Thursday, October 1, 2015

"It combines the smartness and distinction of a wood-grained finish with the strength and safety of an all-steel body. And that means it's more quiet, more durable, easier to keep new and shining. Four doors provide easy access for eight passengers and the rear seats may readily be removed when extra hauling space is required."

Back in 1951, station wagons were still made for people that needed room to carry stuff, and this Chevy nicely shows it in its exuberant proportions. Quite soon, these load haulers would fall prey to Harley Earl's relentless quest for "longer, lower, wider" cars, too, and while certainly gaining showroom appeal, they would loose a lot of their practicality. Nobody mourned, though: style over substance became the trend of the times, and buyers happily adapted their aspirations to the grand scheme of automotive fashion.

Station wagon conversions in that era were traditionally built from wood. Chevrolet offered wooden station wagons since 1939, and had outsourced their production to J.T. Cantrell & Co. and Ionia coachbuilders, while postwar Chevys were solely built by Ionia and Fisher. The first few station wagons of our pictured generation were still true "Woodies" when introduced in 1949, comprising a wooden tailgate and side window frames. But not for long: already halfway through the model year, Chevrolet changed to a modern all-steel design. They only came in second, though: Plymouth had presented the first American all-steel Suburban already in June 1949.

Perhaps not to alienate the customers, these all-steel station wagons retained their "Woody" look through 1952. Chevrolet simply placed a fake wood-grain decal in place of the original wooden parts, and accordingly, the public soon dubbed these wagons "Tin Woody". That decal is long gone on our pictured car. With a sticker price of $2,191, the station wagons were by the way the most expensive Chevrolets by far: a convertible did cost $1,647, and a fancy Bel Air hardtop coupe 1,914 bucks. It comes to no surprise that the station wagons are a rare sight in Cuba today, as production numbers were low: out of more than 1.2 million Chevrolet buyers in 1951, only 23,586 customers would opt for the Chevy station wagon.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"BE sure to see the great 1952 Pontiac! It brings you General Motors' sensational new Dual-Range Hydra-Matic Drive* — coupled with Pontiac's great high-compression engine — and a new high-performance, economy axle. At the touch of your finger, you can elect to have tremendous acceleration and snap to go! Or, with equal ease, you can choose an altogether different type of performance; silken, gliding, gas-saving — perfection itself for the open road. In other words, you have the power you want — where and when you want it. And there are many other advancements in the new Pontiac, too. Better see it — drive it — today. It's a sensation!"

The tone of this Pontiac ad sounds like half a decade ahead of time. Remember, Pontiac was GM's most conservative division, and who was in the game for performance in the early 1950s most certainly went shopping somewhere else. Pontiac, instead, was the choice of the sound and prudent folks who were looking for a handsome looking but still reasonably priced automobile. The abundance of shiny chrome trim and a long accessory list made many forget that the Pontiac was essentially a pimped Chevrolet, albeit one with a longer bonnet and an optional eight cylinder engine underneath. To most buyers, the Pontiac appealed as a car that would let the world know that they could afford more than a Chevy.

Pontiac's approach — solid quality rather than innovation — had brought the company forward in the 1930s and 1940s. When the American car market began to become saturated at the dawn of the 1950s, however, this strategy began to backfire: customers were more and more longing for the latest and greatest in automotive fashion. Now, an Indian chief as figurehead and Streamline Art Deco styling cues were clearly a thing of the past. Yet, it ain't easy to give up on a strong identity: Pontiac would hold on these brand symbols for four more years, before new management had the courage to turn things upside down and make the stuffy brand an desirable icon for America's youth.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Graceful as a yacht! Always so smooth — so easy to handle — such satisfaction to be seen in — Mercury now gives you even more of everything you want!"

Double horns and heavy-duty spotlights didn't come standard, but otherwise this fine convertible looks pretty much like it did when leaving the assembly line nearly seven decades ago.

The impressive look obscures the fact that this generation of Mercury cars technically dates back to 1941. Mercury sold merely prettied-up prewar models in the postwar years, just like most American car manufacturers did. Under their skin, these Mercurys were essentially better appointed Fords, powered by identical engines and transmissions. Few customers would notice the two-inch longer wheelbase of the 1947 models, or their smaller wheels (15 inch instead of 16 inch on the Ford).

What they noticed, though, was the glitzy styling, that made the Mercury look good even in the presence of Detroit's finest. The extra bucks paid for a Mercury went almost completely into extensive chrome trim, better upholstery and a definitely upscale appearance, compared to its Ford sibling. More than 10,000 convertible buyers in 1947 didn't mind paying the markup to get more "prestige" in return.

Yet, it didn't pass unnoticed by Ford's top management that people still saw too much Ford in the Mercury. The next Mercury generation, scheduled for 1949, should become closely tied to Lincoln and thus finally justify its premium price tag.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Few automobiles have risen beyond their intended status to offer qualities unsurpassed by the most expensive cars of their time. Yet here is Caprice Classic for 1985. Chevrolet's ultimate expression of first-class travel. Here is everything to make you secure in your choice of a new automobile. Full-size room to sit and stretch, while splendidly isolated from the annoyances of road and weather. Controls that comfortably respond to your every command. The peace of mind that has been secured by more than 5,000 Chevrolet dealers. Here, too are new Caprice qualities at your service. Electronic Fuel Injection, for example, for effortless power from Caprice's standard 4.3 Liter V6 engine. And suspension refinement so remarkable it redefines full-size riding comfort. You could pay more — up to four times more — for the qualities embodied by Caprice Classic. But the question is why?"

The "Acapulco" fuel station in Havana's Nuevo Vedado district is a nice carspotting place: in daytime, the adjoined café and bakery "Pain de Paris" causes a constant coming and going of customers and their cars. After sunset, Havana's youth meets here to start off into the night or to watch the latest flicks at the nearby "Acapulco" cinema. Attention seekers like that place, too: the young driver of this Chevrolet Caprice Classic is a frequent "guest" here. Admittedly, his ride always steals the show: shiny 22-inch wheels are definitely not common in Cuba and the pimped Chevy repeatedly earns admiring comments from bystanders.

When new, the Caprice certainly didn't turn so many heads. In the 1980s, it was considered a cheap and cheerful option for elderly people. Incidentally, the Caprice originates from pretty selfish interests of Chevrolets top management: in 1964, GM demanded that the executives should drive only cars of their own division. What certainly wasn't a problem for Cadillac's top brass, posed to be a threat to the prestige of the management of the cheaper makes. Quite a few Chevrolet managers were probably surprised how everyday travel felt in a plain Chevy. And — voilà! — already in 1965, Chevrolet presented the Caprice as an extra ritzy version of the Impala, with all fancy features available at the time. 

Fast forward twenty years, and the Caprice was still around. In fact, the full sized Chevy now was a survivor of two energy crises and the resulting shift in the automotive landscape of the U.S., when downsizing became the word of the day, if not of the decades to follow. Because Chevrolet's full size lineup had been significantly "downsized" when the pictured generation was presented in 1977, Chevrolet decided to keep it in production, but didn't spare much energy in updates. The occasional facelift, and modernized engines every now and then kept the Caprice Classic alive all the way through 1990. A novelty for 1985 was a new 6-cylinder engine with electronic fuel injection to match the contemporary emission standards. Yet, perhaps the strongest argument for the Chevy's seemingly endless production run was its reasonable price: the tooling costs had been paid off already in the early 1980s, and the fullsize Chevys could be sold pretty cheap.

How our pictured car came to Cuba despite the embargo, though, is up to speculation. The "Landau Equipment Package", which "includes Landau-style vinyl roof cover, bright moldings on roof, belt and front fenders, Sport mirrors", suggests that this wasn't the average low-spec fleet car that enterprises or embassies would use and dump. The young driver gave away that his family got it "from outside", but was short on details. But consider this: the ample Chevrolet, we've learned, is a common sight in Venezuela and other Latin American countries. Many Cuban professionals are sent on a misión to Venezuela, usually spending around two years there as development workers. Cuba in return gets cheap oil and the Cubans, beside a higher than average salary to ease their sacrifices, have the right to import goods upon their return. Most bring DVD-players, TV-sets or fridges, but some can even afford to bring cars. This way, we imagine, the Chevy could have found its way to the island. What do you think?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"The true worth of any possession may be measured largely in terms of the enjoyment it brings its owner. And that is why the great Cadillac car must be counted among the most prized of personal possessions. For certain it is that few worldly belongings add so much to the sheer joy of living.

In the first place, it stands completely alone in all the things that make a motor car a pleasure to utilize. Through every mile of every journey, it provides recreation and comfort in unprecedented measure. And how rewarding a Cadillac is to own! Owners everywhere will tell you that it is their greatest source of pride and happiness  . . .  and that it enhances their daily satisfaction to an unbelievable degree.

Of course, it isn't necessary to decide on a Cadillac solely for your personal gratification. For the car is practical as well as wonderful  . . .  and represents a surprisingly sound investment. Why not visit your Cadillac dealer today — and see if you are among the many who should move up to the 'car of cars'?"

We don't know what kind of substances were involved when the advertisers were texting for this 1955 Cadillac ad, but for certain they pulled the "big guns", verbally. The car they praised, though, was well worth the admiration, exuding a rare mixture of dazzling road presence and refined understatement at the same time.

To strike such a fine balance between flamboyance and sophistication requires experienced styling mastery and no one could have done a better job than the GM Design Department. Through the mid-1950s, the design team around Harley Earl was the undisputed pacesetter for automotive style, and Cadillac was their poster child. The designers did incredibly well in developing the Cadillac form language very carefully. The cars appeared "new" every year, but because the alterations were subtle, there was a continuity of design that wouldn't make older Cadillacs look outdated — exactly what Cadillac's conservative clientele longed for. 140,777 Cadillac were produced in 1955. That was significantly more than the 93,901 cars which America's other luxury makers — Lincoln, Packard and Imperial — sold combined. Cadillac owned the luxury market in these days, and rightfully so.

The massive grace of the Cadillac models was not a hollow promise. These cars were built rock solid, and a true engineering showcase, too. Even today, the automatically retractable roof and power windows of our pictured Cadillac operate as quiet and effortless as they did six decades ago. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Built to the teeth, the Land Cruiser is a solid example of traditional Toyota craftsmanship. Put together with nuts, bolts, cotter pins rivets and welds. For roads that are buckety, we don't build anything rickety."

The Jeep. The Land Rover. The Land Cruiser. For half a century, these were your best options if you went somewhere remote and needed a seriously tough off-road vehicle.

Just like the Willys Jeep, the Toyota Land Cruiser originates from military needs. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 urged the U.S. forces in Japan to commission domestic car manufacturers with the development and production of light 4x4 vehicles and trucks. Toyota had a prototype of the "Toyota Jeep BJ" ready by January 1951. The car was built in rather small numbers for governmental use since 1953, and soon would evolve into the Land Cruiser, when trademark violation claims by Willys made a renaming inevitable.

The commercial Toyota Land Cruiser debuted in 1954, but its stereotypical look should emerge with the second generation, built between 1960 and 1984. Throughout its lifetime, this generation of Land Cruiser models received a number of improvements which makes it possible to narrow down the production year of our pictured car to the time between 1973 and 1974. In 1973, Toyota added a fuel filler door, while 1974 was the last year of the flat doors. Redesigned doors from 1975 onwards would have lift-type door handles, and embossed sheet metal to increase stiffness. Accordingly, the door hinges were now recessed into the door panels.

Toyota's Land Cruiser is quite a familiar sight in Cuba. Mostly registered to state-owned businesses, they're usually in a good shape. The sunny climate of Cuba is no real tread to the most common corrosion problems, and their mechanically sound construction helps the Toyotas to keep marching on without too much trouble.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Small wonder people with a desire for individuality so warmly welcome this distinctive new car which sets both itself and its owner apart from the crowd. There's nothing uncertain in their approval  . . .  they are trying and buying the 1955 Clipper in unprecedented numbers. One visit to your Packard dealer will show you the reason for this tremendous reception  . . .  and will convince you the 1955 Clipper is the most individually distinctive car in the medium price field."

Who wouldn't like to be an individualist? At first glance, the advertisement for the new 1955 Clipper sounds great, but in its historic context this was the only way left for Packard to distinguish themselves from the overwhelming competition. Packard's brand image as America's undisputed luxury leader gradually diminished since the company had decided to expand Packard's high dollar lineup into the medium price field, and launched the Clipper in 1941.

Because Clipper sales initially looked very promising, Packard's brass came to the conclusion to base the more prestigious Packard models on the successful Clipper design, too. This idea didn't go down well with Packard's conservative clientele who wouldn't see the point of paying a premium price for almost identical looking models, save for different trim appointments. Besides, the Clipper managed to conquer customers  from other makes at a disappointing rate of 30 percent. The vast majority of Clipper buyers were Packard owners that previously had been paying much more money for their Packard. That seriously affected the revenue and made substantial product updates nearly impossible.

In the mid-1950s, Packard was in the unfortunate situation of being neither fish nor flesh because of its ambiguous brand image. The wealthy clientele went on to buy shiny new Cadillacs, while the sensible customers didn't see much value in the low-end Packards when a Oldsmobile or Buick offered more glamour for the same buck. By 1954, Packard's sales had dropped to around 31,000.

Packard president James Nance settled on a twofold solution for the dilemma: first, separating the Clipper as an own marque from the pricier models (effective from 1956 and revoked already mid-year, after massive dealer complaints), and second, a merger with another independent car manufacturer. Hudson and Nash had just found each other to form AMC, and, brokered by the Lehman Brothers of New York, Studebaker seemed to be the most promising candidate left. Unfortunately, this shouldn't be the last time the Lehman Brothers miserably failed in their prediction: only after the merger, Packard should realize the precarious financial situation of the South Bend brand.

Back to the Clipper: the facelift for 1955 indeed transformed the Packard into a all-new looking car. The designers under the lead of Richard Teague skillfully modernized the aging Packard body from 1951 by adding a panoramic windshield and a new front clip sporting ultra-fashionable hooded headlights which appeared on this year's Mercury, too. Under the skin, Packard had some real goodies to offer for 1955: an all-new V-8 engine, "Twin Ultramatic Transmission" and  optional "Torsion-Level Ride" made the Clipper a truly competitive automobile.

Around 55,000 cars sold in 1955 were an encouraging sign of relief, but the profit went directly into covering the losses caused by the merger with Studebaker. Developing a new body didn't seem reasonable, and thus, the next generation of Packards should merely become rebadged Studebakers. By now, only a few would perceive a Packard a luxurious automobile, and consequently the less than 2,600 cars sold in 1958 became the last Packards ever.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Traditionnelle et moderne. Fiable et confortable."

With just six words the Belgian Avtoexport leaflet cut right to the chase. The Volga it promoted was clearly one of the finer cars that were driving behind the Iron Curtain. While earlier Volga models had been heavily inspired by the products from Detroit, the designers developed an unique and recognizable design for the GAZ-24. Presented in late 1967 and mass-produced since 1970, the well-proportioned and spacious car soon became a Russian equivalent to the average GM or Ford fleet cars: the GAZ-24 served as a typical government vehicle or taxi in the whole of Eastern Europe, and rarely got into private hands. Did we mention the KGB yet? They, of course, got their own pimped version, called "Device 2424". This car looked like your average Volga, but under its bonnet sat a powerful V-8 engine instead of the standard four-cylinder. 

Small improvements from time to time kept the Volga on top of its game. Our pictured car is from the second generation, produced between 1977 and 1985. This revision comprised small indicator lights at the front fenders, yellow fog lights and bumper guards. Demand usually exceeded the production capacities by far, and thus, the eastern designs had a lifespan that was unthought of in the western world. Annual facelifts? Not necessary, comrade.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Ford trucking costs less and Ford trucks last longer!"

There's some truth in that slogan, although we'd bet that the copywriters of this 1952 ad would never have imagined that a Ford truck would need to last more than six decades in daily use. Pickups and light trucks such as this 1952 Ford F-5 perfectly suit the automotive needs of rural Cuba, and therefore you still see a lot of them today. Contrary to privately owned cars, privately owned trucks were always considered important to the socialist community, and the bureaucratic strings were held a little bit less tight. The truck owners usually do good extra business with smaller jobs on the side, and the officials usually pretend to be blind on one eye. That symbiosis enables a more or less working system of haulers for smaller transport needs, parallel to the bigger state owned transport companies.

Our pictured Ford, of course, doesn't run on its gas-guzzling original engine anymore. "We've installed a Perkins Diesel engine, for much better economy", told us the proud owner. Regular maintenance is a breeze as the entire front clip is easily removable. Ford used to apply a similar looking design to all of its trucks, from the ½ ton pickup F-1 to the heavy-duty three ton F-8. They only differed in the cabin size, which makes it difficult to tell at a glance which version of F-trucks it is. While its owner doesn't care for these fine details, he sure does care for the truck's 1½ tons load capacity — for him the Ford is merely a tool.

Friday, July 17, 2015

"Here's a car so wonderfully compact it's a delight to handle, drive and park — even in congested traffic — yet with ample room for six passengers. Here is a car with Instant Action Engine featuring Super Induction — a car so powerful it leads the lowest price field for performance, yet so economical it's thrifty like a Scot on gas, oil, tires and upkeep."

Above its shoulder line, the Hudson Jet looks handsomely styled and has an almost European flavor to it. But here's the catch: because this shoulder sits pretty high, there's a long distance to cover until road level, resulting in a massive, slab-sided body that makes the narrow Hudson look unnecessarily stodgy. The Willys, in comparison, shows that it wasn't impossible to create a proportionally attractive compact car.

Obviously not so at Hudson, where the design team under Frank Spring had initially proposed much more daring ideas. Yet, biased by the opinion of Hudson's biggest dealer, Jim Moran, Hudson president A. E. Barit insisted on design changes that should make the final design look much like a contemporary Ford.

Accordingly, the motor press didn't rave over the styling when the Hudson Jet was presented in late 1952, but was rather impressed by its mechanical soundness and the peppy performance. Mind you, technically the Hudson wasn't a bad car at all. The standard engine already offered 104 hp — considerably more than a comparable Willys, Rambler or Henry J. An optional aluminum head and "Twin H-Power" gave you an additional 10 hp power boost, enough to out-accelerate any 1953 Ford or Chevrolet

Because the Jet offered comprehensive standard equipment, its price tag was well in the territory of the base models of Detroit's "Big Three". Unsurprisingly, only few customers choose the ugly duckling over the more comfortable full size cars from Chevrolet, Ford or Plymouth. When Hudson merged with Nash to form American Motors in 1954, one of the casualties was the slow-selling Jet. Hudson stopped the production of the Jet as soon as the tooling costs were amortized and soldiered on with badge engineered Nash models until the brand was given up in favor of the more successful Rambler in 1957.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"The day you come into possession of your new Pontiac will mark the beginning of a wonderful friendship — for there is no more faithful or satisfying car to be had anywhere in the world. First of all, it is such a big and beautiful and distinctive car that you will be proud to have it as a companion wherever you go. It performs so well, and is so easy and safe to handle, that it will make a big contribution to the pleasure of every journey. And, finally, it is so completely dependable and trouble-free that you will learn very soon to trust it implicitly — as you would any other good and capable friend.

The statements we are making here apply, with special emphasis, to the wonderful Pontiacs we are building today. But they also apply, with equal force, to the Pontiacs that will be built in the future — for Pontiac is always a good car. For goodness — in all that the term implies — is a constant Pontiac virtue. Regardless of when you get it, your Pontiac will be beautiful, safe, dependable — and a great comparative value. You can never do better than a Pontiac!"

The advertisement hyperbole makes one almost forget the fact that the 1948 Pontiac Torpedo was merely a better appointed Chevrolet. Admittedly, the liberally applied chrome trim and the signature "Silver Streaks", running from bonnet to boot, make the Pontiac look way more dashing than its economic sibling. These "Silver Streaks" echoed the trendy Streamline Art-Deco lines of the 1930s, and were first devised by GM designer Frank Hershey for the 1935 Pontiac. Sticking to that design element should make the Pontiacs easily recognizable. There was one problem, though: because these chrome stripes would appear old-fashioned in the postwar years, Pontiac began turning into a stuffy old man's brand — sound but uninspired. Fortunately not for long. Under new management, the focus shifted to power, the "Silver Streaks" got axed in 1957, and the brand rose like a phoenix from the ashes. 

In Cuba, torpedo has become a general moniker for vintage fastback body styles. Yet, the Pontiac Torpedo was not limited to the fastback look. It simply was the designation of Pontiac's entry level model which shared GM's corporate A-body with Chevrolet. Only one out of four Pontiac buyers opted for the Torpedo in 1948. The vast majority choose the pricier Streamliner series, which ran on a 3-inch (7,62 cm) longer wheelbase and used GM's bigger B-body, just like the junior Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile lines.

Friday, July 3, 2015

"The Morris Minor has road-proved its way to popularity in nearly every country of the world. Everything of first-rate importance in modern automobile design has been incorporated in this car. With family budgets under daily review it is small wonder that the Minor is so much sought after everywhere. There is room for the family and luggage in a Minor — the world's biggest small car buy!"

Don’t be fooled by the radiant red of this Morris Minor from Havana: this ain't a sports car. Who expected less than lethargic performance from this tiny car was in for a great disappointment. Zero to 62 miles (100 km/h) took about a minute. If you got there at all, that was, because the Morris could reach its 63 miles (101 km/h) top speed only in still air conditions. Even tinier cars could outrun the Morris. So, why bother buying one? Rather than speed, it was comfort that attracted many Morris customers.

Its tall roof made the Minor look a bit cartoonish, but all passengers could sit upright and comfortably. And compared to other English cars of the same vintage, it didn't look so bad, after all. Another strong point of the Minor was its cushiony ride. Cornering and road holding qualities were considered very good for a car of that era. Unsurprisingly so, as the Minor had an unconventional torsion-bar suspension, just like the Porsche and Volkswagen Beetle models. A rack-and-pinion steering made the handling pin-sharp. And the car had a monocoque body instead of the prevailing body-on-frame design. Responsible for all  this engineering extravaganza was Sir Alec Issigonis, who later should become famous as the father of the Mini. Issigonis always took great pride in the fact that the Minor's little "development team" — him and two draftsmen that interpreted his freehand sketches — could pull off such an innovative and successful design.

For postwar standards, the Minor was a well-constructed, spacious car that didn't cost too much — exactly what England's war-ridden middle class needed for their first steps into motoring. Presented in 1948, the little Morris should become a constant seller for two and a half decades, with almost 1,620,000 examples built. Across the Atlantic Ocean, though, the Morris Minor had rather minor success.

Split windshield and rectangular grille opening with parking lights that are confined within the grille frame suggest that this car was built between 1952 and October 1954. Later, the parking lights moved out into the front fenders while the grille opening got a softer shape.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"For work or play — on any occasion — Chevrolet's got the handiest, dandiest wagons of them all!"

Pictured here, two marvels of their time. Even in "practical disguise", the 1957 Chevrolet in the foreground is one of the iconic designs of the 1950s. The three-year lifecycle of the famous Tri-Five Chevys was in its final year in 1957, and Chevrolet's design team under Clare MacKichan pulled out all the stops to make a striking design look even more spectacular. A new wide front grille with integrated bumper, space-age inspired trim details, and large anodized aluminum panels covering the „High-Fashion“ rear fenders of the Bel Air brought previously unseen glamour to GM's budget car line.

In the background is the emblematic FOCSA building, at 121 meters height still the tallest building in Cuba, which dominates the skyline of Havana. Being the world's second largest concrete building upon its completion in 1956, it was a national sensation, and it is today acclaimed as one of the seven wonders of Cuban civil engineering. The apartment building offered all the amenities of a contemporary urban lifestyle on its 39 floors: a four-level garage with 500 spaces, an in-house supermarket and its own rooftop restaurant sure made life in the 373 sea-view apartments very comfortable. It comes to no surprise that the Castro government reserved many of these apartments in post-revolutionary times for its most honorable foreign guests, predominantly Russian advisors and „specialists".

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


The automotive landscape of Cuba looks quite deserted when you look for Italian cars prior to 1960. This Fiat 1100 is one of a few on Cuban roads. Launched in 1953, the "Nuova Millecento" looks more like a toy beside the big American cruisers, but in postwar Europe it was a rather sporty and comfortable car.

Unlike other European cars of that time, the Fiat 1100 lineup saw a myriad of small changes and versions between 1953 and 1960, sometimes even two per year. We recon that this Fiat, which belongs today to the local "TVC Centrovision Yayabo", is a 1100-103 H "Lusso" from 1959: only this bi-colored version had the distinctive chrome-decor that once divided the two colors on sides and roof.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Step up to the Mighty Chrysler. Walk around it — let your fingers follow its clean and lustrous lines. Here, you sense, is a car that almost demands to be driven. Ease behind the wheel. Lounge and feel the deep pile carpeting underfoot. Survey the eye-catching world about you. Could any throne be more commanding?

Alert the engine and feel, ever so faintly, this Mighty Chrysler bridle for action. Push a button and head for the open road. Never have you dominated motion, space and time so completely! As you glide over rough spots and straighten the tightest curves, you give a silent salute to Chrysler's Torsion-Aire Ride. Let Chrysler prove its power. Touch the accelerator and surge ahead."

This view nicely shows why Chrysler's "Forward Look" design was so cutting-edge in the latter 1950s. The impressive front end really seems eager to eat up the road. With the annual facelift, the grille became even cleaner and wider looking than in its introductory year 1957. The subtle winglets at the outer tips of the bumper and massive tailfins — so dominant that Chryslers copywriters even invented the term "Directional Stabilizers" — create a purposeful, aerodynamic impression. Effective or not, if you have seen one of these Chryslers roaring down Cuba's autopista, you can sense that these cars were a different animal than your average chrome-monster of that year.

Best of all, that look wasn't just a promise, as these cars were truly serious driving machines, too. The advantages of Chrysler's "Torsion-Aire" torsion bar suspension — superior road holding and compact construction — gave an extra edge to the Chryslers: no one else could achieve such a low-slung silhouette with conventional suspension. Did we mention "Constant Control Power Steering" and "Torque Flite" transmission with "Push-Button Control" to bring the 310 horses of its 354 cubic-inch (5.787 ccm) "Spitfire" V-8 engine down to the tarmac, or the "Total Contact Brakes" to stop them?

Even without its original engine, the pictured Chrysler Saratoga is a regular award winner for its complete and authentic condition. Its owner, Reynaldo, is pretty proud of his car, and likes to display it whenever possible. The annual assembly of Havana's renown Escuderia de Autos Clásicos — A lo Cubano at the discotheque "Macumba" in Havana's La Lisa suburb is such a welcome opportunity. Here, period cars and people in period fashion nicely recreate the flavor of past times when these cars still were la última moda.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Even if allegedly all people were equal in communist countries, the functionaries found subtle ways to let everyone know that they were more equal than the rest. Case in point: the car. Even if he had the money, an average communist couldn't possess a representative car, as they were allotted according to the political status. GAZ, Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod, was the place to go when you had already climbed the ladder: who got into a "Chaika" clearly belonged to the very privileged few.

The design of the GAZ models had always been inspired by period American car styling. The GAZ-12 from 1950 looked like a blend of contemporary Cadillac and Buick up front, combined with the cabin of a Hudson. The GAZ-13 of the late 1950s seemed to be the offspring of a mid-1950s Packard. With the GAZ-14, presented in 1977 and produced until 1988, the designers finally had found an own, distinctive look. Underneath its skin, however, the "Chaika" was still based on the same old 1950s construction of its predecessor.

Our pictured "Chaika" was one of five in Fidel Castro's fleet. Since they finished their duty as representative cars, they serve as public taxis. The armor got removed and the engine replaced by a Mercedes Diesel. Easy to guess that this diet worked miracles to the economy and performance.

With a bit of luck you can catch a ride in one of these "Chaika" taxis in Havana. The interior of our pictured car features fancy rear shelf air conditioning, period all-Russian lettering on its dashboard controls, and psychedelic 1980s patterns and colors all-around. "Beach Towel" would be the right connotation. If this was the original trim, then Fidel Castro and his buddies sure had a big smile on their faces every time they drove in this car. Riding in this taxi, the average Cuban communist today can at least discover the amenities of a representative limo and feel just like the comandante en jefe and his chums.

Incidentally, the end of the GAZ-14 was caused by Michail Gorbatchev's perestroika policy which should ultimately end the Cold War and trigger the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1988, the central committee of Russia's communist party announced a decree over the omission of privileges. The use of representative cars was now forbidden for Russia's top brass, and GAZ lost its clients from one day to the next. After 11 years of production —pretty short for such a kind of car in Russia — the assembly line of the "Chaika", as well as most documentation, became obliterate. An attempt to revive the production in 1996 resulted fruitless: building such a dinosaur again simply wasn't rentable anymore.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Unmistakably, the striking modernity of this 'hard top' model makes it a car for those who strive to enjoy the finest things in contemporary life. Fleet, crisply designed lines from bumper to bumper hint of the power and smoothness that await the driver's command. There's a dash of high-spirited sportiness, too — the 'convertible' touch. Yet all the comfort of any Mercury closed car is there for passengers to enjoy. Every look, every line holds a promise of new driving pleasure, and — best of all — revolutionary new engine and chassis components make all of it come true."

The racy stickers make this Mercury look like a veritable competition machine. They are remainders of the "Copa Castrol", a rally that is organized by Havana's Escuderia de Autos Clásicos — A lo Cubano. The aforementioned oil company thankfully sponsors these events and helps keeping the classic cars rolling. Well, the Mercury's owner certainly wouldn't need such support: it is driven by Kevin Jones, an English musician and car enthusiast. Hence the Union Jack at the windshield and the tasteful restoration, that was awarded "Auto más original" at another occasion. A peek under the bonnet reveals the original Y-Block overhead-valve "V-161" V-8 engine, crowned with a massive Edelbrock air cleaner.

This modern engine was the big news at Mercury in 1954. It replaced the Flathead V-8 of previous years. Power jumped up 28 percent, from 125 to 161 horses. That engine and a new ball-joint front suspension made the Mercury become one of the sweetest driver's cars that year.

However, the Mercury had one flaw: it looked a bit tame. While the classic proportions and the tastefully restrained styling certainly appeal to today's tastes, they were a drawback back then when ostentatious trim and an ever "longer, lower, wider" look were en vogue. For 1954, a massive chrome-laden bumper should add eye-candy to the aging Mercury lineup. Yet, the company had an ace already waiting up its sleeves: the new generation of Mercurys for 1955 should feature a much more aggressive and flashy styling that could finally rival Detroit's boldest creations.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Here's where your heart skips a beat!", declared Hudson's copywriters in 1949. The same could be said about this modern conversion. When pure necessity doesn't permit to scrap any valuable asset, then a "Step-Down" Hudson, cut in half, still makes a veritable pickup truck. 

The chrome bars connecting the inner bumper guards indicate that this was once a Commodore, Hudson's top-of-the-line series. The shine and most trim have vanished since a long time, but as the car now serves a purely practical purpose, this certainly doesn't bother its owner. And because only few Hudsons remain on Cuban roads today, we clearly prefer to see half a Hudson in such a condition than no Hudson at all.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"WONDERFUL things seem to happen to people when they take over a 1955 Buick ROADMASTER like the one show here. There's a special lift just to see it waiting at he curb — swift-lined, stunningly styled, fairly breathing success. There's a heart-warming glow that seems to come just from slipping behind the wheel and taking the tasteful luxury of the fabrics, the colors, the finish. Even the little things seem to be a source of happy pride — like the ingenious new Wide-Speed Wiper that sweeps around the corners of the great panoramic windshield, or doubletimes in rapid stroke when faster cleaning is needed. But when you turn the key, start the engine and let the wheels start to roll — that's when ROADMASTER really quickens your pulse, really raises your pride."

"Looking cool" certainly is an well-practiced routine for these young habaneros, even if they'd presumably prefer a flashier place than sharing the front bench of this big almendrón.

Not even the deep-treaded truck tires can mar the imposing presence of Buick's flagship for 1955. At first glance, all Buicks of that year looked virtually similar, but in direct comparison you can clearly notice their proportional differences: besides being longer, the Roadmaster was a whopping four inches (10 centimeters) wider than an "entry-level" Buick Special, resulting in a much better stance. 

The Roadmaster used GM's corporate C-body, as did Cadillac. Both share the same roof with its massive windshield frame, while the smaller B-body Buicks sported a more fragile chrome frame around the windshield, just like the 1955 Oldsmobile 88. Details like these illustrate that GM products, despite being very divergently styled and marketed to appeal to very different customer groups, were actually not that different at all.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Here is the newest version of an automotive classic. You'll recognize it in the beauty of line . . . in the many new things in the Thunderbird for '56. The spare is mounted outside for a smarter silhouette . . . there's more space for your luggage . . . and you'll enjoy new cowl and window ventilation. You who have special appreciation for advanced design and custom craftsmanship, you who get keen enjoyment from a car that responds to your touch with the sureness of a thoroughbred, should really be driving a Thunderbird. It is for people such as you that this distinguished personal car was designed."

It was one of our "holy grails". And just as we abandoned hope to ever see one in person, a first generation Thunderbird crossed our way. The Cuban automotive landscape never ceases to hold a pleasant surprise.

The Thunderbird, introduced in 1955, was Ford's answer to the Corvette, which you could buy already since 1953. It's difficult to talk about one car without mentioning the other, as the Thunderbird only exists because of the Corvette — and vice versa. Only because of the Thunderbird's success, Chevrolet saw a market for the Corvette and continued building what back then was a disappointment, but today has become an American icon.

Ford Chief Stylist Frank Hershey got aware of the Corvette from an old buddy over at GM in 1952. The notice that Chevrolet readied the sports car for production got things rolling, and designers of Hershey's studio promptly began sketching for a Corvette competitor. To lay out the primary package of the future Thunderbird, the designers literally took measure from one of the most famous sports cars of that time by acquiring a new Jaguar XK120. Details like seat position, steering wheel angle and wheelbase became identical to the English sports car because the designers considered its package to be perfect. 

A lucky coincidence for the project's progress, Henry Ford II got interested in European sports cars when visiting the Paris Motor Show. According to George Walker's account in Time Magazine in 1957, Henry Ford II asked Walker, who advised at that time Ford Design as an external consultant, why the company wouldn't have something like that. Gambling high, Walker responded: "But we do. We are already working on it". After the conversation, Walker immediately wired Dearborn to prepare a model, and upon their return from Europe, Hershey's studio had a clay model ready for presentation, and the Thunderbird became an official project.

While the Corvette had a head-start, the Thunderbird more than made up for it on the long run. Incidentally, both companies had planned for an output of 10,000 cars in 1955. Yet the Corvette, despite looking so sporty, was a lame duck at the dealer's: in its third year Chevrolet produced only 700 cars, due to a large inventory of unsold 1954 Corvettes (3,640 had been built in that year). The Thunderbird, however, took flight already in its first year, when 16,155 Thunderbirds found new homes. Although that number went slightly down to 15,631 Thunderbirds next year, it was still considerably more than the 3,467 Corvettes produced in 1956.

This success was due to the decision of Ford's designers and product planners to go a little more fancy and less austere than the Corvette. The result became what Ford would call the "Personal Car": a performant automobile that blurred the line between sporty appearance and luxurious comfort. Even more so with the second generation that offered seating for four. What made sports car purists cry certainly put a smile on the faces of Ford's accountants as the new Thunderbird outsold its predecessor by a big margin.

Fender skirts and the Continental Kit that came standard with the 1956 models make our pictured Thunderbird a nice looking example of Fords first foray into sports cars. Its engine, however, is not the original "Thunderbird V-8" 292 cubic inch (4.8 L) powerplant. Implanted instead is a smaller 256 cu in (4.2 L) V-8 engine which powered Mercurys since 1954. Coupled with a smooth-shifting automatic transmission it is a comfortable ride, and the car still nicely growls through its four exhaust pipes whenever its chofer presses the pedal a notch too much.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

"Name what you expect of a new car today and common sense gets you to thinking Buick as the year's richest harvest of car pride and pleasure and performance. Take in the sleek lines of those sweep-back fenders, that gleaming grille, the broad breadth of the bonnet — and you know that here is styling sure to stay fresh and new for seasons to come. But get into the fields of stamina and soundness to measure the yield of this handsome traveler's building — there's where the canny buyers find Buick a bumper crop on wheels."

Here it's a pristine looking example of Buick's most popular car for 1947, even if its owner went a bit over the top when detailing his pride. Notice the fancy rearview mirrors — and no less than 10 "VentiPorts"! These famous Buick trademarks would only appear two years later on all production Buicks.

Under the watchful eye of Harley Earl, designers of General Motors' Styling Section were repeatedly setting new standards for American automotive styling over three decades between the 1930s and 1960s, and the postwar Buicks are a nice showcase of their virtues. Of all GM divisions, Harley Earl took especially great care in Buick styling, since he had a good relationship with Buick's general manager Harlow Curtice. Unsurprisingly the stunning 1938 Y-Job, the world's first concept car, was a Buick. You can notice the influence of the Y-Job in the low, horizontal front grille of our pictured Buick, as well as in the way the sculptural bonnet nicely flows into the front fenders. These unique "Airfoil" fenders run through to the rear wheel wells and should visually enhance the length of the car, true to Earl's mantra of ever "longer and lower" looking cars. Harley Earl proposed this styling detail first to Cadillac, but it was rejected for being to difficult to engineer and too costly to produce. Thus, the Cadillac featured shorter, bullet-shaped fenders, and Buick's Harlow Curtice happily opted for the "Airfoil" fenders to give his Buicks an unique look.

After all, the design of the 1947 Buick dates back as far as 1942: like most American manufacturers, Buick sold warmed-over versions of the prewar models through 1948. Cars of these last two model years look virtually identical and differ only in a subtle "Super" nameplate on their front fenders. Yet, while other postwar cars —even in GM's portfolio— increasingly began to look dated, the massive grace of the Buicks somehow didn't become outfashioned. Best of all, the Buick build quality matched the Buick look: these cars were built rock-solid and truly embodied the highly respectable progressive image that Buick stood for.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"The serene lines of the Series 2 Victor as it stands at rest make an instant appeal to the eye. There's a rightness about Victor design that is unmistakable. But it is only when you take the wheel that you appreciate the all-round efficiency that this long, low, functional form confers. The Victor's smooth stability at speed; the confident way it sits the road; its straightline reaction to braking: these qualities are designed right into the Victor; they make it a happy car do drive — a car in which you can relax and really enjoy your driving."

The Vauxhall Victor was originally designed to win over European customers with glamorous American styling, and was later sent to the States to give GM's Pontiac dealers an "European car" to sell during the compact car boom of the late 1950s. 

But the British motor press condemned the Victor exactly for its American styling, while the Americans, certainly not used to "quality" cars, were underwhelmed by the Victor's build quality, and overall didn't really know what to do with a small car that did look no different and was almost as expensive as Detroit's mainstream products. Obviously, the Vauxhall Victor had a character too vague to be appreciated on either side of the Big Pond. Fortunately, British customers weren't that picky, and because the Victor offered a lot of car for a good price, it sold quite well in its home market.

Vauxhall certainly had noticed the Victor's personality problem, and after barely two years, the facelifted Victor Series 2, shown here, was introduced to correct some of the design flaws of its predecessor. The "Dagmar" bumper cones disappeared, while straighter rear doors sans Buick-inspired crease and a flatter bonnet made the car look less baroque and much more angular, bringing it well in tune with the general contemporary styling trends. Under the skin, however, everything remained the same, which made the Victor a pretty sluggish drive for the time's standards. But now the car was out of its teething troubles, and offered a sound and reliable construction.

Vauxhall's venture into the New World should be a short one: by 1962, when the new Victor was presented, GM had its own compact cars ready to sell in the U.S. and there was no more need for the imports from across the Atlantic.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"The longing of untold Mercedes-Benz admirers for a car of low operating costs, high driving comfort, and interior spaciousness is ideally met by the thrifty Diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz 180 D. In this elegant all-purpose Sedan you will miss neither speed nor comfort, and only in refueling you become aware that the '180 D' is powered by a Diesel engine, for its unmatched miles-per-gallon economy reveals savings which actually help you to cut down traveling expenses."

Long before the oil crisis of 1973 made the Diesel engine an accepted option in passenger cars, Mercedes Benz already had explored the unthinkable. It was a strange mixture that Europe's biggest manufacturer of expensive fine cars presented with the 180 D in 1954: outside it was a representative modern middle class Mercedes, but underneath the bonnet worked an engine that would normally power trucks or tractors. This loud, vibrating and asthmatic engine was a far cry from the refinement of modern Diesel engines, but it offered very economic transportation. Unsurprisingly, Germany's taxi drivers instantly embraced the economic mixture, and soon many future Mercedes drivers should make their first contact with the amenities of these luxurious automobiles via a paid taxi ride.

The current owner bought our pictured car in 1970. "I have a second Mercedes that my son is driving. They look the same, but the other one has a Lada engine installed. It goes faster, but I prefer the Diesel Mercedes. It offers much more economía, and that is what counts today."

Judged by the number of cars still circulating on Cuban roads, Studebaker dealers on the island apparently have been pretty active to promote Mercedes models. Availability of the German cars in the whole of Northern America is mentioned in this 1957 advertisement: "Every Mercedes-Benz inherits a tradition of excellence unrivaled by any other motor car. It is a tradition extending back through 70 years of craftsmanship, knowledge and experience. Mercedes-Benz dealers are conveniently located in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Cuba. Write: Mercedes-Benz Sales and Service, Studebaker-Packard Corporation, South Bend 27, Indiana."

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Every so often a car is born so perfect in proportion that it is internationally acclaimed a classic. Such a car is the 59 Ford  . . .  awarded the Gold Medal for exceptional styling by the Comité Français de l'Elégance at the Brussels World's Fair!"

When new, it had a shiny chrome panel adorning its lower rear fender. This panel disappeared at some point in time, but otherwise our pictured Ford Fairlane 500 is in pretty good shape, considering that this car is more than half a century old.

By today's standards, the Fords for 1959 were not very harmoniously proportioned and thus look a bit odd, but in 1959 their styling was perceived as eye-pleasing and modern. The Comité Français de l'Elégance even awarded a gold medal at Brussels world fair for "proportions exceptionales et la ligne élégante". Arguably, there are better examples for automotive elegance, but back then the tastes were different ...

Evidently, the Ford designers under studio chief Joe Oros took a good dose of inspiration from the angular, cutting–edge Mercury styling when crafting the clay models for the 1959 Ford. Compared to other American cars of that year, the Ford looked reasonably restrained after all. The only part that screamed "excess" was its trunk, sporting dish-sized "Iris-Eye Safety Taillights". The boxy front end, in comparison, looked surprisingly tame and conservative but was in all its treatment a positive departure from the rather baroque 1950s detailing.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Take a good look at the new ALEXANDER TS. This is a car in which all desirable qualities are combined and which, in addition, can offer riding safety and economy in fuel consumption and maintenance hitherto completely unknown. The new ALEXANDER TS is the result of many years of experience in the design and mass-manufacture of 'light' cars. Is is not a scaled-down big car, but an independent design, aimed from the outset at achieving a maximum of performance, economy, passenger capacity and reliability. The ALEXANDER TS offers features deemed desirable in big luxury cars and, as you will soon find out, many more that will endear it to the heart of its owner."

What looks like an odd DIY-job, was once a hot seller in postwar Germany. The Lloyd Alexander was presented in 1957 as the successor of the similarly shaped Lloyd 600, which bowed in 1955 and immediately scored a respectable third place behind Volkswagen and Opel in the annual German production statistics.

The new Lloyd Alexander sported some significant improvements which made it more acceptable as a "real" car. Most notably, the trunk of the new Lloyd became accessible from the outside through a proper hatch, and a synchronized gearbox was installed. And you could now actually crank down the windows to get some fresh air in — presumably not an unimportant selling factor in the tropical climate of Cuba.

Despite its frugal look, the Lloyd Alexander was a well-equipped automobile at an inexpensive price. One of its technical singularities was the car's four-stroke engine: the pistons of its "parallel twin" two-cylinder motor moved synchronously up and down. In fact, this was merely a bigger motorcycle engine, as contemporary bikes featured similar technology. With a displacement of 36.37 cubic inch (596 ccm), the 19 hp motor accelerated the light Alexander in about a minute to 60 miles per hour (100 km/h). 

The little Lloyd received a facelift in 1958. Now called Alexander TS, it was instantly recognizable by its semi-elliptic front grille. Bigger improvements happened under the skin: front lights with asymmetric beam and window washers significantly improved safety, while a new rear axle and a stronger engine meant much better handling and an increased top speed of 68 mph (110 km/h). We certainly wouldn't like to go that fast in the little Lloyd, and the insurance companies perhaps thought the same. Soon, Lloyd limited the power to 23hp, and topped the speed at 66 mph (107 km/h) to get a better classification. That's still a remarkable performance for such a little car. The Germans rhymed accordingly: "Wer den Tod nicht scheut fährt Lloyd." ("He who is not afraid of the death drives a Lloyd.")

It might sound surprising, but the little Lloyd was quite popular across the Atlantic, too. Sales in the U.S. were reasonably good between 1955 and 1959, but took a header in 1960. Better compact cars were widely available now, which lead to the Lloyd's sudden fall. With it fell the Borgward Group, Lloyd's single proprietor, in 1961. Income from the U.S. exports was crucial for Borgward, and the crash of the import boom in 1960 contributed to the bankruptcy of Borgward. Who would have thought that such a small automobile could ever play such an important role ...