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In the 1930s streamlining was like a magical language that defied cultural, social, and economic differences, like laughter or a smile, it was easy to interpret. During this era of aerodynamic enlightenment, from the late 1920s up until the beginning of World War II, there were several schools of thought on the application of aerodynamic principles. Most were developed in France, Germany, and the United States. Interestingly, the concepts, even those adopted in Europe, had their roots in America through the work of visionaries Buckminster Fuller and Norman Bel Geddes. The theories of Fuller were elemental; to achieve greater speed, one needed to reduce, or eliminate, a vehicle’s resistance to the wind. One way was to bludgeon it with sheer horsepower; the other was to slide through it like a rapier. Observed Bel Geddes, “Speed is the cry of our era, and greater speed is one of the goals of tomorrow.”
That the need for speed led to a convergence of styling, which appeared almost simultaneously in the 1930s at European Motor Shows and in the United States, at the Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and again at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
In Detroit, realization of aerodynamics as a viable styling cue and means of improving an automobile’s performance began in the early 1930s. The most dramatic result was achieved by Pierce-Arrow in 1933 when the aerodynamic Silver Arrow design was unveiled at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. Ironically, the futuristic Pierce-Arrow show car had originated in Harley Earl’s Art and Color Section of General Motors! It was there that a talented young designer named Phil Wright began work on what he called an aerodynamic coupe. Had it not been for an ill thought out budget cut the stylish Silver Arrow might have been seen for the first time on the Cadillac display stand instead of Pierce-Arrow’s.
Wright had fallen victim to a belt tightening at GM in 1932 before completing the design. His sudden dismissal turned out to be a blessing. Retaining the drawings he had worked on at General Motors, he paid a visit to his friend Roy Faulkner at Pierce-Arrow. When Faulkner was one of E.L. Cord’s top executives, he had hired Wright to design a show car on the L-29 chassis. Now Faulkner was Vice-President of sales for Pierce-Arrow. When Wright unrolled the renderings across his desk, Faulkner saw the future of the automobile, a sleek, aerodynamic shape unlike any car then in production. He hired Wright on the spot and immediately sent him to Pierce’s parent company, Studebaker. Working with Studebaker’s chief body designer Jimmy Hughes, in South Bend, Ind., Wright penned the final details of what was to become the 1933 Silver Arrow. On New Year’s Day, 1933, the first 12-cylinder Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow was ready for delivery to the New York Auto Show. Thereafter, Silver Arrows were finished every 12 days until a total of five had been built. The second, fourth and fifth cars were dispatched to Pierce-Arrow headquarters in Buffalo, N.Y., the third to the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, where it vied for attention with Cadillac’s new V16 Aero-Dynamic coupe. Apparently, after Wright’s departure, GM management (likely prompted by Harley Earl) had a change of heart, or they simply caught wind of what was going on at Pierce-Arrow. Either way, GM’s luxury car division was not going to be upstaged at the Chicago World’s Fair.
Cadillac described its sleek new body design as an Aero-Dynamic Coupe. Bodied by Fleetwood and built on a Series 452-C, 149-inch wheelbase chassis, the 16 cylinder car featured pontoon-type fenders and a streamlined fastback roof – a look that would not only influence GM automotive designs well into the 1940s but automotive styling the world over.
Like the streamlined Cadillac, the Silver Arrows also brought about a styling renaissance, pioneering designs that would later become industry standards such as flush fenders, concealed running boards, and recessed door handles. In true Pierce-Arrow fashion, the headlights were faired into the fenders, a styling element the company had pioneered. Not surprisingly, the Pierce-Arrow exhibit was continually crowded with spectators drawn to the automaker’s claim of giving “…the American public a concrete vision of the automobile of the future.”
In 1934, Pierce-Arrow introduced a production version of the Silver Arrow, just as Cadillac began offering the Aero-Dynamic Coupe as a coachbuilt body for V8, V12, and V16 chassis. The Cadillac production models were almost identical to the 1933 show car. The Pierce-Arrow production model, on the other hand, wasn’t quite the thing of beauty the show car had been, but it came very close with a sloping fastback roof design, V-form rear window, and the general streamlining of the 1933 prototypes. The production Silver Arrows were offered with either the big Pierce V12 engine or a smaller and more affordable straight eight.
Packard quickly warmed to this concept as well, and in 1934 four fastback models were displayed at auto shows. Unlike Cadillac and Pierce-Arrow, however, the coachbuilt Packard fastbacks were not put into production.
The design influences in Europe, particularly in Germany, were those theorized and put into practice by Professor Wunibald Kamm, director of the Research Institute for Motoring and Vehicle Engines (the F.K.F.S.). Kamm worked with Daimler-Benz on the Type 80 Land Speed Record car among others. More importantly his work sewed the seeds of aerodynamics throughout Germany in the 1930s.
Apart from racecars, at Sindelfingen, Mercedes-Benz stylists were enthralled with the possibilities of aerodynamics as they applied to road cars. The first example from the factory appeared in 1934, the 500K Autobahn Kurier sport limousine (in Germany at the time, four-door sedans were called limousines) establishing a body style that would carry on into the 540K series, and the striking 1935 Type 290 and 1937 Type 320 streamliners.
The final developments of the streamlining era came just as war threatened Europe. What had begun in 1934 as a streamlined, fastback body style for the 500K, to be used as a racing car, had evolved by 1937 into a beautifully sculptured, four-door sedan on the Mercedes-Benz Type 320 chassis. The streamlined 320 sedan utilized the same coachwork and chassis as its predecessor, the Type 290, which had become a more affordable luxury line in contrast to, but in a style resembling the more costly supercharged 540K series.
In the 1930s there were no Ferraris or Lamborghinis; exotic cars bore names like Isotta-Fraschini, Hispano-Suiza, Delahaye, and Talbot-Lago. In America, however, these were not familiar names, and the better-known foreign marques of the period, Mercedes-Benz, and Rolls-Royce were the exclusive purview of America’s cafe society. There was one foreign marque, however, that millions of Americans came to know in the late 1930s. Delage. The credit for this feat goes to a stunning trio of cars sent by the French government for display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, cars that were observed by curious Americans, most of whom had never seen a French automobile.
Of the three Delages commissioned by the French government, the first two were bodied in 1938 by Letourneur et Marchand for display in the French Pavilion throughout 1939. The third Delage, designed and built by Henri Chapron, was added in 1940 after the fair was extended an additional year by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. All three cars were built on the new Delage D8 120 chassis and powered by a Delahaye-built 4.7 liter straight eight. The overhead valve Delahaye eight, like the 4.0 liter Delage engine before it, was capable of making 120 horsepower at 4000rpm, sufficient to run an average car up to 90mph, and with lighter weight coachwork, over 100mph. The most striking of the three World’s Fair models was the streamlined Aerodynamic Coupé with its sweeping arched window design and sleek fastback roofline. The beginning of World War II prevented the World’s Fair cars from returning to France, and all three were sold to American buyers after the Fair closed for an estimated price of $7,500 each. They have remained in this country ever since.
Many of the body designs produced by France’s most respected carrosserie in the 1930s might have appeared outrageous, designed for the solitary purpose of attracting attention, but these innovative French designers were attempting to do something more than simply turn heads along the Champs Elysées. Motorcars bodied in the 1930s by Jean-Henri Labourdette, Franay Fréres, Jacques Saoutchik, and Joseph Figoni, were serious aerodynamic studies, albeit in the French idiom. Most had been at the forefront pioneering a design principle in the late 1920s known as Goutte d’eau, literally translated, a “drop of water.” The French regarded this as what we might call today, organic design: the water droplet is nature’s most perfect aerodynamic shape. Goutte d’eau endowed the obsequious fenders of French cars with new prominence, and lent itself to bold, sweeping coachwork that is still visually stunning and inspiring more than 70 years later.
Joseph Figoni and his associate Ovidio Falaschi awed and often shocked the automotive world of the 1930s with their extraordinary designs. The water droplet or “tear drop” was the inspiration for nearly all of Figoni’s unconventional but often beautiful body styles. The most dramatic of these were the Talbot-Lago T150 SS Coupés. No more than a dozen were built, and in several variations including at least one with skirted rear and front fenders. These strikingly sleek automobiles were the result of Figoni et Falaschi working hand in glove with Major Anthony Lago, who had snatched Talbot from the brink of insolvency in 1934.
Talbot-Lago was perhaps the most profound success story of the 1930s. Lago stepped in with his own money to purchase the insolvent Automobiles Talbot and Societe Anonyme Darracq, (the French subsidiary of the British Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq), literally rebuilding it from the ground up in just five years. He did this by producing sporty road cars that could also double as race cars. While the workers at the Talbot factory in Suresnes thought racing was an odd way to bring vitality back into the financially bereft company, by 1937 Talbot-Lago sports cars were defeating the leading purpose-built European marques, finishing first, second, third, and fifth in the French Grand Prix (The 24 Hours of LeMans), winning the famed Tourist Trophy, and taking the checkered flag in both the Marseilles and Tunis Grands Prix. By the late 1930s the company was one of the three top contenders in French motorsports.
The T150 SS was a far more complicated design than many realized at the time of its introduction. As with most Figoni coachwork, the power of the body was gathered around the wheels, which were enclosed in thin, flowing independent teardrop fender pods separate from the body but blended in to appear as an integral part. The doors were another masterpiece, large, rear-hinged ovals that opened away from the body allowing easier entry and exit from the egg-shaped passenger compartment. The teardrop body actually elongated the look of the car, since the T150 SS had a relatively short wheelbase.
Then there was André Dubonnet, an action-loving young millionaire, sportsman and race driver, whose grandfather Jean had created the popular aperitif. André was responsible for several remarkable sporting cars produced throughout the 1920s and 1930s, one of which became the most aerodynamic automobile of the prewar era.
Towards the end of the 1920s, Dubonnet had befriended French engineer Gustav Chedru and the two devised a revolutionary independent front-suspension design, fittingly dubbed the “Dubonnet System.” While few automotive enthusiasts remember the name, most are familiar with the design. Dubonnet sold the manufacturing rights to General Motors in 1934, and it appeared on new GM models under the name Knee-Action suspension.
Dubonnet had constructed several chassis to test the design in 1932. The original body on the Dubonnet chassis was a streamlined, front-wheel-drive sedan which he named Xenia. Around 1937 Dubonnet had a new body built to his specifications by Parisian coachbuilder Jacques Saoutchik. He understood the theories behind the streamlined coachwork Dubonnet envisioned. The car was to be as much like an aircraft as an automobile. In 1938 the stunning Dubonnet Xenia coupé was completed, and it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.
The rounded, swept-back body had an aircraft like canopy, and doors hinged to open out and slide back alongside the body, much like the sliding doors on today’s minivans. The roofline and teardrop fenders converged at the back, forming a tapertail that looked like something from a Buck Rogers serial. The only thing Saoutchik had failed to do was recess the headlights into the fenders, as Figoni had done with the Talbot-Lago T150 SS bodies.
The interior design also followed the styling of late 1930s sports aircraft, with lightweight seats, floor matting, and a metal instrument panel. The streamlined Xenia was equipped with a 160-horsepower Hispanio-Suiza H6C engine, and Dubonnet had planned to attempt several speed-record runs with the car in 1939. World War II undid his plans. The Dubonnet’s only public appearance was in 1946 when it inaugurated the Saint-Cloud Tunnel at the start of the great Normandy autoroute.
Aerodynamics and streamlining were very powerful influences on both sides of the Atlantic. The lowly fender, which had evolved throughout the first decades of the 20th century from a simple splash guard in the 1910s, to rakish cycle-style fenders hovering above the tires on motorcars of the early 1920s, to the bolder pontoon styles a decade later, became the stylistic focal point for an entirely new genre of design in the 1930s. Of course, fenders were not the sole benefactors of streamlining – rooflines, backlights, hoods, even grilles were treated to the positive effects of improved coefficients of drag. That it all happened simultaneously in Europe and the United States makes streamlining something of a mysterious and wonderful coincidence.
By Dennis Adler
© Car Collector magazine, LLC.
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Originally appeared in the May 2007 issue
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