they could’ve been afforded to create something at all).
This car is a well known example of an Anglo-American-Italian cooperation and one of the first ones to also offer main headlamps totally independent of the front fenders egdes (just like the PF Nash Healey, but here the result is even more radical). The effect of the super-swoopy belt line and fenders contours are predictive of the Coke-Bottle design which would become the talk of the town starting circa 1963. More or less in the same period, some iconic Italian concepts started to use more and more this very dynamic shape: the Tom Tjarda-penned , PF-built Corvette Rondine, the PF-built 1962 Alfa Romeo 2600 Speciale (they also sported semi-retractable dual headlights, close to what Chevy adopted for the Sting Ray ‘Vette), and so on.
Speaking again of Chevrolet, it is also undeniable that if the second generation Corvair was always considered so Italianate is due also to all those prototypes built by Pinin and showing anticipations of the global roof look, general arrow front profile and basic sides shape and proportions of the upcoming car. The ’65 Corvair, in effect, used the efforts done by PF, with the nice addition of the Coke Bottle shape. But a profile look at the PF Alfa 2600 Speciale also gives a clear idea where the GM stylist were addressed to. From the mid Sixties, however, the Coke Bottle shape proliferated and in Italy nobody was immune to it, often with exquisite results (just think at various cars bearing the Dino badge, including the Fiat ones; even more remarkable is the fact that starting with the Brovarone-penned ’65 Dino Berlinetta Speciale prototype, more a reinterpretation than a faithful following of the Coke bottle mantra, Ferraris were again ready, style-wise, to set the pace. And what a reinterpretation! Since then, the definitive look for rear-engined Ferraris was set for decades, and it still is going on stronger than ever).
But a hint at some super sporty Pinin Farina interpretation of Fifties Italian cars, for example the stunningly gorgeous ’53 Maserati A6GCS/53 Berlinetta, a car which bears practically all the most advanced styling trends (including one with an interesting nod to certain groundbreaking PF Lancia Aurelias…and not only the B24), makes us looking at how the seeds of the Coke Bottle shape could also be found in the extreme dipping of the sides (or, at least, of the front fenders before mating with the rear ones), and as early as 1953, a thing that was beginning to be a trend in American GM cars also. So, the more examples one can find, the more things get more intricate a bit, at least while defining the exact moment when this trend begun its diffusion. From this point of view, many a glorious Fifties Ferrari can be seen as a sort of trend-setter.
However, after taking a look at the origins of this style, and at some of the men behind it (Bertone, Pinin, Scaglione, obviously Raymond Loewy and Bill Mitchell), it is also interesting to see that other Italian stylists also were keen to apply this formula. One particular 1962 Fiat 1500 bodied by Savio is a good example, complete with the PF trademark dihedral side line, this time wave-shaped, and slightly bulged front and rear fenders contours. This car is interesting because, with few modifications, could be seen as an archetypal American compact for the Seventies, with some stylistic cues close to the ones seen on the Mustang II, for example. It must be said that Savio was another one of those (somewhat) smaller Italian firm that by any means was still noteworthy for his talent and inventive. So, it must be no surprise to see such a novel touch also in a car offered by someone that wasn’t Pinin, Bertone, Ghia and the likes. It should also be not a surprise to see that quite a design detail on this car was also remarkably American-looking: As already said, what usually made great a certain coachbuilder firm, was its ability to use the best ideas coming from elsewhere, and reworking them under its own personal perspective. Savio did it, and this gives an idea of the thunderous talents often lurking behind smaller factories too.
1,2,3, 1100 ways to make split grilles before Pontiac
We usually think that the first proper and modern use of a split grille theme for an automobile front end belongs to the Wide Track Pontiac introduced in 1959, but this peculiar feature has a long story, dating back as early as 1929, with that year’s… Pontiac. In fact, the early split grille theme seen on one of the lower-to-mid-priced GM family of cars can surely be considered as the direct anticipator of what would be offered 30 years later, at least from an ideal point of view. From then on, the idea of putting a bar of some sort, whether it was painted or chromed, whether it was a part of the grille frame or a part of the same hood (just like BMW started to do with its famed dual “kidney” grille), to vertically divide the air intake or the radiator ventilation opening on a car’s front soon spread, even more so when, by 1938, there was also its logical evolution, seen in the “catwalks” treatment (well, catwalks should refer to any sort of grille flanking the central one, but in the case of many cars, like Lincoln/Zephyrs and Studebakers, this was impossible to say, not with the lack of a central grille, and with the contemporary presence of a blade or spear like vertical “prow”). And Pontiacs were second to none in adopting divided grilles for the radiator air flowing, after all the Silver Streaks lent themselves to be considered sort of neat division between the two resulting sections of the front: the ’39, and even more, the ’40 model years are witnesses to this. The trend continued after the war also, and I have only to cite the Tucker and the Studebakers from 1950 on as viable examples, especially once the Loewy’s coupés started to show off.
However, what set the ’59 Pontiacs apart was not only their use of a grille divided by a sweeping metal section, but also the position of the dual headlights, firmly placed within the same grille perimeter, looking for all the world like they were totally surrounded by the same openings (in reality they were more a continuation of the lower fenders profile, but it is also acceptable to say that the same fenders originated from the bisected grille; either way, an astounding coup de theatre ).
This was truly a revolution of sort, and perfectly timed too, because starting in 1959, other firms’ headlights (namely the GM sister marques but Cadillacs and Vettes, plus the Larks and the Edsels) could be seen not on the traditional front fenders edges, but also well within the main front end area, whether they were hosted within the grille, just aside it or far from it but still in a far lower position than the one commanded by the fenders dimensions (the latter was the Larks’ case). In sum, what had started with the PF-designed Nash-Healey, then seen on Statesmans and Ambassadors in ’55 and ’56, became a sort of standard once the need for a lower and more linear look forced stylists to integrate the lamps lower, flanking or being integrated within the grille, ousting them from the traditional position they had since the late Thirties, early Forties aerodynamic first wave (to be precise, the headlight position of the original Chrysler Airflow can be seen as something equally separated from the fenders themselves, but the fact that they follow the same hood and fender curvature means they still relied on the general appearance of the sheet metal, rather than becoming elements hosted between the relatively small front end surface. This trend toward a far different positioning of the headlights was already nothing really new in fall 1958, but the relative novelty of a split grille and a low setting lamps separated from their traditional upper fender edges surely caught the attention of both critics and buyers, and all of this, plus the introduction of the 389 and the wise adoption of the larger threads, made Pontiacs one of the main success stories of 1959.
One of the best known, and if not the very first one, at least one of the earliest example of a split grille application with internal headlights was undoubtedly the already mentioned Alfa Romeo B.A.T. 5 and, in an even more extreme format, the B.A.T. 7. While they are both remarkable, and considering the impact they had, surely they could also be considered important enough to exert some kind of influence in the minds of many designers and stylists, they weren’t alone, for on the paper (and in clay) some concepts of this kind were already surfacing here and there. In effect, the ’59 Pontiacs had more to do with their rounded central “nose” treatment with those two B.A.T.s than something else. Following evolution of what easily became the most iconic front treatment of the Sixties had more to do with something else, at least for me…
But a relatively obscure special bodied Italian car strikingly predates in metal what was already surfaced in the designers fantasies on paper and clay models, and what appeared later in production Pontiacs: it is the 1953 Allemano-bodied, Michelotti-penned (again, we need not to forget that Giovanni Michelotti drawings and projects were used by outsourcing coachbuilders, since our man didn’t have a facility to directly transform his ideas into reality) Fiat 1100 TV, which was first seen at the Turin Auto Show, just when the Alfa B.A.T. 5 was shown for the first time. Coincidence only? It is likely so, because while the B.A.T. 5 was a thoroughbred dream car, the 1100 appeared as a “normal” special Fiat bodied by one of those talented coachbuilders then scattered in Turin or Milan, only it had a strikingly contrasting front end, considering the rest of its body. And this alone could be something to make someone sit down and look.
The car was offered in both convertible and coupé rendition, and its production was minuscule, even considering the relatively low production numbers of other special-bodied Italian cars of the day; its looks were astonishing from the front, while the rear was equally sleek, but much more traditional. However, the polarizing look of the front was surely enough to write home about it, what with the twin grilles deeply set within a very pointed and very rearward raked hood line, divided by a very slim prow-like protrusion, with the blade-like fenders edges flanking it, with two bullet-shaped parking lights in their lower section, and the main headlamps (single) hosted within the ovoid-shaped grille sections. The global rendition looks very shark-nose, but the idea likely was seen by Michelotti as a sort of reinterpretation of the Loewy Studebakers theme that in 1953 were surely among the most advanced ideas available to the stylists’ and designers’ eyes. But what stunned me when I first saw it (something like 1993) is the sheer fact that one can see traits used later not only on some shark-nosed Italian cars or the ’59 Bonneville, Star Chiefs and Catalinas, but also on some other cars (the ’67-’69 Barracuda, for example), and mainly Pontiacs! In effect, the whole look of this car doesn’t predate the ’59 Pontiac only, you can also see deep traces of the ’73 Grand Am too! The blade like fenders (looking like forward fins…), the “pointed” nose, the single headlights, the distinctly divided air intakes, even the thin main bumper, and the relative position of the parking lights (albeit they are over the bumper on the Italian car, while they are below it in the Michiganese offering). And the “blades” were also reminiscent of certain other types of front fenders designs used on some American cars: what about the Avanti, or the ’70 Toronado, or the ’67 Eldo? Impressive enough, isn’t it? Although other cars of the time could claim to have front fender “blades,” namely the Ghia-built, Exner-designed Chrysler Special (using a well-known example), it is undeniable that the small Fiat was even more radical, with a far more forward looking trait than the vast majority of early Fifties cars. Not bad for a car built by a relatively small firm, used to produce usually simple designs in the typical Italian mould of the era, although the use of a Michelotti project was already a well established way to bring out something striking. The car was apparently built in just seven examples, and one of them won a Best In Class at the Cortina Concorso d’Eleganza in the same year, but the too radical front likely precluded it from being a runaway success.
Interestingly, Michelotti proposed also on a 1100 by Vignale in the same year something similar to the split grille treatment seen on the Allemano car, but this time there was a huge squarish chrome central grille between the two lateral sections, in effect this looks more like another take on the style theme introduced by Virgil Exner’s Ghia showcars (and the blade-like fenders edges on the Allemano-buit car were likely inspired by Ex’s touch), so this car belongs quite to another chapter. Naturally, when speaking of split grilles and Exner’s creations, it is impossible to ignore the ’55-’56 Imperial (and consequent Letter Series 300s), but Ex didn’t dare to put the headlamps inside the grilles themselves. That would be a daring touch, undoubtedly.
But the idea that GM’s stylists took a glimpse at this little Italian gem while looking for viable ideas during their crash redesign efforts of the ’59 cars always intrigued me . After all, considering what was famously proposed in initial clays during the definition of styling details on many GM ’59 models, such a refreshing result must be considered even more intriguing…
P.S. I think there is yet another interesting similarity of sort between the Barracuda/’Cuda and another kind of Italian cars. In this case, the split grille theme adopted on the ’67-’69 was followed for the ’70 by a sort of evolution of it, likely close to the ideas adopted for the ’69 full size Dodges (as we know, real split grille design, or grilles with pronounced central divisional beaks or noses of sort were used extensively by Highland park back then: the ’70 Coronet family, the ’72 Chryslers and, more obviously, the ’72 Fury, and so on). The last of the ‘Cuda breed, the ’72-’74, offered a central nose with peculiar “gills” cutting vertically it. The idea was original, and certainly aggressive (if Plymouth designers wanted to imitate a distinctive trait of the wild marine predator that gave its name to their pony car, they couldn’t have chosen a better way), but if instead of open “gills” we would put chrome moldings, the result would be interestingly similar to a number of Touring-bodied cars of the late Thirties, with their prow-like front end vertically divided by bright moldings. Just a curiosity I thought worth mentioning.
Flying Buttresses, Spearlike Blades, And Colonnades: When Florence Can Be Found In Turin (And Then In Detroit)
Italy is considered the Renaissance country, right? Well, that’s for sure, if not because of a splendid welfare available for the common man of the day or because of exceedingly successful politics, at least from an architectural, artistic and cultural point of view; in effect, I am writing these words exactly three hours after I spent a delicious half day in Florence, where every American (or from elsewhere, for that matter) tourist can get a glimpse of the sheer vitality, indeed genuine exuberance that permeated Italy between 1250 and 1550 (the real proper Renaissance period, in Florence corresponding to the Medici dynasty, which lasted from circa 1450 up to 1550). So it is somewhat logical that when some typically architectural elements that sooner or later were to be seen on automobile designs, the occasion to see those used in buildings and monuments is even more fitting: the eye can so watch at the gothic arches so common in Europe back in those centuries, the buttresses that spread in the Gothic and some Renaissance architectures (in effect, many French cathedrals can show even more massive amounts of them rather than Florence, and in a much more flamboyant manner, but the Brunelleschi Dome’s ones offer always a neat example, and in effect much closer to our automotive ideas of them) that together with many kind of decorations were always intended as a way to link mankind to Heaven, or the tranquil colonnades found in those peaceful places known as cloisters, (a neat example that I just tasted is the Brunelleschi Cloister in Santa Croce, but practically every major Italian city has some example of them), always thought to be sort of oasis for the souls. But would you think of a ’73 Buick Century as a oasis for a soul? Well, maybe a Flint fanatic, but likely everybody else rather less so. However, we are not here to discuss whether car designers are into mysticism or not, we are here to see where a two or three things found at some point on Detroit production cars could originally have been elsewhere, and in the case, if also some other cars had already showed them, not only antique buildings or marbled monuments. And in our case, taking in consideration some designer-conceived Lancia Aurelias, the answer is: yes. Or, at least, this is my personal opinion. But, as usual, I will try to explain this a bit.
In the case of the Colonnade styling, in effect, more than Italian cars, a certain contribution came from the architectural use of columns in general (leading GM to call Colonnade its typical Malaise Era mid size cars because of the way the roofs’ A,B,C and D pillars looked to both insiders and the common man), and it is undeniable that Bill Mitchell knew a thing or two about its use; after all, wasn’t he to have penned the ’38 Cadillac Sixty Special, maybe the most illustrious American car to predate that kind of style?
Our man (and not only him, as Caddy execs also saw the same subject) surely took a glimpse or two at an interesting French car, the ’36 Panhard Et Levassor Dynamic designed by Louis Bonier (a good description of this incredible car? Central driving McLaren F1 plus Airflow meets Hupmobiles cum Hudson and some British tails touches, the latter ones the real notchback sedans ancestors, because before this stately Cadillac, in America long trunks were usually reserved for coupés or convertibles – if this is not enough, the Panhard used a Knight-valve engine; if this French creation looks strange, you ain’t seen nothing yet. For truly bizarre design, why don’t you set your eyes on the already mentioned Praga Super Piccolo?), since the way the bodysides are curved toward the upper edges and the door windows frames are decidedly lookalike. However, the general idea of continuing in the glorious tradition first seen with the Duesenberg Twenty Grand (a spectacularly styled four door, with many styling cues coming from much sportier models) also contributed to the final Mitchell’s rendition.
And what a rendition it was! After it was so widely admired, the novelty of trunkback cars with four window-only roofs and prominent rear deck became all the rage for GM, leading to the Torpedo-shaped cars of 1940 on (as already mentioned elsewhere, the impact of the Sixty Special was impressive enough in America, but as a whole GM was already used to similarly conceived shapes: the Opel Admiral, the Aurelia’s main style-wise ancestor, and likely the most beautiful German production sedan of the ‘30s, was also a 1938 product, sadly lasting only for a pair of years. Its splendid ideas and its impact are undeniably remarkable, just as the ones offered by the Caddy car).
The roof treatment of the Sixty Special became then somewhat diluted after 1941, but the peculiar side glass framing remained a touch of the Most Cadillac Among The Cadillacs (and the general look was surely a nice comparison item for Edsel Ford and “Bob” Gregorie while deciding upon the first Continental look); also some professional cars on Cadillac commercial frames offered some visual hints at this kind of treatment (the A.J. Miller-built Cadillacs seen in 1954-’55 as hearses and ambulances). But the whole story, although fascinating, is apparently not linked to Italy; well, yes, but some other peculiar traits of the Colonnade cars were seen in the bodysides also, so heavily sculpted they almost looked like they were literally carved, just like a mobile bas-relief (again showing us two things: how Americans, both stylists and public, were always happy to see “movement” on body sheet metal, whether this was obtained via tacked-on chrome, wise dosages of different paints or, more radically, thanks to judicious use of steel sculpturing).
The Colonnade cars belong to the third category: No doubt some of them were somewhat exaggerated, but once they are compared to a ’58 Olds 98 surely they are a masterpiece of subtlety. Likely no Colonnade car epitomizes this better than the Pontiac models: and here, in effect, their radical teardrop-like side fender bulges, front and rear, made them a love-or-hate proposal. No surprise then, if the less complicated Cutlasses brought so much public towards Oldsmobile’s showrooms; however, Pontiac (and Colonnade car) fans will be happy to know that even some interesting Italian cars offered by some renowned coachbuilders, twenty years before the Colonnade LeMans, had a conceptually similar heavy sculpturing of the bodysides, and this not because of a lack of spur to come up with something new after years of bland slab sides.
To the contrary, cars like the Lancia Aurelia B50 convertible, or the Lancia Aurelia Giardinetta by Viotti, (especially the one seen in the earliest times, while later Giardinettas had a more subtle approach, similar to the Fiat 1900 estate proposed by Viotti too) still offered prominent fenders, prominent, that is, once compared with the perfectly flush-fendered sedan and coupé brethrens . This was done especially because of a sort of reconsideration of the impact a complete pontooned-fender style could have on some kind of conservative and rich Italian car buyers. It was almost as both PF and Viotti hesitated somewhat to offer something so radical as the completely integrated fenders seen, for example, on Fiat 1400s, Cisitalias (in the front, of course), and quite a lot of other coachbuilders’ creations. The final effect was very interesting, however, because it blended the best of the two design worlds: the aerodynamic modernism of the pontoon style, mated to the elegant dynamism of the flowing, swoopy, ever-so-slightly separated fenders.
From this point of view, at least among Italian cars only, this pair of Aurelias was practically unique, because it is important to say that similarly conceived designs could still be seen among European production, both as standard and coachbuilt cars, especially on cars reserved for a presumably conservative clientele, or when offered by supposedly conservative brands (and the list would be long in effect); regardless of this, their heavily sculpted sides found likely the best heirs once some of the much-maligned Colonnade cars debuted in the fall of 1972. Heirs, rather than imitators, is the best word, because a glimpse at a Monte Carlo also helps to better put the entire phenomenon of heavily sculpted flanks in an even clearer perspective, while it still reminds us also that this fad was already well established in 1972, after a luster or so of subdued use by GM and Chrysler. So, a touch considered conservative in the early years of the Fifties, came up as hip and futuristic in Detroit 20 years later (many critics found the Colonnade cars to wear a very Buck Rogers-inspired style, maybe démodé-futuristic can be a better term to describe it).
Naturally, I am not telling you that the American designers took direct inspiration from the Italian duo, what with cars like the original Y-Job and all those Forties suitcases-fendered cars to bring back to memory, (the first rendition of the ’68 A-bodied Pontiacs by Bill Porter already had the enormous bulges to be later seen more prominently on the ’73 LeMans, and their shape is not so similar to the one of the Aurelias, instead the rear ones seem closer to the ones sported by the already cited Dubonnet Xenia), but conceptually, surely they came much close to a thoroughly modern idea of what a postwar styled car could look in case its fenders had to still have a prominent, center stage role. And considering successful cars like the Armstrong Siddeleys, or the BMW 501/502s, surely the Aurelia B50s appear both modern and fresh despite offering design touches linked with the past, rather than projected toward a far distant future.
But I was also speaking about flying buttresses, wasn’t I? And in fact, the Lancia Aurelia-based PF 200 prototype anticipated them too; well, one of them, at least in the second coupé iteration (the first closed model had an immensely glass greenhouse, sort of Studebaker Starlight meets Lockheed mold, while the third one sports neat conical lamps mounted at the upper edge of the fins), because apparently no less than seven PF 200s were built, and while some of them bore this badge but no overtly exaggerated lines like some others – in effect appearing closer to some previous PF creations and quite “civilized,” the ones offering the same unforgettable front with the round air nacelle (grille is not the best way to describe it), and the rear fins that incorporated the vertical blade-like side elements of the chromed rear bumper surely deserve a bright spot in the automotive history. This was a peculiar thing of many “original” PF 200s, apart the light blue coupé already mentioned; this car also has the flying buttresses plus the four windows roof, the original flying buttresses early model had only doors’ windows: the final result is a good anticipation of those rather angular fastbacks that would be seen on American roads 12 years later! As a note, please see some FoMoCo dream cars of the era also sporting blades on rear fenders edges, with the final result being inspirational for the taillamps adopted by production ’55-’56 Mercuries).
If some of these design elements sound familiar, that’s because at least Imperial fans should know very well what is all about inserting protruding bumpers elements in a fin-like rear fender’s edge. A quick look at the Imperials built between 1967 and 1971 model years immediately let us see this. Also Cadillacs from ’74 to ’76 had quite a similar feature, with the proper taillights now settled in horizontal position below the trunk lid, leaving reflectors only, so the Caddy fins were somewhat abdicating to their initial role of taillamp bearers since 1948. (Would this have pleased Frank Hershey, the first to put fins on the tail of a car in a Detroit studio, as early as 1944 on a Vauxhall proposal, and then busy at convincing his Commander-In-Chief Harley Earl about the goodness of such a concoction on future Cadillacs?) Sure, all of these cars weren’t the first ones to let fins quite alone, without the sweet company of a taillamp to support (think about the Henry J…), and also Imperial itself showed often during their independent life (to be precise, almost always) fins with only spates of metal and no red lenses into them (more often than not,they were indeed suspended over them), but, remaining to look at the Italian automotive world, the Pinin prototype ideas were impressively similar to the later production Imperial ideas. A pundit can say that Virgil Exner was busy at developing a similar concept with Ghia at the time, namely the Chrysler Special, but the chromed blades appeared on both the rear and front fender edges, with neatly tailored lamps on the upper points of them. The intriguing feature of the PF 200 was the fact that no lamp whatsoever was provided on those early-type blades, so they were a distinctive detail sufficient enough to make the early-types PF 200s even more “distant” from the rest of the existing cars.
And that lonely PF 200 wearing the flying buttresses? As said, it was probably the first Italian car to have them, but the concept wasn’t exactly totally unheard of. It must be said that the way its flying buttresses were done pretty much anticipated what would be seen a decade or so later, so its influence is surely decisive when seen as mere anticipation, but it is important to remind that a nice Figoni & Falaschi Talbot Lago (nice, but not pretty, due to some unbalances and an original but strange front end – with a sort of Cyclops rendering) shown in 1950 offered a very sleek fastback body, where the edges of the roof and of the rear fenders were blended in one continuous line, with ever-so-slightly protruding edges and semi-recessed surfaces between them and the decklid-back window ensemble. This French car also offers blade-like rear fenders chromed moldings, but they didn’t look like useful bumpers of sort, in the same way as the Chrysler Special or the PF 200. However, Figoni & Falaschi, just like Ettore Bugatti or Flaminio Bertoni, were Italians doing very well on the other side of the Alps, so they were some sort of ambassadors of Italian ability, if not of the proper Italian Style. But that’s another story, interesting but a bit different. What is sure, however, is the fact that the Flamboyant Gothic-inspired most famous creations of the F&F duo had deep links with arts and dramatics, just what we are seen taking a close look at the history of these Pinin Farina cars… history repeating.
Speaking again about the flying buttresses and the PF 200, not only it did predate the “Ingrid Bergman” Ferrari 375, it did also was a jump in the future, anticipating roofs the likes of the original Dino 206/246s, the Jaguar XJ-Ss, and GM’s own A-bodies of 1966-’67 and the ’68-’70 Dodge Chargers. So, in a certain manner, the GTO’s name wasn’t the only Italian thing to be seen on that famous Pontiac car. Also, it is always nice to notice how daring a touch was the duly application of recessed back windows back then: wasn’t it the most intriguing detail seen on the ’68 Bullitt Charger, or at least what the moviegoers thought during the car chase?
Another clever styling detail of the PF 200 was its round nacelle, as we’ve seen, also doubling on some versions of this specially-built car as a bumper through its rather thick chrome framing. But there is at least another Lancia that deserves to be remembered for this clever touch, a trait very much in common with the already mentioned Fiat/Abarth/Bertone 1500 penned by Frasca in 1952: something incorporating the best ideas that the inventor of modern industrial design had around 1960, when he was busy at thinking what a modern grand touring car had to be. Yes, I am talking about the Loraymo, one of the most interesting Lancias ever, but the Loraymo and the round nacelle of the PF200 worth to be written about more deeply elsewhere. The round frontal grille was certainly a fad of the time, with the renowned O.S.C.A.s showing them in their purest form, and some Ghia-built Exner-devised Mopar dream cars also had, if not a totally round grille, a very rounded rectangular one, quite unlike the typical full width front ends then spreading in Detroit. As we will see, there is at least another Italian car that can be considered as the ideal archetypal ancestor to this fad, but it is sure that the impact PF200s had on people visiting the various shows where they were exposed surely caught more than a simple glimpse at this peculiar treatment. And although nobody tried to devise such a solution (that is, no one this side of the Alps, for, as we’ve already seen, some French Panhards had similarly oval or rounded solutions, although not nearly as extreme as the Italian proposals), sure the global concept made designers and stylists take a close look at the entire PF 200s look. In fact, not only PF did use again a similar theme for that immortal beauty that it is the Maserati A6GCS, although in a less daring way, without the extreme roundness and the thick chrome framing, (this Maser also predates the way the global side fenders look on the Aurelia B24, but this last touch wasn’t seen on the PF 200), but also other stylists put to good use the round nacelle, or something “close” to it ( a quick glimpse at some Exner’s Ghia creations can help to better understand this); what’s more , other stylists took a look at other aspects of the various PF 200 intriguing details, also the way the first closed model’s roof was rendered. At least those working for another renowned American firm, that is.
In fact, before concluding this chapter, we must speak of yet another peculiarity of the original PF 200, and the similarity with yet another well-known (and well seen) car proposed by none other than GM: Let’s not forget how close the roof of the Motorama’ ’55 Pontiac Strato Star was to the original thin greenhouse adopted on the Lancia/Pinin Farina prototype in its early coupé format – fins excluded, of course. Albeit the original Lancia prototype devised by Pinin likely took to the extremes the ideals heralded since the mid-Forties by cars like the Loewy’s Studebaker Starlights, here they literally suspended the roof over the passengers’ heads using tiny, thin pillars. When compared with the aforementioned Motorama prototype, the similarity is there. Interesting detail, isn’t it?
Lancia, again Lancia; seems like the spiritual testament of Vincenzo Lancia was a long lasting one, and more often than not there are visual connections with this or that American car. But what about a long lasting perceived similarity with a firm in its entirety? Can be there a specific reason why Lancia and Studebaker must be considered very much alike? Maybe not, but a close look at their respective industrial adventures shows some reasons good enough to propose a similar concept. This is in fact, more a sort of study about the various interesting similarities that exist between the two firms than anything else, and the various “influences” reciprocally made can be used as a start for a discussion about the relative role on their home markets, rather than in the usual way to find who begat whom. They had almost always a deserved fame of being able to bring together innovation and tradition in many convincing ways, often they proposed watershed designs and technical innovations, both endured beleaguered financial troubles, both firms had to seek “outside” help through mergers or genuine take-overs, and in definitive they were never able to sell profitably for a long period of time because of their relatively lack of huge financial resources. Now, let’s hope Lancia will not follow entirely Studebaker suit, there are only four years left for Lancia to reach the Studebaker’s venerable age, when the Corporation pulled the plug on its automotive affairs. The fact that the only Lancia left is the Polish-made luxury compact Ypsilon is another strangely close link with South Bend (their last of the breed models were the luxury compacts made in Hamilton, Ontario…), and the “ability” to find themselves sooner or later in a heepa troubles wasn’t exactly a valuable asset for heartless beancounters. Oh, and let’s not forget how deeply involved in the trucks market they were, what with some of the most elegant and beautiful designs for commercial vehicles coming out of their factories (South Bend and, for Lancia, the renowned Bolzano-Bozen factory in South Tirol): A quick look at the best looking pick up ever (that’s my opinion, of course, others can argue this), the late Thirties Studebaker K5 Coupé-Expresses, or at two of the most beautiful European postwar trucks, the Lancia Esatau and the cabover Esatau B makes this even more lampant.
However, let’s come back to cars, and more specifically to some designs, starting with the immortal look of the ’53 Starliner, the most beautiful American Car Of The Fifties for many, surely where the car that incidentally started the definitive long run toward oblivion for South Bend. It is strange that such a beautiful car sealed its makers fate, because it was mainly a fault of those thinking the coupés would be still regared as pheripheral models in the new Stude range. But once prospective buyers took a look, they were more willing to invest dollars in a stunningly different, so Euro-look, so Italianate car, so luxury-oozing concept of a car, rather than on the un-American , overpriced dull sedans; mismanagement at its devious best, if only there were someone like George Mason, one man totally convinced that if an independent could survive against the Big Three (or the Big Two and Half in 1953-’54), no lookalike already available from a Chevy or a Dodge dealer could help. Cars like the Loewy Coupés or the Rambler could, but only Mason (and soon Romney) knew how to make good use of the occasion.
Regardless of how the Studebaker’s history evolved, it is certain that their ’53 coupés and hardtops were its best looking cars in years, maybe in decades, maybe ever. But the joint result of the work of Holden “Bob” Koto and Robert E. Bourke shows two interesting details already seen elsewhere: The first one, the sloped hood making the car ever so low, something Kaiser owners already saw as early as March 1950 (but general renderings and clays of the developing Studes show that since an early modeling stage the idea of a long low hood was very much present, maybe more derivative of a certain British sports car, or under the influence of some intriguing French prototypes like the Wimille, the Pahnard Dynavia or the Claveau); the second one, clearly, the roof shape. While Koto’s proposal was sharp but traditional, Bourke’s proposal offered an inverted C-pillar, and in his early rendition there was the idea of a long single piece of side window, very much like the second generation Camaro and Firebird. However, Bourke later said that Harold Vance, once he made clear that the car could enjoy an appearance on dealers’ showrooms, also told Bourke to modify the shape, for cost reasons.
The end result, however, looked every inch like a supremely beautiful creation from Pinin Farina, the Lancia Aurelia B51 Rosa d’Oro (Golden Rose), a one-off built on a long Aurelia B50 coachbuilders’ chassis in 1951, and showed at the Paris and London Salons. The following year, this sensuous low-slung car also won the Golden Rose first prize award by the Semaine De La Rose Concours d’Elegance in Geneve, hence the name of the car. There were only two other cars produced, and this seems strange considering how good was the result. However, the car was more elegant than sporty, and the general feeling was that of a boulevard cruiser rather than that of an intercontinental high speed GT, like the Lancia B20.
However, this early rendition of a personal luxury coupé incidentally seems like the legit car that should have taken well in consideration while the work to make the ’53 Studebakers a reality entered its final stages, and while it’s impossible to tell how Bourke was influenced by it, it is also easy to see that since their respective apparitions, both cars made quite a striking effect on some automotive journalists, so the press (or at least a part of it) was well aware of the analogies. It is also possible the contrary, of course, but I don’t think Pinin copied anything from South Bend. It is true that Pinin had been often watching with interest what happened on U.S. shores, but the Rosa d’Oro is also linked to some convincing novelties designed by Michelotti for Vignale, if there is need to know where the inverted C-pillar and the reversed trapezoidal-shaped rear quarter windows first appeared in Italy a convincing culprit could also be this talented duo. Speaking of press consciousness about the relative closeness between the two designs, go no further than on the June 1953 issue of Motor Trend, where there is a nice caption, inserted under a profile photo of our Rosa d’Oro, that reads “Compare This Italian Lancia With The Stock Studebaler Above;” the article is titled “Is The Studebaker Practical?” and is a piece about the test drive of a Commander Starlight (the one with posts), and his author is none other than The Automotive Authority in person, Walt Woron. If he said there was a resemblance between the two cars, there should be no need to say more; however, it is well known that the whiz kids working under Loewy Associates had banner years since mid-Forties in conjuring up ideas after ideas, and the idea of a low slung sportster of sort was long into development when PF offered his own idea of such a thing. But at the time, those were the trails to be paced, and men trained under Loewy, skilled enough to work on things like ’49 Fords, later on Austins and Rootes cars, then on Chryslers (to name only a few of the main cars that received the magic from some talents sooner or later found, hired, fired or exploited by Raymond into his own studio) could find formidable “competitors” also on this side of the Alps. And it wouldn’t be the last time.
In fact, when the need for a reworking of the Loewy coupés called for a more imposing look, dictated both by marketing ideas and public supposed desires towards a more “square-jawed” front end (and that’s true, we cannot entirely blame Studebakers execs for the immense amount of chrome found on ’55 Stude, a thing that makes the Speedster looks like it is a top model in dire need of an urgent orthodontic surgery), the result was once again something close to European efforts, in this case the mystical Mercedes grille. But are we really sure it was Mercedes-only inspired? The links between South Bend and Stuttgart are well known, especially in later years, but the heavily trapeze-shape jutting mouth of the Hawk could also bear some resemblance to another Lancia trademark, the so called Scudetto-shaped grille, and the idea of making the grille so separated from the main hood volume, although a link to the classic imposing radiators of Twenties and Thirties cars (Exner wasn’t apparently the only one enamored of similar designs ), also defied the then current ideas.
But a certain pair of Italian cars made clear that a protruding nose, or to be more precise, mouth, could result in an unusually aggressive stance: Enter the Scaglione-designed, Bertone-built Fiat Abarth 1500 and the Lancia PF 200 again. Sure, the general look of the ’56 Hawk is a mile away from them, but other ’56 American cars, as a whole, were a light year apart: the Hawk combined both Loewy’s studio own ideas (early rendering of the ’53s toyed with the bullet nose concept and its eventual derivations) and ideas seen on these two Italian cars, using an imposing, jutted air intake, heavy looking but still aggressive, a strangely nice concept of a non-integrated part in otherwise well integrated shapes and volumes.
This wouldn’t be the last time a Stude would show a projecting trapezoidal grille, but more curious is the fact that Lancia started to use a similarly conceived feature (albeit in a much more subdued and indeed truly elegant form) with the Flaminias, the Appia Pininfarina Coupés and Vignale Convertible. The lessons offered by PF with his initial PF 200 feature making good use of horizontal schemes (albeit in all honesty the initial ones seen on the PF 200 were more inclines toward ovoidal or oblong-shaped air intake), for a proposal of a Lancia with a less high and less imposing stem, apparently were reworked in the first use by Lancia of a differently-shaped grille for its front ends, quite a departure from the traditional Scudetto, last seen on Aurelias and second series Appia sedans. Of course, we must remember once again also the Florida II prototype, the first car to sport the almost perfectly rectangular new grille ever so slightly forward raked and protruded.
In 1959, the third generation Appia debuted, offering the latest variation of the newest Lancia family feeling in the way of the horizontal, slightly jutting rectangular grille, with fine egg-crate mesh and a bold “Lancia” sign inserted within a vestigial shield-like frame attached in the canter of the grille itself. In all honesty, the splendid cohesion seen on second-generation Appia was somewhat lost, with the new front theme difficult to be linked directly to the rest of the body (which was practically unaltered, but for slimmer fins and higher taillamps), but the new car was sufficiently good to record a remarkable success until an all-new car debuted four years later. Important to say that some coachbuilders (among them the small Monterosa firm, not related with Isotta 8C Monterosa) also predated the Lancia decision once the Flaminias and the Appia Coupés and Convertibles started to be seen on the road. However, the style adopted by the Appia III wasn’t the first of its kind seen around. There was yet another car wearing a trapezoidal grille proudly protruding from the front panel, and it was a compact and quite cute utility car similar to the one offered by Lancia.
That’s obviously the Lark, a car that sported the trapezoidal grille in a very distinctive fashion, enabling a car born out of dire necessity in just nine months, using six year old central structures of the old Loewy sedans, to appear both up-to-date and perfectly suited for the market needs, without necessarily bearing traces of the stylistic recent Studebaker woes; the grille evoked the Hawk models naturally, yet it was created following a path similar to the one already set by Lancia (and let’s not forget that other prestigious Italian models had similarly protruding noses, in this car we must look no further than at the already mentioned Ferrari 250s and 410s and the Maserati 3500 GTs): the idea of a protruding mouth surely helped Italian cars in reaching their ideals of aggressiveness, just like it helped South Bend’s compact to appear more important and more luxurious than what it really was. It is also interesting to notice that the Lark grille predates the one offered on the ’60 Valiant, and there are hints at the fact that some sort of sneaking preview of the Mopar product also prompted South Bend stylists to envisage such a front end. However, in my mind the Lark always conjure up ideas of an Americanized Lancia Appia, and for a while its concept was quite successful.
For a while, until Big Three compacts made their debuts and a reinvigorated Rambler offer put again Stude in trouble. The new dynamic S-P president, the perfectly suited for his purpose Sherwood Egbert, decided to stop the in-house restyling efforts done by Randy Faurot (which looked strangely European looking, in a way not unlike later Lancia Fulvia themselves, again an interesting conjecture). His decision was followed by his choice to call his friend Brooks Stevens for finding a suitable, fast and clearly meagerly financed solution to what was an already desperately needed restyling. The results, starting with the ’61 models, were indeed effective, and if nothing else, showed how good (or how well they could again be used, hidden under some new skin) the basic structure of the Studebaker cars were after all these model years. The grille and the global front look were bolder yet, this time tuned with the idea of offering Mercedes style for a fraction of the price (and that’s no casual choice, since the S-P Corporation was American importer for the Stuttgart cars; maybe it is strange to try to find some sort of heritage using an imported car instead of something of their own, but the Stude image was so tarnished that evoking the good old days likely could conjure up a loser image in the public opinion, even more than what was already perceived unofficially). The dual headlights set-up and the bolder grille were closer than ever to the Valiant’s also, but for a while it worked, and in the following 1962 and 1963 models, other simple yet effective details restyling helped further to improve the Lark, which now looked distinctly different from even the ’59 models, and totally unlike the ’53-’58 Stude models. This was in effect the final desire, but it came too late, too little as we know. One last gasp, and one more Lancia-related car was the final effort, and this came in fall 1963. The final Stude sedans , for lack of a better term, ended to be closer to a Turinese product rather than to a Stuttgart one, but that wasn’t bad in itself: clearly, at this point, nothing could’ve saved the oldest American name in vehicles production. Nothing.
But before seeing this last South Bend (soon to become a Hamilton) offer, we need to take a step back, a step which involves also another deadly Lark rival: the original Corvair.
One could think that the revolutionary styling of the original Corvair was in all likelihood its most convincing asset, and history shows that maybe it was so. Despite the success it endured, or more precisely because its success was not related to what really Chevy had hoped to be, no one in America dared to offer a rear-engined car for the masses until the arrival of the 1984 Fiero. However, one could also think that, thanks to the huge success the Corvair style had in Europe, almost a revelation of sort, practically every single new four door sedan in Germany, France, UK, Sweden and Italy (well, also Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union, considering some well known cars from Skodas and Moskvitch) was almost obliged to wear clothes similar to the ones penned by Detroit stylists for their little cute compact. In effect, taking a look at the long list of imitators, this seems almost a rule in the early-to-mid Sixties automotive world of compact class sedans, and not only in Europe but Japan too.
So, it seems legit that if there were exceptions, they were rarer than the proverbial hen’s teeth; well, not exactly, that’s not true, because if it’s ok that the Corvair was largely imitated, it is also good to know that it simply helped to wide open a door which was already disclosed, a door introducing to lines now showing far blockier and angular volumes, instead of the old customary bulbous and rounded ones. Also the general lines of many a contemporary Ford can be given credit for this, but the virtual absence of ornamentation, and the wise use of parallel character lines, the thin pillars and the “Vista”-styled roof devoid of its excesses always makes me feeling that the Corvair was the real star of this new trend.
So, despite the evidence that there were already examples of this fashion way before the Corvair intro, but still sporting chrome, or less glass, or fins, the clean simple soap-styled Chevy immediately set the pace for others, and others duly avoided fins, duly used more glass or even squarer roof lines, duly tried to thin the pillars and duly put headlights inside the fenders contours, instead of continuing to put them on the upper edges as had been done for the past two decades, and, as seen, Europe became a fecund territory for this kind of style. So, examples of very squared up cars soon sprouted in a few years, and the likes of NSU Prinzes, Hillman Imps, Fiat 1300/1500s, soon became quite familiar. The trend however, involved also cars apparently not so close to the Corvair. The best examples can be the Sinca 1000 and the Renault 8, but these two rear engined cars not only possessed the same basic drivetrain combo of the li’l Chevy, they also used some peculiar features of it, albeit not in the “showy” manner used by NSU or 1300/1500. Instead, they adopted the general blocky style, with vertical sides, and similarly squared-off ends, with the Simca adopting also the typical step-up set up of the Corvair for both its front and rear upper hoods edges. The resulting headlight and (in this case, fake) grille ensemble would become the Simca trademark for the next 14 years, gaining also appreciation from American Motors, which became to use something akin in 1966 Ramblers. The lines of the li’l Simca jewel were studied by an Italian genius, the late Mario Revelli De Beaumont already met by us a dozen times while exploring the fascinating world of reciprocal Italian-American links, this time because he was the stylistic consultant for the Nanterre firm; after all, the links with Mother Fiat were still strong in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and the mechanicals of the 1000 had a strong Italian derivative flavor.
It is so no surprise that the cute li’l Simca enjoyed a good success, being a creditable competitor for the R8, and enjoying wide success in Italy too, thanks to people buying it because they thought it was sort of Fiat missing link between the 600/850 and the 1100/1300/1500, an ante-litteram captive import. However, its role in our story is essentially the fact that from this time on, the stylistic lessons learned from simply duly “copying” the Corvair design could be perfected yet if they were diluted in an even simpler way, what the Simca 1000 did for the first time. So, enter the star of this chapter, the original Lancia Fulvia sedan, a car clearly close to both the Corvair details and to the Simca 1000 ideas, combining the best of both worlds and in a very personal way, for it is not easy to immediately think that the compact front wheel drive Lancia was styled very much in the same fashion set by the Chevy and by the Simca. What set the Italian car apart is the strangely aggressive-yet-elegant look, at least if seen with wise eyes, with a personal front end, unusual (for the time, but logical with a front wheel drive car) long front overhang, resulting also in a sort of “cab forward” giving peculiar proportions (in this respect similar also to the larger brethren Flavia, and the two French compacts, this alone being a distinctive enough trait to separate them from the original Corvair), a “character” line mimicking also the dihedral line seen on Flaminias and very much useful to mitigate the impression of an excessive body side heaviness, very personal rear, although not fully integrated with the rest of the car (with modern, horizontal, partially arrow-shaped lamps incidentally bringing to light again a famous Forties Buick detail), a luminous yet supremely square and tall roof, and very squared-up body sides. The rear end also had upper contours peculiarly shaped, giving an immediate flavor of personality to the car if seen from the tail. The global look, in effect, reminds those aforementioned Randy Faurot’s ill-fated Stude proposals for Lark heirs, but, most important of all, the same shape of the rear fenders’ upper edges and the chrome moldings running the entire lower edge of the deck lid had a Larkesque flavor; this was the trend of the day, however. All said, the general geometric elements seen on the Fulvia is the trapeze, and it is quite discernible since the first time one can look at the most elegant, yet diminutive grille (diminutive in the style, but not in the dimensions, it literally dominates the center of the stem). These were the years when trapezoidal grilles were all the rage at Lancia and Chrysler, and they always worked surprising well when carried in to define the cars’ personality. As we know, also Studebaker was able to use to good effect the trapezoidal scheme for the front air intake, but first let’s take a look at the Lancia.
First of all, while the Fulvia Coupé is more renowned for its cute sleek line, the fact that is comparable with a rather similar Fiat-Osca 1500 designed by Michelotti makes it less original than one could think. Also, the fact that both these two cars owe something to the original Corvair, at least in proportions, makes clear that against all odds, it was the Fulvia sedan that brought some new ideas to Lancia and to the Italian automotive world. Or, at least this is the impression that the Fulvia sedan made on my personal tastes.
It is difficult to think this car is a direct heir to the Appia, or it is somewhat related to the Flaminia, and also the general “new” look of the Flavia is somewhat left aside (“somewhat,” – clearly the Flavia and the new Fulvia were much closer together than, say an Appia with a Fulvia, or an Appia with a Flavia); thus, Piero Castagnero designed a “new” object, still linked to the all-Italian concept then en vogue of not-too-wide cars (the same Fiat 1300/1500s and the new Alfa Giulia followed the same suit), with good results all things considered. With hindsight, it is clear that the later lower, longer and far wider looking European cars of the late Sixties would appear irresistibly better than a Fulvia sedan, but all things considered, the results seen in this little flagship of the Italian compacts, equipped with the typically Lancia narrow V-4 cranking out 59 horses and offered with dual circuit four-wheel disc brakes also (not the kind of brakes one would expect from a car only 12 feet long) were far from being unattractive. Its only defect was a certain lack of zest, and a not so low fuel consumption, but further variants offered until the second series debut in 1969 (the 2C, the GT and the GTE) solved this problem.
It is so doubly curious the fact that in the same weeks the new Lancia was offered to the public eyes (1963 Geneva Salon), across the pond there were some stylists busy to give a very old but never tired body its last redesign, the fifth (or sixth? I lost count…) of a car that was surely mixed blessing for their creators: I am speaking about the Last Of The Studebakers, the ’64 and on cars, and surely one of the most surprising reworking of so old a body ever to be seen around the entire “automotive” world, sort of shoe-string budget masterpiece done by the shoe-string budget master, Brooks Stevens. Clearly , it should be only mere coincidence that both the Italian and the Indianan cars appear so much alike, after all Stevens was already busy developing this general kind of line when also Castagnero was completing his work, yet the similarities are there, and are neat and interesting to look at. After all, under some point of views, I could dare to say that the Fulvia looked like a sort of missing link between the original Lark and the ’64 versions…
The front ends, for example, with their neat inverted trapezoidal grille and dual round headlights, or the shape and proportions of the greenhouses, rear pillars (in this, both the Lancia and the Studebaker owes something to an obscure but nonetheless important Italian 1961 prototype, a Fiat 2100 built by Boneschi suing its knife-edged peculiar treatment of the time, a thing which deserves quite a few more words, and I will oblige this later) , not-so-raked windshields and flat side windows included, or again, the flat-sided bodies with just the minimum of ornamentation (the Lancia peculiar mid-side line, this time chromed, and ending in a wriggle, a neat touch to frame the stern panel also, is quite similar to the chrome molding used by Studes also). In effect, the term knife-edged is quite appropriate for both the Fulvias and these last Commanders and Daytonas. On the other hand, the rear ends are somewhat different, and in effect it is the only portion of the two autos being quite unlike, with the Lancia following the truncated tail trend (a thing already well exploited by the Alfa Giulia and partially by Lancia’s own Flavia sedan), while the Studes employed a new rear panel, with the metal pod hosting the lights attached to the upper trunk edges, but in both cars the rear lights are slim, horizontal affairs (with the one used on the Lancia also used on the pretty Coupé version).
Yet another curious analogy is seeing how the two offer a curious mix of European and American design regarding the respective interiors, and the dashboards especially: the one seen in the Indianan cars is neat and classy, and the dash offered full instrumentation set in three round dials (seemingly close to what was seen in the first postwar Loewy team Studes), with a clean and neat effect which could’ve come out of Turin, Milan or Modena; the one seen in the small Lancia, although typically Italian in the general layout (offering also reclinable bucket seats as standard, usually upholstered with the typically high quality Lancia cloth, also has a linear-look dash, with a neat and peculiar instrumentation, offering a rotating drum speedo. If this sounds familiar, it is because in the United States two marques were noted for adopting quite a similar concoction: the ’58 Edsel range, and the ’56-’58 Studebakers (the speedo was dubbed Cyclops Eye because of its position and shape ). However, while the Fulvia enjoyed a remarkable success, at least for a certain number of years, with its general lines lending also to the second generation ’67 Flavia sedan, the ’64 Studes were one-year wonders, because the neat and aggressive front end set up was in ’65 and ’66 abandoned for a more ordinary (although hardly a ugly one) single headlamps and rectangular grille ensemble. Despite this, the two cars were more akin than one could concede, because both weren’t able to stop the trend towards ruin of the respective builders. Studebaker’s ills were terminal by 1966, and the Hamilton plant quit building cars in that year (in December ’63, South Bend plant had already been put to a costly halt), while the financial feud between the Pesenti family, then owners of the Lancia, and other financial groups, forced the former to sell off the Lancia, the event that finally dictated its entry in the Fiat galaxy in 1969. The Pesenti family had acquired Lancia in the years between 1954 and 1958, and even then the Turinese firm hadn’t exactly coffins full of money, especially because of the glorious but unprofitable adventures that were the Formula 1 and Sport categories participations.
The Fulvias are considered the last true Lancias of them all because of their sound quality, often second to none in Europe and undisputedly the best in Italy, but what many forget to consider is the sheer fact that they could maintain such a highly revered quality because they weren’t built at a price, no matter how many of them could be sold (and in the late Sixties, the numbers were lower than sustainable level), and the cars could be considered as overbuilt, with very costly drivetrains and layouts solutions (similar troubles of cars being sold at a price too low to sustain their builders’ finances were afflicting BMC also, and in the Seventies Citroen suffered similar problems; let’s call it the Front Wheel Drive Curse, for almost all major European makers of puller cars suffered money troubles sooner or later, with the possible exception-maybe-of Saabs and Auto Union DKW, and of the planned-production Eastern Germany Trabant and Wartburg). These problems were similar to those endured by Studebaker, albeit for different reasons, but the break-even limit too much difficult to respect for both firms sent them to ruin in a similarly fast way: The difference is that Fiat saved Lancia, while in America nobody wanted to save a marque with an “orphan” reputation for too many years (and this was the era when the undoubtedly stronger AMC also was risking an equal fate; what’s more, also the theoretically unsinkable Mopar in the early Sixties had similar problems). The Fiat takeover was a logical one, since it was not only a matter of products, it was also a matter of convenience: Fiat found simpler and wiser taking the Lancia, so it could be used in the same manner Autobianchi had been used, with the bonus that Lancia continued to have the same role of an experimental and upmarket firm like its tradition demanded, and an image never achieved by Autobianchi, with a charisma the builder of Bianchina never had when its bigger models (the innovative Primula, and above all else, the ill-fated A111, all similar in size to the Fulvia) were on the market.
The ’69 debut of the Bianchina heir, the Autobianchi A112, the first proper European supermini hatchback, sealed the fate of Autobianchi as the Fiat Group division of the cheap and chic small models, while the Lancia continued to produce mid-priced, (with no further need for the already unsatisfactory bigger Autobianchi models), upper-mid priced and luxury cars like it did once, only this time exploiting the Fiat synergies. So, it is no surprise that for a while Lancias built since 1969 remained “pure” Lancias, although Lancistis are keen to see that the reputation began to be diluted, with the worst effect seen on the Fulvia’s heir, the Beta. As for the other Fulvia offerings, the Coupé was easily an astounding success, playing in this regard a role quite similar to the one of the original ’53 Studebaker Loewy coupés, while the Zagato model continued its role as the sporty, extravagant representative of the Fulvia family, just what the Avanti was.
I wanted to specify the Fulvia’s role, because this single family of cars was even closer to the Sixties Studebaker roster than everything else in Italy: a car officially classified as a compact, yet a luxury compact with sporty derivatives, and firmly priced in the highest ranks of the lower-mid priced segment (or, in European lingo, a step above the normal compacts, a step below the typical mid-priced cars offered with a 1.5 liter displacement). Even the similarly “small” engines set the Fulvia and the Studes apart in the automotive world. But the Fulvia may be the last link between Turin and South Bend when one considers the timing, but it wasn’t the most spectacular one: this honorable mention belongs to the Flaminia Loraymo/Avanti connections, and they are too obvious to be ignored here.
This outstanding automobile was conceived as a sort of rolling display of all the ideas Raymond Loewy and his faithful men could conceive starting from a given concept. In this respect, the ’57 BMW 507 was the spiritual forerunner of the Loraymo (the telegraphic address of his studio) and it is another car that did predict many a car innovation, together with the ’55 Jaguar XK 140 penned by Raymond himself and built in Italy by Boano.
In the case of the BMW, many features would appear on later aerodynamic GTs, and some later prototypes (Chevrolet Testudo, for example), while the location and shape of both the front and rear lights naturally would become pretty much common in the years to come in production cars. In the case of the Jag, it was born out of a proposal requested by Ferrari, and because apparently Pinin Farina, already set to be the preferred Prancing Horse carrozziere, went to know this and questioned about the feasibility of such an effort, the already began work was finished using the Jag mechanicals; while the electric shaver front would be never seen in such a radical way on production cars (unless one cannot see some conceptual resemblance between it and the front end of a certain contemporary family feeling used by a certain Japanese luxury firm), needless to say, many a later car (the PF Corvette Rondine, the production ’78 Corvette and all its more recent stablemates, just to name some by chance) would wear similarly shaped roof pillars to the ones of this Loewy’s exclusive Jaguar.
But when speaking of production cars, the link between the Loraymo and the Stude Avanti is impossible to forget, because among the cars of this Loewy’s trio, is surely the strongest one. The Avanti offered the rear quarters of the Loraymo – quite advanced an item indeed, with those ultramodern horizontal taillights and the smooth yet full of character volume, with more than a passing resemblance in the general shapes with that immortal masterpiece among really tiny autos that is the Moretti 750 Gran Sport – linked to a modified type of the roof adopted on the Lancia (in effect, the general effect of the full wraparound back window makes one thinking more about a 1960 Fiat 2100 Coupé by Ghia rather than to a Lancia…) and sporting also wheelcuts reminiscent of those adopted on the prototype BMW 507.
The most disconcerting part of the Loraymo was surely its front end, with the enormous bulging mouth (evidently, a reinterpretation of the PF-designed front then adopted by Lancias), sporting some features directly linked to the classic ox-yoke Packard grille…if this wasn’t so daring a touch, the front fenders suggested both the Loewy’s beloved Coke Bottle (if this touch wasn’t sufficiently visible from the rear three quarters) and all those Italian sports cars of the Fifties, the ones using similarly conceived metal for the brakes cooling purpose. Of course, the lessons taught by Pinin or Scaglione with their central grille enclosed by a robust frame acting as a proper bumper were also put to good use by Loewy himself, and surely the final effect is one of a strange and atypical car, maybe one of the first appearing more convincing from the rear than from the front without the need to use fins. Their complete absence, and the general look of the rear end clearly predates the Avanti. The dihedral line running through the entire side length was another link to the Flaminia (as we’ve seen, this was one of the most enduring stylistic touch offered to the automotive world by the Lancia flagship), and the general feeling of modernity sported by the Avanti was further enhanced by a long front overhang, something still rare to be seen in 1962 (but, interestingly, seen on front wheel drive cars made by Lancia, the Flavia and the soon to be introduced Fulvia). The nice painting also helped a lot to make the car’s sculpted lines even more seductive, albeit the general front end look appears too much heavy-handed: however, the suspended pods housing the fog lights were a touch not so uncommon, for in those very same days it was offered to the public by Imperials (the Lancia was penned in 1959, and brought to the 1960 Paris Salon, more or less while the ’61 Imperials had their styling defined and were debuting, respectively), and the idea of offering such opened-up front fenders to help brakes cooling (or at least, I have the idea this was their first and foremost raison d’etre) was already seen in much more outrageous and far less subdued form on the Motorama Buick Wildcat II.
This car was the creation of Rocco Motto, another one of those exceptionally talented Italian craftsmen offering their skills to help create advanced and/or spectacular pieces of machinery, as was the case with this Lancia. The aluminum-bodied car, thanks also to the tuned-up mechanicals (the engine, still a 2.5 liter V-6, offered 150 horses thanks to the adoption of a Nardi tuning kit, fed by three two barrels carbs and a special manifold) and even more so thanks to the good aerodynamic (the roof-mounted spoiler was another interesting item, soon to be seen on many a U.S. wagon, but famous for Italians because it is the forerunner of the same type adopted on the Definitive Beast, the Stratos) is good for 120 miles per hour and more than adequate acceleration for such a large car (it was built using the standard 108’’ Flaminia Coupé pan).
The interior was (and indeed it still is , because the car luckily still exists and in pretty nice shape too) luxuriously appointed, with a sporty dash, simple yet elegant (even less fussy than the standard item, if one should ever think the Flaminia dash was fussy) and the trunk was accessible only from the interior (just like another American sports car in the nearby future would begin to offer…). One last interesting item: the ever-so-slightly vestigial rear fenders protuberance, giving the idea of hinted fins, remained on the Avanti, but were also studied by Castagnero while working out the definitive styling touches for the Fulvia: in the case of the sedan, they were enhanced by the uprising chrome molding, but it is a good bet that the initial idea came from the Flaminia Loraymo. Last but not least, the Loraymo front fenders solutions and front grille traits would be applied a pair of years later on the famous Plymouth Valiant Asimmetrica and the related coupé model named Valiant St. Regis ( more elegant and convincing by far). While the Asimmetrica was considered an evolution of the XNR, it is interesting to see a certain similarity with the Lancia by Loewy. Apparently, protruding huge and wide grilles with thick chrome moldings were all the rage in certain design studios. Who thought this solution before whom is another good question.
So, the links between South Bend and Turin should appear plenty enough and interesting, but, as already anticipated, we also need to see that both firms had a long, glorious and honored history as truck producers too, with many innovations brought by the two makers in their respective markets and in their respective fields. Coincidence again? If so, Studebaker and Lancia surely appear as some brothers separated at birth. Strange to think about this, yet their automotive history is very much full of similar philosophies, and similar happenings. I hope that Lancia can also last longer than South Bend’s finest, otherwise the concept of being the Italian Studebaker would come to a full circle, with nothing more to show. It would be a pity.