Anniversary Waltz 2017: Sweet Smell of Success

Our final retrospective waltz in this series lands in 1957.

Bert Lancaster as JJ Hundseker and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco from the 1957 Alexander McKendrick release, Sweet Smell of Success. Image: video city

1957’s Sweet Smell of Success was an unusual film for its era, made by a director better known for lighthearted comedies, casting its two leads against type and portraying a seedy, rapacious twilight world behind the gloss of celebrity culture. In that respect, it was a very modern film, but it was one the public were not ready for, dying on its feet in cinemas.

Its two leading men, Bert Lancaster and Tony Curtis whose on-screen relationship was characterised by an exquisite sado-masochistic cruelty disowned the movie despite both providing career-defining performances, only many decades later softening towards what many critics later celebrated as a noir classic.

By the mid-’50s, Jaguar were perhaps the automotive equivalent to Curtis’ hustling press agent – ‘cookie full of arsenic’, Sidney Falco. An upstart marque which had swiftly grown from a tiny enterprise into a giant-killing specialist in less than a decade. An alluring combination of well honed (if largely conservative) engineering with inspired, voluptuous styling, mass produced to a price that few could believe or indeed match, yet in the crucial US market, their position at the top table remained tenuous.

Jaguar XK150 Fixed-head. Image: momentcar

The XK-series was the Coventry firm’s performance and glamour standard-bearer, with a Le Mans winning heritage at a price you could (just about) afford. But with the incumbent XK140 looking dated against Mercedes technofest 300SL and Chevrolet’s increasingly able Corvette models, Jaguar responded, not with the all-new car some had hoped for, but with XK150, the most comprehensive facelift yet of the almost decade-old XK-series.

Retaining the now-familiar chassis, independent double wishbone front and leaf-sprung rear suspensions and Jaguar’s locomotive-like inline XK six, XK150’s major innovation lay with its all-round Dunlop disc brakes which became available as an option. Perhaps the most important safety innovation of its era, it was a brave move for such a small operator, but one which gave Jaguar a technical edge over its rivals. The XK150 needed them badly, especially when it was later offered in 265 (SAE bhp) 3.8 litre triple carb form.

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Body styling was an evolution of the earlier cars, but with a more linear beltline, echoing that of the compact (Utah-bodied) 3.4 saloon introduced stateside the same year. A wider, bolder grille defined the frontal aspect, while a one piece windscreen replaced the previous split version. The rear treatment again echoed that of the compact saloon, while in fixed-head form, the greenhouse was larger and more cohesive than that of its immediate predecessor. A wood-free interior completed the transformation.

While it could be argued the XK150 was little more than a stop-gap, a final massage of a now dated concept aimed at maintaining Jaguar’s position in the glamourous upper echelons of the performance car business, that didn’t stop many of Jaguar’s rivals from successfully fielding cars of similar ilk well into the following decade.

Jaguar’s Le Mans winning D-Type had entered limited production two years previously, but by 1957 demand from the racing fraternity was tailing off and unsold cars were stockpiling. At the same time, requests from the US importer for a car to meet the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) production car class regulations made management realise such a car could be sold at a premium. But while work began that year on just such a model (dubbed E1A), it would not be ready for some considerable time.

D-Type to XKSS. Image: new atlas

So taking the D-Type as its basis, with the body re-engineered by Jaguar’s Bob Blake and Cyril Crouch for road use, the XKSS as it became known was created on the usual Jaguar shoestring, but offered racing car performance suitable for both road and track. Essentially a road equipped ‘D’, performance was shattering and given the source-car’s aviation-inspired construction, gave little away to its Stuttgart-Unterturkheim rival either technically, or in performance terms.

Initial orders for the XKSS were strong, and if it didn’t quite set the SCCA scene alflame, it was largely because Jaguar is said to have quietly discouraged owners from competing with their cars. Furthermore, it was viewed internally not only as a distraction, but an impediment to the prospects of the newly announced XK150, which it comprehensively humbled in just about every measure.

Ultimately it ceased to matter because a devastating fire at Jaguar’s Browns Lane works destroyed vast swathes of the factory, hundreds of cars including all remaining unconverted D-Types. The costs of restarting production was prohibitive, especially given that the model was probably sold at a loss. The XKSS, with only sixteen cars made was dead.

1957 Jaguar XKSS. Image: stuff.co.nz

But the car’s reputation didn’t hurt Jaguar’s cause – if anything its very unobtainability only added to it. Anyway, four years later, Jaguar’s ‘proper’ SCCA contender (now repurposed as a production GT) would render all hand-wringing academic. Meanwhile, sixty years on, Jaguar have elected to build those XKSS’ destroyed in the ’57 fire. At over £1 million a pop, they sold out in minutes.

In the spring of 1957, BBC’s prestigious current affairs TV programme, Panorama presented a piece on April 1st showing spaghetti being harvested in Switzerland. Millions were taken in by the hoax, allegedly flooding the Beeb with requests for saplings. People didn’t get out much then, so notions of Italy were not exactly fully or accurately formed. But that year one car would come to define our perceptions of it. The Fiat Nouva 500.

Image: mad 4 wheels

Having presided over Italy’s motorisation, Fiat’s socially-aware senior engineer, Dante Giacosa’s 1955 Seicento proved a minor masterpiece, one which helped redefine the compact post-war saloon. Quickly, these cars were everywhere and justifiably so. But Giacosa and his Fiat master, Gianni Agnelli wanted to make a car so simple (and cheap) there could be no impediment to purchase.

The Nouva 500 looked to all the world as a 600 in miniature, but it was a good deal more clever than that. In just about every way, the cinquecento was reduced to an elemental level. Even the engine, a seemingly unburstable 500cc air cooled in-line twin, was reduced to its essentials.

1955 Fiat 600. Image: top speed

And while the highly admirable seicento, despite being made in many millions over a protracted period in nine separate countries is virtually forgotten, its baby brother; an essential component of Italian life for decades, not only outlived its larger sibling, but also its direct replacement in hearts, minds and souvenir tea-towels.

Today, the cinquecento answers our longing for more innocent, more optimistic times; its charm, friendly demeanour and diminutive size speaking to our desire to nurture. We look at a 500 and smile, like we do with small children and puppies. It’s impulsive and quite beyond our control.

Image: oldcar and vehicle

But charm can only take you so far in life, to say nothing of looks. The little Fiat worked then and works now because it is so fit for its purpose, so intelligently designed by people who understood the necessity for a car to be more than simply the sum of its component parts. In the end, the cinquecento became shorthand for an entire way of being. As Italian as, well perhaps you can see where I’m going with this.

So while the 500 may not be lionised like the XK150, or command a tech-billionaire’s ransom like the XKSS; success, like so many things in life is relative.

The cars of 1957 we did get around to

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

3 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 2017: Sweet Smell of Success”

  1. Man, that was lyrical and educational. A fitting end to a great mini-series that has brightened a miserable start to the year. Thanks.

    1. Seconded.

      The inclusion of Mackendrick’s semi-forgotten masterpiece is a worthwhile endeavour in itself (in visual terms alone the movie’s a gem, thanks to the outstanding eye of its director of photography, James Wong Howe). And the cars featured keep up this high standard.

      Grazie, Signore Doyle!

  2. Great article. Reminded me of something I’d almost completely forgotten: the British system of nut, bolt and thread sizes. You could buy British cars here in North America in the 1950s, but you’d better not stray too far out in the countryside, because if something went wrong, your chance of finding any gas station with a set of Whitworth wrenches or spare BA threaded grub screws for the one that fell out of your SU, was nil, zero, not a hope in hell.

    Metric was also scarce, but there were German, Swedish, French and German cars in enough quantity that the situation was nowhere near as serious. The US car industry went metric in the early ’70s on fastener sizes, to the usual flag wavers’ gripes. But Whitworth and BA were a secret code here, and were never sold in automotive stores. Apparently, this was what took Packard so long to make RR Merlins in WW2 – all the drawings had to be redone for US fastener sizes.

    Small thing that wasn’t uppermost on a car buyer’s mind, until something disastrous happened post purchase.

    Having actually tried to once get in an original Fiat 500, I assumed Italians were a pigmy race. That thing was ridiculously small just like the Mouse(?) before it. Loved the XK 150 though. Too bad the Chevy small block V8 turned out to be so superior, pushrods and all. Happens all the time in engineering – through no fault of their own, sometimes people design something that just turns out to be better than all the competition but in engineering terms nobody can really explain it. And it really just shows we haven’t yet tamed nature enough to know exactly the correct way to do things. Sure, modern computer tools have made sure few complete dogs get designed, but there is no recipe for almost perfect.

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