Tuesday, July 22, 2014



"In the Oldsmobile Super '88' are the marks of motion  . . .  vigorous lines that set the stage for masterful 'Rocket' performance. It's the new 'Go-Ahead' look! See it in the panoramic windshield, new hooded headlights — in the sweep-cut lines of fender and body, in pure-luxury interiors  . . .  in fact, everywhere!"

Argentina-built Peugeot 405, to the right, was imported to Cuba in considerable numbers and is very popular among the few that can afford a "modern" private car in Cuba. Here, it's regarded as a luxurious, roomy automobile, perfectly suited to cover long distances between Havana and the provinces. Yet, beside a mighty 1955 Oldsmobile, it looks pretty small.

Oldsmobile had become GM's "performance division" with the introduction of the "Rocket" V-8 engine in 1949. This modern powerplant completely changed the game and was triggering the competition for ever more horsepower among America's car manufacturers. Ahead of the times, especially the Super "88" was truly a blueprint for early muscle cars: it combined the big engine of Oldsmobile's top model "98" with the lighter body of the base model. Others should get inspired by the success of this recipe: within the GM organization, notably Buick's Century, and Pontiac's Bonneville became successful copycats.

Interestingly though, Oldsmobile's styling never truly embodied the brand's focus on superior mechanical performance. Instead, it remained rather ostentatious throughout the 1950s. Loads of chrome and voluptuous shapes were typical earmarks of an Oldsmobile of that time. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014



„America demanded it! Rambler built it! The top-economy American-built station wagon. Seats 5 big people in roomy comfort  . . .  has lots of cargo space for their gear and luggage. You get more miles per gallon in a car that parks anywhere, has the shortest turning radius in America. The Rambler American is available with either fully automatic, standard or overdrive transmissions.“

It was truly opportune timing when AMC chairman George W. Romney decided to launch the retired Nash Rambler again as an „all-new“ car for 1958. We covered the development of the Rambler American here.

With the new Rambler American, AMC had a befitting answer to the changing demands of customers, who turned their attention to thrifty and economic cars in response to the recession of 1957-1958. The new breed of compact cars, offered by the "independents", soon sold like hotcakes and caught the "Big Three" and their prevalent "bigger-is-better" strategy completely by surprise.

While AMC's Rambler was positioned to offer customers an alternative to the American fullsize cars, the Rambler American should compete in the lowest price range against the increasing number of small import cars, and thus had to be really cheap. Yet, despite being poorly equipped, it sold well. Earlier spartan compact cars had failed miserably in the market, but austerity obviously wasn't an issue for Rambler American buyers. 30,640 Rambler American were sold in 1958. The sales numbers nearly tripled in 1959, when the station wagon was added to the lineup. This body style quickly became popular, accounting for more than a third of Rambler American sales. In Cuba, however, the station wagon remains a rare sight: here, the customers apparently thought and bought much more conservative.

Saturday, July 5, 2014



"Here's the car that flings the hottest challenge on the American Road — shows 'em all what the word 'new' really means! No mere face-lift here. This 1952 Mercury is new in beauty, new in every way that counts. Take the driver seat, and look around. Eyes front — the new Interceptor Instrument Panel! Eyes forward — a sure view down front, to the corners of the fenders! Eyes down — new Floor-Free brake pedal. And all around you, Space-Planned Interiors with up to 17% more visibility. Sound easy to take? Wait 'til you hear the muted music of Mercury's advanced V-8 engine. And see what this great car can do! You've got a heap of pleasure coming up!"

One of just 5,261 built, this Mercury Monterey convertible sports a nice yellow hue, reminiscent of the factory "Vassar Yellow" paint, while whitewall tires add a touch of 1950s glamour to it.

With these 1952 models arrived a completely new styling at Mercury. The cars looked much leaner than their predecessors, and albeit now being based on an elongated Ford bodyshell, they fortunately kept their visual likeness to Lincoln, thus offering justification for their price difference to a common Ford. 

Our pictured Mercury and its owner, Gerardo, are members of Havana's renown "Escudería A lo Cubano". This association of vintage car enthusiasts exists since 2003, but just recently, the club receives the deserved attention and necessary international sponsorship. Gerardo explains the membership implications: "Authenticity of our cars is very important to us. But a lo cubano, in a Cuban way, of course, as we don't have easy access to spare parts. We try to keep our cars as original as we can afford to. My Mercury, like many of the club's cars, runs with its factory V-8 engine, which is pretty expensive. Hence, I try to get more economy out of the V-8 by making the carburetor and fuel tubes smaller."

"Keeping this car in an authentic shape is very costly", adds Gerardo. "One whitewall tire, for example, sets me back 150 convertible Pesos, which equals the same amount in Yanquí Dollars. That's not counting the import duties at Cuban customs, as these wheels come from Miami. At the other hand, I do good business with the the nostalgia of tourists, by offering them tours around the city. One hour in my Mercury costs 35 Dollars, a decent price for them, but very good money here in Cuba."

Friday, June 27, 2014



"Its distinctive styling goes far beyond just pleasing the eye. Here's design that flows naturally from advanced engineering  . . .  to fit form and function  . . .  to offer a great New Plymouth that, inside and out, is better in every way!"

Aside from the nice patina, this Plymouth DeLuxe from Havana still looks pretty much like when delivered 65 years ago. The classic car scene in the US would certainly call this car a "survivor": all trim is in its place and there's no sign of the fancy tuning attempts that you can witness on so many other vintage Cuban cars. Well, looks can be deceiving, but we like to believe that underneath the patina there is a well-kept original car waiting.

Like all other Chrysler divisions, Plymouth presented its first all-new postwar design in early 1949. When these cars were devised in the mid-40s, World War II had just come to end and civil car production resumed. With no supply over the last few years, customers were buying literally anything on wheels. Rather than good looks, practicability and reliability were the major buying reasons. In these disciplines, the new 1949 Plymouth certainly delivered spot-on. The cars were well-built, comfortable and offered ample interior space. But, as Plymouth soon should discover badly, in 1949, the automotive world had already changed.

Now, the own car increasingly began to become a personal statement, and buyers were looking for styling and brand image in their new automobiles. More than anyone else, GM hit the sweet spot, as all of its divisions were churning out stylish automotive sculptures. "Chrome and glamour" was the name of the new game, and these days, Harley Earl and his designers clearly were setting the trends in car styling.  Surprisingly enough, customers did accept little compromises. Tight headroom for the rear passengers? No problem, sir! Instrument gauges difficult to read? But it looks so marvelous, buddy!

In this climate, the "Keller Boxes", as Chrysler's offerings soon were dubbed, had a hard time. They sure were high-quality cars, but the aura of progress was severely missing. Even a 1949 Ford looked more modern in comparison. Many customers bought elsewhere, and Plymouth could sell only half as many cars as with the outdated 1948 lineup. It should take six more years before Chrysler would finally catch up and take the lead in American car styling.

Monday, June 9, 2014



"The Lincoln Cosmopolitan Sport Sedan for 6 big people is luxury itself. Long and low–to–the–road  . . .  with a broad, breath-taking silhouette that forecasts the room-to-spare interior."

Very few of those Cubans who were in the game for a representative car in the early 50s, would have chosen the Lincoln Cosmopolitan. With its subtle and elegant lines, the Cosmopolitan was a car for the old money, and as such perhaps a bit too understated for the taste of Cuba's prospering show-off society. At the end of the day, a car was still a high achievement here, and the ones who could afford such a luxurious automobile, certainly liked to flaunt their acquisitions. For that purpose, there were flashier cars available: Cadillac or Packard, with similar prestige, offered fancier looking models. Even from Lincoln you could buy the more eye-catching Lincoln Sport Sedan for less money. This, we think, explains why you hardly ever meet one of the majestic Lincoln Cosmopolitan on cuban roads.

It remains a mystery why Lincoln, of all things, called the Cosmopolitan a Sport Sedan. Although the car was adequately motorized, it was anything but agile, and hampered by its vast dimensions and heavy weight. It clearly was made for the straight, rather than the twisty road. We think, the name Sport Sedan should imply a youthfulness that wasn't there, neither in the styling nor in the purpose of this Lincoln, and thus, it was a complete marketing nonsense.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014



"One of those rare cars that you appreciate more as each minute goes by . . .", concluded a period road test about the Fiat 1200 TV Spider.

Notwithstanding the dominance of mass products from Detroit, Cuba's roads always had their share of exotic cars. Especially in and around Havana, you'll find a surprising number of small sports cars from Europe. These cars clearly were the "boy's toys", purchased as the second or third car, and driven purely for fun, rather than necessity.

Among these sports cars, one tiny Fiat model seems to have enjoyed a certain popularity, as you can witness here and there (thanks, Caristas). In 1953, Fabio Luigi Rapi, design director of Fiat's "Carozzerie Speciali" department, began working on a small roadster that should become the Fiat 1100 TV Trasformabile, presented in 1955. On our battered example, there's not much left of it, but the design of the Fiat was noticeably influenced by American design trends of the time, such as a panoramic windshield or the vertical chrome strip on the rear fenders that resembled a Cadillac styling theme. Even swiveling seats to facilitate entry and egress were installed. Years later, they should appear on American cars, too. Just the proportions of the Fiat and its forward-leaning stance were a bit too odd: even by European standards, this thing was too tiny to look elegant. In the flesh, it truly looks like a toy, rather than a serious sportscar.

Our pictured Fiat 1200 TV Spider was built in 1957. Visually, there were only minor modifications to the predecessor, but under the hood, a new 1221ccm engine now delivered more torque than the anemic engine of the Fiat 1100 TV. This revision also featured a ribbon speedometer, instead of circular instruments. It wasn't a very sporty addition, but certainly in tune with the time's taste. 

Among collectors outside Cuba, the tiny Fiat Trasformabile today commands prices that by far exceed its size. Rather than its questionable beauty, it's certainly the rarity that attracts the car enthusiasts worldwide: altogether, only 3,393 were built between 1955 and 1959.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014



"America's First Family of Fine Cars offers for 1953, not only the finest engineered, but also, the most beautiful Chryslers ever designed. And it is this rare combination of fine engineering and exquisite beauty that makes the Chryslers the finest cars America has yet produced."

The indicator light pods suggest that this pretty battered looking Chrysler from Sancti Spiritus is a 6-cylinder powered Windsor Deluxe Newport. You won't find many Chrysler cars of that period on Cuban roads and among them, hardly ever you'll find a Newport 2-door hardtop.

Regrettably for the company, the conservatively styled Chryslers of that era weren't very popular. Just about 170.000 Chrysler left the factory in 1953. Put it into perspective: in the same year, 488.805 Buicks, 341.264 Oldsmobiles, and a whopping 1.1 million Chevrolets, including 300 Corvettes, were produced. Chrysler was a profitable company, but the big business clearly belonged to GM and Ford.

This sure wasn't the fault of Chrysler's engineers, as Chrysler engineering used to be the envy of the whole industry: the newly launched "Hemi" V-8 engine with its hemispherical combustion chambers, for instance, made the Windsor's sister model Chrysler 300 the most powerful American car of the time. In the quality department, too, Chrysler continuously excelled with a solid and long lasting construction. Yet, in a time when fancy styling ruled over quality, strong inner values alone weren't a good argument to win over prospective customers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014



"New, all-new from the ground up! Pontiac again for '55 steps out ahead  . . .  far ahead with cars entirely new and revolutionary in power and beauty! Cars so dynamic in every phase of design and performance they'll be definitely the car that you'll want to own!"

All-new for 1955, the Pontiac shared its corporate "A-body" and most of its mechanicals with Chevrolet. Yet, Pontiac's chief designer Paul Gillan and his team managed to give the car a much more glamorous look than its budget counterpart from Chevrolet. Part of the effect was achieved by creating boxier looking front and rear ends, and a smart horizontal division of the two-tone color schemes which emphasized the car's length. The biggest improvement, anyway, happened under the surface: new V-8 engines meant much more punch than in the previous years.

This generation of Pontiac cars marks an interesting transitory period between the stuffy "old" Pontiac and the new performance image that was instilled since Semon E. Knudsen became head of the Pontiac division. The 1955 and 1956 Pontiacs still feature loads of the typical chrome treatment that should distinguish them from the similarly constructed Chevrolets and justify Pontiac's higher price tag. In 1957, a different picture: now the Chevrolet had become the chrome-laden, glamorous car while the Pontiac lost much of its glimmer and became a decidedly cleaner looking car, perfectly embodying the division's new "purposeful" performance image. 

Our pictured Pontiac Star Chief Convertible is quite a celebrity in Havana. Although its owner, Jorge, usually likes to pilot the car himself, his Pontiac had already some illustrious guests behind its steering wheel. Formula One driver David Coulthard, in example, drove the car when participating in a classic car rally (video here), and American motor journalists choose it as their drive of choice for an interesting, albeit quite lengthy reportage on Cuba's automotive landscape. Most of their time, however, Jorge and his Pontiac spend providing adequate transportation for "fiestas de quince" or weddings. Solvent tourists are frequent and very welcome guests in the Pontiac, too. And honestly, who could easily reject the invitation to cruise along in such a stately looking car?

Sunday, April 27, 2014



"Famed designer Raymond Loewy has complimented the good taste of every Studebaker owner by styling these beautiful new 1941 Studebakers to perfection. Studebaker's new slip-stream bodies of advanced torpedo are longer, wider, lower and roomier. The famous speed planes of the stratosphere were their inspiration. You've never seen cars so expressive of movement — so smoothly contoured — so thrillingly distinctive in every line."

Who wouldn't know Raymond Loewy in the America of the 1940s? Throughout the 1930s, he had made a name for himself as the industrial designer that turned many mediocre products into best-sellers by design. Being as good in self-promotion as he was as a designer, he quickly became the enfant terrible of American industrial design, and one of the protagonists of the influential "Streamline Moderne".

Studebaker commissioned the design of their 1938 models to Loewy. Based on the tremendous success of these cars, Loewy Associates became Studebaker's only design contractor. Studebaker's advertisers, of course, loved to credit Raymond Loewy as the designer of their cars, capitalizing on its famous name. But, as so often in design history, he wouldn't draw a single line for the design of the 1941 Studebakers. It was actually the young Virgil Exner, who oversaw their design development.

Exner was leading Loewy's Studebaker operations since he got hired away from GM in 1938. Yet, the fruitful collaboration between the young design talent and the experienced promoter should come to a sudden end when designing the Studebakers for 1947 and 1948: Roy Cole, Vice President of Engineering, had encouraged Exner to develop an own competing design proposal without Loewy's consent. Consequently, Loewy fired Exner in June 1945, when he discovered the insubordination. Cole hired him the same day as Studebaker's first styling chief, making Exner and Loewy direct competitors. Exner's proposal, unsurprisingly, was selected for production.

Exner should move on to Chrysler in 1948 where he'd become styling director in 1953, and was responsible for the stunning "Forward Look" cars that swept Chrysler to the top of American car styling in the latter 50s.

Rewind to 1941, the Studebaker Commander was an remarkable car that exudes a lot of Exner's aesthetic philosophy. Compared to other cars of this vintage, the Studebaker sits really low on the tarmac and sports a rakish, yet elegant look. Its slanted windshield is unusually wide and together with the slim and straight A-posts, it already hints at more trapezoid cabin proportions that should become common industry-wide only some years later.

Saturday, April 19, 2014



"Newport's surprisingly low price has caused thousands of smart car buyers to move up to Chrysler. And because Chrysler builds full-size cars only, your new car investment is fully protected. No small car steals the thunder from the Chrysler name — or the pride you'll take in owning one!"

Here's a car that doesn't seem to fit quite well into Cuba's automotive landscape: in 1962, the U.S. trade embargo came into full effect and car imports from Detroit went down to quasi zero. So, what is a Chrysler from 1962 doing here? Nelson, the owner of this Chrysler Newport from Cardenas, knows the answer: "This was one of four cars used by the Canadian embassy in Havana. At one point in time, the cars were donated to the church and served there for long years. Somehow, my family later got into possession of this Chrysler." We can only speculate what "somehow" means.

Technically, the 1962 Chryslers were quite advanced cars. All fullsize Chryslers had been adopting a modern unibody structure in 1960, while the main competitors still used a classic body-on-frame construction. Too bad, that the modern engineering wasn't reflected in the design, as Chrysler styling perseverated in the 1950s for too long. Large tailfins and excessive chrome detailing which the rest of the industry had already abandoned, remained a Chrysler identifier through 1961. Perhaps, for just a little too long Chrysler was hoping to ride the wave of success that they had enjoyed with the first and second generation of Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" cars. 

Adding insult to injury, wrong decisions of Chrysler's brass should severely hamper progress. Chrysler design always had had its up and downs. But at the dawn of the 1960s, Chrysler was sailing through really rough waters, and the 1962 models are a testimony of these times. When their development was under way, William C. Newberg became Chrysler's new Vice President. 64 days later, he should already be dismissed, when evidence surfaced that he had financial interests in several Chrysler suppliers. Yet, these 64 days were long enough to cause enormous damage, because he had ordered a massive downsizing of Plymouth and Dodge models, that were already heading for production. In the following "crash-course", Chrysler designers literally worked their butts off in shifts around the clock, to minimize the production delay and to adjust the designs to the demanded proportions. Yet, the final result was less than convincing to say the least. Chrysler's design chief Virgil Exner was the only one to raise open criticism to the board. Ironically, he should become the scapegoat, being held responsible and fired in late 1961 when it became evident that these downsized cars wouldn't sell.

The styling of the fullsize Chryslers, luckily, suffered less from the chaos. For 1962, these models simply kept the front end of the previous model year, showing the same gaping grille and canted headlights. The large tailfins, a leftover of earlier "Forward Look" styling, were axed and replaced by a clean and boxy rear end. And, most importantly, these cars retained their good proportions since they didn't get downsized. Only the "Astradome Instrument Panel" with its big circular speedometer and lavishly applied brightwork still exudes an aura of the 1950s.

Monday, April 14, 2014



"Now an American favorite, too! THEY'RE  IMPORTED, compact and thrifty! English Ford Line cars are a joy to drive, a pleasure to park. They cost hundreds less than most new cars. And you drive them for pennies  . . .  up to 35 miles per gallon! THEY'RE FROM FORD, a name you can depend on. Every American knows that Ford gives value  . . .  the most car for the money. That's true of the English Ford Line, too. Built in England's largest, most modern auto plant, with Ford mass-production know-how."

Pictured here, a Ford that essentially was designed twice. In its first incarnation, it should become the Ford Vedette, to be built by Ford's French subsidiary. Ford's stylists in Dearborn began working on the Vedette in spring 1953. Their styling proposal was further refined and engineered by Ford's German branch. But then, the French plant and the almost production-ready Ford were altogether sold to Simca, and became the successful Vedette which bowed in late 1954.

Soon, Ford of England realized, that a car of this exact size would be a perfect successor of the Ford Zephyr Mark I, that was produced in the UK since 1951. So, British designers under chief stylist Colin Neale began designing an eye-pleasing trio of Fords, to be launched in 1956. The lineup spawned three very similar cars: the entry level Consul, powered by a 4-cylinder engine, the 6-cylinder Zephyr and the better appointed Zodiac, which soon should be dubbed "The Three Graces". In their styling and dimensions, these models kept bearing a strong resemblance to the earlier French design.

The Zephyr and its siblings were the biggest Ford models that you could buy in Europe. Beside an American Ford, however, they look truly compact. And exactly for this reason, the "Three Graces" should become so successful on American shores: the "Big Three" had completely missed the boat when "compact" cars became extremely popular in the latter 50s. To have something to offer, Ford intensified the Import of the "English Ford Line cars". On both sides of the Atlantic, these Fords became a tremendous commercial success, and consequently, Ford's UK production doubled between 1954 and 1958. Today in Cuba, not surprisingly, you still see quite many examples of the "Three Graces".

Sunday, March 23, 2014



"An eye-corner glance tells you that no car — not even one costing far more — has more perfect line and grace than a '52 Ford. And then, close up, you find that every detail reveals the kind of skilled workmanship that only comes from expert hands. But there's something else, and this you've got to feel: Ford 'can do'. It's what comes from the most powerful engine in its field — 110 high-compression horsepower — V-8 style! It's the extra dividend of comfort assured by Ford's own Automatic Ride Control  . . .  the easy passage over roughest roads, the level rounding of curves. And it's the freedom from work, for Fordomatic takes over the shifting. You guide a Ford from an uncluttered cockpit as wide as a sofa. And 'guide' is the word. That's Ford 'can do'  . . .  and for the fun of a real heart-warming experience, please 'Test-Drive' it today!"

Witness design evolution the Ford way: the very successful 1949 Ford sported a characteristic central spinner in its front grille. This styling feature was carried through the various model years: in 1951, a second spinner was added, and for 1952, Ford sported no less than three circular spinners up front. "More is better", might have been the credo at Ford's styling studio, and accordingly, the copywriters texted: "New Wider Grille, with air-scoop design, gives a massive front-end appearance  . . .  maintains unmistakable Ford identification."

In retrospective, the Ford looks decidedly more modern than its competitors. Slab-sided body and an upright cabin with flat roof were design elements that would prevail through the next decades. Yet, in the early 50s, customers were clearly drawn to the flashier, ostentatious Chevrolets. In direct comparison, they looked much more voluptuous and sculptural, and still alluded to a previous era of automotive design. Yet, with their abundant chrome trim, they just looked more "glamorous", too. And thus, perhaps more befitting to the increasingly materialistic lifestyle which postwar America had developed after years of wartime austerity.

Saturday, March 15, 2014



"Twice as rigid, twice as safe! American Motors' exclusive Double Strength Single Unit car construction is all-welded, rattleproof — with twice the torsional strength of bodies bolted to separate chassis frames in all other cars. You're protected all around by box-section steel girders — makes Hudson a great trade-in value!"

Not often do you come across a Hudson in Cuba. Just 367 Hudson Wasp were exported worldwide in 1955, and seeing one of them in Havana's Miramar district, definitely made our day.

Hudson was a rather small, but influential player in the automotive industry, as it broke new grounds with the unibody construction of its famous "Step-Down" Hudsons. These postwar models became quite legendary as they appealed to both, discerning customers and motorsport enthusiasts, because of their superior handling, due to a stiffer and lighter unibody construction and a lower center of gravity. From 1952 through 1954, these Hudsons could dominate America's NASCAR racing events.

The downside of the unibody design was a very limited potential for body changes. It didn't matter in the late 1940s, when the American car market was still a seller's market and everyone made good business. But already in the early 1950s, the "Big Three" began to push for extensive yearly styling changes, and the customers became so much used to an annual "all-new" look of their cars, that the Hudsons soon looked very, very dated. Sales plummeted severely. On top of that, the costly development of the ill-fated compact Hudson Jet ate up most of Hudson's cash reserves. Consequently, Hudson had to merge with Nash to form American Motors in early 1954. As a stipulation for this merger, all original Hudson models were dropped, and thus, the "all-new" 1955 Hudsons should become merely badge engineered Nash cars. Designed by Ken Samples under supervision of Nash styling chief Ed Anderson, these Hudsons looked actually pretty good: an formal egg-crate grille and the Nash body with its wide wraparound windshield made the cars look pretty stately. Even the mid-level Wasp, despite running on a shorter wheelbase, looked well-proportioned and decent. But good looks weren't enough for Hudson's fan base. The customers didn't buy into the pretense and rejected these disguised, slouchy Nash cars, which they soon derisively nicknamed "Hashes". In an attempt to make them more individual, Ed Anderson and his team restyled the Hudson once again for 1956. The result was too garish for most, even by the time's standards. Customers now completely ignored the brand, and in 1957 Hudson and Nash were given up, leaving Rambler as AMC's remaining make.

There's a certain irony in the fact that the 1955 Hudson still sported an unibody construction, albeit inherited from Nash. Had they had the choice, Hudson engineers would certainly have dismissed the Nash body as being too heavy and generally inferior.

Monday, March 10, 2014



"Opel der Zuverlässige."

"Opel the reliable"
, truly is a befitting slogan for the 1953-1956 Olympia Rekord. At that time in postwar Germany, Opel was what marketing people today would call a "premium brand". These cars weren't cheap, and certainly not for everyone.

Presented in March 1953, the Olympia Rekord was the first all-new postwar Opel. As it should become common practice for the next Opel generations as well, the car was designed in Detroit by Opel's mother company GM. Opel's German designers merely added "Opelness" to details of the clay models that arrived from Detroit. Hence, the Opel almost looked like Harley Earl's stylists had shrunken a 1953 Chevrolet, which wasn't bad at all, because GM styling in these years generally was considered as being ultra modern. Upon its presentation, Opel chief Edward D. Zdunek even praised the new Opel a "German Chevrolet", which at that time certainly was a positive connotation.

Yet for most Germans, the fashionable Opel was not just too expensive, but also a bit too ostentatious. The country was still recovering from the devastation of World War II and personal mobility was all but common. For the few solvent middle class buyers who could afford the new Opel, it still was a huge investment. That said, the fashion of yearly facelifts, "imported" from Detroit, confused many customers who had rather wished for a stable value in their car. According to Edward D. Zdunek, these facelifts should give customers the opportunity of "social differentiation", but in fact, they were meant as an instrument to stimulate new car sales. What worked well in the U.S., however, wouldn't work in Europe, because people simply didn’t have the money for frequent new car acquisitions.

But at least technically, the Opel Record excelled with stable value: a solid unibody construction and reliable engines meant very few unexpected stops at the garage. Somehow, the little Opel truly exuded new-found "German virtues" of thriftiness and zeal, which made the car very popular outside of Germany, too: soon, the Opel had earned an excellent reputation for being very reliable. In Cuba you'll find quite a few Opel Rekord. Most were shipped disassembled in boxes from Germany as "CKD kits" and, after assembly in Cuba, distributed through GM's Cuban Buick dealer network.

Saturday, March 1, 2014



"It's a pleasure to remind you that this stunning new 1941 Plymouth — so beautiful, so long, wide, low-swung — is a low-priced car! Inside, you'll find glamorous new Fasion-Tone Interior — a miracle in color, fabric, appointments. And you'll discover a new delight in Plymouth's new 4-way Step-Up in  Performance  . . .  giving you new mastery of hills and traffic! And, for 1941, Plymouth announces Powermatic Shifting  . . .  a new Oil-Bath Air Cleaner that adds to engine life and economy  . . .  new Engine Bearings which are 2 to 3 times longer-lived  . . .  new Ignition Protection to assure fast, easy starts! See and drive this Big Beauty today at your nearby Plymouth dealer."

This 1941 Plymouth from Havana exudes the aura of a time when the shape of American automobiles gradually evolved from engineered machinery to highly stylized moving objects. By the 1930s, all American car manufacturers had realized the increasing importance of car styling as a decision factor for new car purchases. Until then, car styling had largely been the business of engineers, with freelance artists and coachbuilders infusing them styling themes. Thus, of course, many interesting ideas were overruled by the practical approach of engineering towards car design.

GM would set a new trend in 1927 with the creation of the first corporate "Art and Color Section", directed by Harley Earl. Slowly but surely, all other manufacturers followed suit. In 1930, Raymond H. Dietrich became the first head of the newly established Chrysler Styling department. 

While Harley Earl at GM quickly began trimming the whole company towards obeying the demands of the styling department, engineers remained dominant at Chrysler. Naturally, the new focus on car styling caused much friction and often open confrontation between the corporate departments. Over one of these fights, Ray Dietrich was ousted in 1940, and Robert Cadwallader, much less belligerent than Dietrich, inherited the chief designer's position, becoming responsible for the postwar Mopar lineup.

Yet, before leaving Chrysler, Dietrich had caused quite a sensation with the decent looking Plymouth for 1939. As one novelty, this car featured a front grille with a strong emphasis on horizontal lines. Plymouth should retain that treatment over the next ten years. Thus, our pictured 1941 Plymouth is the famous exception to the rule, as this year the "typical" Plymouth front look was abandoned for something much more fashionable: a new heart-shaped front grille and gimmicky "Speedlines" at the fenders should impart a certain feeling of motion. Suddenly, the rather sensible Plymouth looked almost better than a Buick or Chevrolet, which themselves were considered cutting-edge designs. Customers liked these details and honored the fresh design with a massive demand: the annual production jumped from around 430.000 to just over 522.000 cars.

Thursday, February 20, 2014



"Please! This Triumph is not a sports car. This is the new Triumph 2000, the family-size Triumph. But most 2000 owners insist it's a four-door, 5-passenger sports car. After all, they argue, only a sports car offers accurate rack-and-pinion steering. Four forward synchromesh gears. Bump-smoothing, 4-wheel independent suspension. Dependable power-assisted disc brakes. (They do have a point here. Because not even most higher-priced sedans offer such standard equipment.)"

Fast-forward through some more tech talk, this contemporary British ad finishes with a nice twist: "As a leading manufacturer of real sports cars, we find this misconception quite embarrassing. So, if you buy the family-size Triumph 2000 — please! Don't call it a sports car. No matter what it tells you."

Our pictured Triumph 2000 lives in Havana's Vedado district, near the famous "Acapulco" art decó fuel station and cinema. There are quite a few English cars around in Cuba, yet this one stands out, because you typically see only Russian cars of this vintage on the island. So, how did the Triumph arrive on Cuban shores? The owner tells us the story: "This car was brought to Cuba by a Sopranista from Bulgaria. I worked together with her for a long time. In 1982, I bought the Triumph from her when she got divorced and finally went back to her country."

Codenamed "Project Zebu", the development of the Triumph 2000 dates back to 1957. English Standard-Triumph, one of the various British car conglomerates, looked for a successor of their "Standard Vanguard" mid-size sedan. Amidst the development, Project Zebu came to an halt and then began again, now as a Triumph. Technically, the new project was quite ambitious, sporting all-independent suspension and a modern unibody construction. The production model bowed at the 1963 London Motor Show as the Triumph 2000, the name hinting at the displacement of its 6-cylinder engine. 

According to the owner, this engine had its advantages: "The Triumph had an inline 6-cylinder engine with two independent carburetors. When one carburetor failed, I could still reach home on three cylinders, which was perfect, as they broke quite often. These were small carburetors, similar to the ones of a motorcycle, and when they finally gave in, I replaced them with ones from a Russian "Jupiter" motorcycle. The only problem was that these were even smaller, and the car didn't go fast anymore. Spare parts, too, were impossible to find. Thus, finally, I installed a Lada engine, and now I'm happy with the performance."

Saturday, February 8, 2014



"100% dream-stuff come true is the '47 Ford Convertible! Touch a button and before you can say 'Ford's Out Front' (well, almost before you can say it) this snappiest of all roadsters changes into a snug sedan. It's Ford magic!"

The Saturday Evening Post from Indianapolis printed this ad in 1947. This is, we think, surprisingly modern slang. The car it promoted, however, was far from being that modern. "Fat Fendered Fords" of this time clearly didn't convince with cutting-edge styling or tech, but rather as solid, economic and affordable automobiles.

After the "war-break", Ford resumed the car production in summer 1945 with a lineup that was essentially similar to the 1941 models, sporting only cosmetical modifications at front. Ford even utilized leftover parts from the 1942 production run for these 1946 models. Nevertheless the Fords sold like hotcakes, because after a three-year austerity, America was crazy for new cars. Through the late 40s, almost anything on wheels sold very well, so it didn't matter if the Fords weren't the most beautiful cars on earth. In these days, yearly facelifts were still all but necessary.

Accordingly, the look of the Fords didn't change much between 1946 and 1948. There wasn't even a clear model year separation for 1947, which makes the cars of this year difficult to distinguish. Yet, owner Osvaldo knows the subtle differences: "My Ford descapotable was built in early 1947. Mid-year, there were some modifications. Most notably, the rectangular parking lights became round and moved beside the grille. These later 1947 models were then built and sold in identical form as the 1948 model year Ford."

Thursday, January 30, 2014



"Every flowing, graceful line  . . .  every breath-taking detail  . . .  every magic touch of luxury and comfort of the beautiful Karmann-Ghia Coupe has a truly 'Continental' accent. And with good reason: Ghia of Turin, Italy — one of Europe's most renowned designers — conceived this striking and original automobile! Karmann of Osnabrück — Germany's foremost custom-body builder, world-famous for painstaking workmanship and attention to detail — interpreted Ghia's unique, thoroughbred design! Finally, the distinctive body was mounted on a sturdy Volkswagen chassis with the rugged Volkswagen engine at its heart — the same ultra-reliable engine that's proven itself the world over in more than a million VW's! The result? Superb beauty and smartness combined with utmost comfort and dependability — the Karmann Ghia Coupe; beauty that can take abuse day-after-day, year-in-year-out — and like it!" 

Here is a good example of how looks can be deceiving: for the standards of the 50s, the Karman Ghia appears to be a very sporty car, visually playing in the same league as, say, a Porsche 356. But it isn't. 30hp, compared to 60hp and more in Porsche's 1958 models, meant merely half of the Porsche's pizzazz. Yet, under their skin both cars have surprisingly much in common, as both are based on the Volkswagen Beetle.

Incidentally, the genesis of the Karmann Ghia design is linked to Chrysler's styling director Virgil Exner, who had built several showcars in collaboration with Italian coachbuilder Ghia. When Karmann approached Ghia in 1953 to design a Coupe, based on the VW Beetle, the Italians came up with a design proposal that resembled the Exner-designed Chrysler D'Elegance showcar, shown in Paris in October 1952. Of course, the proportions were utterly different, because the Karmann had a rear mounted engine and was a much smaller car. Yet, signature design elements of the Chrysler showcar such as the cabin shape and the characteristic highlight that kicks up from the rocker into the rear fender, re-appeared in almost identical form on the Karmann Ghia when it was presented to the public in 1955. As a matter of fact, it was an usual practice of Italian carozzerie to sell similar design proposals to different clients. Reportedly, Virgil Exner never expressed negative connotations to the fact that his showcar ideas lived on in a successful commercial product, even if it wasn't a Chrysler.

And successful it was: within one year, 10,000 Karmann-Ghia Coupe left the Karmann factory, and at the end of its production run in 1974, 385,803 Karmann-Ghia Coupe had been built. Adding, 81,053 convertibles and 23,557 Coupes that were assembled in Brazil, it sums up to an impressive number, considering that the Karmann-Ghia was a partially hand-built car from a coachbuilder that until then had specialized in assembling Volkswagen Beetle convertibles. Almost two thirds of the total production went to the US, where it was well received even if Volkswagen of America never run any introductory advertisement campaign. In Europe, au contraire, the car never really kicked off, because it was pricey, and generally considered an anemic "house-wife's Porsche" rather than a serious sports car. While the Porsche could boast a heavily tuned suspension and engine, the Karmann-Ghia sported standard VW underpinnings and tipped the scales at 820kg of weight, which was quite a fair bit heavier than the 740kg of a standard Beetle. The ones who bought the Karmann-Ghia, however, were more into a fashion statement and couldn't care less if the car's gorgeous look wasn't matched by an equivalent driving experience. The others would buy the Porsche, anyway.

Saturday, January 25, 2014



"It's the smartest, most colorful Chevrolet you ever saw! There is new styling  . . .  a clean-lined new grille design, new wider parking lights, new trim and ornamentation front and rear. There are new exterior colors and combinations — the most beautiful choice in the low-price field — matched by completely new interiors in colors that complement the body colors! And there are new and improved features, plus solid, deep-rooted quality in every engineering detail, to make this new Chevrolet an outstandingly fine, dependable and economical performer over a long, long time  . . . the kind of proved quality that, year after year, leads more people to buy Chevrolets than any other car  . . .  the kind of proved quality that's especially important to you today!"

The Punta Gorda peninsula in Cienfuegos is the home of quite a few well-preserved vintage cars from Detroit. This one here, a 1952 Chevrolet, couldn't look much better across the Florida Straits. Keeping a car in this condition in Cuba requires not just connections and money aplenty, but also a lot of determination. Mind you, car dealers, junkyards or the internet to track down spare parts are practically non-existent here, and even the simplest restoration job can take years.

Four years after its introduction in 1949, the Chevrolet lineup still looked the part, which clearly speaks for the timeless class of its design. Under the supervision of Harley Earl, Chevrolet designers had sculpted a well-proportioned car that didn't seem to age. For that reason, all that was needed to keep Chevrolet the best selling marque in the U.S. were minor modifications and yearly trim changes.

To the casual observer, Chevrolets of this vintage seem to dominate Cuba's automotive landscape. A surprising number of them is still in a pretty good shape. Admittedly, these cars were best sellers in their time, but their basic construction and build quality were exceptional, too. Even considering various profound rebuilds and restoration jobs (as explained at Caristas), their healthy substance sure helped these Chevrolets to survive the decades in an outstanding condition.

Thursday, January 16, 2014



"You've only got to be at the wheel of a Victor for five minutes to know what superlative value you're getting for your money. In the 4-cylinder class, there's nothing to touch it!  . . .  Looks, liveliness, comfort, safety, economy — you get them all in the Victor, plus the pleasure of owning a car that wins admiration everywhere  . . .  And all over the country, Vauxhall Square Deal Service when you want it: there's none cheaper, none better. Yes, make it a Victor this time. You couldn't make a better choice."

The fact that smaller cars became increasingly popular in the U.S. since the mid-50s, did not pass unnoticed by GM's marketing department. Yet, none of the "Big Three" had any compact car in their production pipeline, until the economic recession of 1958 triggered a veritable compact car boom. GM's new compact cars wouldn't be ready to hit the road before 1960. But a solution for the dilemma was waiting across the Atlantic, as there were two GM-owned companies that built small cars: Opel in Germany and Vauxhall in England. To cope with the raising popularity of smaller cars on their home turf, GM simply began importing Opel and Vauxhall cars. Since 1958, Vauxhalls were sold here through American Pontiac dealers.

David Jones, Vauxhall's longstanding styling director between 1937 and 1971,and Harley Earl's right-hand man in England, was a frequent visitor in Detroit, from where he got his orders. Not surprisingly, Vauxhall cars used to look like puny versions of American designs. Naturally, the new Vauxhall Victor, unveiled in 1957, also showed a strong American influence: coy tailfins, a column mounted shifter, bench seats, jet-age bumper cones and a panoramic windshield were all-american ingredients. In the "old world", the Vauxhall was consequently criticized as being too big, and too American in look and feel. Despite the bad press, the cars sold well, because they offered a lot for the money.

In the new world, in contrast, the Vauxhall Victor wasn't as successful, as GM had wished for. Here, the car somehow didn't find its proper niche. You could get a fullsize Plymouth, Ford or Chevrolet for just a little more money. A V-8 powerplant came standard with all these cars, while the Vauxhall, despite its American looks, just offered an anemic four-cylinder engine with 48hp. Other compact cars were at least more lively than the Victor. On top of that, Vauxhall's build quality was a little shabby, even judged by the low American standards. With that said, as soon as GM's own compact cars were ready to hit the road, Vauxhall became superfluous on the American market, and in 1962, GM stopped selling them here.

Sunday, January 12, 2014



"Radiantly Styled ... for the Rocketing Sixties. Here is the new shape of the '60 Oldsmobile  . . .  fresh, balanced, enchanting symmetry, from its crisp, trim grille to the lean contours of its clean-sweep rear deck. This Olds Original is a complete-size, complete-quality automobile — planned for those who demand the best the medium-price class has to offer. In every way, Olds for '60 is completely satisfying!"

"Linear Look" was the new conviction at Oldsmobile since Harley Earl went into retirement in 1958 and his long-time protégé Bill Mitchell stepped into Earl's shoes at the helm of GM Styling. Starting with the lineup for 1959, all GM cars became much leaner and cleaner, leaving the flamboyant styling of the "chrome and tailfins" era behind. The 1960 models would become the first designs styled solely under Bill Mitchell's direction, and unsurprisingly they would sport an even simpler, cleaner and, well, quite "Linear Look".

Our pictured Oldsmobile 98 from Havana, unlike other "late arrivals" on the island, looks pretty battered. Still, you can clearly see the horizontal lines and simple intersecting volumes that should make the car look long, low and composed. Tailfins were almost gone now, being muted to horizontal taillight extensions. Only the roof with its curvaceous A-posts is still a remainder of the 50s and shows that this car was merely a big facelift of the 1959 Oldsmobiles, rather than an all-new design. Straight A-posts that the competition already had "re-discovered" in 1960, would only arrive with Oldsmobile's 1961 models.

Sunday, January 5, 2014



"Rambler presents the only station wagon with the best of both: big car room  . . .  small car economy. The recognized economy leader, too. World's only station wagons with Personalized Comfort. Take your choice of Economy 6 or Rebel V-8 engines."

Don't be fooled by the looks: what appears to be a homemade conversion, is genuine Rambler station wagon design. The sloping roof with an "added" flat top that should provide space for extra luggage, held in place by the unique "Roof-Top Travel Rack", was a signature feature of Nash Rambler station wagons since 1953. The only custom modification of our pictured Rambler is its front grille, and we think it turned out quite unfortunate: when new, the Rambler front looked as cool as this.  

AMC had a good run with its "compact" Rambler in the 50s, because it offered a niche product that wasn't competing with the cars of the "Big Three". The economic recession of 1958 even amplified this success story. With its restyling in 1957, the Rambler had grown up significantly. Yet, customers seemed to like this bigger appearance and honored it with sharply increasing demand.

It was apparently a real paradox: customers deserted the "Big Three" to buy compact cars, but at the end of the day, they bought the ones that were roomy and comfortable, and close to a full size car. In fact, what America really wanted was practical transportation, rather than spartan small cars. Kaiser-Frazer and Hudson had painfully discovered this dilemma earlier. The Rambler, though, hit the sweet spot of the clientele's aspirations. Aside from a better fuel economy, it was surprisingly roomy inside. There wasn't a big difference to the cabin space of full size cars.

In the U.S.,the station wagons were pretty popular among Rambler customers, accounting for almost half of the total production in 1959. Strangely enough, this 50:50 ratio isn't reflected at all on Cuban roads. Here, a Rambler station wagon is a very rare sight, while the sedan can be seen quite often. Cuban customers, apparently, bought much more conservative, and a station wagon was considered an utilitarian vehicle.

Saturday, December 28, 2013



"In every part of the world where highways exist and quality is recognized, Cadillac has become the accepted symbol of automotive goodness. And certainly, this international affection for Cadillac has never been more soundly based — or more richly deserved — than it is at the present time. For the Cadillac car has never before been so bountiful in all those things which command respect and admiration in a motor car. In styling, in performance, in craftsmanship, and in practicality — it is the Standard of the World. We believe that an inspection and demonstration will prove this fact beyond question. Visit your dealer soon and learn for yourself why Cadillac is first in the world's esteem."

This mighty Cadillac from Varadero usually takes tourists on a sightseeing tour around the peninsula. The tourists enjoy the ride in the "authentic" drop-top, and not many take notice that Cadillac never offered a four-door convertible in 1959.

"Grancar", the state-owned company which operates this car, is quite infamous for quick cut-off jobs like this one for the sake of tourist entertainment. Seems like the Peso is earned easier with a convertible. Before the conversion, this car was a luxurious Fleetwood Sixty Special Sedan, as the embossed letters on its rear deck lid indicate. At least, they left the original V-8 engine installed.

Albán, the driver of this Cadillac, likes to pretend that he actually owns the car. But blue "chapas", numberplates of a state-owned vehicle, set him straight. However, for Cuban conditions, he's in a comfortable position: the Estado gives him this car and a monthly ration of fuel, and in return, he must do the maintenance and bring in cash at the end of the month. Private tours or extra work for the own pocket? No problem! The established Cuban system of rationing, rather than billing, fosters this kind of corruption. In common sense, it would be abnormal not to do it.

The only drawback of having a 1959 Cadillac is that no extra ride gets unnoticed. Wherever this thing shows up, it's turning heads. Anyway, the extra tours can't be long, as the V-8 engine quickly consumes the monthly fuel ration. So, Albán found another way to better his income: he's selling some of the Cadillac's fuel and cruises just a little slower...

Thursday, December 12, 2013



"Sky-high style and Snap to match! Up front you note first a stunning new Wide-Screen Grille that's distinctive as the name above it. Curbside, you take in the rake of the silvery sweep-spear, the sports-car cut of the wheel wells, the arching sweep of the broad panoramic windshield that has set a complete new trend for the industry to follow. To the rear, you find still more modernity — in the smart slash-back styling of the tail-light grouping that adds a new fashion profile to the whole gleaming grace of the car. This, you see, is Buick for 1955 — and there's a tilt to the lines of it that we believe you will find nowhere else on the new automotive horizon."

The 1955 Buick perfectly embodies the massive grace that made cars of GM's "chrome-and-glamour" division so desirable for many customers. In 1955, Buick's sales soared by more than 60 percent, and with 738,814 cars produced, the company scored third in the annual production statistics, ousting Plymouth from its long-standing position. Buick was by far the most successful American luxury car make, and a large part of this success is owed to the classy styling, which, by the way, is said to have been one of Harley Earl's personal favorite designs.

Buicks of this generation are an interesting showcase of strategic product development: in the lineup's lifecycle between 1954 and 1956, the appearance of Buicks evolved gradually, but decidedly, from pretty curvaceous volumes to a leaner and more modern look. All Buick Special of this period were based on the same corporate "B-body", as you can notice in their similar rooflines. The outer sheetmetal, though, was slightly altered each year. The 1954 Buick, for instance, still sported the sculptural hood of earlier Buicks, with the middle part raised atop the front fenders. In 1955, a much flatter hood appeared and the dip between hood and fenders became very shallow, which made for a lower and boxier overall look. The front fenders became straightened out even more for 1956, further emphasizing on the horizontal lines of the car.

The car's front grille, too, became wider and more angular each year, while the cone-shaped "dagmars" were pushed out to the sides, anticipating the full-width grille of the 1957 Buicks. Along with these changes went yearly revisions of the rear end and chrome trim.

Of course, all these changes didn't happen randomly, but were carefully orchestrated by Harley Earl and his GM design team to ensure a constant evolution of the "Buick look" while, at the same time, being able to please the customer's thirst for novelties by introducing an "all-new“ design, each year.

Saturday, December 7, 2013



"Feature For Feature, Ford is Finer by Far."

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. This might have been the credo at Ford since the company recovered from prospective bankruptcy and, induced by the Fords for 1949, went back on to the road to success. We covered the genesis of these models here.

At a glance, the Fords for 1949 and 1950 virtually looked identical. There was no need for change anyway, as these cars sold incredibly well: with the 1949 models, Ford's production nearly tripled, boasting the company to the first place in the annual industry ranking, and the sales figures remained strong through 1950. In 1951, the last year of the lineup's life cycle, the Fords finally received a minor facelift, and proud Ford owners now polished two characteristic chrome spinners in the front grille, instead of one.

More substantial improvements happened underneath the hood: this year, Ford introduced the "Fordomatic" automatic transmission. Now, Ford customers could finally opt for the same comfort that Chevrolet drivers enjoyed already since 1950.

Yet, rather than technical marvels, style and glamour became increasingly important factors for car buyers in the early 50s, and Ford's arch-rival Chevrolet sure had an edge on Dearborn when it came to fancy looks. A Ford was clearly the more sensible choice, but in hindsight, we think, the Ford certainly sported a leaner and thus ultimately more modern design than the flashy GM cars.