Friday, May 20, 2016

"If they called last year's Alfa 'nearly perfect', wait till they handle our new 2000."

You rarely see them on the road, but quite surprisingly Alfa Romeo cars are deeply rooted in Cuba's collective memory. Many senior citizens still remember them, because since the early 1970s, Alfa Berlinas were the typical police cars before they eventually got replaced by Russian Ladas. "They easily could outrun everything else. And the sound, maravilloso!", remembers a witness of that period.

The first batch of Alfa 1750 was delivered to Cuba in 1968. Our pictured Alfa 2000 is an updated version, introduced in 1971. It sported a bigger engine and a revised front grille with four headlights of equal size instead of the bigger outer lights of the Alfa 1750. Besides being used as police cars, these Alfas were for many years exclusively the ride of high-ranking government officials. As usual in socialist times, the demand by far exceeded the supply, and thus the Alfa quickly became THE status symbol of the functionaries at the top of the food chain.

The man responsible for the appearance of these stylish Italian cars on the island was Leo Cittone, sales director of the biggest Italian trade company, Cogis S.p.A.. Cogis was the first European enterprise who helped breaking the U.S. trade embargo by facilitating the export of Cuban sugar through elaborate deals via the port of Genua in 1962. Over these deals, Cittone and Fidel Castro became close friends, and subsequently the Italian became a privileged business partner, establishing his own Italo-Cuban trade company, Comei S.p.A., in the late 1970s. Incidentally, this friendship had far reaching effects to the society: the fact that Pizza and Spaghetti today are a common Cuban meal, dates back to a wave of "italianitis" in the mid-1960s, when hundreds of restaurants suddenly were converted into pizzerias by government decree. Coincidence? Unlikely. Olivetti typewriters became commonplace and today the Cuban police still rides Moto Guzzi bikes, thanks to the Italian connection.

But back to the Alfa Romeo. The Bertone design might look quite unspectacular, but underneath the bonnet sat a veritable cuore sportivo: the 1,962cc twin cam inline four-cylinder engine was good for 150hp and accelerated the Alfa from zero to 100km/h (60mph) in 9.5 seconds, up to a top speed of 190km/h (118mph). Back then this was sports car stuff and certainly more than enough zest for Cuban roads. Even more striking: the sensitive way the Alfa handled. The combination of remarkable performance and well-tuned suspension made the Alfa Berlina one of the most compelling drives of its time. Accordingly, the copywriters of this 1972 ad boldly emphasized on Alfa's strengths:

"Experts keep saying nice things about Alfas. Autoweek, the nation's racing bible, summed up our 1750 Veloce as 'nearly perfect'. How will they describe the new 2000 series? We've added more horses and boosted the torque for extra zip in the middle range (where you need it most).

There's no extra charge for handling — the famous road-holding and cornering that set an Alfa apart. And now you can even have an advanced limited-slip differential.

If you drive to a different drum, you want your car to be an exciting, spirited extension of yourself. And that's exactly why so many pro's praise Alfas. If the new 2000 isn't the perfect car, we're certainly getting closer."

Saturday, May 14, 2016

"If it's the most value you want, it's the New Plymouth you want. Here's an easier car to drive — a safer, more comfortable car to ride in — a sturdier more powerful car for long-time, dependable performance — the greatest of all great Plymouths!"

They might not be the most stylish sizzlers, but Chrysler's "Keller boxes" are remarkably well engineered automobiles. Their quality shows today, on Cuban roads, in the oftentimes surprisingly good condition of these cars.

Our pictured Plymouth from 1949 and its owner, Argelio, regularly participate in rallies and other activities of Havana's renown Escuderia de Autos Clásicos — A lo Cubano. Hence the various stickers. The car was even awarded first place for its "original condition" in one of these competitions. Jurors of classic car clubs in other countries would probably disagree with this assessment. Yet, the preconditions for "original" certainly differ in Cuba. Consider this: rather than in an air conditioned garage, the Plymouth has spent its entire life on the road. After more than six decades in regular use, it still runs with the first engine, transmission and drivetrain, says Argelio, despite the lamentable lack of factory service and spare parts. That's quite an achievement. Details like the delaminating windshield give the Plymouth a nice patina — much more fascinating than any fully restored and pampered "trailer queen".

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"Everything says Luxury Car — Except the Price!"

In automotive styling, it is rare that a Plain Jane is more attractive than the top model, but in case of the Ford 17M we do prefer the base model over the "De Luxe" version, as its four-holed front grille adds a good dose of sportiness.

According to its owner, this car was registered in summer of 1958, which makes it one of Ford's earlier exports to North America. The company massively increased the shipments from its German and British subsidiaries in mid-1958 to provide American Ford dealers with the "compact" cars the buying public so suddenly demanded. Because Detroit's Big Three had completely missed out on that trend, these imports were their only chance to keep on selling competitive automobiles before their own compact cars were ready to hit the road.

Between 1958 and 1959, Ford shipped 8,197 Taunus to the U.S., and sold them mostly through Mercury — Edsel — Lincoln dealers, who probably needed these "compact" cars badly, as their own fullsize cars were collecting dust in the showrooms. But already in late 1960, one year after the introduction of the domestic Ford Falcon, the import from Germany was stopped.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"Long the favorite of the world's most discerning families, the Cadillac Series 62 Sedan again features generously proportioned interiors, now more beautifully and luxuriously appointed than ever before. Like all 1955 Cadillacs, it offers superb riding comfort and markedly easy handling. Its look of length and lowness is evidence of its remarkable stability and handling sureness. The Series 62 Sedan is truly one of the finest family cars on the road today."

The fact that plenty of 1955 Cadillacs are still driving on Cuban roads speaks volumes about the quality of these magnificent automobiles. And about their popularity among the wealthy Cubans that enthusiastically bought them back in the day. In those prosperous years, Cuba's urban society was on the upswing, and there was obviously plenty of the necessary dinero available to afford this American extravaganza.

Since the late 1940s, Cadillac had been the rising star among America's established luxury car makers. Careful product planning and an evolutionary design strategy led to a popularity that was previously unseen in that segment: Cadillac sold 140,477 cars in 1955, 44,097 more than in the year before.

That sales surge seems a bit odd, as 1955 was merely a year of little cosmetic refinements at Cadillac. Yet, changing a successful formula was all but necessary, as you can witness on our pictured photo model: its well balanced proportions and its —for the time's taste— restrained flamboyance give the Cadillac a timeless dignity that perfectly suited the image of America's most desirable luxury brand.

Friday, April 22, 2016

"The accent's on action . . . in Oldsmobile's thrilling Super 88 Series! And this Convertible invites you to steer a course to magic moments of wide-open adventure. The top lowers neatly — out of sight — to reveal rich leather interiors in your choice of four stunning color combinations. And poised beneath the hood there's all the surging might of the new Rocket T-400 Engine! Road-hugging lines and new Wide-Stance Chassis tell you this Olds is solidly grounded for skimming the highway safely and securely."

A genuine 1957 Oldsmobile convertible is a car that you rarely see on Cuban roads. Quite unsurprisingly so, as Oldsmobile produced merely 7,128 "Super 88" convertibles in its "Golden Anniversary" year. Unlike the sister models from Buick or Pontiac, Oldsmobiles were considered looking pretty tame. And by 1950s standards, an understated look wasn't exactly what convertible buyers longed for.

But make no mistake: the company which had kicked off the race for ever more horsepower with the introduction of the "Rocket" V-8 engine in 1949, still knew how to build one the most potent cars on American roads. For 1957, the 371 cubic-inch (6 l) "Rocket T-400" standard engine had 277hp, while a 83 Dollar surcharge bought you the 300hp "J2" performance option with triple 2-barrel Rochester carburetors. Quick it was. Only the styling didn't betray the beast under the bonnet.

The GM designers choose quite a subtle way of distinguishing the different trim levels in the Oldsmobile lineup: if the colored strip within the chrome trim followed the sweep from the windshield frame down to the rear fender, it was a "Super 88". If that strip went down in a straight line, starting just behind the door handle, it was the base model "Golden Rocket 88". Less attentive observers would always notice a "Super 88" script at the front fenders, but our featured car has lost its badge a long time ago.

Notwithstanding its understated styling, the Olds convertible did look pretty handsome on the road. Until a "Forward Look" Mopar car pulled alongside, that was: side by side, the Olds suddenly appeared fairly fatty and dated while the Chrysler product captured the zeitgeist in a much more convincing way. Ironically, Harley Earl had incessantly called for building the longest and lowest looking cars in the industry over the past decades, but now the GM designers found themselves beaten on their "home turf".

Oh, in case you were wondering: those bucket seats didn't come standard.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

"The New Popular Car For Family Motoring"

When we came across this curious vehicle, we assumed that it once must have been a VW Beetle: engine in the rear – check. Flat windshield – check. Rear side glass shape – kind of, check.

We were at least half right, as engine and rear axle are in fact from a "VW mexicano". But when the owner repeatedly referred to his "Goggo", he definitely had caught our attention. Turns out that the base of this automotive Frankenstein is a German Goggomobil from 1958. It fragmentarily shows in bonnet and windshield, and in the lateral engine air intake. Front axle and doors are taken from a Russian Lada 2101, while the rest is freestylin' and filler. It ain't pretty but it does the job.

The original Goggomobil did look a bit more handsome but was equally basic. Former tractor- and scooter manufacturer Glas from Bavaria began development of a "four-wheeled scooter with roof" in 1952, when it became apparent that the Germans would buy more and more automobiles in the future. In 1954, the Goggomobil bowed to the public, and soon became very popular, because it offered more comfort than the most common microcars of the time, such as the BMW Isetta (thanks, Caristas) or the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller. These spartan vehicles were the base of the German postwar motorization, when only a few Germans could afford an Opel or Mercedes. Originally propelled by an air-cooled 250cc two-stroke engine with 13hp, the Goggomobil was exported to the U.S. since 1957 with a more powerful 400cc, 20hp engine. The export models had sealed beam headlights and an automatic gasoline-oil mixer, as the Americans certainly weren't used to add the necessary two-stroke engine oil each time they filled up.

On American shores, the Goggomobil remained a rarity. Even the smallest domestic compact cars were huge and comfortable, compared to the austere German shoebox. Cuban choferes were apparently quite open to the idea of low-priced mobility, hence the amount of tiny vehicles on the island. On the narrow streets of many Cuban cities, these petite automobiles were perhaps the smarter choice, anyway.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"To see 'the new face and form of motor car fashion for 1939' at its very best — see the new Chevrolet! Its new Aero-Stream Styling, its new Body by Fisher, its new Custom-Tailored Interior, all have won the unqualified endorsement of men and women who appreciate good looks and good taste. First in fashion . . . first in quality and value . . . 'Chevrolet's the Choice!'"

Notwithstanding its "experimental" colors, this Chevrolet from Havana shows a stunning elegance and road presence that seems atypical for a mere "budget" car. Mind you, this was the cheapest model in the whole GM lineup!

The upscale impression of the Chevy was created by a pretty simple trick: since establishing the world's first corporate car design studio in 1927, Harley Earl occasionally applied styling elements of GM's more glamorous brands on to the cheaper models to add status to their appearance. In 1939, for example, Chevrolet's styling showed apparent Cadillac overtones. Two years later, the Chevy resembled an expensive Buick. These illusions helped to distinguish GM's budget models from their competition. Furthermore, Earl's relentless quest to create "longer, lower and wider" looking cars resulted in proportions that made these models simply look "better" on the road, and the customers honored that with a massively increasing demand.

The industrial car styling process that Harley Earl installed at GM also demanded a change in GM's traditional development hierarchy, in particular by cutting back the influence of Fisher Body, GM's coachbuilding division, that in the early 1930s still had a final word in all technical and styling matters. Establishing the styling department as a deciding authority that increasingly could dominate even GM's own engineering departments was perhaps Earl's biggest internal achievement. Within a few years, car styling became the most important sales factor, and was one reason for the massive growth of GM's market share in these years.

And in fact, the GM cars soon showed a much more flamboyant and expressive character: a comparison of the first Chevrolet whose styling was entirely controlled by Harley Earl's "Art and Color section", with the model you could buy only three years later in 1939, nicely illustrates the progress that American car styling made in these years.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

„The Crestline Victoria . . . you’ll say it’s merely terrific!“

Here’s a genuine Cuban Classic: a chopped up Ford Crestline Victoria from 1953 that wears the front grille of a 1954 and the trim of a 1955 model, and somehow anticipates a Ford Ranchero. You couldn't buy that factory pickup sedan from Ford before 1957. However, Cuban metal crafters managed to create a convincingly looking pickup conversion here.

Over time, many vintage cars on the island changed their appearance out of necessity, usually to cover the constant lack of proper transportation: sedans were converted into station wagons, or became pickups, trucks changed into buses and former diesel railcars into passenger coaches.

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Quite a few vehicles on Cuban roads are way too mousy to turn heads, and yet you can't really miss them either, as they are virtually all over the place. Most of them are of Russian provenance, and here's one of them.

A true Methuselah of Russia's automotive production, the UAZ-452 is still being produced today, which makes it a bit difficult to determine the exact age of our pictured car. Most likely, it arrived on the island before 1989 when the dissolution of the Soviet Union triggered the periodo especial, the economic crisis that strangles Cuba still today. Anyhow, the simple side mirrors hint at a pre-2001 model, while the orange indicator lights and rectangular rear lights (not shown, but we know) hint at a car that was built after 1979. They were the highlights of the first substantial "facelift", a quarter century after the very first UAZ-450 series van was assembled by Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod back in 1955.

The pictured 4x4 version UAZ-452 was added in 1965. It was based on the GAZ-69 Jeep (driving in the background), and initially powered by the engine of the GAZ M21 Volga, which made driving the heavy 4x4 quite an anemic affair. Nonetheless, the UAZ-452 became soon popular among the Russian comrades because its simple construction, while not offering much comfort, made it so utterly reliable. In the so-called "bread loaf" you traveled slowly, but at least you arrived. Over the years, the UAZ-452 spawned a myriad of versions, suitable for most transport needs and climates of the vast territory of the Soviet Union.

This virtual indestructibility didn't pass unnoticed, and subsequently the export became a steady source of income for UAZ. Eventually these cars were exported to nearly 100 countries worldwide, with the vast majority being, of course, shipped to socialist countries, including Cuba.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"A bright new freshness forward, aft and all-around. It's here in distinctive new Wide-Screen Grille and chrome-capped headlamp — there in dramatic new sweptback tail light — inside with modern décor and new tri-spoked steering wheel — everywhere in low-lined, lithe, new fashion. Here in Buick for 1955 is the style leadership of today and tomorrow — and the thrilling beauty buy for you."

Against the blue windows of the shopping mall "Galerías de Paseo", right at Havana's Malecon, this 1955 Buick drop top becomes a striking photo subject. It comes in handy that "Grancar", the state-owned company that operates this Buick, readily offers sightseeing rides through Havana. Admiring tourists often can't resist the temptation to ride around in an authentic 1950s convertible, which is the reason why the Buick never stays long at this place.

Only car buffs would notice that this car wasn't always a convertible. There is a remaining strip of metal roof on top of the windshield frame, indicating that this was once a Buick Special Riviera hardtop. "Grancar" is quite infamous for these "chop jobs", remodeled cars that complete their fleet of genuine convertibles. Open cars seem to generate more income from happy customers, which makes these modifications a worthwhile effort.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"In 1913 . . . PEUGEOT introduced the modern small, fast engine to American racing in this Indianapolis Speedway winner! Now in 1958 . . . PEUGEOT comes over from France again with this excitingly sensible Sportsedan! Peugeot — one of the world's great names in auto making — now brings to America a 5—6 passenger family sedan that has all the spirit and glow of a sports car."

French cars are a longstanding part of Cuba's automotive landscape. In fact, the very first automobiles registered in Cuba were French models: in 1898, señor José Muñoz brought a La Parisienne to the island. Shortly after, in 1899, a Rochet & Schneider, built in Lyon, was imported by pharmacist Ernesto Sarrá from Havana. These two cars mark the beginning of Cuba's automobile history, and the beginning of an increasingly intense love affair between the Cubans and their cars.

Compared to the often eccentric French designs, the Peugeot 403 was a very conventional car. Peugeot had earned the reputation of being a "French Mercedes" in postwar Europe, and the timeless design of the 403 nicely underlines this conservative image. Presented in April 1955, it was the very first Peugeot which was styled across the Alps by carozzeria Pininfarina of Torino. This partnership should flourish for the following 50 years and spawn many more successful Peugeot designs. Battista "Pinin" Farina's proposal for the 403 eschewed the typical 1950s gimmickry, and instead stood out with well-judged proportions and very clean shapes. They gave the car an elegant and understated look that still appeared modern when Peugeot entered the American market three years later.

The men at the helm of Peugeot had long been hesitating to conquer the export markets across the Atlantic. Maurice Jordan, Peugeot's operating chief between 1933 and 1973, felt that exports would be "unprofitable" to the company, and saw them merely as "a means to keep production lines working and bring a greater economy of scale." The impetus to enter the U.S. Market finally came through pressure from the French government that hoped for hard Yankee currency in return of the country's industrial products. To keep things tidy, the government insisted that Peugeot should distribute its cars through the existing dealer network of the nationalized Régie Renault.

Thus, Peugeot began to export the 403 in 1958, halfhearted and skeptical about their expansion to the New World. But then a surprising thing happened: soon, there was a long waiting list from customers that yearned for one of the cute French cars, and the company shipped ten percent of its production to the U.S. It was truly fortunate timing, as Peugeot could capitalize on the "compact" car boom that had caught Detroit's established players completely by surprise.

Peugeot was on a roll, but not for long. Three years later, Detroit's Big Three had launched their own compacts, and the obvious "laissez-faire" quality of other French makes had eroded the American trust into anything French. 1961 became a disastrous year for Peugeot. The company even had to repatriate 1,740 exported cars back to France. Other markets, at least, weren't that sensitive. Even today, the 403 is a common sight in many Latin American and African countries, where the Peugeot's outstanding reliability is widely appreciated.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

"You might not have that new-car urge, but the FIREBALL will smoke you out. Ever notice when you lift the hood of this sprightly 1941 Buick how much engine looms up under your gaze? That long thrusting bonnet is needed — it's brim-full of velvet-smooth micropoise-balanced power-plant. And it houses, in the new FIREBALL Dynaflash engine, the sweetest and suddenest and most serviceable mobilization of horsepower you ever gave the gun! Try it soon — roll out a new Buick SPECIAL and treat yourself to controls that almost seem to shake hands with you. It's a big car, yes — a longer, roomier, broader beauty than ever before — yet so nimble and nifty in action you'll think it has wings on its wheels."

A third-party front axle, small wheels and the missing chrome trim make this Buick from Havana look a bit desolate, but make no mistake: this was one of the best looking automobiles of its time. Since GM styling czar Harley Earl and Buick president Harlow Curtice went along very well, Earl took particular care in Buick styling, and often favored the division with the best proposals. Thus, Buicks were repeatedly the most flamboyant looking cars in the GM portfolio throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Compared to its predecessor, the 1941 Buick sported subtle but effective modifications. The ornate "harp" grille, introduced in 1940, was ever so slightly altered for 1941. Headlights moved outwards to the fender corners and revised lateral engine ventilation "ports" made the otherwise similar car look much more stylish and coherent. All in all, it was an evolutionary design, but it went down well with the customers: Buick's model year production soared from 283,404 to 377,428 cars in 1941. In Cuba, 1941 Buicks are quite rare. Perhaps the 1941 Chevrolets were a more sensible buy for many, as they offered similar looks for a much smaller budget.

Surprisingly, Buicks advertisement campaign for 1941 clearly focused on women. Addressing principally the gentler sex was a bold and innovative move at the time. Presumably the company wasn't striving for female buyers alone, but rather for their influential role in the decision making process for a new car. Care for an example?

"It's time to put your foot down . . . firmly! This woman-is-a-fragile-vessel stuff is all right — within limits. It's comforting on rainy nights when you like the shelter of his big umbrella — and it's cozy in soft firelight when the feel of masculine tweed against your cheek suits your mood. But this idea that a woman's car has to be a little car just because your muscles don't bulge — well, that is an idea to be stepped on! My goodness — can't a man see that a girl likes a little zip and ginger in her getting-about-town? Doesn't he suppose you get as much kick as he does out of bossing around a big, strapping, 165-horsepower FIREBALL straight-eight engine?"

Sunday, February 28, 2016

"It's Smart . . . It's Thrifty . . . It's French!"

Here's a car that perfectly matches the needs of rural life in Cuba. Plenty of space, a rugged and simple construction, and easy maintenance — meet the Break Juvaquatre, Renault's versatile station wagon.

Upon its presentation at the 1937 Paris Motor Show, the new mid-size Renault looked pretty familiar, because it took a heavy dose of inspiration from the German Opel Kadett/Olympia, which was built since 1935. The Juvaquatre „Break“ was added to the lineup in 1950, when the production of the sedan was already about to end because Renault needed more production capacity for the popular 4CV. The "Break" was simply a "fourgonnette" commercial van with windows in it. Our pictured car is from that year, and according to its owner, it's still going strong. Only the engine was replaced by a Lada motor at some point in time.

The all-steel station wagon was a modern concept in these days. Even the Americans had just discovered the advantages of all-steel station wagons themselves. The new station wagon gave the Juvaquatre a second life, as the steady demand compelled Renault to produce it — meanwhile renamed into Renault Dauphinoise — until 1960.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

"Right Car. Right Price. Right Now."

Here's one of the various automobiles that don't really blend into Cuba's automotive landscape because they are from a time when the U.S. trade embargo was in full effect, and when especially cars from Detroit shouldn't be seen on the island. We don't know what's the story behind the pictured Chevrolet from Matanzas, but it is a refreshing alternative to the typical cars of that era you'll find in Cuba.

The Impala was introduced as Chevrolet's poshest trim level back in 1958. Twelve years later, it had already moved down the ladder and now was Chevrolet's most popular bread-and-butter offering, making room for the glitzy Caprice at the top of the lineup in 1965.

In 1970, the Impala was a big and cushiony automobile as it had always been, but there was not much more that would set the car apart from its competitors. This lack of forte is nicely reflected in Chevrolet's advertisement, which in that year focused on resale value rather than technological advances: "If the competition had Impala's high resale value, maybe they'd be No.1. Maybe."

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"The only car with the Best of Both: Big-car room and comfort . . . small-car economy and handling ease . . . plus All-New Beauty! It's All New . . . All Beautiful . . . All Rambler!"

Upon first sight, this car left us puzzled: "Rambler" lettering on a fairly modern car? The Rambler name, we knew, wasn't used anymore since 1969. Turns out that this car, which could well have been produced in the early 1980s, was built already in 1963. Back then, this was an extremely progressive design. Especially if customized like our pictured car: at first glance the Rambler looks pretty original. But look closer and you'll notice integrated bumpers and flared rockers that didn't exist in 1963. These skillfully applied modifications contribute to the Rambler's modern look.

But even without these bumpers, the design of the Rambler seemed to be years ahead when presented in late 1962. Created by outgoing chief designer Ed Anderson and his successor Richard A. Teague, who added the final touches to Anderson's well-proportioned proposal, the Rambler looked the part and was instantly awarded "Car of the Year" by Motor Trend magazine. The designers applied curved side glass and a very clean body section to achieve a fairly monolithic look. The concave front grille, a 1963-only feature, added a nice modern touch, too. The progressive design was complemented by an "Advanced Unit Construction" chassis: the monocoque body featured novel "one-piece uniside" door frames that combined 52 parts of the previous model into one single steel stamping, effectively reducing weight and improving rigidity and door alignment.

AMC didn't fare too bad in these years, since it had focused on the compact Rambler in the latter 1950s, rather than competing with the fullsize cars of America's "Big Three". The emerging compact car boom swept the company to the the fourth place in the industry ranking by 1960 — an amazing achievement for one of the last "independents" still standing. The same output, however, was only good for a sixth place in 1963: by then, the "Big Three" had introduced their own compact cars and produced significantly more cars overall.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"There's no mistaking this car for any other. Long, flowing lines leading back to massive V-angle tail-lights say it's a Mercury — but definitely. And that means other things, too: an abundance of luxury and fine car touches inside — agile going under any driving circumstances, thanks to Mercury's advanced new V-8 engine — and tip-top performance wherever and however you drive."

1957 held some pleasant surprises for American car shoppers: the newly introduced "Turbine Drive" Chryslers sure stole the show from everyone else and made even the classy but aging GM designs suddenly look pretty old-fashioned. Yet, another player, which previously wasn't renowned for striking design impulses, surfaced: Ford, and particularly its Mercury Division, surprised the automotive world with very daring styling themes. They sure wouldn't qualify as being very subtle or timeless, but for the style-hungry customers in these times, newness meant goodness. Well, that was the prediction of Ford's marketing people when the development began in the mid-1950s. Too bad that Mercury buyers didn't share their confidence, as the new models met with a fairly frosty reception.

Penned by Don De La Rossa, the new Mercurys were brimming with fancy space-age details. Refined and elegant style — a hallmark of their predecessors — was replaced by futuristic and dazzling styling. In their urge to make the Mercurys look as outstanding as possible, the designers went perhaps a bit too far, and scared off customers.

The dramatic change in Mercury's design direction was complemented by a total structural overhaul. For the first time since the conception of the brand in 1939, a Mercury didn't derive from a Ford or Lincoln but was based on a bespoke chassis. The advanced bodyshell construction resulted in dramatically improved proportions, making the cars five inches (12,7 cm) longer, three inches (7,6 cm) wider and a whopping four inches (10 cm) lower than the previous models.

Even if the Mercury didn’t attract buyers back then, today these cars are a classy testimony of an exciting time when everything seemed possible and the word „garish“ had a positive connotation in automotive styling matters.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Here's a car that makes distance disappear ... a motor car so agile, so roadworthy, so smoothly spirited that it stirs your imagination and steals your heart. Here's performance ... with the greatest power heritage in all motordom. Performance so spectacular that it almost overshadows the exciting new Free-flow styling and jewel-like luxury of this great motor car. Overnight, the Packard Super Eight has become the most discussed car in the fine car field. By all means, make a detailed inspection of its incomparable values."

A Twenty-Second Series Packard is always an impressive sight, even if it looks fairly ungainly in this unflattering off-white color scheme.

Packard, by then America's most prestigious car manufacturer, steered clear of yearly design changes and instead presented a new model only when it was ready. In lieu of model years, the Packards were since 1920 classified into Series. The Twenty-Second Series of Packard cars, introduced for 1948 and built until 1950, was largely based on the previous Twenty-First Series: to save development costs, Packard president George Christopher commissioned Packard's body supplier Briggs with a redesign of the successful Clipper styling. Briggs chief stylist Al France simply connected front- and rear fender bulges of the Clipper to create a, theoretically, modern "Ponton" body. Practically, the restrictions imposed by the Clipper's curvy basic volumes made the car look quite clumsy. The public soon found connotations like "inverted bathtub" or "pregnant elephant" — an absolute no-go for a sophisticated luxury brand like Packard. Besides, the new "Ponton" look didn't bear any package advancements, as all the added volume was in the bulging doors.

The chrome stripes of the pictured 1948 model still extended right to the wheel arches, as the drill holes, being once the fixing points for the trim, indicate. For 1949 and 1950, these stripes ended shorter at the parking lights. Otherwise, the Packard's styling remained virtually unchanged over three years. Too bad that arch-rival Cadillac introduced three updated designs in the same time. Even if Packard still outsold Cadillac through 1949, the company should soon discover the hard way that even the most conservative clientele wasn't immune to the fashionable styling changes that made Cadillac the shooting star in the 1950s luxury car market. Only a few years later, the Packard brand would have lost its prestigious aura — and its customers — to Cadillac, and dwindle down the path to insignificance.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Cadillac's magnificently new design and craftsmanship are dramatically displayed in the Sixty-Two Convertible. Behind a new windshield of epic proportions, the driver surveys the world about him over a remarkable, low, broad expanse of hood and fenders . . . flowing together in one smooth, rhythmic line."

To many, the 1959 Cadillac is the epitome of 1950s automotive excess. Nowhere else did tailfins rise higher, nowhere else did pink paint look more natural on a luxury car and nowhere else did a single automobile exude more jet-age craze. Certainly not short of self confidence, Cadillac's copywriters proclaimed, in capital letters, "THE NEW STANDARD OF THE WORLD IN SUPREMACY!"

Of the all-new models that the various GM divisions had developed in response to the low-slung "Flight-Sweep" Chryslers of 1957, the Cadillac was supposed to be one of the leaner and less exuberant designs. And if you look past the glitzy detailing, interesting styling details show through: the clean, tapered fuselage body, for instance, or the extremely wide looking bonnet, achieved by a simple horizontal cut above the headlights that extends far into the front fenders, all show an extremely well-executed design.

The tailfins and the bumper with its four simulated engine pods make it not hard to imagine that this spaceship on wheels might even fly. Which it couldn't, obviously: the hefty 5,030 pounds (2,280 kg) of curb weight would sure keep the Caddy grounded.

Upon their presentation in late 1958, the Cadillac models were well received among the customers. Considering that Cadillac changed its appearance completely within just four years, it is quite amazing that the conservative Cadillac clientele didn't get alienated by these rapid styling changes. Their outlandish design made the Cadillacs quickly become one of the most publicized cars ever, and thus a veritable icon of 1950s car styling. Because the public interest in these cars didn't really vanish, our pictured Cadillac, just like some other –less genuine– convertibles, is today exploited as a cash cow by "Grancar", a state owned company, juggling nostalgic tourists around the vacation spots of the tropical island.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"YOU WANT both hustle and muscle in the car you drive — right? Then the '57 Buick CENTURY is your car for sure. This most completely changed Buick in history gives you twinkle-toe nimbleness — plus the brilliant performance of a great V8 engine. This engine has a wonderful reserve that lets you handle all normal situations effortlessly as a sprinter taking a stroll. You — and the car and the engine — take it sweet and easy, climb tall hills in a breeze, practically laze along on the level. And you do it all smooth as sunrise — with response quick as light — thanks to today's instant new Dynaflow.* Want to learn why this glamorous '57 Buick is called the dream car to drive? See your Buick dealer first thing tomorrow."

Five Ventiports on this Buick Century from Matanzas are perhaps a bit over-ambitious: 1957 Buicks had four Ventiports each side of the bonnet, save for the entry level Special, which showed merely three.

For 1957, the designers under studio chief Ned Nickles trimmed the previously rather laid-back and graceful looking Buicks towards more sportiness. The cars retained their typical styling elements, but slightly altered proportions and design tweaks all-around made the cars look much more dazzling: the panoramic windshield had more inclined pillars, and the rear wheels featured a full-round cutout, just like contemporary European sports cars. The smaller Buicks, which shared GM's "B-body" with Oldsmobile, featured the "Strato Roof" with a three-piece rear glass. Their roof line was lowered by 1.1 inches (28mm), compared to the 1956 lineup.

These "sportier" Buick styling cues particularly suited the Century, which wasn't the biggest but certainly the quickest in Buick's lineup. Buick's most potent 300hp Roadmaster engine, mounted in the light, short-wheelbase body of the Buick Special, made for a pretty irresistible formula to any aspiring driver. Hence, 26,589 buyers took delivery of the Century Riviera 4-door hardtop in 1957. Presumably, the hot blooded Cubans were particularly sensitive to the temptation of a super fast luxury car, considering the number of Buick's "Businessman hotrod" still driving around on the island.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"AUSTINS LAST LONGER. Why? — because Austin workers, whose fine training has become world famous, produce a car completely dependable in every way. This goes for the old stalwarts still carrying on at home, as well as for the new Austins now going abroad to win new credit for Britain."

Whenever you come across a quirky looking vehicle in Cuba, chances are that it comes from Britain. Case in point: the A40 Devon, pictured here. This thing is tiny — it truly looks like a midget beside contemporary American cars. In Great Britain, though, it was considered a proper mid-sized sedan.

The A40 was penned by Ricardo 'Dick' Burzi, an Argentinian-Italian designer who had worked for Austin since 1929, and became head of styling under Austin's new boss Leonard Lord in 1938. Lord himself had a fine sense for aesthetics and took great interest in car styling. Thus, Burzi became the executing force of his patron's ideas, making sure to bring the "Lord-Look" into the Austins. The charming and slightly cartoonish appearance became somewhat an Austin trademark and appeared again in the successor A40 Somerset, which had equally peculiar proportions, but showed a smoother styling.

From the 1940s onwards, the British government took increasing influence in the strategic development of the British motor industry. The pressure was high after World War II, when the country desperately needed cash to pay back the dollar debts that Great Britain had piled up during the war. The little Austin soon should become elected as one of Britain's major postwar exports to the U.S., where it didn't have much competition. Because the A40 was sold cheaply, it became a commercial success across the Atlantic. Accordingly, the various British ads had a very patriotic tenor: "The new 'A40', big dollar-earner for Britain".

Saturday, December 5, 2015

"The lines of the KAPITÄN are lively and up-to-date, dynamic, yet simple and practical. That's why, whether you are on a business trip or holiday, on the way to the office or wherever you are, you will have the pleasant feeling of owning the 'right' car."

No other brand promoted the "American Way of Drive" better than Opel in postwar Europe. Unsurprisingly so, as the company was the German subsidiary of General Motors. With the Kapitän P1, presented in 1958, Opel had high hopes. The car looked gorgeous, but the motor press quickly pointed out the evident flaws: especially the access to the rear seats was difficult, due to a low roofline and short doors. GM realized the hard way that simply scaling down contemporary American designs wasn't the right method to win over customers in Europe, and already in summer of 1959, a completely overhauled model was presented.

Dubbed Kapitän P 2,6 (P as in "Panorama"), it was an instant hit: 145,618 Opel Kapitän left the factory in Rüsselsheim between August 1959 and 1963, making this generation the most successful Kapitän ever. The higher roof, similar to other 1959 GM models, solved the headroom problems and finally gave the rear passengers appropriate space.

The designers had developed a very modern and restrained look, that wouldn't become old-fashioned too soon. Only the panoramic windshield betrayed the kinship with the 1958 construction underneath the new Opel's skin.

Our pictured car has a handcrafted front grille and a Volga engine, but otherwise everything looks original. Even the serial number plate, proudly displaying "Made in Western Germany" as the Opel's origin, is at its place. That's something quite rare on vintage vehicles in Cuba.

"Mine is one of just nineteen Opel Kapitän that were imported to Cuba in 1960," says its owner. "I like the car because it is very duro and has a good construction. And with the Volga engine it really runs well."

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"So low . . . so lively . . . and OH, so lovely . . . here's the beauty queen of the hardtops! The luxuriousness of the Fairlane 500 Town Victoria's appointments and riding comfort are in a class once reserved for the highest-priced cars alone. With its wide-open Victoria look, 4-door convenience and spacious interiors, this car is a standing invitation to families and friends to go places and do things. And go it will, with the smooth, spirited action of its ultra-modern Interceptor V-8. You'll ride in the most silent, solid comfort imaginable, thanks to the shock-absorbing design and enormous strength of the new 'Inner Ford' that lies beneath the stunning beauty of every Ford for '58."

This colorful Ford Fairlane 500 hardtop from Sancti Spiritus shows a fascinating styling element: the beltline rises up at the C-post and intersects with the sloping roofline to form a chromed "X". Albeit being generally mainstream in matters styling, Ford more than once managed to stand out with some interesting design details.

The 1958 Fords were based on the 1957 models, but came updated with quad headlights (absolutely de rigueur for new cars on American roads that year), a massive new honeycomb front grille and fresh trim all-around to let you know from a distance that here came the latest and greatest fullsize Ford.

As dashing as the Ford looked, it sailed right into an economic recession that made Detroit's "Big Three" suffer and the "independents" rejoice. Ford's production dropped by 40 percent. But already next year, the company could recover and the 1959 models would bring Ford's sales back on par with its all-time contender Chevrolet.

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, anyway.

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.