Sommer’s Automobile Museum, Part 2

In Part 1, I made it as far as the Lancia Flaminia and not much further. In this instalment I will kick and jostle myself so I can cover more ground in fewer words.

1956 Lancia Appia
1956 Lancia Appia

This is the 1965 Lancia Appia with its impressive door closures and very lovely form. And if we continue to the other side of the car we are greeted by this flowing highlight over the front wing. The 1996 VW Passat did something conceptually similar. The later Fulvia and Flavia saloons had every bit the same thoroughgoing solidity.

1956 Lancia Appia highlight

Moving on, about one metre we find a pair of Alfas: a 1956 and a 1962 Super Sprint and an Alfasud. I expect the older cars to be in mint condition. I didn’t believe an Alfasud could be in mint condition. The Alfasud had a lot going for it: handling, overall appearance, and very good steering.

Alfa Romeo Super Sprint
Alfa Romeo Super Sprint

Placing it next to the hand-finished Sprints did it no justice though. It only served to show up what a lot of work went in to making the Sud cheap to build: exposed hinges on the bootlid, shallow pressings and quite a lot of panel gaps where the Sprints had almost none.

Imagine if Rolls Royce were to make Rover 600-sort of car. Good in itself, perhaps, but built to a price. We can discuss the rationale for making the Alfasud for a long while. Clearly Alfa Romeo needed to make money. For some of the engineers at Alfa Romeo the Sud must have been seen as a real betrayal of the kind of standards the Sprints demonstrate.

Downstairs I spent most of my time on the left side of the stair case and missed the extensive collection of electric cars. More than ever these are relevant but I was lured by the fleet of Jaguars, a Lagonda, a Riley and the holy grail of rare Swedish cars, the legendary 780.

1984 Volvo 780 prototype
1984 Volvo 780 prototype

The staff very kindly let me sit inside the 780. It would be churlish of me to say that I would love to have seen the car in a position more favourable for photography than this. However, I did get to check out the ashtray. As it was a prototype, the rather stiff and uneven action may not be representative of the production car. Other aspects seemed believable, particularly the lovely driving position and view out. The interior was finished in a tamer colourway than the car I saw in the Volvo Museum in Gothenburg.

This example is a 1984 prototype which was given to Ole Sommer as a museum piece and not as a car to be driven. This car has an in-line six cylinder diesel engine which was a VW unit. There can’t be too many of these around. At the time I struggled to think which engine it might have been as I was pretty sure Volvo didn’t have a L6 diesel to hand. The museum’s car has chassis number 144 and is the only zero-series 780 in existence, all other prototypes having been destroyed.

1956 Volvo P1900 cabriolet prototype.
1956 Volvo P1900 cabriolet prototype.

At the other end of the row is the 1956 Volvo P1900. Volvo wanted a convertible for the US market. Sixty-seven of these cars were made (Wikipedia says 68) and the difficulties in perfecting the tricky production process for the fibre-glass/polyester body work plus low demand resulted in the project being cancelled. The president of Volvo took an example to test over a weekend and returned sufficiently displeased with the frailty of the car to cancel production with immediate effect. This car is chassis no.3. The fact the car looked unacceptably odd also must have contributed to its short life.

The Volvos stare at a long line of Jaguar saloons which are always a pleasure to gaze upon. I would ordinarily have spent a long time looking at these. However, they faced stiff competition from the attractions of a 1962 Lagonda Rapide. The car looks simply huge but is in fact a modest 4966mm long. It’s 1765 wide and only 1422 mm high. You’d have to park it right next to a Mondeo to see it is actually a bit smaller. The dramatic coachwork and imposing proportions are so much the opposite of anything Rolls Royce or Bentley made at the time.

1962 Lagonda Rapide
1962 Lagonda Rapide

A straight 6 cylinder of 4 litres powered the car to 200 kmph. Independent suspension, too. David Brown hoped the car could revive the Lagonda name. Alas only 55 examples were made, starting in 1961. Touring provided the bodywork (they did some remarkable design work) which has a touch of Aston Martin at the back and perhaps too much Edsel around the grille. The lighting conditions confounded this photo. It doesn’t seem too Edsel in this shot so much as Jaguar Mk 10 which came out in 1961 (and was even longer and wider) but was much the same sort of vehicle and only a bit more successful. It’s necessary to show a side view but I had to source the picture (below) elsewhere.

1961 Lagonda Rapide:
1961 Lagonda Rapide: The tail seems to point up in the air when it is actually horizontal. The designer must have thought that if it is straight it will look straight.

A little further down the line is an intriguing car which also had a brief and not very successful career (1953 to 1957), the Riley Pathfinder. It’s viewed as the last proper Riley. Under the bonnet is what seems to me to be an odd kind of engine, a 2.4 litre straight four (I’d expect a six of some type). As it was getting on the for the end of my trip I ran out of alertness and Wikipedia had to be consulted to fill in this.

And as I read, I find the “last real Riley” shared a whole lot with the Wolseley 56/90/23-3400 (Wolseley’s names are simply impossible to remember. So, it’s not very much of a Riley at all. The Wolseley had a straight six of 2.6 litres capacity so you can see where the Riley stood in the pecking order. I haven’t seen this car in the metal before.

1953 Riley Pathfinder
1953 Riley Pathfinder

When seen from the side rear the car has a quiet dignity about it, something almost German. I enjoyed looking at the apparently simple bodywork; I suspect it’s not simple like Simon but rather carefully polished and scultped. The roof and C-pillar are very pleasingly handled. Notice the door-handles located on the brightwork at the base of the side-glass.

Lincoln have tried that on their new Continental, have they not? There’s nothing about it I feel is out of place though a round fuel filler cap would have sat more happily there than a square one. The gear lever sat between the driver and the door. The handbrake lever lived under the dashboard. Apart from that the interior is generic nice English fifties design.

1953 Riley Pathfinder
1953 Riley Pathfinder

Yet again I find a car that’s hard to place and I wonder where it would all have gone to if Riley had not lost its identity at the point when it was sucked into the black hole of the Nuffield corporation. This pathfinder looks to be the first of the Nuffielded cars, with an identity that was supposedly sporty and luxurious compared to Wolseley’s emphasis on luxury. This sounds like a familiar story and there’s loads more on the net if you want to unravel the mess of conflicting brands in the Nuffield Corporation.

That concludes this section of my visit. I will return with one more tranche in the near future.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

22 thoughts on “Sommer’s Automobile Museum, Part 2”

  1. Undeservely forgotten cars, the Pathfinder and Wolseley 6/90, and, to a lesser extent, the smaller MG Magnette and Wolseley 4/44. According to Gerald Palmer’s autobiography “Auto-Architect”, they were seen as “BMC’s Jaguars”, with twin-cam versions of the B and C series engines under development to challenge the XK.

    They could have been the British 3 and 5 series, a full twenty years before BMW.

    Instead a minor, (but potentially lethal) manufacturing defect in a sub-contracted Pathfinder rear suspension component, and unfavourable press reviews of the Wolseley gave Len Lord the ammunition to dismiss ex-Nuffield BMC Chief Engineer Palmer in a peremptory manner, and thereby change the entire direction of the corporation’s engineering and product strategy.

    Palmer seems to have no bitterness about this turn of events, and soon found a well-remunerated post at Vauxhall, I’m still left with the feeling that we missed out on 20 years-worth of good cars because dear Len took against him.

  2. I have now worked out what the white car to the left of the Pathfinder is.

    I’ll keep it to myself – don’t want to spoil this excellent series.

  3. There is a passing similarity to the Jaguar known best for its connection to the television drama “Inspector Morse”. Is that a co-incidence? A shortage of time has meant I’ve not gone further with my Pathfinder research. You hint at a point that inkled in the back of my mind, that Riley might very well have been a more promising nameplate to carry on than some that did stagger like zombies until the 80s. The Pathfinder looks more plausible than some of the oddities Issigonis raised in his laboratory. There was a man who needed a bit of managerial discipline and who could have produced much better work inside some guidelining structure. He probably hated Riley.

  4. Some time in the last decade, at the height of my diamond-badged defunct marques fixation, I sketched up a notional Riley Monaco, as a mid-sixties BMC rival for the Rover and Triumph 2000s. The thinking was that such a thing, with RWD and a six cylinder engine would have been more desirable and profitable than the ‘Landcrab’ 1800.

    Riley very nearly got their 1800, vetoed within months of launch, allowing the marque to wither with the Elf and 1100/1300 (don’t call it Kestrel!).

    Does anyone else recall that Bernd Pischetsreider had a fixation with reviving Riley as an über-Rover British product line? I think it may have planted seeds of doubt about his judgement as ‘The English Patient’ era progressed.

  5. Thank you Richard for bringing the Riley Pathfinder to our attention. Growing up in the 1950s I was a big Riley fan, probably influenced by my father who drove a Riley Kestrel before the war. I admired the combination of gravitas and sportiness that the car seemed to exude. As you mentioned in your article it is interesting to conjecture on what Riley might have become. Looking back I see it in BMW or Audi territory; less serious than Mercedes but more sporting. A British Alfa Romeo perhaps as, after all, Riley did have a worthy racing heritage. With BMC’s muddled thinking Triumph was briefly allowed to become the purveyor of British sporting saloons but Riley was there first.

  6. Triumph, along with Rover and Alvis arrived with the BMH / Leyland Motor Corporation merger at the beginning of 1968.

    Which in no way alters the fact that BMC had a plethora of premium and sporting brands still extant at the time, even disregarding Jaguar-Daimler. (No reason not to – they largely disregarded BMC and British Leyland…)

    So we had:

    Austin Motors Corporation brands: Austin Healey, Vanden Plas.
    Nuffield Organisation brands: MG, Riley, Wolseley.

    The Palmer cars – Pathfinder, 6/90, Magnette ZA, 4/44 were conceived before the Austin-Nuffield merger. Thereafter Riley and Wolseley were condemned to slow death by badge-engineering. There’s a pattern of favour being given to Austin Healey and Vanden Plas, both Austin proteges.
    Len Lord invested substantially in Vanden Plas as a Rolls Royce and Daimler rival – a small and overcrowded market largely regulated by the nation’s death rate – whereas the Palmer cars now look to be ahead of their time – stylish, sporty and affordable by the growing professional and managerial class who were rebuilding Britain.

    At least Len had the wit and wisdom to recognise the value of MG, although we could have well done without the vile Farina Magnette. Lord’s successor George Harriman was likewise oblivious to the need for premium “sports saloons”, instead concentrating on a multi-tentacled joint venture with Rolls-Royce (For further information refer to whose sole fruit was the disastrous Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R.

    I know hindsight makes armchair product planning easily, but the future was staring BMC in the face, from the moment it came into existence.

  7. In view of our obsession with the brand, I might suggest that the Pathfinder was more the British Lancia. In fact, finished in that attractive dull silver that seems all the more conceivable.

  8. Would this make Gerald Palmer the British (or Rhodesian) Antonio Fessia,and the Jowett Javelin the British CEMSA Caproni?

  9. It´s hard to know if Riley was Britain´s Lancia. Rover could have claimed the same. It seems it was more sporting than luxury. Aren´t these labels so limiting?

  10. Certainly I think that Gerald Palmer’s talents might have shone brighter had the results not been compromised by the UK industry’s usual skinflint attitude towards development and investment. Interestingly, there’s a fair amount of similarity between the (earlier) Caproni and the Pathfinder.

    With flat 4 engines that rose little above the top of the tyres, one wonders why both the Caproni or the Javelin had such high bonnet lines.

    1. I think that’s true, but the Javelin’s streamlined rear is greatly at odds with, and compromised by, its bluff front.

    2. The elements resemble a lot of cars from the period. I don´t find the bonnet any more or less troubling than those of its peers. The rest of the car looks upright. A lower bonnet (how much lower are we talking about?) would make the rear of the car seem reltively bukly.

    3. Could it be the vertical grille (the front grille) where the problem really lies? Had it been canted back by 10 to 15 degrees I think the car could have looked a bit better.
      I am not good at judging cars from this time on their own terms.

    4. I know what you mean about judging cars from different times. But the front really seems more conservative than the back, resulting in a design that would disappoint both camps.

  11. Apparently Gerald Palmer while at BMC also designed a compact 90-degree V4 displacing around 900cc which was allegedly capable of being used in a transverse-engined front-wheel-drive layout, yet featured a two-bearing crankshaft as well as semi-side-valve horizontal values operated by pressed-steel rockers from a central camshaft. While the engine never reached production do the semi-side values mean it featured some sort of IOE / Inlet Over Exhaust layout (at a period where many mainstream carmakers already switched over to OHVs )?

    Without Riley or Wolseley, MG would have definitely benefited from Gerald Palmer’s work on the Twin-Cam B-Series and C-Series projects. Especially given the existence of the C-Series engined Magnette prototype, thereby pushing the MG marque upmarket as a Junior Jaguar challenger. –

    It would have also been interesting seeing Gerald Palmer lay the groundwork for a BMC equivalent of the rear-wheel drive Vauxhall Viva HA and Ford Cortina, with the former slotting between the Mini and ADO16 while the latter slots between ADO16 and the Landcrab. Basically more conventional cars to capture existing FWD adverse BMC customers who would have otherwise gone to Ford, Vauxhall, Rootes, etc.

    1. That sounds like a useful engine. You say “designed” but do you mean proposed? An engine needs a lot of time to
      develop and a lot of resources too. How far did he get?

    2. My bad, meant proposed. Found it from the following link as well as parts from Auto-Architect. –

      Still it is not clear whether the engine featured side-valves or some form of IOE layout, and question its value when side-valves / IOE were being ditched in favor of OHV or more modern layouts.

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