Sunday, May 19, 2013
"You can own a lot of future when you buy a Buick now! This Buick makes your money look ahead in a way other cars can't do. In a Buick, for instance, you own the clearest and cleanest example of a new styling trend that will be here for years . . . style that caused editors to name a Buick 'best looking overall' of all 1959 cars. Let your Buick Dealer help you discover how much future is here, and how easy it is to own today."
What a flash car! This Buick LeSabre from Havana really epitomizes the tremendous progress that American car design had made within just a decade.
Incidentally, the look of the 1959 Buick was the result of an internal uproar at the GM Design Center: chief designers of different GM divisions, among them Buick studio chief Ned Nickles and Harley Earl's eventual successor, Bill Mitchell, managed to look at pre-production 1957 Plymouths, months before their presentation to the public. The designers were stunned, if not shocked, by the nimble look of these "Forward Look" cars, that was so contrary to the clay models for the 1959 Buick which were already in the works, but looked at this stage like an evolution of the 1958 lineup. The conviction that something had to be done spread rapidly within the GM Design Center. When Harley Earl, who preferred much fuller volumes and loads of shiny decoration, was away in Europe, the clay models were heavily modified to appear much more linear and nimble, too. Upon his return, Harley Earl avoided an open confrontation and nodded his consent to the proposals. Anyway, he was already nearing GM's mandatory retirement age of 65.
Thus, the radically revised Buicks for 1959 stirred quite a sensation upon their presentation in September 1958. Indeed, they looked amazing: tilted double headlights sat below chromed "eyebrows" and were connected with the taillights by a single chrome strip that emphasized on the car's length, while the new "floating" hardtop with its extremely thin C-posts and wraparound rear glass made the car look low and light. The rearview was dominated by large, slanted tailfins that resembled rather wings than fins.
Customers, perhaps, weren't just shocked by the unexpected look of the cars. In an unprecedented move, Buick had ousted all of its signature elements, too: portholes, sweep-spear chrome trim, "bomb-sight" hood ornaments and even the long established model names were thrown overboard. Instead of Special, Super, Century or Roadmaster, new Buicks now were christened LeSabre, Invicta and Electra.
Fortunately, the fabulous Buick look was backed up by a matching Buick ride. A lighter chassis meant much more agility, and propelled by a "Wildcat" engine on the LeSabre, and the even more powerful "Wildcat 445" engine on the Invicta and Electra these Buicks were truly made to roam America's highways. Road testers were impressed by the strong brakes, too: fading and underpowered brakes had been an eternal problem on the heavy American cars, but this time, Buick seemed to get it right.
For Buick dealers, though, the year 1959 wasn't any better than the horrid previous year. Keep in mind that these were "compact car times". The economic recession of 1958 was just about to fade away, and customers still sat taut on their wallets, ignoring Detroit's full-size chrome monsters and embracing thriftier and inexpensive cars. If not, we would certainly see much more 1959 Buicks in Cuba, today.
Monday, May 13, 2013
"The 'Volga' is a durable car and needs but a few spare parts. All the units of the car are strong, durable and need adjustment only as specified in the Operation Manual. Thoroughly cared, the car will always serve its owner."
At a glance, it might pass for Detroit Iron, but our featured car comes from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Meet the first model of a proud dynasty of "luxury" automobiles for the Russian people, oh wait, actually not. These cars were principally driven by the brass of state-owned businesses and government officials, became police cars, taxis or, usually in black, the transport of KGB agents, but not many private buyers could ever get in possession of such a fine car. Limited supply and an astronomic price tag, for the average communist salary, made sure that owning a Volga remained a dream for most. Fast-forward five decades in Cuba, our pictured Volga certainly is written off the government inventory since a long time, and thus has found its way to the private car market.
The Volga was conceived as a representative car that should equal the American "competition" in style and technology. Lead engineer Alexander Mihajlovich Nevzorov and lead designer Lew Eremeew began working on the first drawings in 1953. The designers certainly took a close look at American automobiles of that era, namely the Ford models. The result was a pretty decent looking car, which appeared quite modern for its time. The ambitious engineers even contemplated to implement a russian version of Chrysler's new "Hemi" engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, but this option soon was ditched.
When presented to the russian press in 1955, however, the car was still far from being production-ready, and it should take two more years before the first Volga finally was delivered. By that time, car styling in America already had progressed big time. The Russian prestige project now looked pretty dated and certainly was no good match for Detroit Iron anymore. Yet, more than 650,000 select customers could take possession of a Volga between 1957 and 1968, before the larger GAZ-24 Volga replaced the aging M21. The shape of its chrome grille characterizes our pictured car as a later model, called Series III, which was produced between 1962 and 1968.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Frequent readers of this blog will have noticed that we didn't update Cubanclassics for quite a while now. The reason: we've been on another trip to Cuba. A month of absence from the "informed" world, without Internet connection, and with but scant bits of international news, most of them coloured in red, the preferred ductus of a state owned, socialist press. In Cuba, major headlines read like this one: "The distance between Cuba and India is just geographical." It wasn't all bad, though, as it teaches you upon return into our connected world, that the planet actually isn't turning as fast as one is tempted to believe. And that many of the "news" that we are exposed to every day are, well, merely a distracting noise.
But we've also spent four weeks full of impressions from an island that seems to exist in a strange parallel universe between past and present. And, of course, we've had a lot of interesting conversations with vintage car owners of very different background, be it the detail-obsessed pistonhead, or the Taxista who just sees his car as a tool to make a living.
Now we are back, having the SD-cards filled with new material for Cubanclassics. So, fellow readers, stay tuned for news on a rare Continental, some nice classic cars from Germany and England, and, of course, Detroit Iron aplenty.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
"Beautiful — smart — distinctive — so utterly different from other cars in so many ways. A car that was designed from the inside out — with your comfort, convenience and safety always in mind. More room for your legs, more room above your head, more shoulder-room. And wider seats that are scientifically designed for chair-height comfort so that you can ride completely relaxed. There's better visibility, too, in all directions. You can see more out of the new, larger windshield, the wider rear window and the extra-large side windows. The hood is shorter and the steering wheel is lower, so that you have better 'see-ability' over the front."
As you can see in the picture, Chrysler's all-new postwar models were still large cars by all means, even if they followed suit with the general industry trend towards a lower silhouette. In the 40s and early 50s, Chrysler was extremely cautious and conservative when it came to progressive design. This was largely owed to the disastrous experience with the very advanced 1934 - 1937 Chrysler Airflow, but also to Chrysler's chairman K.T. Keller, who demanded practical cars with a vast interior space above everything else. What theoretically would have been a noble and customer friendly affair, fired back to Chrysler when the postwar car market became saturated and profoundly changed at the dawn of the 50s. Swiftly, a good look moved up to the top of the customers' "check-lists" when shopping for their new cars. And the stodgy "Keller boxes" of the Chrysler Corporation offered anything but that.
Another matter that Chrysler's stylists, directed by Henry King, failed to address was to define a distinctive look for each Chrysler brand. Above all, Harley Earl at GM had quite early initiated the development of characteristic design themes that should make cars of each GM brand instantly recognizable, regardless of the similar proportions that were dictated by sharing the basic bodies. Chrysler cars, however, did look very similar in 1949. Sure, the more expensive Chrysler sported more formal chrome trim than the "lesser" brands and rode on a longer wheelbase. Yet, proportionally all "Keller boxes" looked alike, and, at a quick glance, a Chrysler could quite easily be mistaken for a much cheaper Dodge or Plymouth. In a time when the private car was still a big investment and an ultimate status symbol, this certainly was a "no-go" issue for Chrysler's more affluent customers.
Still, these Chryslers offered a sound build quality, which is one reason why so many "Keller boxes" survived in Cuba until today. And after a transitory generation, Chrysler should strike back in terms of styling, when Virgil Exner's new "Forward Look" design was unleashed in 1955.
Friday, March 15, 2013
"Those who fully appreciate the real pleasures of driving will find much to delight them in the MG Magnette. For while this sleek sports sedan admittedly makes lavish concessions to luxurious comfort, it adheres rigidly to basic sports car principles. Its magnificent one ad a half litre, overhead valve, short stroke engine, teamed with incomparably smooth, synchromesh transmission, delivers power to spare in every gear. Firm, wishbone-type suspension assures the utmost in agile cornering and oversize brakes provide amazingly precise, straightline braking on demand."
If you think that this handsome and nicely proportioned car looks like having Italian provenience, then British designer Gerald Palmer did everything right. In later interviews, he credited contemporary Italian car styling as the main inspiration for his proposal for the MG Magnette and its sister model, the Wolseley 4/44. The fairly chaotic development story of these two cars is quite typical for the British postwar car industry: the new sedans of MG and Wolseley, both brands owned at this time by the Nuffield Organisation, were supposed to share one body and just differ in smaller details like front grille and trim. But Palmer thought to lower the stance of the MG by two inches (51mm), as it was supposed to become the sportier of the two sister models. The upshot of this operation were two completely different cars that only shared their hood and front doors, while all other body panels were disparate, despite looking similar to the untrained eye.
On top of that, the Nuffield Organisation merged with long-time rival Austin Motors to become the British Motor Corporation in March 1952, just before the planned introduction of the MG. The new boss Leonard Lord decided that the MG should get a completely new developed engine, and delayed the presentation for one year. The Wolseley, with the "old" MG engine implanted, was launched first, and the MG Magnette ZA became the unfortunate "lookalike" model when presented in October 1953.
Initially, MG hardliners weren't keen on the new car, as they feared that MG's sporty core values could be damaged by such a modern, elegant and comfortable automobile. Car magazines soon proofed them wrong: the unibody construction, new to a MG, and the modern suspension made the car very agile, while the 60 horsepower engine provided just enough punch, too. With a wheelbase of 102 inches (2,591 mm), the MG Magnette ZA was tiny for American standards. Still, the Magnette sold well on these shores, capitalizing on the good image of MG's sports cars.
The slim chrome trim spear on the front fender characterizes our pictured car as a MG Magnette ZB, which replaced the Magnette ZA in 1957. Aside from this little trim piece and a slightly larger rear window, both versions look similar outside. A more powerful engine (four horsepower to be exact) made the "sports saloon" a bit more agile: quick acceleration and the top speed of 86 mph of the final models were quite a clincher on contemporary English roads.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
"Mercury for 1954 offers new styling that matches perfectly the advanced design of the revolutionary new engine and chassis. Surging power and fleet agility are reflected in longer, lower and more graceful lines. New, carefully conceived style elements — such as new grille, new hood scoop, and new ornamentation — complement one another to produce an appearance that's truly trim and beautiful. Yet Mercury's basic Unified Design remains intact. There is a perfect blending of body, engine, and chassis . . . to give unexcelled comfort and convenience, performance, and on-the-road control. Here is styling that's inherently right for a car designed to serve you better today."
Being a pretty common sight in Cuba, a 1954 Mercury is actually three cars in one: the silhouette clearly tells that this car is an offspring of the "Ford family of fine cars". The front design bears more than a trace of the 1952-1954 Lincoln, and the bumper already hints at the styling of the next generation of Mercurys, due for 1955.
This restyled front end made the 1954 Mercurys look decidedly more angular than their predecessors, and less confusable with a Lincoln, a unpleasant problem that the two sister brands had been facing over the previous two years. Despite being in the final year of its three-year lifecycle, Mercury's lineup for 1954 received a massive engineering update: new "V-161" overhead valve V-8 engines with, surprise, 161 horsepower replaced the aging flathead power plants, while the new "Mercury Ball-joint Front Suspension" with "Precision-designed Stedi-Line steering" made sure that all the power arrived at road level and the Mercury remained on a steady course.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
"Chrysler Owners — owners of other makes who are looking forward to owning a Chrysler — automobile editors and automobile dealers — the Public in general — all have been generous and unreserved in their praise of the Beautiful New Chrysler. It is a Beautiful Car. And, combined with this beauty, is a mechanical excellence, a high quality of materials, and a superb performance that make it the finest as well as the most Beautiful car to ever bear the Chrysler name.
The smart, stylish, beautiful lines are distinctively different — different from pre-war Chrysler models — and different from post-war Models of other makes. From the windshield forward, the front end is new — and different — and generally acclaimed the 'most beautifully designed front end' of any automobile today. The hood flows into the fenders in graceful lines that give it a broader and lower appearance. The new Grille is a piece of beautiful designing, finished in gleaming Chrome, and entirely different from any other car. The new Bumper Guards are new, smartly designed, rugged, and spaced for greatest protection to the grille. And the top of the hood carries a beautiful new ornament — a modern interpretation of the famous Chrysler wings — the original radiator ornament introduced on the first Chrysler back in 1924. From the front, from the side, from the rear — from any angle, the Beautiful Chrysler is a Beautiful Car — a fine possession that looks the part."
Chrysler Royal Luxury Brougham – what a name! It implies utmost luxury and exclusiveness, but in fact the Royal was Chrysler's entry-level model. At least on cuban roads it bears an exclusive name, as we came across a two-door Chrysler Royal only once in all the years.
Like all big Detroit players, Chrysler kept on selling warmed-up prewar models until the new developed lineup was ready in 1949. These postwar Chryslers literally had a wall of chrome up front, wearing arguably the squarest grille in whole America. The rest was solid prewar construction, nicely wrapped into a renewed skin, and the fact that still quite a few beautiful postwar cars of the Chrysler Corporation are driving around in Cuba, speaks for their impeccable construction and quality. So minor were the changes between 1946 and 1947, that Chrysler even used the same sales brochures over two years.
Our encounter with the pictured Chrysler Royal from Cienfuegos, however, won't have a happy end. We found the massive car at a private taller, where all kinds of cars, no matter if American or Russian, are being repaired and restored. Inside the shop, we've seen handmade body parts of impeccable quality, made on simple machines that seemed to be older than the industrial revolution. The friendly owner, Miguel, explains: "The Chrysler is already worn out, and with just two doors, it isn't really practical, neither. Soon, I will modify it into a camioncito, a light truck. Hay que resolver..."
"Hay que resolver", you have to find a solution, is a phrase that perpetually circles through conversations on the island. After more than half a century of communism, life in Cuba is a constant "freestyling", looking for possibilities to get over the lack of everything that one way or another dominates all aspects of living here. We think it's a pity to destroy a historic car, but in Cuba's real life conditions, called socialismo, beauty alone doesn't seem to have much value...
Sunday, February 3, 2013
"With all of its emphasis on elegant lines, the 1960 Fords have not sacrificed passenger comfort to achieve their beauty. In the Finest Fords of a Lifetime six big people — including the man in the middle — ride in greater comfort than ever. The new Fords give you nearly half-a-foot more shoulder room, more knee room, more hip room. Chair-high seats mean extra comfort, extra leg room. The 'doglegs' — windshield supports that interfere with getting in and out of the front seat — have been eliminated in the 1960 Fords for your greater convenience."
We don't know if it's pure coincidence or done on purpose, but we do know that the classic car scene across the Florida Strait would classify this Ford Fairlane from Havana as a perfect "Hoodride" or "Rat Look" car: its chrome trim still shines and it's rolling on nice wheels, while the matte paint nicely imitates corroded metal. Rust 'n' Roll...
The fullsize Ford for 1960 was equally impressive when new. Not only because of its clean styling that made the competition look dated, but because of its vast dimensions, too. This car was a real land yacht, and with an overall width of 81.5 inches (2,07m) perhaps the widest american passenger car of all time. Incidentally, the new Ford legally wouldn't qualify for a passenger car in some states of the U.S., if the legislative hadn't agreed to connive at the fact that the car was just a bit too wide.
Sales, however, were sluggish. With just 461,092 cars, Ford's sales dropped by more than a third, compared to 1959. This sure wasn't due to the clean design of the 1960 Fords. Instead, the "Big Three" were staggered by the swift move of many car buyers towards "compact cars" following the economic recession in 1958. "Independents" like Rambler and Studebaker who had discovered the compact car market earlier as a way to avoid the direct competition with the "Big Three", now could capitalize for about two years on their fortunate timing. But already by 1960, the "Big Three" were ready to respond and presented their own "compacts". New models like Chevrolet Corvair, Dodge Dart, Plymouth Valiant and above all the Ford Falcon invaded the market and swiftly busted the "independent's party". Thus, even the sluggish sales of Ford's full-size cars ultimately didn't do much harm to Ford's own company profit.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
"The Common-sense Car that Leads a Double Life. AS A FAMILY CAR, the Willys DeLuxe Station Wagon is amazingly compatible with the needs of most American families. With easily cleaned seats, sides and floors it is a good companion to children and pets. Carries 'problem' items (such as bicycles and lawnmowers) without removing seats. Comfort for 6 adults, with huge luggage space behind rear seats. And its powerful Hurricane engine is so economical to run. Why not let your Willys dealer fit one of these into your life today? AS A BUSINESS OR WORK CAR, more than 100 cubic feet of usable space is available for tools or bulky packages. Seats lift out easily. Interior can be cleaned almost as easy as a kitchen sink! Why not start this motoring season with the car that gives you double utility; low first cost; low operating costs; high trade-in value? At your Willys dealer now. Willys Motors, Inc., Toledo"
Full steam ahead on the carretera central ! The rugged Jeep Station Wagon was, and is, always a dependable transport in Cuba's countryside. Alongside the "classic" Jeep which remained in production through 1953, Willys presented the Jeep Station Wagon in 1946. In Cuba you can find many of these Jeeps, as their simple construction and ruggedness perfectly fit to the rural life here.
Designer Brooks Stevens had to master an ambitious task when designing the Jeep Station Wagon: in order to keep the "draw" at a minimum when stamping the outer panels, the sheet metal stampings shouldn't exceed a certain depth. Six inches was the required maximum, and the Jeep's roof panel was just below that, while the side panels were a mere 2.5 inches deep. Thus, the Jeep became quite angular for the time's taste, sporting pretty flat sides and roof, but anyway, beauty was of secondary priority for most customers. Instead, the car was cheap, dependable and seated seven. And somehow, its frugal look rather underlined the utilitarian character of the Jeep.
While the rest of this highly popular car remained virtually untouched through 1965, only the horizontal bars at the Jeep's front grille tell of the year it was built. The number and position of these bars changed with each model year. Our pictured car left the assembly line in 1954.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
"Think Big . . . you can afford to!"
Pontiac's catalog claim reflects perfectly the contemporary "zeitgeist": in Cuba, perhaps even more than in the U.S., the prospering middle class demanded flashy new cars, and easy credits were readily available. Pontiac dealers had the backup of GMs financing institutions, and selling just one more car was often more important than a customer's financial soundness. The number of cars on the island increased rapidly in the 50s: after the first automobile arrived in Cuba in 1902, it took five decades until the magic mark of 100,000 cars on Cuban roads was surpassed in 1952. Just five years later, this number had doubled, with 200,000 registered cars in 1957. For many cuban citizens, the car had become an indispensable part of their lifestyle.
Traditionally being the choice of the rather stuffy person, Pontiac was for many years merely a better appointed version of the Chevrolets, but the brand made an impressive turnaround under new management since 1956. New general manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen was a real petrolhead, and fostered the move towards power and speed. Even if most 1957 Pontiacs didn't look mean, they were by all means powerful cars. And next year, already, Pontiac's look should finally match Pontiac's grunt.