Saturday, April 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 23, 2014

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

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

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

Saturday, March 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Opel der Zuverlässige."

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 12, 2014

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

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

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

Sunday, January 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 12, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 7, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 2, 2013

"Watch your spirits rise as you slip behind the wheel of this mightiest-of-all Chryslers and head for the open road. Its long, low (barely over 4 1/2 feet), Flight-Sweep styling and FirePower V8 10 to 1 compression ratio performance and economy put you in full command of everything on the road."

Chrysler had surprised the automotive world with Virgil Exner's gorgeous "Forward Look" styling in 1955. Just two years later, an even bolder design direction, now called "Flight-Sweep styling", bore some more surprises, although not all of them were favorable to the company.

The new Chryslers sure looked stunning, because their compact torsion bar suspension allowed for a much lower silhouette than most of their competitors. Over at GM, where "longer and lower" was Harley Earl's eternal mantra for the look of new cars, the arrival of the new Chryslers caused quite a dismay when GM designers, who certainly had been spoiled by their own long-time success, suddenly realized that they weren't the trend setters anymore. In response to the new low-slung Chryslers, GM designers decided on a posthaste rework of the whole lineup for 1959.

With such stunning design, the Chrysler lineup only needed minor updates to stay "fresh" in 1958: quad headlights and different chrome trim were the most notable changes.

Yet, as gorgeous as the Chryslers looked, as badly they were built: a severe lack of quality control meant very lousily assembled cars. Some Chryslers literally fell apart before even reaching the dealers. On top of that, most cars were plagued by early corrosion, due to the use of poor quality steel. Although Chrysler addressed many issues within the 1957 production run, the damage was already done. The 1958 models were better, but the customers were alarmed and backed off from these elegant cars. The economic recession of 1958 added insult to injury, as most bigger cars anyway sat like ducks at the dealer's. Thus, in 1958, Chrysler could sell just about half as many cars as in the year before.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Out in front  . . .  with the new 'Go-Ahead' look! See it in the panoramic windshield, the new hooded headlights — in the sweep-cut fender lines, the pure-luxury interiors. In fact, Oldsmobile's Super '88' is new everywhere  . . .  wherever you look!"

This one left us a little puzzled upon first sight: up front it's a 1956 Oldsmobile, but the trim comes from 1955. So, what is it? The rectangular cutout around the rear wheels suggests that this car was built in 1955. 1956 Oldsmobiles  had a curved wheel arch, instead. This, the car's owner confirmed later, was the right guess: the whole front clip had been replaced after an accident years ago.

The American car companies presented their "all-new" models each year with much fanfare, but in fact, the cars were actually evolving pretty slowly. Case in point: Oldsmobile's bodies underwent merely cosmetic changes between 1954 and 1957, which makes it fairly easy to mount a newer front end onto our pictured car.

Mechanically it was all the same anyway, since the introduction of the groundbreaking "Rocket" V-8 engine in 1949 had not only rendered the Oldsmobiles the most powerful cars in the GM portfolio, but also initiated a race for ever more horsepower that spread like a virus across the industry throughout the decade. This "Rocket" V-8 powerplant and Oldsmobile's underpinnings were top-notch tech at the time. Strangely enough, the styling persevered surprisingly conservative throughout the 50s, before it switched completely and became garish in 1958.

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Here is convertible smartness beyond compare in the low-price field. Interior appointments include a striking new upholstery treatment with trim to harmonize with the exterior of the car. A touch of a button sends top up or down. Available in a wide choice of colors."

Did the Chevy bottom out? (Spoiler: it didn't.) The load of seven people transformed this Chevrolet Convertible into a veritable low-rider, but its cautious driver could avoid a loud smack onto the tarmac.

The 1953 Chevrolets carried essentially the same chassis and mechanicals as all their predecessors since 1949, but their attractive restyling made them look more angular and quite a bit lower, too. Which they actually weren't, as you can see here: bar of all chrome trim and painted in a matte white paint that takes away the play of highlights and shadows, the Chevrolet's "new" outline still looks fairly stout. True package advancements should come only in the latter 50s.

That said, looks can be deceiving: the buying public nonetheless perceived the 1953-1954 Chevrolets as being "all-new" models. Vibrant color schemes and bright chrome trim clearly helped to distract from their stodgy proportions. No less than thirteen exterior colors were available, and eleven two-tone color combinations could be ordered on top of that. Harley Earl and his GM design team had skillfully managed to add that little extra "bling" that made these Chevrolets look so outstanding in the eyes of their customers. In their class, doubtlessly, they were setting the standards in automotive fashion, and the rest of the industry only could follow.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"One look at the Austin Cambridge and you know why people are calling it the most beautifully-styled car in its price class. And there's much more to the Cambridge than its fresh, flowing lines! It seats five people in deep-cushioned comfort  . . .  cruises all day at top highway speeds  . . .  gives you up to 40 miles per gallon! But to discover the full beauty of the Cambridge, you have to visit your Austin showroom to see it in person — and price it in person. You'll find it hard to believe a car so lovely could be priced so low."

At a quick glance, our pictured Austin from Matanzas could easily be mistaken for one of the few Peugeot 404 that populate Cuba's automotive landscape. And in fact, this resemblance ain't accidental, because the French and the British car were both styled south of the Alps by Pininfarina of Torino. More than a few times, Italian car styling companies sold pretty similar looking proposals to different clients. At the end of the day, their work had to be profitable and they sure wouldn't completely "reinvent the wheel" on each new contract. 

That said, it was a fairly big assignment that Pininfarina had received from Austin's mother company BMC. For 1959, all BMC brands should use just one standardized body for their cars. Thus, the Austin shared its body with the Wolseley 15/60, the Riley 4/68, the MG Magnette Series III and the Morris Oxford. Front- and rear ends were individual, so that at least the dealers could pretend that all these cars were different.

The Austin, fortunately, was the most modern looking of the pack. Being bigger than its tiny predecessor, the Austin Cambridge Mark II became quite successful on both continents. It arrived in America just amidst the massive "compact" car boom, and Austin could snatch its share of the market, before the "Big Three" would launch their own "compact" cars in the early 60s.

Through 1959, Austin sold its A55 Cambridge in the US exclusively as Cambrian, because earlier Plymouth models had been named Cranbrook, Cambridge and Concord between 1951 and 1953. In apprehension of a possible lawsuit, Austin choose to use another name, but as soon as the lawyers gave their clearance, the name was changed back into Cambridge here as well.

But now we need a bit of concentration, as we are diving deep into the "logic" of contemporary British car fabrication: even if it was supposedly just a name change, the Cambrian wasn't all identical with the Cambridge. It had a 1,622cc engine installed, rather than the 1,498cc engine that was fitted into the English Cambridge. You wouldn't notice it, but the Cambrian also sported ever so slightly altered rear body panels, because it shared its rear lights with the Morris Oxford Series V. That car, by the way, looked identical to the English Cambridge, except for its slightly higher tailfins, and a different grille insert pattern... Are you still following?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"The new Thunderbird convertible decisively proves that you can have your cake and eat it, too. For now you can have true Thunderbird performance and Thunderbird fun — and, at the same time, luxurious room and comfort for four lucky people. Your T-bird comes equipped for superior performance with the brilliant new 300-hp Thunderbird Special V-8. Imagine what this beautiful new power plant means in a car so low, so lithe, so compact! When the hide-away top is down, the rear deck is perfectly flush with the rear seats, forming one smooth, uninterrupted line of Thunderbird beauty. See America's most individual car at your Ford Dealer's soon. You've nothing to lose but your heart!"

What a nice place to spend the evening! Cruising along in a Ford Thunderbird, while enjoying a soft tropical breeze, and listening to the characteristic growl of a big V-8 engine under the hood most certainly appeals to all senses. 

In 1953, to everyone's surprise, Chevrolet had launched the Corvette, which soon should become a synonym for THE american sports car. Thunderbird was Ford's answer to the Corvette. The first generation, built from 1955 through 1957, was a two-seater, quintessentially embodying the stereotype of a classic sports car. This, of course, in true american fashion: the car looked dashing and was powerful, but it had to give way to purer sports cars as soon as the road became a little twisty.

The market for such a two-seater sports car was limited, and Ford, being much more dominated by bean counters and market research people than most other car companies, made "adjustments" to the original concept with the second generation which bowed in 1958. Now the car literally grew up, gaining 20 inches (51cm) overall length and 400 pounds (175kg) of weight. Perhaps most disturbing to the "purists", the car was now a full four-seater with all the amenities that other contemporary luxury cars would offer. While the first Thunderbird generation somehow fitted into the sports car scheme, the new generation wouldn't. But it didn't matter, as Ford had incidentally carved out a profitable new niche market: the "Personal Luxury Car" at an attainable price. This new market segment should gain momentum and become a necessity in the lineup of any American car maker throughout the 60s.

The Ford Thunderbird was pretty popular since it became a four-seater, and compared to the introductory year 1955, the production doubled in 1958. Considering that this was a recession year, and any bigger car was not moving from the dealer's, this was a respectable success. In 1959, the Thunderbird should again surpass its own success, with more than 67,000 cars finding new homes in American garages. Strangely enough, customers didn't show much interest in the 1958 Thunderbird Convertible. Out of 37,892 Thunderbird built in 1958, just 2,134 were ragtops, accounting for less than six percent of the total production. Granted that the convertible arrived late in the model year, the two-door hardtop was the much more popular choice.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"No other car in the class of the Diplomat four-door Sedan has ever offered so much room and style both inside and out. Its clean, flowing, low appearance accentuates the beauty of the Diplomat's lines. Its built-in value is reflected in even the smallest detail."

Here's a car from Detroit that you could never buy in the U.S.: the 1955 DeSoto Diplomat is essentially a Plymouth Savoy, wearing a bespoke DeSoto front clip. Chrysler used to sell these cheaper Plymouths, masqueraded as pricier DeSotos or Dodges in its export markets. These "Plodges" were usually built in Canada, but in 1955, Chrysler of Canada didn't export any cars, and so all DeSoto Diplomat came from Detroit.

Cuba is perhaps the only country in the world where you can find very different looking DeSotos of the same model year in peaceful coexistence. Parallel to the "official" channels, many cars, new or used, were imported to the island via ferry from Florida. The high markup at Cuban dealerships made this import a worthwhile effort. Even more so in 1955, because the U.S.-bound "Forward Look" DeSotos were based on the larger Chrysler platform, and looked so much more stunning than the Plymouth-based export models that were sold by Cuban Chrysler dealers.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"In the Imperial for 1954, Chrysler stylists and designers have combined smart styling and conservative beauty to create a car that has a distinguished appearance, quite in keeping with the distinguished performance for which the Imperial is already so well and widely known and respected. With the distinctive new grille and bumper design; the long, graceful, perfectly blended lines, from front to rear; the wide, one-piece curved windshield; the Clearbac wrap-around window; and the exclusive Diving Eagle and the Chrysler winged-V on the hood, there is little likelihood anyone would mistake the Imperial, by Chrysler, for any other car."

In the picture it doesn't look like much. Yet, in reality, it was the sheer size of this car that instantly grabbed our attention: the Imperial, Chrysler's top model for 1954, measures a whopping 223.8 inches (5685mm) from bumper to bumper. When new, it should compete with America's best: Cadillac, Lincoln and Packard. The Imperial was more expensive than any of them, but trailed them in sales numbers. Out of 5,758 Chrysler Imperial in total, just 4,324 Custom Imperial Sedan left the factory in 1954: not many compared to 96,680 Cadillac, 36,993 Lincoln and 31,291 Packard in the same year.

The reason for the customer's rejection: the Imperial looked too much like a lesser Chrysler. Yet, technically, it was a showcase of Chrysler engineering: the biggest "FirePower" Hemi V-8 engine, "PowerFlite" transmission, "Full-Time Power Steering" and "Chrysler Safe-Guard Hydraulic Brakes" all came standard. The majestic Crown Imperial 8-passenger limousine even had Lambert-Ausco disc brakes — an absolute novelty in the early 50s. On other Imperials, these brakes were available as an option, but the steep $400 price tag meant very few takers.

Juan Manuel, the owner of our pictured Imperial, is a retired pilot and a chatty man: "My career began as a military pilot, but when I became too old for the job, I became a pilot for Cubana airlines. I flew everything on Cuban skies, from Russian MiG-21, Antonovs and Iljuschins to American Cessnas. This Chrysler Imperial is mine since more than 40 years. When I got it, it had still its original Hemi-engine installed. Chico, this car was quick! But, you know, we all get older and, just like me, it drank too much. We all had to shift into a lower gear. Now, the Imperial runs with a Mercedes-Benz Diesel and I just have my occasional traguito".

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Smart good looks and rugged utility here! The economical Yeoman, with its sturdy vinyl interior and linoleum platform, welcomes hard wear. For fun, there is plenty of color and comfort! And there's traditional Chevrolet quality, too, in the craftsmanship of Body by Fisher, polished lacquer finish and fine materials."

Station wagons enjoy a steady popularity among Cuba's choferes today. Especially taxistas appreciate them because they can cram more people into the car on each trip. It wasn't always the case: in the 40s and 50s, the classic sedan was the car of choice for Cuba's prospering middle-class society. Station wagons generally were surrounded by an aura of being cheap utility vehicles. Their raising popularity among U.S. citizens, moving out into the newly built suburbs in the latter 50s, was a trend that didn't arrive in Cuba before Fidel Castro's Revolution in 1959. And then it was too late, since the new government effectively stopped the arrival of American cars and trends at Cuban shores for the next decades. 

When talking of period station wagons from Chevrolet, many remember the "big" names like Nomad or Bel Air, but hardly anybody seems to know the Yeoman. With good reason, as the Yeoman was an one-time wonder and only available in 1958. New styling and new names was the name of the game at Chevrolet in this year. The short-lived lineup should become replaced by completely new models already in 1959. And so did the Yeoman nameplate.

The Yeoman was Chevrolet's entry into the station wagon world. More affluent customers could also buy a Brookwood, or a Nomad at the upper end of the lineup. Regardless of its entry-level status, the Yeoman sported abundant chrome trim and looked quite flashy — for a station wagon. Inside, it was all plastic fantastic: vinyl upholstery, rubber floor mats and a linoleum-padded trunk might sound terrible today, but, except for the linoleum, these were common interior trim materials in many cars at the time.

To make this spartan interior sound any more interesting, Chevrolet's copywriters had to be imaginative: "You can swab this deck! The Yeoman's not afraid of soapy water. Tough vinyl upholstery, rubber floor mats and linoleum platform make this station wagon interior completely washable — with water and a sponge! Ideal for sportsmen, gardeners, or folks with a fleet of small fry."

Saturday, October 12, 2013

"If you like to get off the beaten path — away from crawling, horn-honking traffic — there's just one car for you — the 1957 Nash Ambassador. You're king of the wide open spaces when you slide into the widest 'driver's seat' in any car . . . look through the broadest windshield . . . enjoy the greatest shoulder room  and head room. At throttle touch, the all-new, all-Nash 255 Horsepower Ambassador V-8 engine can flatten out the steepest mountains. A new kind of springing floats you over the roughest roads for the finest shock-proof ride in the industry. All-new 14-inch wheels and oversize tubeless tires offer greater traction power and riding comfort. Travel-Test the new '57 Nash today. See why Nash families go more places together, have more fun and spend lots less."

The Ambassador was quite an extraordinary car when presented in late 1956. Styled by Edmund E. Anderson and his design team, this Nash had more to offer than just a fancy look: Quad headlights, vertically stacked, were a previously unseen "first" on American roads. An all-new "Ambassador" V-8 engine, and "Airliner reclining seats" which could fold down to become "Nash Twin Travel Beds" all came standard on the Ambassador. And instead of a typical body-on-frame chassis, the Ambassador was based on the "A.M.C. Double Safe Single Unit Construction", a monocoque body, that Nash had pioneered since the 40s. Other american car brands should adopt this modern construction principle much later.

Too bad that the Ambassador was Nash's swan-song: after just 3,098 Ambassadors produced in the 1957 model year, the Nash nameplate should disappear. Only the tiny Nash Metropolitan "survived" until 1962, when the last cars, built in spring 1961, finally were sold.

Anyway, the fate of Nash and Hudson was already at stake when the two companies merged in 1954 to become the American Motors Corporation (AMC). Even this bigger joint venture couldn't cope with the economies of scale that made the "Big Three" so successful. Yet, one AMC product fared well in the market because it didn't have any direct competition: the "compact" Rambler, initially offered as Nash Rambler and Hudson Rambler alike, sold well even before compact cars became en vogue in the latter 50s. Soon, Rambler became an own make. The bigger cars from Nash and Hudson, though, were shunned by the public, and after discouraging sales Nash and Hudson ceased operations in mid-1957, leaving Rambler behind as AMC's only brand.