“The Shape of Speed” may well be a personal high water mark as regards automotive exhibits. I have been utterly fascinated with the streamlined era since I was a child. The flowing lines of a Tatra 600 parked on our street in Innsbruck in the mid 50s left an indelible impression, reinforced by some streamlined Steyrs and of course the ubiquitous VWs, along with some other cars from the pre-war era still on the streets then.
This deep imprinting on my impressionable brain along with an intrinsic appreciation of the functional benefits of aerodynamics has left me with a life-long fascination with aerodynamics and the cars of this era, which I consider to be the single most important one in the evolution of automotive design. In a brief burst of creativity the automobile shed its its upright, boxy, open-fendered, narrow-bodied look that was still largely based on the horse and buggy, and adopted a sleek envelope body, one that is of course very much still with us today; more than ever, in fact.
Ken Gross curated a superb exhibit that features some of the most significant breakthrough cars of that era, including two prototypes I wasn’t familiar with. I’m going to share them with you in the order as we saw (and drooled over) them, but as a tribute to the most influential and radical production streamliner, I’ll start with this one shot of the Tatra 77, a car I have mythologized and internalized as something of an automotive higher being but have never had the chance to venerate in the flesh. I am not worthy…
The exhibit starts with this 1939 “Sharknose” Graham coupe. This is the one car of all the ones exhibited that I managed to find parked, and wrote up here. Styled by the gifted Amos Northup and first built in 1938, the forward leaning nose of the Graham was a bit too much for Americans’ relatively conservative taste, and it flopped on the market, setting up the ultimate demise of the brand.
The choice of including this coupe variant in this collection is interesting, as it actually is more predictive of the era that came directly after the initial streamlined era. Unlike the semi-fastback Graham sedan (almost every other car in the exhibit has a fastback), this coupe has a very forward-looking three-box shape with a rather unusual protruding trunk (for the times) behind the coupe’s delicate greenhouse. This new direction was first popularized by Bill Mitchell’s seminal 1936 Cadillac 60 Special, and the Graham coupe is one of the first to take that direction, and even further. Its forward canted nose is pulling the Graham into a new stylistic era.
As such, it’s not really a classic streamliner, but a car that shows the profound influence of Streamline Moderne, the stylistic wave that swept over every facet of design, from buildings to toasters. Actual aerodynamics were not so relevant, obviously, but the design influence of the true streamlined cars (and airplanes) was now unmistakable everywhere, along with artistic flourishes.
But despite the universal impact of Streamline Moderne, this forward-leaning grille simply didn’t please the eye of American car buyers. They still had a strong preference for an upright grille even if it carried the hallmarks of streamlining design.
Next up was the 1934 Bendix SWC sedan, one of two prototypes exhibited that I was not familiar with. Technically it’s a very advanced design conceived by Victor Kliesrath, and its primary purpose was to show it to European manufacturers to promote Bendix products. As such, it’s relatively compact by American standards, and quite low.
Its superficial similarity to the 1934 Chrysler Airflow is coincidental, according to its stylist, ex-Fisher stylist William Ortwig. He told historian Michael Lamm that he was totally unaware of Chrysler’s developments at the same time.
The design language of the era was being established quickly, and was largely based on some early European aerodynamic cars as well as the inevitability of certain solutions given the goals and the stylistic sensibilities of the time.
What makes the Bendix very advanced is that unlike the Chrysler, it has FWD along with unitized construction with subframes in the front and back to support the drive train and rear independent suspension. The engine, a relatively small 169.5 cubic inch Continental six, was mounted in reverse behind the front axle line along with a three-speed transmission, a lá Citroen Traction Avant.
Of course Citroen didn’t pioneer that configuration; Harry Miller started building very successful Indy racers with FWD starting in 1925, with the engine set behind the front axle in order the drastically lower the driver’s seating position and center of gravity.
The result is a car significantly lower than the black Airflow behind it, although that may not be readily apparent in this picture.
The Chrysler Airflow is of course one of the ultimate automotive sob stories, and became a cautionary tale that made American manufacturers wary of being ahead of the public’s evolving taste at any given time.
Technically the most ambitious of the big American manufacturers, Chrysler initiated aerodynamic studies in 1930. The company built its own wind tunnel, and the results of several years of development arrived in 1934, with Airflow versions of the Chrysler and DeSoto.
It wasn’t just aerodynamics that the Airflow pioneered; the most significant aspect was moving the engine from its traditional location mostly behind the front axle to well over it, the way it has been done with RWD cars ever since. This move allowed the passenger compartment to be moved well forward in the chassis, now fully between the two axle lines instead of the rear seat directly above the rear axle. True Cab Forward, not just a windshield placed further forward. And the body was wider than had been the practice. These changes gave the Airflow genuine three-across seating front and rear, and a better ride. And then there was the fact that the Airflow was of semi-unitized construction, with frame and body members welded into one very strong unit.
This Chrysler Imperial coupe is exceptionally well-trimmed.
The complete lack of any wheel well intrusion in the rear compartment is visible here. It’s a bit difficult to see in this picture, but the rear seats in this coupe are two individual units, or buckets, in the loose sense of the term. And it appears that they fold out of the way, from the looks of what are likely hinges. Presumably that is to allow for a larger luggage compartment, or second one, as I’m not sure there is a pass-through to the actual trunk.
As can be seen, trunks on these pure fastbacks were compromised by their ideal teardrop shape, which is one of the reasons bulging trunk shapes soon appeared on them.
Here’s what killed the Airflow: its blunt front end. Americans just couldn’t warm up to it, at least quickly enough. Already in 1935, a small peak to the grille was added to ameliorate that somewhat, but it was too late. The Airflow was DOA, and could not be resuscitated. A conventional and retrograde line of “Airstream” cars were rushed into production in 1936, but the lessons of the Airflow would linger for decades.
The 1936 Lincoln Zephyr showed how to do aerodynamic style properly, in terms of not turning off American buyers.
It was based initially on this radical rear engine “Sterkenberg” concept by John Tjaarda that caught Edsel Ford’s eye. In the process of converting it into an easily-produced and technically utterly conventional front engine big Ford, right down to the Model T-style solid axles front and rear, the Zephyr also grew a conventionally upright prow.
Deftly styled by Ford stylist E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, the Zephyr’s approach was the right one in terms of market acceptability. Despite its decidedly inferior chassis and V12 engine (essentially a Ford flathead V8 with four more cylinders and some chronic issues), the Zephyr sold whereas the Airflow didn’t.
The coupe version is not as common as the sedan, but its long flowing tail is certainly memorable, even though also not a true fastback.
This is a classic example of Streamlined Moderne: cars that had the most attractive attributes of streamlining even if not so much the actual benefits.
Humans make near-instantaneous judgements about other humans they encounter from their face. Unlike the Airflow’s, this was a very acceptable one. And it would come to grace Ford’s lesser cars shortly.
Time for one of my two favorite cars at the show (if I had to chose). The Tatra 77 was an utter sensation when it was shown in Europe in 1934. Its long flowing tail and low, rounded body without running boards resulted in an almost unimaginable Cd (coefficient of drag) of .212 (well below the Cd .26 of a Prius). Paul Jaray, a pioneer of aerodynamics, was hired by Tatra’s brilliant Hans Ledwinka to develop the 77’s aerodynamic body. With its rear air-cooled OHC hemi-head V8 engine, back-bone chassis, all-independent suspension, a central driver’s position (on a few early versions) and a central headlight with an electro-magnetic system that enabled it to be aimed at curbs the 77 (and its more pragmatic successor, the Type 87), inspired awe as well as imitation (Tucker Torpedo, among others).
The Type 77 was able to cruise comfortably at speeds of 140-150 kmh (85-90 mph) with a mere 60hp, a remarkable achievement at the time. The press raved:
“It is a sensation when it comes to its construction, to its appearance and to its performance. However, it isn’t a sensation that would just fall down from the skies, but a logical continuation of the road, which Hans Ledwinka took thirteen years ago. The ideological principle of the new Tatra is an understanding, that the car is moving at the divining line between the ground and the air. … The car maintained 145km/h, it has astonishing handling, it drives through the curves with speeds that are both mad and safe, and it seems, that it is only floating on whatever road. … It is a car, which opens new perspectives to the car construction and automotive practice.”
Vilém Heinz, Motor Journal, 1934
The comments about the 77’s “astonishing handling” are ironic, given that it soon developed a rep for deadly snap oversteer. Hitler forbade his best officers from driving the 77 and 87 because a number of them had been killed in the process.
In a time when curved windshields were not readily available, angled corner panes like these were not uncommon.
Despite the accolades, the Type 77 was only built in very limited numbers, some 250 total, in two series, through 1938. They were essentially coach built, and there were numerous small variations and running changes. Ultimately, its tricky handling and certain other limitations led to a substantially changed and more pragmatic successor, the Type 87, which was built in volume, albeit not high ones. Steering is on the right, as Czechoslovakia drove on the left until after the war.
The 77 was an expensive luxury car, and this 77A even has a compartment divider. Someone wanted to experience their Tatra from the back seat only. The flat floor, wide seats and huge leg room made this a very commodious rear compartment.
The rear engine lid has raised sections to act as air scoops.
Unfortunately no views in the engine compartment were available. The 77A had its engine enlarged to 3.4 L, and made 75 hp. That upped its speed to some 150kmh, or 93mph.
Update: CC reader Mervyn S. just sent me this shot of an engine compartment of a 77 in a restoration shop. Among other unusual features, the engine had “walking beam” rockers to actuate the valves, not push rods. The cam was located unusually high in the vee, allowing the long rockers to negate the need for push rods.
One of the shortcomings of the 77 was the profound lack of rearward vision. One can see here that there was a bit of view through the louvers and the glass divider windows behind the rear compartment that separates it from the luggage compartment directly behind the rear seats. Given the light traffic of the times and the ability of the 77 to outrun almost everything on the road, that might not have been that big of an impediment.
CC reader Teddy noticed the small protrusion in the lower part of the rear vertical fin. Hmm.
An early rear view camera? In 1934? Not likely, although it sure would be handy.
I looked into the hole on the side and saw what was clearly a conventional bayonet style light bulb. And in perusing the few other images out there of a 77 tail, it appears all/others had it too. An early back-up light? One might be tempted to think so, but I think more likely it’s a central brake or running light, as that was fairly common back then. And early 77s had only minute if any lights on their rear fenders, unlike this relatively late example from 1937. And it would also have complemented the central headlight on the front. But it’s just a guess.
I could go on and on, but not today, as there’s other splendid streamliners awaiting us. But I have written about Tatra’s overall history here, and my three-part tome on automotive aerodynamics is here.
A brief postscript to the Tatra: I just stumbled into this picture of John Tjaarda with an early prototype of a streamliner he designed that led to the Sterkenburg, the inspiration for the Zephyr. It’s not dated, but presumed to be from 1930, possibly 1931. Does it look familiar? So yes, Hans Ledwinka was obviously not working in a vacuum, even if he was in Czechoslovakia. There was constant cross-pollination, and others had been penning streamliners too. And the 77’s body was largely conceived by Paul Jaray, who had been developing streamlined cars all through the 1920s. It’s one thing to pen one (I don’t know that this was a proper working car), but the specific design elements of this design suggest an influence on the Tatra 77, whose real claim to fame is in being actually built.
Although not one of my two most special cars here, this Steyr Type 50 “Baby” is a sentimental favorite. An Austrian firm, I covered much of Steyr’s history here, as well as several posts on its truck and buses. I remember seeing a few of these still on the streets of Innsbruck in the mid 50s.
The Steyr 50 appeared in 1936, and shortly later came the Type 55, which was a bit longer for better rear leg room. It was very close in size to the VW, which was at that time just finishing its gestation. The Steyr also had an aircooled boxer four, but it was mounted in front and drove the rear wheels. My mother often told the story of riding in one once, out in a remote Alpine valley, when the drive shaft or universal joint became loose and started banging violently on the tunnel, and tried to enter the passenger compartment. But the tough Steyr apparently kept moving.
One unique feature is this steel sliding sun roof.
Here’s a better shot. As can be seen, it opens to the outside of the rear part of the roof.
A view through the windshield.
It’s quite nicely appointed. Keely asked if the chrome grab bars on the back of the front seats of the Steyr as well as the Airflow, Zephyr and possibly others had some functional purpose. Not really; it was mostly a stylistic fashion at the time, and could be seen on popular home furniture chairs as well. Even the Zephyr coupe with no back seat had them.
The trafficator, which was how Europeans signaled their intention to turn well into the early 50s or so.
The front end clearly reflects that of the Airflow. As has been the case a number of times, a design that was considered too advanced for Americans was embraced with relish in Europe, and the Airflow was copied widely, especially by Peugeot.
The initial version of the Type 50 did not have this rear side window, added later for the benefit of its rear seat passengers.
The Steyer’s central rear brake light is clearly visible here.
There are moments when I wonder if I give Hans Ledwinka and his Tatra 77 too much credit for pioneering streamliners, particularly so whenever I think of William Stout’s Scarab. And especially so when I’m confronted with it in the flesh, for the first time. This is another car I have obsessed over since first encountering it in a magazine or book as a kid.
I have always had a really big thing about packaging, and as often stated here on these pages, I consider the classic three-box sedan something of a packaging travesty. Stout obviously felt that way about the two-box sedans of the 1920s, and set out to create something utterly revolutionary.
Stout made his fortune in aviation, having developed the first all-metal airplanes in the US based on Junkers’ pioneering designs. He sold his airplane company to Henry Ford in 1924, which led to the legendary Ford Trimotor. But Stout was also active in the automotive realm, having designed the remarkably light and efficient Scripps cyclecar, which took him to Packard for a stint as Chief Engineer.
Stout started his own engineering firm in 1919, and around 1930 or so he started conceiving what became the Scarab. The influence of airplane cabins was unmistakable, as seen in this early concept rendering. The idea was to have a large cabin with flexible seating arrangements. Only the driver’s seat and the large rear sofa were fixed. This early concept assumes a flat opposed-cylinder engine low in the back, but that turned out not to exist yet, so he had to compromise.
On his actual first prototype of 1932, he resorted to using the new Ford V8 mounted over the rear axle and driving the rear wheels through his unique three-speed transaxle. Curiously, Tatra would eventually use a similar solution on their last new rear engine design, the 613, in order to move the engine’s weight forward. But this did wipe out the originally-conceived luggage compartment over the engine, so presumably one just stowed luggage in the roomy passenger compartment.
This is a 1936 version, the Scarab II, and substantially updated. Stout tried to sell the Scarab, but found only a handful of buyers due to the very high price.
One of the steeply angled windshield panes.
The pilot’s compartment. The window was open, facilitating a good shot.
A view of the rear compartment. Since I was not allowed to have my camera lens touch the glass, there’s glare in all of my interior shots.
Here’s a view to the rear. One can see that the rear window is partially lowered, via a crank that is barely visible. It’s the minivan of the 1930s.
There’s just one small door on the curb side, very airplane like. The driver does have a door too.
The rear end is a visual delight, with all of the chrome trimmed louvers and decoration.
The influence of the Scarab’s styling on the 1949 Nash Airflyte is unmistakable. The Nash of course had a conventional front engine under its long hood. Perhaps its reclining seats were also inspired by the Scarab?
It must have been fun to see the Scarab’s cooling fan running when one was behind it in traffic. Note the opening for an emergency hand crank.
We spent a long time with the Scarab. And then went back for seconds. It’s that kind of car.
Stout didn’t give up on the Scarab for a long time either. Here he is behind the wheel of his 1946 version. Check out his hair; yes, Stout was that kind of guy.
The 1937 Aeromobile is best seen from this angle, as the front is a bit homely. It too was based on a concept (renderings) by John Tjaarda, who is arguably the most influential designer on early American automotive aerodynamics.
The original renderings, which I can’t find on the web, show a more rounded and graceful front end than the final version, which is clearly trying to look too much like a car minus the grille. Under the hood is a 129 CID air-cooled flat four, not unlike the many small flat fours that would soon dominate the light plane market. The engine drove the front wheels. There was no brake on the single rear wheel.
This is perhaps the best view. Just needs a vertical stabilizer for high speed stability! The Aeromobile was the brainchild of a Paul M. Lewis, who drove it all over the US to demonstrate it. He logged some 45,ooo miles in that year and averaged 43.6 mph. At what speeds it was driven is unknown, but back the highway speeds were typically in 40-45 mph range. Still, that is a remarkable degree of efficiency for the time. He failed to find any financial backers on the long trip.
What came to my mind when I first saw it was the ill-fated Aptera. I guess folks just don’t really want to ride in three-wheelers or have their cars look like airplanes.
This 1935 Hoffman X-8 was also new to me, and quite fascinating. Roscoe “Rod” Hoffman was a contract engineer specializing in suspensions and whose clients were GM, Studebaker and Packard. But the X-8 was something of a mystery for a very long time. It turns out that it was built under a contract through a shell company that the Fisher Brothers established, through which they financed Hoffman to build two prototypes.
Their reason for doing so was that the Fishers, who were rich from their work building bodies for GM, were considering buying Hudson to become manufacturers themselves. But when a European investor started buying up Hudson shares, the Fishers dropped their plan.
The X-8 was designed with help from Austrian-born engineer Joseph Ledwinka, a distant relative of Hans Ledwinka. Joseph Ledwinka, who lived in the US, was instrumental in the development of unitized bodies at Budd. What makes the Hoffman so unusual is the use of an X-8 engine, where four banks of two cylinders each are arranged in an X around a central crankshaft. The appeal of it was to have a very short engine to place directly behind the rear seat, in front of the rear axle, resulting in a mid-engine sedan.
Henry Ford tried for years to develop an X-8 engine, but various problems, most of them related to oil and fluid leak-down to the lower cylinders causing plug fouling, among others, finally caused him to drop the idea. The Hoffman X-8 engine was a 168 CID OHV design, but whether it resolved the issues that plagued Ford’s is unknown.
The body was an advanced unitized structure, and the total weight of the Hoffman was a relatively light 3100lbs.
This is an unusual solution to the challenges of locating a rear engine, and makes for a rather tidy package, although there seems to be little or no provision for luggage under its snub nose or in the tail. Oh well…
The X81 Dynamic was an effort by one of the world’s then-oldest manufacturers, Panhard and Levassor, to stay relevant in this turbulent decade. Appearing in 1936, the Dynamic had some relatively unique design aspects that make it worthy to be included here. The most distinctive ones are the fenders, which cover most of the wheels. They remind me of Indian and H-D motorcycle fenders of the period.
This is another splendid example of Design Moderne, as this is not a genuine streamliner. Its grille is transitional, as were so many of the period, becoming more sloping, rounded and increasingly integrated with the bodywork.
The curved corner windshield inserts certainly helped improve visibility as well as to enhance the Dynamic’s airy green house. The deeply weathered rubber suggest it may be original.
Although still with running boards, the body is relatively wide, especially for European standards.
The rear seat back is contoured for three passengers to take advantage of the width.
The trafficator is integrated into the C Pillar.
An attractive car from any angle.
The green house is especially attractive, and the treatment of the window shapes and B Pillar is quite similar to what Bill Mitchell did with his 1938 Cadillac 60 Special. Given that the Dynamic appeared two years earlier, it’s fairly safe to assume it may well have been an influence on that car.
The impact of streamlining on cars might well be broken into three categories. The first are the true streamliners, which pushed the boundaries of maximum aerodynamic benefit and also typically had advanced technology under their flowing bodies. The Tatra is the best example of that. Then there are the more mainstream cars that carried the design language of Streamlined Moderne on their more traditional proportions and technology, such as the Panhard sedan just seen. The third might well be called the haute couture cars, expensive and exclusive roadsters and coupes that wore streamlining as the latest high-fashion gown from the Paris fashion houses. This 1938 Delahaye 135M roadster clearly falls into that category.
This highly dramatic convertible was styled by the dynamic duo of Joseph Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi, who were the automotive equivalent of Coco Chanel in the mid-late 30s. The Delahaye 135M roadster was first shown to great acclaim at the 1936 Paris salon, and some eleven of these roadsters were built, each with subtle variations, as these were of course strictly coach-built cars. Their fully-enclosed fenders were their hallmark, and undoubtedly practical concerns such as turning radius were not relevant. These were to be seen in, above all other considerations.
Although I had another shot without any intrusions by fellow visitors, I like this one with this kid, as among other things, it shows just how low and sleek this car is.
The low set headlights in the fenders were another hallmark of these cars. They must have looked unusually wide at night, as most headlights were much closer to each other back then.
Once again, the grille/radiator shell is relatively conservative for 1936. But these cars were strictly about maximizing the overall effect visually, and the more traditional grille was presumably more dramatic in its impact than a smoother, more advanced type of front end. Haute couture is not necessarily leading edge in every way, as we’ll see with a few other cars of that category.
Does it even matter what’s under that long hood? Of course it does, if the owner decides to head for Monte Carlo on a whim. The 3.5 liter inline six had three carburetors and made 125 hp @3500rpm. That was good for a top speed of some 80mph.
The interior is delicious too. And it appears that the seat cushion is divided in such a way that if the owner is part of a three-some, all can be accommodated in high style.
The tiny tail lights mirror the low set headlights in the front.
If the Delahaye is stunning, what is this? Out of this world, perhaps. The 1935 Bugatti Type 57 “Aérolithe” was designed by Jean Bugatti, Ettore Bugatti’s son, to attract attention to Bugatti’s new Type 57. It was shown at the 1935 Paris and London shows to huge acclaim, which led Bugatti to build two derivatives, the sporty Atalante and the even racier Atlantic. But the prototype, dubbed “Aérolithe” by the press, not by its maker, was soon lost to the world.
But from 2008 to 2013, the Guild of Automotive restorers in Bradford, Ontario undertook a recreation of the Aérolithe, using period-correct materials and methods. This turned out to be quite an undertaking, and explains why its body was built as it was in the first place.
The body panels were made of Elektron, an alloy of 97% magnesium and 3% aluminum that is essentially impossible to weld, as it is highly flammable. Bugatti had to rivet the body sections together, which created an aviation look that was actually quite appropriate. Maybe that was the intent and not a consequence.
The result is…riveting.
The contrast of the traditional horse-collar Bugatti radiator with the flowing lines of the rest of the body is almost surreal. This car absolutely steals the attention in a room of other gorgeous cars.
The riveted top edge of the hood also has a gleaming piano hinge to add to the highly mechanical textures that contrast the flowing panels.
The Aérolithe was not designed for anything other than show, as the windows didn’t even open! That alone may explain why it was not saved. How’s that for a steering wheel?
I’ve run out of superlatives, so I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.
This 1942 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS coupe is the youngest member of this elite club, and shows that quite clearly in its design, especially the front end. The classic radiator shell was now merely vestigial, and the low horizontal air intakes/grilles were a reflection of where automotive design was going, or had been going for a few years already.
The 1938 Lincoln Zephyr pioneered the low, horizontal split grille, more as a deft solution by “Bob” Gregorie to a cooling problem with the Zephyr V12 engine than for purely stylistic reasons, but it was instantly profoundly influential and within a year or two, pretty much all American cars sported a variation of it. And by 1941-1942, low and wide grilles were commonplace in the US.
This Alfa, styled by Mario Revelli di Beaumont for Bertone, was perhaps one of the first to have this on its front end in Europe. But then by 1942, in the depths of WW2, hardly anyone was designing and building new cars in Europe. Somehow Alfa managed to build a few.
And what a chassis this svelte coupe graced; the Alfa 6C first arrived in 1939, and was arguably the most advanced and successful sporty/sports car of its time. Scuderia Ferrari built several successful racing cars on a shortened 6C chassis. This coupe is exceptional as it is a genuine and rare SS (Super Sports) version, with the three carb version of the 2.5 liter DOHC inline six that made a stellar 130hp and could propel it to some 115mph. This was superb for the times.
The graceful coupe’s lines may well have influenced some post war cars like the Bentley Continental and possibly the 1948 Cadillac fastback coupes.
Many consider this car to be the most iconic shape and car of the period. Also styled by Figoni and Falaschi, the Talbot-Lago T150C-SS with this style of coupe body was actually patented by them, known as the goutte d’eau (“drop of water”) or simply “teardrop”, in English. First shown in 1937, a number of them were built between that year and 1939.
Unlike with their Delahaye roadster, the headlights here appear to be hidden, but are actually behind the two grilles set low next to the radiator grille. Only a head-on view exposes them.
This Talbot-Lago was anything but a poseur. Its 4.0 liter hemi-head inline six made 170hp thanks to triple carburation. “Freddie” McEvoy, a member of the Australian bobsled team, was dining with American heiress Barbara Hutton when he bragged that he could drive this very car from Paris to Cannes in under ten hours. He covered the 565 miles that included difficult Alpine roads in nine hours and forty-five minutes, winning a $10,000 bet. That would have probably covered the cost of the car back then.
Eliminating reflections without touching the glass is impossible, and our next car is making itself apparent in this shot of the interior. The dash is machine-turned. A Wilson pre-selector gearbox was available on these, allowing hands-free shifting.
The handle of the suicide door is beautifully faired-in.
Very Special indeed.
A parting glance.
The 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt made quite an impact on the visitors to the New York International Auto Show in October of 1940. After having shied away from streamlining and radical designs after its Airflow fiasco, Chrysler was ready to get back into the game, but with a show car and not a production one. Although it lacks the flair of all the other cars here, thanks to its bi-directional bathtub shape, it was certainly highly influential. The “bathtub” Nashes and the first Rambler were of course the most obvious adherents to this approach, but the Thunderbolt’s genes could be seen in a variety of cars.
Chief stylist was LeBaron’s Ralph Roberts. Chrysler called it “The Car of the Future”. Well, for a somewhat short-lived future, although the basic shape could be found in amusement park bumper cars for decades to come. I’m not sure Chrysler had that quite in mind.
I appreciate the historical significance of the Thunderbolt (it also had a retractable hardtop), but the problem with its design language is that it got a bit boring all too quickly.
Which is precisely why Harley Earl backed away from the original “Interceptor” design for the 1948 Cadillac (above), which was very much in this idiom, and instead went with a more conservative but more complex-shaped and visually stimulating design at the last minute. Many of the Interceptor’s design aspects did find their way into production GM cars within a few years, but lacking the decided “bathtub” quality which Earl found too blobby.
In addition to the Nashes, the 1947 Kaiser and Frazer and the 1949 Ford all espoused the slab-sided “pontoon” look. And their successors all sported more complex shapes and trim on their sides. As much as Chrysler president “K.T.” Keller liked the Thunderbolt as a halo car, his deeply conservative nature made sure the 1949 Chrysler products didn’t suffer from “slabitis”, although something sleeker than they turned out to be might have been quite helpful actually. It was all part of Chrysler’s perpetual bi-polar personality disorder manifesting itself regularly.
The steering wheel proudly proclaims “Fluid Drive”.
Five Thunderbolts were built, each in a different color scheme, and they were ostensibly available for purchase by customers. Four have survived. Power was by Chrysler’s flathead inline eight.
There was one motorcycle in the exhibit, but frankly, it just didn’t do much for me. It comes off looking like a fat little scooter, even though under its skin sits the chassis of one of the fastest and most powerful bikes at the time, a 1930 inline four cylinder Henderson. The problem is that enclosing the front wheel, even though the wheel size was drastically reduced, results in a bulbous enclosure for it. Other motorcycles of the era were also streamlined, but didn’t enclose the front wheel, and it worked much better.
The Henderson four is visible through the screening here.
I must admit that except for the bulbous front wheel, it does look quite ahead of its time. This a one-off build by craftsman Orley Ray Courtney. I didn’t catch the date of his re-build, but it was probably around 1936-1937 or so.
Courtney replaced the original large wheels with ten inch wheels, if I remember correctly, which makes it sit very low.
It appears that we somehow missed the other motorcycle in the exhibit, this splendid BMW R7 concept shown at the 1934 Berlin show. It must have been off in a side room or an alcove. Too bad. But this is how streamlining works much better on a bike.
This brutal and huge 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Stromlinienwagen (Streamliner) was a new one for me. That’s because like the Bugatti, it’s a recreation, as the original one was also broken up at some point. Originally built for the proposed 1939 Berlin-Rome race, after that event was cancelled, it was apparently sold to the German branch of Dunlop Tire Co., presumably for high-speed tire testing.
The chassis was of course the legendary 540K, which had a 5.4 liter inline eight and was typically supplemented by a supercharger (“kompresssor”). Somewhat curiously, this car was not fitted with the supercharger.
The recreation was based on a correct chassis and running gear, and the body, originally designed by Hermann Ahrens, was built by the craftsmen at the factory as had the original one. This big cars weighs in at 5000lbs, despite the lack of modern amenities. It’s built like a truck.
But it’s certainly not lacking many graceful details, like this faired-in door handle.
Unlike some of the other streamliners, the windshield is actually curved.
A US serviceman ended up with the original one after the war, but it was returned to M-B in the 1950s, after which its body was removed and most of the chassis was lost.
We ended our tour of the exhibit with another iconic car, the Cord 812. It looked positively small and delicate next to the huge Mercedes. And perhaps a bit anti-climatic, given how familiar it is. But it’s always worth another look.
Gordon Beuhrig (assisted by Vince Gardner and Alex Tremulis) created a masterpiece with the 810, which made a huge impression when first shown in 1936. The 812 added supercharging and the exposed exhaust pipes.
One of my great disappointments is not being able to pursue a genuine CC-worthy 810 sedan in traffic in South San Jose about six years ago. It was very original, meaning lots of patina and looking worse for wear, and being driven in traffic. Now that would have been my ultimate CC find.
The Cord’s 289 CID flathead Lycoming V8 was mounted behind the axle, in the tradition of Miller racing cars and Cord’s first FWD car, the L-29. The semi-automatic four speed transmission, whose top gear was an overdrive, was mounted ahead of the front axle, and the differential was between the two. Supercharging raised the power level from 125 to 170hp. Jim Cavanaugh’s excellent CC on the 810 can be found here.
That ends my tour, and yours. We actually revisited the Scarab and Tatra for seconds, and you can too. I hope I’ve been able to capture some of the visual delight (thanks to PDXMike’s camera) and the profound historical significance of this collection. This has been a peak automotive experience for me, and it’s been my pleasure to revisit them again here to share with you all.