“This matter is best disposed of from a great height, over water”.
Amid a year of cinematic gems such as swords and sandals epic, Ben-Hur and Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest might not have drawn as many cinemagoers, but if it wasn’t the auteur-director’s finest film, it was probably his most enjoyable. Starring an at-his-peak Cary Grant as the film’s suave but unsuspecting Mad Man, a diverting Eve Marie Saint as the requisite femme-fatale, combined with a strong supporting cast, a sharp, pithy script by Ernest Lehman and some of the best-known set-piece scenes in movie history, North by Northwest remains something to savour.
1959 also played host to the introduction of the Mattel corporation’s Barbie doll, beloved of young girls and student film makers, the communist revolution in Cuba, beloved of cigar manufacturers and CIA assassination attempts, the first of the Mercury programme space flights and the air crash which killed, amongst others, musician and teen-idol, Buddy Holly. In Britain, the first section of the M1 motorway – from London to Birmingham – was opened, precipitating high-speed inter-city road travel, even if few domestic cars were actually capable of it.
One which undoubtedly would have been made its debut at that year’s Earls Court Motor Show. The AC motor company could trace its background to the very dawn of motoring, the Thames Ditton carmaker having made its name producing quality saloons and sporting models. The Greyhound was based on a modified Aceca chassis, itself a coupé version of the pretty Ace two-seater. The Greyhound’s elegant coachwork was formed in aluminium. Engines were either the popular and rugged Ford in-line sixes, or the more rarefied and exclusive BMW-derived Bristol units.
The Greyhound’s suspension was independent all round with coil springs and wishbones at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear. Disc brakes were fitted at the front and steering was by rack and pinion. The AC’s cabin seated four with a high standard of creature comfort. Aimed at cars like Alvis’ TA or Bristol’s 404, the Greyhound however was not a commercial success, with production ceasing in 1963 with only 84 cars built.
Fiat’s upmarket ambitions in the immediate post-war period were somewhat on the modest side, being predicated broadly upon what the Italian market was deemed capable of absorbing. And while Italian specialist carmakers were producing cars of considerably more power, style and technical allure, the large Fiat saloon was already something of a national fixture.
With the 1800/2100, Lignotto aimed to produce a more contemporary looking car with strong export potential. Equally strong were the visual similarities to Pininfarina-penned contemporaries from Lancia, BMC and later, Peugeot – the latter in particular being almost a carbon copy. However, the big Fiat’s shape was perhaps the better balanced one. Mechanically, the 1800 employed a wholly conventional chassis layout, and six cylinder engines of 1795 or 2054 cc capacities.
Never a big seller outside its native Italy, the large Fiat was a capable motor car, and not an unattractive one but unlike the rivals it once so closely resembled, it’s almost entirely lost to the mists of time now.
Not so the big Fiat’s German rival. History accords the Mercedes W111 a degree of immortality, largely because (a) it’s a Mercedes and (b) it was adorned by perhaps the only visual concession to fashion ever to make it to a Daimler-Benz production car – until the Wagener era anyway. The W111’s cropped tailfins lent it the ‘heckflosse’ soubriquet and were, it’s been suggested intended as a parking aid, but you can believe that if you wish. What they signified was perhaps Germany allowing its collective hair down a little as the Wirtschaftswunder took hold.
Created under the auspices of Karl Wilfert, Fredrich Geiger and most notably, Austrian engineer and inventor, Béla Barényi, who pioneered more than 2500 patents over his long career, most of which took place at Sindelfingen. The fintail’s most significant innovation and one which would revolutionise the entire industry, not to mention save countless lives, was the creation of the passenger safety cell, which in conjunction with standard fit seatbelts, crash padding and recessed interior fittings, allowed progressive deformation at front and rear, and did much to prevent serious injury in the event of a crash. In 1959, the heckflosse was probably the safest car in production.
Introduced in 2.2 litre six cylinder form, the range would later be expanded to encompass the W112 3oo SE, the short-nosed W110 four-cylinder models and elegant coupé versions. However, the fintail style, while modish in 1959 dated quickly and by the time the car was superseded by the /8 model in 1968, had started to look rather old fashioned. But like most Mercedes’ of this era, one of the best-regarded and most durable cars of its time and a lasting monument to a fine engineering team.
One thing which could be said of the cars of 1959, and especially those of Fiat and Mercedes was that their creators were moving away from the more intuitive manner in which cars used to be conceived, towards something more considered – something more akin perhaps to the results of deliberate planning – without the cliffhanger…
The class of ’59 we did write about.
We’ll come back to these another time. BMW 700/DKW Junior/Lloyd Arabella/ Maserati 5000 GT/ Studebaker Lark