Thursday, November 19, 2015

"This new Renault '51 is the only foreign car built especially for American roads. Before it was placed in production in Europe's largest automotive works, at Billaincourt, France, it was tested and re-tested by crews of engineers over every kind of American road — and at every temperature from Maine's 20° below to Imperial Valley's 120° above zero. With the engine in the rear (where it should be) this newest Renault travels 40-50 miles to the gallon. Only two quarts of oil fill the crankcase. Roll-down windows and improved wind deflectors provide ample no-draft ventilation. Its carburetor has been improved. Monocoque welded steel body construction provides greater safety and eliminates squeaks and rattles, while independent four wheel springing makes even the longest drive a pleasure. Get behind the wheel of a new Renault '51 sedan and you will soon see why it won the International Grand Prix! An authorized Renault dealer near you — with factory service and ample spare parts . . . is waiting to give you the ride of your life in the Renault '51!"

Here's one of the many rather exotic vintage cars that co-exist with the common American land yachts on Cuban roads. Meet the Renault 4CV, pioneer of the French mass motorization.

French car design traditionally seems to be driven by eccentricity. The engineers at companies like Citroen or Panhard apparently enjoyed "reinventing the wheel" every time they developed a new car. Renault, albeit being generally a fair bit more conservative, wasn't an exception to the rule, and the 4CV is a product of that unorthodox mindset.

Renault engineers developed the 4CV covertly during the times of the German occupation. Thus, already half a year after the liberation from the Nazis, prototypes of the little Renault ran, and the finished car bowed to the public in October 1946. The public soon nicknamed it "motte de beurre", lump of butter, because of its cream-yellow paint: during the wartime occupation, Renault had built trucks for the German desert warfare in North Africa, and a big inventory of unused camouflage color was left over. Painted solely in that color, the first series of 4CV stood out from the average black and grey cars of the era, and effectively drew the public attention to the little Renault.

In true French spirit, the Renault showed some peculiar design details. Ready for some trivia? There was, for instance, one easily accessible filler cap on the car. Be warned, though: it wasn't meant for fuel but for radiator fluid. To refuel the little Renault, you had to open the engine bay because the fuel cap was hidden under the bonnet. Imagine which one you needed more frequently. Another detail: because the four doors were hinged at the B-post, access to the rear bench was a breeze. Access to the front seats, however, wasn't nearly as comfortable. "Suicide" doors and a wide rocker section that was hidden underneath the front fender extension guaranteed that your trousers got dirty quite regularly.

Perhaps most notably, the engine was placed in the rear, just like in the German VW Beetle. Like the German car, the Renault had a modern monocoque body with a flat floor pan, resulting in a pretty spacious interior. When they began developing the 4CV, the French engineers sure knew about the VW Beetle. French authorities even "invited" (read: forced) the Beetle's constructor, Ferdinand Porsche, to look after the Renault development after they arrested him as Nazi collaborator in December of 1945, and kept him imprisoned in France for the following 20 months. It's not quite clear, though, how much influence Porsche's opinion had in the final design of the 4CV. Quite likely, the french engineers wouldn't accept substantial critics from the former enemy.

Just like the Volkswagen in Germany, the 4CV was instrumental in the mass motorization that brought many a French people in possession of their own car. When the production ended in 1961, more than 1.1 million 4CV had left the factory. Although the company was busy to feed the tremendous demand in France, a number of cars were exported to the United States, and quite a few, like this one from Havana, found their way to Cuba, too.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

„This year Dodge brings you a new fashion show on wheels – fresh-full of styling advances that are a dream away for ordinary cars! New 'safety-made' dual headlamps on every model! New glamour grille! New dashing color sweep! Here’s Dodge Flight-Sweep ’58 beauty . . . fleet-finned, sleek-lined and ready to win a place in your heart!“

Dodge by its badge, but Plymouth by any other name, this Kingsway Custom from Havana is a truly nice looking "Plodge". Easily discernible from the "real" 1958 Dodges by different tailfins and door handles, the Kingsway Custom was essentially a Plymouth Belvedere with a Dodge front clip bolted on. Chrysler built these export vehicles, based on the cheaper Plymouth platform, to give its dealers abroad competitively priced entry-level models.

With the chofer at the wheel you can see how nimble Chryslers "Forward Look" models actually appear, particularly when compared to the bloated GM designs of the same year. No surprise that the first sight of these Chryslers in late 1956 caused quite a dismay among the GM designers and triggered the move towards a leaner and cleaner styling for the whole 1959 GM lineup.

Friday, November 6, 2015

"Nothing spared. Except the expense."

Ladas are omnipresent in Cuba, but few are in such a good condition as this one from Sancti Spiritus. Most Ladas are in much worse shape, as they are typically "official" vehicles, registered to the government or to state owned enterprises. Their drivers don't own these cars, and usually don't spend the same attention as a private owner would do.

Yet, our pictured Lada 2107 is in private hands and its dueño cherishes his possession. "Mira", he told us with a broad smile, "this is a custom car! It has custom door handles, custom mirrors and custom air condition." The rest, thankfully, looks pretty much like it did when the car left the Togliatti factory in 2007.

The Fiat origins are evident in the Lada 2107. In fact, mechanically the car is virtually identical to its predecessor Lada 2101 which itself was a close copy of the Fiat 124. The Lada 2101 had been built for about a decade, when the Russians decided that it was time for a substantial update, and presented the Lada Nova (also known as Lada Riva in Great Britain) in 1979. By adding rectangular headlights, and sharper sculpted body panels, the Russian stylists miraculously managed to make the boxy car look even more boxy. The "luxurious" top version Lada 2107 followed in 1982 and flaunted an extra-large chrome grille and seats with headrests.

The Lada Nova remained in production virtually forever. About three decades, that was. The last "classic" Lada left the Russian factory in September 2012. If you fancy a newer model year, then head to Egypt. There, the Lada 2107 was still produced by the Al-Amal Group until 2014, before the assembly line was retooled for the production of the modern Lada Granta.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Newest heartthrob in sight — the Impala Sport Coupe. Longer by over nine inches, lower by more than two, the Impala, like every '58 Chevy, wears the look of a car just naturally born for the road. Begin at its massive new grille and multiple roadlights . . . sweep your glance along its taut, sleek length. This is the newest — that's for sure!"

In light of the well-proportioned 1955 - 1957 Chevrolets, the design of their successor seems like an odd deviation from a winning formula. Yet, when the development of the 1958 models began in mid 1955, nobody knew that the just introduced Tri-Five Chevys would once become a Fifties classic. The forward-looking zeitgeist of the 1950s aroused rapid change rather than refinement, and thus, the divergent look of the 1958 lineup is the somewhat logical consequence of Harley Earls push for ever more glamour on all GM cars.

Especially Virgil Exner's stunning "Forward Look" Mopars of 1955 had surprised the GM designers which were used to be the undisputed trend setters in American automotive styling since the 1930s. Now, the competition began to catch up and overtake. Harley Earl's answer to the threat was simply more flash and more flamboyance. Thus came the 1958 model year, in which the previously decently styled GM models changed into heavy looking chrome monsters.

Although showing the most sedate design of all GM models for 1958, Chevrolet clearly aimed at the lower end of the luxury field with the new Impala. This was a daring move from GM's budget division, even if moving up was a general industry trend these days: Ford had just introduced the upscale Edsel brand with much fanfare and with the same goal. Edsel failed miserably, but the pudgy and pretentious 1958 Chevrolets reclaimed the perennial number one sales rank that Chevy had lost to Ford in 1957 with the very models that are today acclaimed icons of American car styling.

To make the Impala Coupe stand out in Chevrolet’s lineup, the designers under studio chief Clare MacKichan employed some interesting trickery. A shorter and tighter cabin effectively altered the car's proportions: the extended trunk and the lower roof, down by 1.4 inches (35mm), made the coupe appear much longer than the other 1958 Chevrolets, even if they shared the same wheelbase and overall length. Additional chrome trim, faux air scoops and six tail lights instead of four clearly showed you who was the boss in the economy class.

Fortunately, the hefty 1958 Chevrolets should last only one summer as GM's bean counters had anyway planned to set all GM models on a redesigned common platform with many more shared parts for 1959. This gave the GM stylists the opportunity to correct their styling mishap and, through subtle but definite insurrection against Harley Earl's design decree, develop much leaner looking shapes for the 1959 lineup. Read more about that here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Datsun. A lot of miles per gallon. A lot of miles per car."

Quite a few owners of vintage cars in Cuba swear to god that theirs is the only one existing on the island. If the driver of our pictured Datsun would tell such thing, we'd believe him right away. This quirky Japanese car is a truly singular sight on the island.

The B-210 was already the third generation of Datsun's compact "Sunny", and it's a nice example for the sometimes pretty quirky Japanese designs of the era. According to Nissan's Service Bulletin, Vol. 188 of 1973, the B-210 was developed "to be more likable and satisfactory to a greater number of people", by sporting a "Streamline and a Cut" exterior design theme and an "Oval Scoop Cockpit". Sounds funny today, but the relentless analysis of customer needs made the previously irrelevant Japanese imports so successful in the American market.

It was fortunate timing, too, when the Datsun Sunny B-210 was presented in 1973: the first oil crisis was ramping up, and the frugal Japanese econobox soon became extremely popular. Datsun even introduced an extra-frugal 2-door sedan edition, called "Honey Bee": a bright yellow hue with contrasting black deco strips and labels made the "Honey Bee" truly look like a caricature version of Dodge's "Super Bee" muscle cars. Well, at least it grabbed attention.

More attention grabbing, however, was the Datsun's fuel economy, on which the advertisement happily focused: "Datsun's gas economy is nothing new. We've been building economy cars for 43 years, and we seem to get better with age. Take our 1976 Datsun B-210. The latest EPA fuel economy tests record the B-210 at 41 MPG at the highway, 29 MPG in the city. (*EPA dynamometer estimate with manual transmission. Actual MPG may be more or less, depending on the condition of your car and how you drive.) Better than last year!"

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"A Cadillac owner is, understandably, a most severe critic of motor cars. For, through the years, he has grown accustomed to nothing than the finest in personal transportation. . . . It is of particular significance, therefore, that these experienced Cadillac owners should be — as they are — so unqualified in their praise of the new 1950 Cadillacs. For nowhere could be found more convincing evidence that these new creations are simply 'out of this world'. . . . If you are not yet acquainted with the magnificent new Cadillacs, make arrangements to visit your dealer soon. Now, in his showroom, is visual proof that Cadillac remains — the Standard of the World."

Even battered, this Cadillac whisking through the streets of Havana conveys a lot of the poise and elegance that made the brand so outstanding and irresistible to its customers.

A small gimmick did catapult Cadillac to the pinnacle of automotive fashion: when introducing the first tailfins in 1948, nobody imagined that this single feature would become the item which should define a whole decade of American car styling. The rest is history: everybody fell in line and till the end of the 1950s, these tailfins would rise to excessive format.

The tailfins of our pictured 1950 model are nearly identical to those from 1948. The rest of the car got subtly but noticeably restyled for 1950: the prouder and more upright bonnet and front fenders, which extend through the doors to form a pronounced shoulder line, show a clearly more angular styling, and those long, straight volumes express a certain serenity.

The beholder's eye was probably more drawn to the shiny embellishments than to the conservative basic architecture. The vertical dummy "air intake" at the rear fender, the tombstone front grille and the aforementioned tailfins changed ever so slightly each year, while the typical Cadillac look was always preserved. That's what Cadillac did best — keeping a reassuring continuity of style while introducing enough visual change to lure more customers into buying an "all-new" Cadillac each year. And how they did: Cadillac passed the 100,000 sales mark in 1950, leaving America's other luxury brands — Lincoln and Packard — far, far behind.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Fiat 1200 full-light saloon is an elegant car of brilliant performance. Mechanical units derived from the 1100, but with a 1221 c.c. engine developing more power at all speeds. Greater acceleration. Speed about 140 km (87 miles) p.h."

One wonders how the oh-so-emotional Italians could ever bring themselves to advertise one of their cars in such a dry and factual way, especially when the principal reason for the development of the Fiat 1200 was to stir up emotions. Soon after the launch of the "Nuova Millecento", quite a few customers began asking for a beefier engine. The Fiat engineers under Dante Giacosa determined that the light monocoque chassis of the Fiat 1100 could easily handle more power, and decided to mount a 1,221 ccm engine, which should also power the sporty 1200 TV Spider. Yet, they didn't stop there.

Like Sir Alec Issigonis at Morris, Fiat's Dante Giacosa was one of those engineering principals that highly valued aesthetics, and thus, he endorsed a visual "upgrade" of the new 1200. Now, it's common sense that structural body parts of a car, especially roof and glass area, are the most expensive parts to modify, and they usually don't get touched unless it's absolutely necessary. Instead, carmakers change only the outer sheet metal when doing a facelift, while the structural body remains unchanged throughout the life cycle. The Italians, however, went the opposite way: roof and glass area of the new Fiat 1200 became entirely renewed while the outer sheet metal remained unchanged.

This was a costly decision, but the result did prove the Italian engineers right. Compared to its predecessor, the "new" Fiat looked clean and ultra-modern upon its presentation in late 1957, and was clearly a car of the 1960s, anticipating the trend to more angular shapes that should emerge in the U.S. with the Chevrolet Corvair two years later.

Because of its airy cabin, the Fiat 1200 was christened "Granluce" which the respective export markets literally translated into "Full-Light" or "Grande Vue". The U.S.-bound Fiats were imported by Max Hoffmann of New York, and certainly looked strange beside all the BMWs, Alfa Romeos, Healeys or Porsches that usually populated Hofmann's showrooms. Our pictured Fiat, however, as its owner proudly emphasizes, came to Cuba directly from Italy in 1958, and remained within the family ever since.

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 folks 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.