Keeping death at bay.
Death travels in a Rolls Royce landaulet accompanied by a pair of leather-clad motorcycle outriders. The portal between the living world and the afterlife is fluid and open. Reflections come fraught with risk. Death herself; beautiful, irresistible in her terrible inevitability is nonetheless prey to similar failings as us mortals. Reality pivots amid clever reverse projections and rippling looking glasses – Jean Cocteau’s visionary 1950 movie Orphée retells the myth of Orpheus and his journey into the underworld, set amid the landscape of post-war France.
The aftermath of hostilities was a desperate time across Europe; the old ways could no longer continue, given how the continent had been altered by war. For Alfa Romeo it marked something of an existential crisis. The coachbuilt cars they previously specialised in were no longer relevant, and with Portello being forced to pivot not only towards unitary construction, but also mass-production methods, the 1950 introduction of the less exclusive, new from the ground up 1900 berlina was nevertheless the most significant in the Milanese carmaker’s history.
Powered in Portello tradition by an in-line twin overhead camshaft power unit – in this case an 1884 cc four cylinder – a precursor to the later long-lived (Alfa Nord) engine*. The Orazio Satta Puliga-helmed 1900 set the template for every Alfa Romeo which followed, siring not only a raft of special bodied beauties, (not to mention the immortal Disco Volante race car), but the more compact Guilietta which followed. Without the Millenove, there would be no modern Alfa Romeo.
Similarly in Turin, FIAT were transitioning from their pre-war offerings to a new generation of cars. Like its Alfa Romeo equivalent, the 1950 1400 berlina introduced the concept of unitary construction to Lignotto. The first all-new Fiat model of the modern era, it also introduced a fresh styling theme, which married both American and home-grown influences. The style was sober, unfussy and determinedly modernist with clean lines and uncluttered pontoon flanks, again, much like Portello’s contemporary offering.
Technically, the 1400 broke little ground. Under the assured technical guidance of Dante Giacosa, the Fiat was a typically intelligent melding of orthodox componentry into what was deemed a refined, well honed and satisfying product. Difficult for some to believe now, but during this period, and for time thereafter, Fiat was considered a quality product, and both the 1400, and its more upmarket 1900 sibling did much to promote this impression.
The UK’s specialist carmakers had if anything more of a struggle to forge a fresh identity. Aston Martin (yet to become immortalised in celluloid), deftly combined their pre-existing chassis, the Lagonda-sourced 2580 cc in-line six (developed under W.O. Bentley) and a handsome, finely proportioned fastback bodystyle by Frank Feeley; the resulting DB2 laying out the blueprint for the Aston Martin technical format and visual silhouette, more or less to the present day. The model lived on throughout the 1950s under a number of different guises, before giving way to the Touring Superleggera-bodied DB4 in 1958 – which of course leads us inexorably back to the silver screen.
North-West of Newport Pagnell, Castle Bromwich-based Jensen Motors made a modest name for themselves prior to the interregnum of hostilities, but the advent of Eric Neale, a former Wolesley designer in 1946, and an alliance with Leonard Lord’s Austin Motor Company precipitated a new creative direction, one which the specialist carmaker would pursue until its commercial demise in 1975.
Neale, having joined the company in 1946, began design work on a new full-size coupé model, which thanks to the Austin alliance, would employ a modified A70 chassis and the 4-litre in-line six cylinder engine from the Sheerline model. Clothing this was a coupé body of all-enveloping style.
Taking the Interceptor name, the car however bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Austin A40 Sports, also designed by Neale, and built by Jensen by arrangement with Longbridge, making its debut in advance of Jensen’s offering – a matter which probably rebounded on the Castle Bromwich concern. Built in tiny numbers, this first-generation Interceptor is now a largely forgotten confection, but at least the name would come in handy later.
In Germany, the end of hostilities proved even more troubled, given that the country had effectively been partitioned by the victorious allied powers. Part of the Auto Union combine, Dampf-Kraft-Wagen emerged out of this fractured landscape with its factories on the wrong side of the Russian controlled zone, necessitating the carmaker to essentially begin again.
The F89 would be the first Auto Union offering of this new era, even if it was very much a reprise of the inter-war F9 which was to enter production but for the war. This latter model ended up being produced in the former Auto Union plant in Zwickau as the IFA F9. The West German Deek carried over a good deal of the earlier F9’s body style and technical specification, which was pretty advanced for its time – independent suspension all round, front wheel drive and an in-line 2-cylinder, 2-stroke engine of 684 cc.
A thoroughly competent, neatly styled and agile compact saloon, the F89 could perhaps have become a stronger rival to the VW Beetle it bettered in so may ways were it not for its small-capacity 2-stroke powerplant. Development continued until its immediate descendants were discontinued in 1963 – Auto Union ultimately pivoting towards larger, more lucrative fare.
It’s debatable whether Volkswagen’s Type 2 was a more significant vehicle than Wolfsburg’s original and timeless Käfer. Certainly the Beetle was built in larger quantities and over a longer period (as originally conceived), but on the other hand the Volkswagen Transporter remains a staple of the German car giant’s output to this day, its 1950 forebear forging Volkswagen’s lucrative light commercials business.
Based on the Type 1’s platform chassis and drivetrain, the forward-control van, pickup (innumerable other variants also were available), which in minibus and camper van form became something of a counter-cultural icon and poster vehicle for a certain freewheeling lifestyle, then and now, which has latterly inflated values of early generation Microbuses to quite staggering levels.
Back to France, Renault emerged emerged into the post-war era under something of a cloud. Nationalised, its founder deceased (under still-contested circumstances) amid allegations of collaboration, and in need of fresh direction. The 4CV model of 1947 would transform its fortunes, but a gap existed further upmarket. In May 1950, Billancourt introduced the Colorale, unveiled to journalists in the Parc de Bagatelle, aimed (as the name suggested) at both rural and colonial markets.
A practical utility vehicle, rather than an upmarket saloon, it majored on robustness and versatility rather than style or luxury. Powered by the 85-series 2383cc sidevalve engine derived from the pre-war Primaquarte, the Colorale was available in several versions: Prairie, Savane, taxi, small van, pickup, covered flatbed, or chassis cab. Even a 4×4 version was developed, which was either remarkably prescient or a missed opportunity. Maybe not, since sales in its home market were as leisurely as its on-road performance – most being sold in the colonies. Production ceased in 1957 – it wasn’t replaced.
“Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes; look long enough in a mirror and you will see Death at work.”
Cocteau’s 1950 vision, with its cryptic disembodied radio broadcasts, brutal stormtroopers clever effects and suspension of the rules of cinematography was a lustrous piece of pioneering cinema, not only recalling the fear and uncertainty of the French occupation, but influencing generations of film makers bring their own fractured dreamscapes to life.
For carmakers, 1950 marked a turning point; the new decade marking a gasp of modernity and the promise of better after the horrors and privations of conflict. Death’s hand can sometimes be swerved.
Both the Jaguar MKVII and Hotchkiss Gregoire have been omitted from this review and will be covered separately in the new year.
*The text has been altered to amend a previous error of attribution.