The gradual transformation of the horseless carriage into the modern car took several decades. Many important steps were needed to go from the Benz Patentwagen to the Studebaker Avanti, such as putting the engine in front, switching from wood construction to metal, literally re-inventing the wheel and putting one in the driver’s hands – the list is considerable. But from the point of view of automobile body design, one of the biggest leaps was the pontoon (or ponton) fender/wing.
First, let’s define what we’re talking about here. There is a certain amount of flux in the term “pontoon” as applied to automotive design, at least in the English language. I understand this term to mean fully integrated or enveloped wings, both front and back. Though a few separate-fender cars lived a very long life (e.g. Citroën 2CV, Morgan, VW Beetle), most new designs from about 1950 onwards were of the pontoon kind. Even Mercedes got the memo, eventually.
Since this piece has the word “archeology” in the title, we’re going to have to dig into the deeper recesses of the pre-war times. There will be a lot of photos, because the more I dug, the more I found, though I haven’t found every pre-war pontoon by a long shot (it’s an archeology, not an encyclopedia). So let’s start by the topsoil that is 1941 – wartime for most of the world already, but not in the United States. The dramatic Chrysler Thunderbolt is a great example of early pontoon styling, with the added bonus of hidden headlights.
It was on Chrysler’s stand at the 1941 New York Motor Show and impressed all those who saw it. By comparison, GM’s 1938 Buick Y-Job seemed about a decade older (you might say I exaggerate, but perhaps by the end of this post you will think otherwise). However, this ¾ front shot reveals a bulge at the rear that makes the Thunderbolt appear a tad undercooked, for a pontoon design.
Looking at this 1940 clay model for the aborted 1943 Plymouth, it seems that Chrysler were getting ready to go full-on pontoon quite soon. The Second World War got in the way and delayed the advent of pontoon fenders for most American cars until the tail end of the ‘40s, with a few exceptions. But let’s try to start the story from the beginning, for a change.
The Roaring Pontoons: Art-Deco Streamliners Of The ‘20s
It’s impossible to discuss this subject without mentioning Paul Jaray (1889-1974). The Austro-Hungarian aerodynamicist was a true pioneer in so many ways – including possibly the very first automobile design with pontoon fenders. After all, if the goal was to make a car as slippery as possible, the wheels needed to be enveloped by the body. Jaray was an engineer over at Zeppelin during the war, so it’s natural that his subsequent automotive creations looked a bit like airships on roller skates.
Working in Germany, Jaray designed a lot of specials on a variety of chassis in the ‘20s and ‘30s and filed many patents. His style is unmistakable, with upright wraparound windshields and extremely tapered shapes. Jaray did not systematically employ the pontoon in his designs – few have this feature, in fact. But his ideas would influence many prominent automotive designers, from Hans Ledwinka to Ferdinand Porsche.
Paul Jaray wasn’t the only aerodynamically-minded Mitteleuropean, either. Roumanian engineer Aurel Perşu also designed some interesting streamliners in the early ‘20s, while based in Germany. Perşu’s work was even more radical than Jaray’s in a way, migrating the engine to the tail so as to achieve an even more tapered body. The teardrop shape and the desire to fully envelop the rear wheels made for a very narrow track, which allowed Perşu to forego a differential altogether. Even at this embryonic stage, the pontoon form was significantly impacting chassis design.
This was all well and good – in theory. Doing way with separate fenders completely (or burying the wheels in the body, depending on your point of view) was great in theory, but who was ready to put it into practice? The cubist automotive landscape of the mid-‘20s was the antithesis of these curvaceous aerodynamic pipe-dreams. However, some aspects of the new science made a lot of sense and found their way on cars deceptively quickly.
Not entirely coincidentally, the world’s first pontoon production car hailed from Germany. In 1924, Hanomag launched their 2/10 PS, a tiny two-seater with a 500cc single-cylinder engine in the tail. Given the vehicle’s dimensions and low height, the pontoon solution was ideal to give the passengers a modicum of Lebensraum. Over 15,000 of these Kommissbrot (bread loaf), as they were nicknamed, were made in five years.
The Hanomag experiment was not as conclusive as it appeared, however. It was a technical oddity. Most cars were made with font engines and high chassis, which called for running boards and large front grilles. But the influence of Jaray’s research was beginning to filter through, even in America. Aircraft maker Martin made a few interesting car prototypes with a clear emphasis on lightness and slipperiness. The rear-engined 1928 Martin Aerodynamic clearly has a lot of Jaray in its design – including pontoon fenders. But there was more than one way to make an aerodynamic car, and the true pontoon fender remained a rarity in the ‘20s.
In France, the first pontoon-ish design was used on race cars. Four Bugatti T32 “Tank” two-seaters were made, designed by Ettore Bugatti himself. Eschewing Jaray’s more scientific approach, Bugatti gave the cars an airfoil shape based on his instinct that this would reduce drag and improve top speed. Of course, aircraft wings are also good at providing lift, so at speed, the T32 Tanks had a propensity to want to fly off the track, which wasn’t all that great. The Bugatti Tanks were only raced once, at the 1923 Grand Prix de Tours. One careened off during practice, one did not start, one broke down during the race and one finished third. Ettore was bitterly disappointed. Shaping the airfoil in the opposite direction – and a more rigourous approach overall – might have given Bugatti the victory he so eagerly craved.
Although it was deemed unsuccessful, the Bugatti experiment made a lasting impression on French automobile designers. Chenard & Walcker made their own aerodynamic racers in the mid-‘20s, with far more conclusive results. The carmaker pushed the envelope to devising a civilian version, sold as a coupé or roadster. Not many were made, but it sparked a bit of a fad. The contemporary Claveau FWD prototypes, which never found their way to production, looked remarkably similar to the Chenard Tanks. They were not exactly a pontoon design, but the wings and running boards had been significantly pushed inside the body, becoming somewhat vestigial.
Coachbuilder Guillaume Busson, a former aircraft engineer, made a few intriguing aerodynamic bodies in the late ‘20s. Just like the Chenard, the fenders were still there, but only just; the running boards all but vanished. The question of the use of the newly-created space between the engine, the front wheel and the door was resolved here (quite elegantly) with the spares, a feature that would later be re-invented several times. While these cannot be called pontoon fenders as such, they were pointing towards a trend.
Going Large: The Pontoons Of The ‘30s
Another pioneer of aerodynamics was Austrian engineer Edmund Rumpler. After having tried his hand at cars with the Tropfenwagen, he designed a couple of very curious FWD trucks with a fully aerodynamic body for a newspaper magnate. Built around 1930, both trucks looked similar, but one had a 6-cyl. engine, while the other sported a Maybach V12 and could reach 100 kph. These trucks sported perhaps the first fully integrated fenders ever made, if we consider the attempts of Jaray, Perşu, Martin and Bugatti to be more experimental than roadworthy. But we’re getting slightly off-piste here – streamlined trucks are a different animal (though well worthy of their own post). Let’s re-focus our attention on the issue of the pontoon in cars.
For larger four-door cars, half-pontoon designs, i.e. the integration of either the front or the rear fenders into the bodywork, were becoming a thing by the early ‘30s. The rear-engined Tatras of the ‘30s always kept their front wings semi-detached – the full pontoon was only applied post-war on the T600. The stunning 1933 Silver Arrow, for its part, only integrated the front fenders, which went well with Pierce-Arrow’s trademark headlamp design. Several other ’30s designs featured this kind of half-way house, which was likely deemed less radical (and thus easier to sell) than the full-on pontoon.
This mid-engined Škoda prototype went a step further than Tatra in its streamlining efforts, much as it pains one to recognize this fact. The Škoda designers fully integrated the front fenders and the headlamps, unlike Tatra’s slightly half-baked (but also slightly earlier) efforts. Still, at least the Tatra had recessed door handles. So there.
But the Škoda was only a prototype and it came a while after the first big full-pontoon saloon. That honour should go to the Maybach DS 8 Stromlinie Limousine shown at the 1932 Berlin Motor Show. This seems to be the first really big car to feature fully integrated fenders. It was a one-off in-house design on Maybach’s gargantuan 8-litre V12 chassis and a truly groundbreaking car in many ways. This widely-admired streamliner seems to have sparked a furious global drive towards slab-sided bodies. From this point on, the attempts were multiple and size was certainly not an issue.
In the early ‘30s, Maybach was one of the few carmakers to have access to a wind tunnel, which Paul Jaray had engineered for the Zeppelin airships. Jaray was still a consultant for Maybach in the ‘30s, but he is not credited with this streamliner, whose shape is quite different from a Jaray design. The squat and squarish greenhouse, prominent grille and high beltline go against the aerodynamicist’s principles, but they do succeed in making the car look much better than Jaray’s pillbox-like efforts. The body was made by coachbuilder Spohn, who made another pontoon Maybach streamliner later in the decade.
Here it is – this time a four-door cabriolet, because those were still a thing in those days. The chassis was a slightly smaller SW 38 (3.8 litre 6-cyl.), but the car was still massive. As was the case for the 1932 monster, this one keeps a spare wheel hidden on either side of the engine compartment.
The Silver Arrow also used this space to stow the spares away – as did Fred Bergholt’s markedly smaller streamliner, which was made in Minneapolis at the very end of 1932. Using a Ford V8 chassis, the Bergholt car patented several features, some of which were allegedly emulated by large automakers. Bergholt sued and the carmakers settled out of court, but it’s unclear what precise features of his design he accused them of copying. It certainly wasn’t the car’s dubious looks, though to be fair, many other early streamliners were equally challenged in this regard.
One feature that seemed difficult to integrate was the radiator grille. Maybach had not even bothered trying, but Volvo did try, awkwardly, with the “Venus Bilo” concept car, designed by Gustaf Ericsson and unveiled in November 1933. The custom-made luggage set was made to fit three compartments – two on either side of the engine bay and one at the rear. The conservative Swedish firm wisely elected to produce something a bit less avant-garde, so they merely copied the Chrysler Airflow.
Peugeot also copied the Airflow for their 402 range, launched in 1935. But just as they were busy preparing those, coachbuilder Pourtout used a long wheelbase 6-cyl. chassis to make this impressive retractable-top coupé, designed by the talented Georges Paulin. The grille design and fully integrated headlamps make this pontoon car rather attractive and very cutting edge for its day.
The widening of car bodies is inseparable from the advent of pontoon fenders — as is the deletion of running boards and the gradual inclusion of headlamps within the fenders. While some were experimenting with the pontoon concept for aerodynamic reasons, others were keen to use it to maximize interior space. This made complete sense in the case of the Stout Scarab. After the initial 1932 prototype, a few of these were made from 1935 to 1939 (plus one post-war). The Scarab was a true trendsetter: taking the then-innovative rear-engine layout and marrying it to a roomy one-box body design with a modular interior made it one of the forerunners of the minivan.
Here’s another design that went for maximum interior space – while keeping the engine in the front, where most carmakers were putting it. This “Transcontinental” saloon was made in 1935 by British coachbuilder Lancefield on a Hudson Custom Eight chassis. Just like the Venus Bilo, the Transcontinental had additional space for luggage in the front. It was another one-off – and one of the very few slab-sided British designs of the era.
Few one-off specials could be more special than the Phantom Corsair. Built on a modified Cord 810 chassis, this dramatic front-drive streamliner was deceptively wide as well as incredibly long. The front was designed for four passengers – not unlike the Transcontinental, two could sit on one side of the driver and one on the other side. There was also a rear seat, but due to the car’s tapered shape and a set of substantial drinks cabinets, that was just meant for two. The untimely death of its main backer and co-designer, Rust Heinz, nixed plans for limited production.
If we’re to delve into cartoonishly long cars though, let’s not pass up this other 1938 creation by French artist (and serial weird car designer) Paul Arzens. Not devoid of humour, he called it “La Baleine” (the whale). It used a 1928 Buick chassis found in a scrapyard, including the 3.5 litre OHV 6-cyl. that came with it. You might laugh, but this whale was allegedly much faster than the Buick ever was: Arzens claimed it could reach 160 kph – though I’m pretty sure this was not independently verified. The combination of pontoon wings and a Plexiglas bubble top makes this look at least a decade younger than it actually is.
There must have been something in the air in 1938, because this also happened. Between the arresting “LaLee Special” above, the baleen-faced Arzens and the supremely strange Phantom Corsair, the extreme one-off streamliners were coming in thick and fast. Well, 120 mph anyway. The supercharged V8 used here is rumoured to be a Ford.
Of the three ’38 specials above, I think I like this LaLee the best. The others are a little too finless for my personal taste. The retractable top and hidden headlamps were a great touch – looks like Chrysler took notice of this independent effort for their Thunderbolt.
This is one of the few ‘30s pontoon cars that might be considered a production model. Designed by aircraft pioneer Gabriel Voisin and produced in very small quantities, the 3-litre Aérosport was extremely expensive and supremely weird, like nearly all Voisins.
Not content with producing one of the first pontoon cars ever, Voisin exhibited the Aérosport “V12L” prototype at the October 1936 Paris Motor Show that featured a 6-litre 180hp in-line 12-cyl. sleeve-valve engine. Voisin also designed a massive LWB limousine version – complete with pontoon fenders – of the straight-12, which seems never to have made it off the drawing board.
Speedy Slab-Siders: Pontoons Go Racing
However awkward some (or most) of the large ‘30s pontoon cars were, the smaller aerodynamic rally cars of the time were usually far more pleasing to the eye. This 1934 Praga Super Piccolo, specially bodied for that year’s 1000-mile race around Czechoslovakia, is one of the earliest examples of this type of design being used on a mid-size 1,7 litre car.
Not content with making a prototype rear-engined streamliner, Škoda also participated in this 1000-mile race and made some special bodies on their smaller chassis. The Popular was a modest 1-litre model, but Škoda designed an advanced coupé body for it and made over a dozen of them for privateers, both at home and abroad – not exactly series production, but not too far off from the Voisin’s production numbers, either. The 2-litre Rapid Six coupé, for its part, was made in four examples only.
It’s unclear whether the Czech designs were really that influential or whether this was just the way automotive design was moving, but by the late ‘30s, the pontoon sports car became something of an Italian specialty.
The search for speed and wind-cheating shapes made the pontoon a natural ally for the great Italian carrozzerie. But with that goal in mind, they did not let go of their unparalleled flair for beauty and proportion, even if some creations were a bit on the stretchy side. This was also true for open racers.
There were quite a few streamlined racers made in Italy with pontoon fenders just before the Second World War – several more than I can find decent pictures for, in any case. They were all pretty stunning in their modernity; many of them would not have looked out of place in the early ‘50s. That’s not something that can be said of many of the cars in this post, pontoon fenders notwithstanding.
I’m not sure that many racers not bodied in Italy had pontoon fenders by 1939. If I may generalize for a bit, it seems the British, French and American race cars were usually open-wheeled, and the German cars tended to have only partially integrated wings. Well, I suppose one could make an exception for the 1939 Porsche 60K10, often referred to as the type 64. The Porsche was the first Volkswagen-based racer ever – the genetic missing link between the KdF-Wagen and the Porsche 356. Three were made in 1939-40 in view of the Berlin-Rome endurance rally, but only one was raced – after the War.
One other non-Italian exception: the second (and far more successful) Bugatti “tank,” now featuring the Type 57’s 3.3 litre DOHC straight-8. The initial version, dubbed Type 57 G, came out in 1936 and won at Le Mans in 1937. One car was rebodied with a tauter beltline and given a compressor; it won at Le Mans again in June 1939. Two months later, 30-year-old Jean Bugatti suffered a fatal crash in this very car – his untimely death, as well as the Second World War, destroyed Bugatti.
Kicking it up a few notches performance-wise, here are some pontoon-fendered world record holders. The Sunbeam is the odd one out: not only British, but also dating back to 1927. It broke the 200mph barrier at Daytona Beach thanks to its two 22-litre V12 aero engines. The fenders were armour-plated to protect the driver in case the twin-chain drive broke at high speed. The 1936 Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen sported a purpose-made 5.6 litre V12; it later became more curvaceous and no longer really pontoon, but held the land speed record on a public road (432.7 kph /268 mph) until 2017. The W125’s main rival was the Auto Union Type C (top right). It had a 560hp V16 and ground-effect aerodynamics, but suffered a catastrophic malfunction during its 1938 run, costing driver Bernd Rosemeyer his life. The 1939 Hanomag D19 (bottom right) held the record for Diesel-powered cars.
It’s fair to say that many of these early pontoon cars are somewhere between peculiar and downright bizarre-looking. The larger cars were especially tricky to get right, as their chassis were not well-suited to the pontoon style. Long hoods and minimal front overhang worked better with the old separate-fender style. This was evident in the early post-war era, when old-fashioned chassis were still used. To illustrate, the cars on the left (1939 Benz 320 factory Cabriolet B, 1947 Delahaye 135 cabriolet by Guilloré, 1938 Bugatti 57, 1949 Hooper Rolls) look a darn sight more balanced than their pontoon sisters on the right (Benz 320 re-bodied by Wendler in 1950, 1949 Delahaye 135 cabriolet by Guilloré, 1951 Bugatti 101, 1947 Hooper Rolls). The transition was tough, but by the early ‘60s, the pontoon had decisively won.
So who made the first pontoon design? All of the above, of course. But apart from the Hanomag oddity, none were really substantial, production-wise – about ten Scarabs, perhaps twice as many Voisins and Chenards, a dozen Škoda Populars. Everything else was either one-off or made in a literal handful of units. This all changed after the war: from the GAZ Pobieda and the “UrSAAB” to Kaiser-Frazer and Crosley, everyone was at it by 1946. The bit players of the pre-war era were soon forgotten. Luckily, several of these machines have been preserved: one ur-Porsche, the Phantom Corsair, the Arzens, the Škoda 935, the Bergholt, a few Chenard & Walcker Y8s and Hanomags, at least one Voisin Aérosport and five Stout Scarabs are still with us.
The purpose of pontoon fender was aerodynamic first and foremost, but it also changed the very architecture of the automobile. Cabin space was widened, the engine lost its tight compartment and headlamps had no place to go but inside the front end – for good. The esthetic consequences were also huge and took a long time to be fully digested by designers, manufacturers and the public. I hope that this deep dig into the nether regions of car design was as fun to read as it was to research and write. I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot!