Stateside Slip-ups

America: land of unlimited possibilities. Of course, not all roads lead to success.

Image: the author

Cardin Cadillac Eldorado Evolution I

French couture designer Pierre Cardin* was no stranger to dabbling in the automotive sector: in 1972 and 1973 AMC offered a specially upholstered version of the Javelin with his name on it. Not only the seats but also the doors and headliner were treated to a very seventies motif in white, silver, purple and orange on a black base. The famous couturier developed higher ambitions than just car interior upholstery packages and founded Pierre Cardin Automotive in 1980, holding office in New York’s World Trade Center. The first – and, as it would transpire, last – product by Cardin’s automotive arm was presented in 1981: the Cardin Evolution I.

Developed in collaboration with Cadillac, the Evolution I was a restyled and very opulently equipped variant of the then current E-body Cadillac Eldorado. Contrary to previous projects, Pierre Cardin had not limited himself only to modifying the interior – the exterior appearance of the car was also quite different from its Eldorado base, although it is unclear whether the actual styling really was by Pierre Cardin Automotive, or that Cardin had simply agreed with a design proposal from a source within GM or Cadillac. Continue reading “Stateside Slip-ups”

U.S. Air Force

There were times when General Motors led the charge.

Images: Dale Jackson and the author

It is an easily overlooked fact that, despite enjoying widespread publicity and -in two cases at least- being successful additions to their existing model range, the BMW 2002 Turbo, Porsche 911 Turbo and SAAB 99 Turbo were not the first roadgoing, commercially available turbocharged passenger cars(1). The USA beat even the first amongst this European trio -the BMW- by a decade and while neither of today’s two protagonists could ever be declared a true commercial success, they still deserve their place in the spotlight.

America was no stranger to forced induction: starting in the early thirties the likes of Graham, Duesenberg and Cord employed superchargers, as did Kaiser and Studebaker around two decades later. The turbocharger, however, was thus far an unapplied technique for carmakers, although the idea had already been patented in the early twentieth century(2) and turbocharged engines had seen use in airplanes during World War Two. Continue reading “U.S. Air Force”

1968: A Question of Choice

Decisions, decisions.

Image: the author

Guiding his Oldsmobile carefully up the driveway to the garage of his house in the suburbs of a typical midwestern American town, Scott Hewitt had something planned for the evening. It was 1968, a year that would prove to be pivotal in world history as well as a bloody one. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy would not see the end of the year alive, and neither would Martin Luther King.

The war in Vietnam escalated with the fierce Tet offensive, and the awful My Lai massacre would change many people’s minds about why and if the USA should have ever been involved in it in the first place. Violence and unrest were not limited to Southeast Asia- witness student riots in Paris, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the ignition of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Significant if less deadly pointers to Continue reading “1968: A Question of Choice”

Swiss Riv

The final Riviera’s missing link?

1988 Buick Lucerne concept. Image: Deans Garage

The Mid-1980s downsized GM range would prove a step into the unknown for the US car giant, one which could be said to have been successful, at least in terms of raw sales numbers. But while the C-body Buick sedans proved popular with buyers[1], the E-bodied personal coupés would prove a far tougher sell. There was a good deal of trepidation amid the design leadership at Buick’s studio in GM’s Warren, Michigan Design Centre as the 1986 model year Riviera was made ready; doubts which would crystallise as the drastically downsized model failed to appeal to existing Riviera customers, who not only baulked at the style, but also its notable lack of road presence[2].

As soon as was deemed possible, Buick Design chief, Bill Porter (who had overseen the E-body design) supervised a revised styling scheme, based upon one which had originally been proposed featuring a sloping tail motif, the victim of engineering package requirements (in this case luggage capacity)[3]. With this heavily revised Riviera, the work of a team under Steve Pasteiner, the model’s fortunes were revived to some extent, but still failed to return to pre-downsized levels. Continue reading “Swiss Riv”

Where There’s Muck, There’s Brass

 Exemplar 1: More Riviera-based goodness. 

Coggiola sketch for Exemplar 1. Image: neautomuseum.org

While the name of Sergio Coggiola might be known to the enthusiast, that of Mario Revelli de Beaumont may not. Roman born Revelli made his name submitting handsome designs to coachbuilders in the nineteen twenties and thirties with Rolls-Royce, Lancia then post-war, with Fiat. Coggiola on the other hand spent time under Pietro Frua at Ghia before setting up his eponymous carrozzeria in Orbassano, a district of Turin during 1966. Around that time, the two Italians collaborated, with the use of atomic element number 29: copper.

Bridgeport, Connecticut may not be the automotive centre of the universe but the Bridgeport Brass Company (henceforward referred to as the BBC) had plans to Continue reading “Where There’s Muck, There’s Brass”

Silver Car For Mr Mitchell (Part Two)

Boaty McBoat Tail

Buick Silver Arrow III. Image: Conceptcarz

An almost mythical aura surrounds the second of the Silver Arrow concepts, which is more than can be said of the car itself – now vanished without trace. Hype and overall interest for 1967 was considerably lower when compared to the first Silver Arrow; no chassis number, no documented dates, no confirmed photos, zilch.

After extensive research with limited resources[1], Silver Arrow II appears to have barely differed from a 1970 model year Riviera – the grille perhaps receiving the most noticeable change – 74 teeth opposed to only 60. The side chromed spear overlaid onto bodywork. An interior again in silver leather. Other small details differing from that of later production models include side view mirrors, the hub caps (not seen on any other Riviera) and the rear side reflectors. What is known as the Rocker Moulding[2], was also chromed. Continue reading “Silver Car For Mr Mitchell (Part Two)”

Silver Car For Mr. Mitchell (Part One)

Silver Arrows from Flint, Michigan.

Image: sloanlongway.org

In the realms of car design, chances must be taken. Regardless of the ever-building pressure generated from all quarters as to the next sure-fire sales wonder, calculated risk taking is part of the game. Such incontrovertible weights require shoulders of strength, astute vision, alongside the ego of a vain, mirror-devoted individual, obsessed with appearances. Praise be that a certain William Mitchell was in possession of all of the above qualities, along with a marked penchant for items of an argentine nature.

It seems as natural today as it did sixty years ago that prior to the October 4th 1962 Riviera reveal, Mitchell would wish to Continue reading “Silver Car For Mr. Mitchell (Part One)”

Vox Pop Riviera Americana

Riviera. A brief history. 

Image: oldcarbrochures

London in the late 1950’s could still fall victim to enveloping airborne elements. Long since relieved from wartime bombardment, the city’s endemic smog, while atmospheric (in either sense of the word) was hardly conducive to those of a compromised bronchial nature. But what transpired for a certain American one evening in the capital, would prove even more breath taking, prompting something of a three-decade exhalation.

Ford had upset the atmosphere in 1958 by introducing the second-generation Thunderbird, a hugely successful personal luxury car which forced the competition to Continue reading “Vox Pop Riviera Americana”

Ain’t No Spin Here

Does your bow tie revolve?

Image: Autocarsindustry

Inspiration arrives in many forms. In today’s story, mystery, elements of sophistry and in this instance, anaglypta and food all play their respective parts as we peer into the entomology of a globally renowned car badge, yet one with an indeterminate history. Some believe that the badge is in fact a cross, stylised over generations, but the only genuine certainty is that Chevrolet’s badge is indeed a bow tie, although how this came to be is subject to one of four possible permutations.

The first of these suggests that company co-founder William Crapo Durant introduced the bow tie motif onto his cars in 1913, two years after the company’s inception. One simple but uncorroborated story involves the Swiss chap whose name went on to emblazon millions of vehicles over the intervening years – Louis Chevrolet. Possibly as an homage to the drapeu de la Suisse, it seems a blatantly obvious connection until one realises that Louis had left the company by 1915.

An altogether more elaborate reasoning stems from a story centred around a newspaper advertisement that Durant is said to have viewed in 1912, as related by Catherine Durant to interviewer Lawrence R. Gustin some years after her husband’s passing. On vacation in Hot Springs, Virginia, Durant noticed a bow tie emblem featured on another altogether different product – Coalettes, a refined solid fuel. Considering it to be suitable for his cars, he exclaimed to Catherine, Continue reading “Ain’t No Spin Here”

Keeping it Real

Musings on the US automotive landscape.

Image: the author

I am writing this on our flight home from Chicago after spending ten most enjoyable days exploring the city and surrounding areas. Chicago is one of the great American cities and, with so much to see and experience, it is well worth a visit. Over the past thirty-something years, I have had the opportunity to travel to the US many times for both business and pleasure. One of my abiding fascinations is the country’s automotive landscape and how it has evolved over these decades.

When I first arrived on those shores in the late 1980s, the US car market was still dramatically different to its European equivalent, thrillingly so for a car-obsessive like me. Despite the downsizing precipitated by the 1973 fuel crisis, there were still plenty of US-manufactured ‘land yachts’ traversing the streets of the big cities and the country’s broad highways. American cars retained their highly distinctive style amongst a plethora of different marques, each with its own signature design features. Continue reading “Keeping it Real”

Blackhawk Down

If you’re feeling sinister…

Image: Hemmings Auto News

One sure fire way of upsetting your customers is to halt production of an established favourite. Buick caused a national outcry when they axed the Grand National. When the Riviera was retired, the overtures were quieter perhaps but no less felt. GM rolled out concepts from time to time, and potential customers took notice until the realisation dawned that this was more a case of theatrics over genuine articles – another false dawn.

Are we perhaps being a little harsh here? Given the chance to design something from scratch, any designer worth their salt would Continue reading “Blackhawk Down”

Billeted By The Waterfall

Buick tantalises, but disappoints.

2013 Buick Riviera Concept. Image: topspeed.com

For the new millennium, GM tasked its Holden operation in Australia with creating a new global platform, which would be named Zeta. Costing around AUD $1Bn, Zeta was engineered for longitudinal engine placement and RWD as standard, with the option for AWD. It was designed to be highly flexible and could accommodate over half a dozen body styles with variable wheelbase lengths, ride heights, roof lines and windscreen rakes. The suspension comprised MacPherson struts with dual-ball lower A-arms at the front and a four-link independent set-up at the rear. With full-blown production models still another two years away, GM took the decision to Continue reading “Billeted By The Waterfall”

The Flying Burrito, Brother

Denied, or swerved? We examine a lost Buick concept.

1999 Buick Cielo concept. Image: Consumer Guide Auto

The conglomeration of niches and target customers explored by car makers in the conceptual realm have for the most part enjoyed a better than average tendency towards termination on dead-end street. Concepts may showcase design flourishes or preview the latest in technology, but rarely see production reality – more often appearing as a feature flick here, or a garrulous gamut there. But as the millennium approached, and their once-proud Riviera model withered on the vine, Buick sought to Continue reading “The Flying Burrito, Brother”

Improving the Breed

A man on a mission.

Image: caranddriver.com

The old adage of racing improving the breed was taken to another level when engineer, designer and talented race car pilot Zora Arkus-Duntov took up the development of the 1959 CERV – the first Chevrolet Experimental Racing Vehicle.

A Belgian-born naturalised US citizen, Arkus-Duntov is rightly regarded as the Father of the Corvette. Beguiled by Harley Earl’s beautiful styling but disappointed by the Corvette’s indifferent performance and handling, Arkus-Duntov wrote to Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole, offering his services to Continue reading “Improving the Breed”

Ashes to Ashes (Part 2)

Prying open a few more creaking doors, we conclude our trundle amongst the fallen.

1950 Plymouth. All images: The author

In 1948, Packard continued its longstanding leadership in the American luxury car arena. It remained the best-selling brand, with over 92,000 sales, compared to Cadillac’s tally of around 52,000. However, its dominance was coming to an end. That year’s bulbous restyling of a body that dated back to 1941 didn’t help matters and the car quickly earned the unflattering nickname ‘pregnant elephant’. From 1950 onwards, Cadillac took the lead and never looked back, while Packard withered and died before the end of the decade. Continue reading “Ashes to Ashes (Part 2)”

Open One Eye when you Sell, and Both Eyes when you Buy

Recalling General Motors’ Middle Eastern misadventures.

Image: gbodyforum.com

The title of this tale is a Middle Eastern proverb, somewhat similar to our adage ‘Buyer beware’, but it expands on this in the sense that it also cautions sellers to keep an eye on proceedings at all times. On two separate occasions involving different Middle East countries, General Motors found to its cost what can happen if this advice is not heeded, dragging it into controversy and a hostile environment when the political winds changed direction.

A trade dispute between Japan and Iraq was the improbable cause of trouble for GM Canada. In 1980, Toyota was the number-one selling car in Iraq, and had been for some years. That same year, the Japanese manufacturer initiated talks with Ford about a possible joint venture. The fact that Ford operated an important assembly plant in Israel, however, did not go down well with the Iraqis, who in consequence started looking for a different supplier for the country’s official cars and taxi cabs. Continue reading “Open One Eye when you Sell, and Both Eyes when you Buy”

Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Number 3 – BL Technologies ECV3

We look at three small eco-concept cars from the 1980s and see what became of them.

BL Technologies ECV3. Can you imagine the shock of BL presenting this in 1982? (Source: AROnline)

The last of the cars featured in this series is the BL Technologies ECV3. This is a classic BL tale of burgeoning promise turning to wracking frustration as funds dried up for the development of a new small car. As might be expected, it is also by some margin the most convoluted and protracted of the three stories.

BL Technology was the R&D arm of the state-owned British car maker. In 1980, it was led by renowned engineer Spen King and given a home at BL’s new testing facility at Gaydon in Warwickshire. BL Technology and its Gaydon site was basically a sand-box environment, enabling King and his colleagues to propose theories about the future design of cars, then turn these into working prototypes to Continue reading “Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Number 3 – BL Technologies ECV3”

The Splendour of the Empire He Took With Him Away

Five short years. Not long for such a long car.

1991-1996 Chevrolet Caprice. All images: the author

It was launched 1991. By 1996, GM had given up on their RWD, body-on-frame sedans, a mere five summers later. The last North American market(1) Caprice served really as a stop-gap. Underneath the deceitfully aero-looking body lurked technology dating back to the Carter era. The engine and underbody could be largely swapped between the 1977 Caprice and the 1991 model.

That is not necessarily a criticism. It reflected the fact that the demands placed on big, comfy sedans simply had not changed that much. It also reflected the fact that more and more American drivers wanted to Continue reading “The Splendour of the Empire He Took With Him Away”

Spoils of War (Part Two)

General Motors’ military adventure was fated to end badly.

L to R: Hummer H3, H2 and H1. Image: medium.com

Now in control of the Hummer marque and its product planning and marketing, General Motors was keen to maximise the sales potential of its newly acquired off-road specialist. Its ambition was to rival and even displace Jeep as the leading US marque in this space. To do so, it needed a full range of models that were more suitable for on-road use than the  uncompromising and unwieldy H1(1).

Hummer’s second model, the H2, was launched in 2002. It was based on a GMT800 series full-size truck and SUV platform and was powered by a 366 cu.in. (6.0-litre) V8 petrol engine, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The engine produced maximum power of 325bhp (242kW) and torque of 385 lb ft (522Nm). The H2’s off-road statistics were more modest than those of the H1, but still impressive. Continue reading “Spoils of War (Part Two)”

Spoils of War (Part One)

Hummer would become a lightning rod for political and cultural divisions in 21st Century America.

1999 Hummer H1. Image: carexpert.com.au

The 1991 Gulf War was the global reality television event of the twentieth century(1). In response to Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and seizure of the small and poorly defended emirate’s oil fields, a US-led coalition of 35 countries began a counter-offensive on 17th January 1991. Operation Desert Storm began with an arial and naval bombardment, followed by a ground assault beginning on 24th February. In four days, it was all over. Saddam’s forces had been routed and the emirate, rather the worse for wear after the conflict, was returned to its rulers.

For overseas audiences, there was a strange air of unreality about the war. Such was the level of confidence in a swift and decisive victory that certain coalition military operations were scheduled to Continue reading “Spoils of War (Part One)”

Ashes to Ashes (Part One)

Awaiting the inevitable.

Two 1965 or 1966 Ford Mustangs, a 1953 Cadillac and a 1963 Ford Thunderbird. All images: the author.

Apart from huge metropolises such as New York or Los Angeles, most of the United States’ land area is quite sparsely inhabited, with large areas of undeveloped land. A consequence of this abundance of space was the many salvage yards(1) where cars were simply parked at their presumed final resting place instead of being stacked on top of each other, disassembled, flattened or crushed.

While not necessarily the most environmentally-friendly storage method, salvage yards do provide an invaluable source of spare-parts for those restoring a piece of classic Detroit iron. For those with an interest in classic cars in general and who, like your author, appreciate the peculiar air of nostalgia and romance one feels while walking amongst discarded vehicles in varying stages of decay, these yards are also irresistible. In truth, I should probably use the past tense these days as the vast majority of these salvage yards have now disappeared due to ever more stringent environmental laws and policies that started to take effect, especially since the turn of the millennium. Continue reading “Ashes to Ashes (Part One)”

Falling Back to Earth (Part Five)

Saturn spirals out of orbit.

(Almost) an Opel: 2006 Saturn Aura. Image: driving.ca

Following the 2005 launch of the well-received Outlook full-sized crossover SUV, next up for replacement was the once popular but now fading L Series mid-size saloon. The replacement was introduced in 2006 and called the Aura. This was based on the GM Epsilon platform shared with the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra C and Signum, Saab 9-3, Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac G6 and Fiat Croma. It was powered by either a 2.4-litre version of the GM Ecotec engine or 3.5 and 3.6-litre V6 units, installed transversely with FWD.

The L Series estate was not replaced, and the Aura was offered only in four-door saloon form. Stylistically, the Aura dispensed with the Saturn family look, closely resembling the Vectra, both inside and out. It also dispensed with the thermoplastic external body panels, another Saturn hallmark, in favour of a wholly conventional construction. Just two trim levels were offered, XE and XR. A mild hybrid version of the former was introduced in 2007, called Green Line. The Aura was manufactured at GM’s Kansas City plant. Continue reading “Falling Back to Earth (Part Five)”

Falling back to Earth (Part Four)

Saturn struggles, but shows some promise.

2002 Saturn Ion. Image: conceptcarz.com

After a more than a decade, Saturn was still struggling to achieve a level of sales that would make it viable on a stand-alone basis within General Motors, and the company had never turned a profit. US sales had recovered in 2002 to 280,248(1) units, thanks to the successful launch of the Vue SUV, which alone sold 75,477 units in its first full year on the market. Total sales were, however, still below the peak of 286,003 seen back in 1994, when Saturn had just a single model line, the S Series.

The aged S Series was finally pensioned off in 2002 and was replaced by the Ion. The new model was based on the GM Delta platform that underpinned the Opel Astra, Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5. It was offered in four-door saloon or four-door Quad Coupé variants. The latter featured narrow coach(2) rear doors with concealed handles that could only be opened by first opening the front door, similar to those on the Mazda RX-8. An estate derivative was no longer offered. Continue reading “Falling back to Earth (Part Four)”

Falling back to Earth (Part Three)

Saturn loses momentum.

1993 Saturn SW. Image: carsot.com

For those who believe in such things, the decision of General Motors’ Chairman and CEO, Roger B. Smith, who was Saturn’s adoptive father and head cheerleader, to retire on 30th July 1990, the very day the first Saturn car rolled off the production line in Spring Hill, Tennessee, might have been an ominous portent.

Amongst the other divisional heads within GM, particularly at Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, there was growing resentment towards Saturn and a feeling that their divisions were being starved of investment as a consequence of the huge costs incurred in bringing Saturn to market, alleged to be up to $5 billion. It did not help those who would later attempt to Continue reading “Falling back to Earth (Part Three)”

Falling back to Earth (Part Two)

Saturn makes a promising start.

1990 Saturn SC coupé. Image: consumerguide.com

There was great interest and excitement, both from the general and specialist automotive press, when the first car rolled off the production line at the new Saturn manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, on 30th July 1990. Journalists were invited to tour the plant and engage with the workforce. They detected a certain evangelical spirit amongst the workers, who felt that the company was “people-oriented” and that they had a “voice” in the production process. This referred to regular team discussions with their managers and engineers, where problems were aired and suggestions for improvements were heard constructively and rewarded if adopted.

There were practical innovations in the manufacturing process too. The production line was called the Skillet(1) and the vehicles were carried, not nose to tail, but at right angles to the line, thereby reducing its length by 40%. The workers rode on the skillet with the cars and were free to allocate jobs within the teams, to optimise the use of individual workers’ proficiencies. Any worker could stop the line if they encountered a problem or fault.

Beyond the factory gates, Saturn’s management was also keen to Continue reading “Falling back to Earth (Part Two)”

Fools Who Dream

The car that choreographed a Cadillac lawsuit (and won).

Image: consumerguideauto

McCormick Place, Chicago, February 1982 – a not entirely salubrious (or meteorologically appropriate) launch venue for a factory convertible. American and British tastes regarding the drophead differ considerably. Ever optimistic for the kiss of solar rays, Blighty could not be satiated. America however, forty years ago felt altogether differently.

Wealthy customers have always been happy to Continue reading “Fools Who Dream”

Falling Back to Earth (Part One)

Saturn was General Motors’ response to the Japanese invasion of the US auto market.

Saturn S Series prototype. Image: blog.hemmings.com

The Japanese automakers’ penetration of the US market gathered momentum throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. By 1990, this was a major cause for concern, not just in Detroit, but also in Washington DC, where politicians observed the country’s ballooning trade deficit with alarm. The problem was exacerbated by the behaviour of the US automakers themselves, who were sourcing an increasing proportion of their vehicle parts from Japan.

In 1990, the US-Japan bilateral trade deficit in vehicles and automotive parts was $31.1 billion(1). This represented 28% of the total US trade deficit, and 76% of the country’s bilateral trade deficit with Japan. The deficit in vehicles was $20.6 billion, barely increased on the $19.7 billion deficit seen in 1985. The deficit in automotive parts, however, had more than doubled over the same period, from $4.4 billion to $10.5 billion.

The US automakers struggled in particular to Continue reading “Falling Back to Earth (Part One)”

Blowing Up the Mould

No more Mr. Stingray. 

All images: Author’s collection

As the Corvette became a more serious proposition after the commercially successful but softer by the year C3 Stingray, its publicity material followed suit…

When introduced for the 1968 model year, the voluptuous Corvette Stingray did not meet with the universal praise from the press that GM had hoped for. Of course, the C3 had big shoes to fill after its much loved predecessor, but embarrassing initial quality glitches as well as a perceived of loss of focus as far as the sportscar aspect was concerned did not help its plight either.

The buying public thought otherwise however, and as the seventies unfolded sales of the C3 actually went up year-on-year culminating in its best sales performance (for this particular model) in 1979. Nevertheless, those responsible for all things Corvette within Chevrolet division decided to Continue reading “Blowing Up the Mould”

New York State of Mind

Remembering the city’s iconic yellow taxicabs.

Image: cityandstateny.com

I love New York. Since my first visit over thirty years ago, the city has always entranced and beguiled me with its energy, ambition, self-confidence and irrepressible optimism. It is so much more than mere steel and stone: it is a living organism powered by human endeavour and entrepreneurship. Even though I am very familiar with the city, having visited on many occasions and worked there for a time, I am still irrationally excited on the ride in from JFK airport, waiting to catch my first glimpse of that unique and unmistakable skyline. Continue reading “New York State of Mind”

A Disproportionate Response

 The Cadillac that shrank in the wash. 

oldcarbrochures

It has been stated here many times before, but the art of product planning is often somewhat akin to an act of faith. Certainly, the job of the strategic planner during the latter part of the 1970s was anything but straightforward. This was a particularly acute problem for luxury carmakers; having already weathered dramatic market reorientation following two successive fuel crises, attempting to Continue reading “A Disproportionate Response”

Fort Pontchatrain, the Ducks and the Dutch Artists

What’s in an emblem?

Sunsetcadillacsarasota.com

Why should we let facts get in the way of a good story? History is written by the winners, some say. Henry Ford disregarded such matters, but stories have to begin somewhere, so let us head to America, 1701. The French had cornered parts of the new world, establishing settlements, later growing into towns. Fur trading was big business and its centrepiece was Fort Pontchatrain du-Détroit, the latter being the French word for strait. When the British showed up later, they immediately shortened the name to Detroit.

The town’s founding father was one Antone Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, who according to history writers was either a soldier who had King Louis’ ear, along with his own heraldic majesty or had fabricated his own importance, to gain higher status. As town governor, he regularly popped over the border to Canada for skirmishes, before an eventual recall back to his homeland, obscurity and never to Continue reading “Fort Pontchatrain, the Ducks and the Dutch Artists”

A View With a Room

We recall a legendary name in American coachbuilding.

Unattributed image via Pinterest

Today’s Escalade SUV is routinely paraded as the new-millennial personification of the classic full-size Cadillac sedan, but with the sort of ground clearance and utility the Cadillacs of yesteryear could only dream about. During the roseate era of fins, dagmars and chrome plating, Cadillacs were not created with practicality foremost in mind – these were profound statements, potent symbols of attainment.

Throughout the 1950s, Cadillac sales were seemingly impervious to market vagaries or the state of the economy. While its brash appearance may not have been to everyone’s taste – even in more-is-more boomtime fifties America – the Cadillac was the domestic car the vast majority of the American public aspired to. Cadillac customers were also said to be the most brand-loyal; even in more difficult times, a new Cadillac on the suburban driveway clearly illustrated to peers and associates that everything was ‘just swell’.

But for some particularly well-heeled customers, even a sparkling new Caddy, in sedan, coupé or convertible form was not quite going to Continue reading “A View With a Room”

Oblongs Look Better Than Squares

Mister Earl comes under the DTW spotlight. 

Big car – big fellow. Motoringhistory.com

The idea of designing or styling cars is almost as old as the industry itself. Stemming from coach and carriage works, in the beginning the car was made and effectively styled by those same engineers whose only goal was a mechanically powered carriage. Short framed, high bodied creations, and rudimentary in weather protection, imbuing style was barely considered. Wealthy customers hired craftsmen to create a unique automobile – America had dozens of such custom builders but even with Henry’s Model T, mass production barely stirred the creative soul.

Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr wrote a letter to the general manager of Buick, H.H. Bassett in 1926 expressing his interest in styling a car in order to sell more. Cadillac general manager, Lawrence Fisher concurred with Sloan’s and Basset’s ideas on appearance. On a trip of Cadillac dealers in California, Fisher was introduced to Don Lee who aside from flogging Cadillacs ran a custom workshop in Hollywood. Contained within were those craftsmen building film stars their dream cars. Fisher was impressed by not only the workmanship, but by the young fellow directing the designers – Harley J Earl.

Earl’s father ran a carriage works which Don Lee subsequently purchased. With a keen eye along with such ideas as clay modelling, which allowed for fenders to Continue reading “Oblongs Look Better Than Squares”

The Palace Of Versailles, Michigan

Where magic happened. 

GM Technical Center. architectmagazine

Philibert Le Roy is credited with turning a backwater shooting lodge into a chateau fit for a king. Then, through a succession of architects along with an army of builders, the Sun King’s dream of the most opulent palace was made real. From small beginnings to a lavish labyrinth, the Palace of Versailles has borne witness to history. 

Metaphorically and literally distanced from such overt flourishes lies an altogether different theatre of dreams. A place that too has borne change, seen careers grow to unprecedented heights, scarred many by its inner machinations and created millions of objects idolised the world over. Enter architect, Eero Saarinen (1910-61), creative inspiration for the somewhat bland sounding 1956 GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. 

Whereas Louis’ gaff had (amongst others) Salons to Abundance, Mars and Apollo (with a few added mirrors for good measure) the the GMTC had to Continue reading “The Palace Of Versailles, Michigan”

Reaching for the Stars

Is it a bird, a plane? Nope, it’s a Firebird. 

All three Firebirds. Road & Track

Ještêd, at 1,012 metres is only the 347th highest of the Czech Republic’s mountains yet is a coveted location. The reason being since 1973, at the summit resides an award winning single piece circular building, hyperboloid in shape, pointedly aiming another hundred metres toward the heavens. Partly hotel, but mainly transmitting TV signals, this striking edifice which took six years to construct came from the mind of Karel Hubáček, co-founder of SIAL, a Czech architectural studio. 

Melding elements of beauty with science fiction, a sense of playfulness with functionality, the tower serves the important function of searching further into the great unknown. And whilst Hubáček, surviving enforced wartime labour, concentrated his work upon buildings for humans, he might perhaps have been influenced by something equally futuristic, but on four wheels.

GM’s Firebird I concept stood for high performance. II being the futuristic family car, whereas III was GM’s own trip to the final frontier – an earthbound automobile with otherworldly ideals. Continue reading “Reaching for the Stars”

Dear Ed

Edward H. Mertz, doyen of the Tri-Shield.

Edward H. Mertz. Deansgarage.com

Over the years the hair may have lightened, thinned somewhat but his passion remained strong. Edward H. Mertz (1937-2020) took over Buick’s tiller in 1987, steering GM’s original brand for just over a decade. Helping usher in front wheel drive, wanting to make the right impression whilst reserving the typical, reservist, conservative Buick buyer, Mertz immersed himself into the role with a smile as confident as his policies, including better relations between the company and their dealers.

Mertz could be found in his office, alighting a tri-shield, the 19th hole or the affectionately named War Room where ideas and designs were thrashed out for his pre-recorded dealer-eyes-only Curbside Chats. Averaging every five weeks, he hosted sixty six episodes of around thirty minutes length (in total approximately a working week, 35 or so hours) all recorded to VCR tape and posted out to the three thousand stateside dealers. That, in itself is commitment.

Encouraging dealers to Continue reading “Dear Ed”

The Cult of the Souls

It never made production, but the Pontiac Banshee was a harbinger nonetheless. 

XP 833 Pontiac Banshee conept. motor authority

Chevrolet, 1966. Two million passenger cars sold. But for a two front attack, life might have been peachy. Enemy Number One – Henry’s Mustang. Enemy One A being rather closer to home, a GM (un) civil war focussing on the difficulties that family ties can induce.

In the egotistical, self centred world of the car executive, John DeLorean managed to Continue reading “The Cult of the Souls”

A Facelift Better Than the Car It Was Meant To Save

How Bill Porter turned the sow’s ear of the 1986 Buick Riviera into something so much better.

1989 Buick Riviera. Favcars

This article was first published as part of the DTW Facelifts Theme on July 02 2014.

In 1986, Buick sold a medium-sized two door coupé called the Somerset in the US market, built on the Oldsmobile-engineered N-body. In the way of GM’s demented renaming strategy, the Somerset tag was once a trim level of the Regal saloon but it escaped to become a separate line.[1] The Somerset only lived for three years – the public didn’t take to the name, apparently. The Somerset had a transverse, front-mounted 2.5 litre 4-cylinder or 3.0 V-6 engine driving the front wheels. The wheelbase was 103 inches (Americans don’t do metric).

In terms we’d understand on this side of the Atlantic, it addressed the market that Volvo does with the C30 or Audi with the A3. Or if you Continue reading “A Facelift Better Than the Car It Was Meant To Save”

One for the Road

The full-sized Buick’s valedictorian act.

Buick Roadmaster. Favcars

We can all recall the time honoured film storyline by rote: ageing sportsman/ criminal/ gunslinger[1], against better judgement, returns to the stump for one last payday. Inevitably, tragedy and (if the plotline allows) redemption ensues; at the very least, important life-lessons are learned. Today’s study cleaves to that most hackneyed of American movie narratives, because the 1991-96 Buick Roadmaster, while part of a long and illustrious line would ultimately Continue reading “One for the Road”

Recipe For Obscure Omelette

How will you have those eggs, mister?

1980 Buick Century Turbo. Image Curbside Classic

To the European autophile, American cars often lose their flavour should (or if) they land on soil at least three thousand miles from home. As a 1980s wet behind the ears teenager, all American cars were big, loud, had screeching tyres and could fly (dependent upon TV show) yet possessed an otherworldly draw for this spotty oik. 

No-one, not even the deep archives that DTW has become can Continue reading “Recipe For Obscure Omelette”

Holding Back the Years

The evolution of the Firebird.

Image: Fireszone.com/ Mecum.com

Time eventually catches up with everyone and everything; the best one can hope for is to age gracefully and this applies to people as much as it does to man-made designs, which with precious few exceptions reflect by their very nature the era in which they were created. As time moves on, there is only so much that can be done to Continue reading “Holding Back the Years”

Maris Otter and Goldings

It probably seemed a good idea after a few ales…

1988 Buick Reatta. Image: Hagerty Insurance Agency

Beer matters. Not the lagers (or pilsners for that matter) that conquered the world once refrigeration was commercially available but that quintessentially British phenomenon, real ale. Now gaining popularity in other parts of the thirst market, the myriad flavours a British pint of beer can offer remains a highly subjective experience. One’s tastebuds can be tingled by initial fruity overtones leading to complex biscuit hints leaving (perhaps) a sharp but far from unpleasant aftertaste. Its composition comprises of but four vital ingredients: malted barley, hops, water and yeast.

One influential variant of barley is the Marris Otter, found in many a pint; English grown for many years, imparting a sweet and flavoursome basis for the beer. Combining with (normally) Kent grown Golding Hops, which imbue earthy, spicy and honey influences may, with a decent brewer at the stills, create a thirst quenching, tasty, moreish drink. So what on Earth has an English pint got to do with a forgotten American two seater? Leave the driving for another day, open a bag of salted nuts and Continue reading “Maris Otter and Goldings”

Under the Knife – That Riviera Touch

Yesterday’s tomorrows – from the studios of Bill Mitchell.

Image: wildaboutcars

Sometimes it is necessary to go wildly overboard before one finds the precise quantum of sufficiency. Somewhat akin to party-going children having run amok; gorging on fizzy pop and cream buns, the American motor industry exited the 1950s with a decidedly queasy sense of untempered excess. A new decade would precipitate a fresh creative approach, and a wholesale shift from the baroque flights of jet-age fancy to a more sober, less mannered visual sensibility.

The 1960s would go on to Continue reading “Under the Knife – That Riviera Touch”

The Doctor Is OUT

Buick’s black stallion.

Buick Grand National. Image: Car and Driver

Buick’s Regal: sweeping lines, restrained aggression, comfortable but hardly sporting – that being Pontiac’s purview. G-body-on frame, engineering that cut no mustard, but was never meant to. That the second generation Regal became a factory backed NASCAR winner, driven in the early 1980s by luminary Darrel Waltrip triggered a tangential change that, if not for a skunkworks plan, may well have fallen at the first hurdle.

When first shown, the car that was to become known as the Grand National, fell foul to top brass reaction. Ed Mertz and Dick Payne were livid at the thought of potentially sullying the Buick ethos. However, chief engineer Dave Sharpe, Mike Doble (Advanced Concepts), marketing boss Darwin Clark and impetus from then divisional manager, Lloyd Reuss, saw an opportunity to Continue reading “The Doctor Is OUT”

The Tri-Shield’s Silken Road

The Buick Origin Story.

Image: GM/ Wieck Media Services

David Dunbar Buick was but two years old when the family emigrated from Arbroath, Scotland for a new life in Detroit, 1856. Upon leaving school he worked for and then later owned a plumbing goods company (The Alexander Manufacturing Company). With an inventive mind, David produced a lawn sprinkler alongside a vitreous enamel coating for cast iron baths. By the 1890’s, the internal combustion engine held more interest than ablutions – the company was sold.

Afforded both time and financial independence, Buick indulged. Incorporating the Buick Auto-Vim & Power Company in 1899, his market was agricultural engines. Very soon the automobile enveloped his life and swiftly draining his finances with just a single car made in 1902 under the new name, Buick Manufacturing Company. Ploughing what little cash he retained into developing an OHV engine, a loan of $5,000 was had from close friend Ben Briscoe in order to make the Buick Motor Company. 

Briscoe had doubts concerning Buick’s acumen; on hearing of a new automobile project in Flint, over a hundred miles from Detroit, he persuaded Buick to Continue reading “The Tri-Shield’s Silken Road”

Role Call

A woman’s place is in the… Design Studio.

Image: The author

Even now, well into the 21st century, the automotive industry and its related fields employ and attract more men than they do women, and the styling studios are no exception. There certainly has been a noticeable influx of women in the design departments over the past few decades: Anne Asensio, Marcy Fisher, Juliane Blasi and Michelle Christensen being a few latterday examples.

Wind back the clock some 90 years however and it was a different environment – and not just within the car industry. It took a determined and strong-willed woman to overcome the prejudice, condescendence, resistance and occasionally, outright hostility she would often confront if she dared enter an arena hitherto considered to be the sole domain of men.

Some of the women presented herein might appear a tad overdressed in period photographs, but it is important to Continue reading “Role Call”

The Doctor Is IN

Doc, I think it’s my heart. 

1996 Buick Park Avenue. Image: music directory

From day one to sometime in the late 20th century, the archetypal Buick customer was formed of doctors, architects – the professional classes. Not for me the first 1990 evocation of this particular model, nor indeed the (admittedly beautiful) 1989 Essence concept. The syringe laced with youthful elixir came with in late 1996 in second-generation form, before handing over to the Lucerne (but not before transforming into something less coherent) in 2005. The Buick Park Avenue (BPA) – a sublime sedan. 

DTW’s own Richard Herriott sang some general praise here whereas today’s critique ploughs distinctly narrower avenues. Bill Porter, the Park Avenue’s designer offers, “a measure of stateliness is conveyed by Park Avenue’s generous proportions.” Its a soft car in stance, looks and Dynaride set up, almost harmless for a metal object weighing in at 1700Kgs. Continue reading “The Doctor Is IN”

En Garde! Part Two

The saga continues and grows ever stranger.

Image: Hotrodmagazine/ Fabwheelsdigest

The lesser-known RK Bodyworks, based in Albany, New York was commissioned by a certain Carl Szembrot to convert this 1952 Studebaker into a LeSabre-lookalike. The top of the three taillights adorning each fin was a blue directional signal, the middle one a red stop light and the bottom one a white reversing light. The bullet nose and trim from the Studebaker were cleverly re-used to Continue reading “En Garde! Part Two”

En Garde! Part One

Taking influence to unprecedented heights.

Image: GM/ Jalopyjournal

Like the Buick Y-job that went before it, the 1951 LeSabre concept car was a GM testbed for both technology and stylistic ideas. The low-slung roadster, bodied in aluminium and magnesium, was the first to have the panoramic windshield that would be a defining feature on virtually all American cars from the mid- to late fifties. Its overall look is best described as jet age on wheels.

LeSabre also used the first application of GM’s 215 cubic inch (3.5 litre) aluminium V8 which would later find its way into a variety of cars, both in the USA and Europe – although in the LeSabre’s case the engine was supercharged and capable of running on both regular fuel and methanol. Harley Earl was known to Continue reading “En Garde! Part One”

Illustrious Duo

The art of Fitz and Van.

Boredom helped me to discover them. In the early seventies, I needed to find a way to keep myself entertained during our monthly weekend visits to my grandmother who lived in a small village in rural Belgium. As there was not much to do for me there and no children of my age to play with, I resorted to wandering around the house; that is where I at some point discovered stacks of old magazines in an old wardrobe closet. Among them were old TV guides and home decoration magazines but also issues of Readers Digest, LIFE and National Geographic.

Cars – and drawing them in particular – were my main point of interest and the plentiful car advertisements in those old magazines in my grandmother’s house provided an excellent source of inspiration. The ones that made the biggest impression on me were those of Pontiac in the magazines of American origin, and the Opel advertisements in the other more recent publications.

Those cars looked so fantastic – how on earth did they Continue reading “Illustrious Duo”