As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, the Art Deco movement influenced everything from industrial design through architecture, including automotive design. In 1934, the limited-production Stout Scarab tried to change the future of family transportation, while in Europe the Tatra 77 debuted to stunned audiences, with both featuring a shape that rewrote the book on automotive design. Another car, introduced the same year by Chrysler, also sought to define the future of the automobile, and while the Chrysler Airflow was never a commercial success, it did leave a lasting imprint on the automotive industry.
Carl Breer, who with colleagues Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton would form the engineering triumvirate referred to as Chrysler’s “Three Musketeers,” noted that both migrating geese and military aircraft flew in “V” patterns to optimize aerodynamics. Convinced that airflow could have a profound impact on automotive design, Breer consulted aircraft engineer Bill Earnshaw and Orville Wright, and soon the group had constructed a crude wind tunnel for the primary purpose of designing Chrysler’s next line of automobiles.
Tests of conventional automotive designs revealed some startling data: The tall vertical surfaces of conventional automobiles created massive amounts of drag, meaning that cars of the day would have been 30 percent more efficient if the body was reversed on the chassis. Ideally, Breer realized, cars should be shaped like the rigid airships of the day, which allowed the easy passage of air around a pointed nose. Such a design may have been aerodynamically optimum, but it was also impractical for a road-going vehicle that still needed style to lure buyers into showrooms. The compromise was a concept called the Trifon, produced in the late 1920s, which Chrysler went to great lengths to keep secret from the public.
In production form, the Trifon became the Chrysler (and De Soto) Airflow, revealed to the public in January of 1934. The first American production car to be shaped in a wind tunnel, the Airflow looked like little else on the road at the time. Instead of a tall vertical grille and a long hoodline, the Airflow featured a “waterfall” grille that canted back into the hood itself. Front fenders mirrored this curve, but lacked headlights mounted atop them; instead, these lights were blended into the front of the car to reduce drag. The Airflow’s two-piece windshield was steeply raked (by standards of the day, at least), and conveyed a sense of motion even when the car was parked. In the rear, fenders were skirted to reduce turbulence, while the roofline curved gracefully to the rear bumper, following the lines of the minimized rear fenders.
As stunning as the Airflow was on the outside, it was equally revolutionary beneath the skin. Gone was the body-on-ladder-frame construction of conventional automobiles, replaced by an “envelope” design that used steel body panels welded to a steel space frame. The resulting design was exceptionally strong, and an early demonstration film showed a test driver rolling the Airflow with minimal deformation to the roof, then simply starting the car and driving it away. Later stunts undertaken to prove the car’s safety to a skeptical public including pushing the car off a 110-foot cliff, then righting it and driving off.
Breer wanted to produce a car with superior handling ability as well, so his engineering team located the Airflow’s inline eight-cylinder engine over the front axle, while the rear passenger seat was moved forward of the rear axle. As a result, the Airflow’s weight distribution was reported to be 54 percent front and 46 percent rear with just the driver in the car, or an optimal 50/50 distribution with the driver and passengers. The space frame design allowed the Airflow to be lower than conventional automobiles of the day, and this dropped center of gravity further enhanced the car’s handling.
Chrysler offered the Airflow in a wide array of trims and multiple body styles, including two-door coupe, two-door brougham, four-door town sedan and four-door sedan in base (CU) trim. Larger CV Imperial Airflow models were offered in two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and four-door town sedan variants, and at least one chassis and cowl-only CV model was built. In Custom Imperial trim (CX and CW models), the Airflow came exclusively with four doors, in sedan, town sedan, limousine or town limousine variants. To hedge its bets against a fickle buying public, Chrysler carried over conventional models for the 1933 model year as well, but its De Soto brand would receive only Airflow models to sell.
Chrysler Airflow models all received inline eight-cylinder engines, which varied in displacement and output depending upon model range. Airflow (CU) models received a 299-cu.in. L-head engine rated at 122 horsepower, while Imperial and lesser Custom Imperial models (CV and CX series) received a 323.5-cu.in. L-head engine rated at 130 horsepower. Finally, range-topping Custom Imperial CW models carried a 384.84-cu.in. L-head eight, rated at 145 horsepower. Airflow models also came with an impressive array of standard features, including Lockheed hydraulic brakes (vacuum assisted on CV, CX and CW models), an automatic vacuum-operated clutch, automatic overdrive (CW models), and anti-roll bars (CW models).
The Airflow’s reveal came at the New York Auto Show in January of 1934, but Chrysler had not yet begun producing inventory for distribution to dealers. Initial consumer interest was high, but production was taking longer than anticipated due to the Airflow’s complex construction methods (which included more welds, and more types of welds, than traditional automobiles). Six months would pass before customer deliveries would begin, and early production cars quickly developed a reputation for poor build quality. Owners reported everything from squeaks and rattles to engine mount failures, and rival automakers were quick to add to Chrysler’s misfortunes. Some publicly questioned the safety of the Airflow’s radical space frame design, leading Chrysler to perform the 110-foot drop test off a Pennsylvania cliff for newsreel footage. Even this wasn’t enough to convince a public now distrustful of the Airflow’s innovations, and the sales slide began to pick up momentum.
For the Airflow’s sophomore year, Chrysler restyled the nose to give the car a more conventional appearance and at the same time dropped under-performing models (like the four-door town sedan models) from the lineup. Conventional models (now called Airstream) continued to outsell Airflow models, and sales of the streamlined Chryslers fell from 10,838 in 1934 to 7,751 in 1935. This downward progression would continue, and in 1937, the Airflow’s final year on the market, Chrysler would build just 4,600 examples. As bad as the news was for Chrysler, it was even worse for De Soto. In 1933, the division sold 22,737 automobiles, but following the 1934 introduction of the “Airflow only” business model, sales plummeted to just 13,940 cars. In response, Chrysler scrambled to provide De Soto with conventional automobiles to market in 1935, and the division’s financial ruin was narrowly averted.
The immediate result of the Airflow’s failure was a change in design philosophy at Chrysler. Bold innovation was out, replaced by a conservative design aesthetic that would be the hallmark of the brand until the Virgil Exner years of the mid-1950s. While the Airflow was, perhaps, a bit too innovative for the day, it’s equally likely that the pendulum swing to the opposite direction of “take no chances, stylistically,” also had a negative impact on Chrysler sales.
Though the Airflow was never the sales success envisioned by Walter P. Chrysler (and by Carl Breer), it did predict a future where the wind tunnel would become as important to car design as the slide rule (and later, the computer). It advanced the idea that body-on-ladder-frame construction was, perhaps, not the only way to design an automobile, and that a lower center of gravity and optimized weight distribution were key to improving production car handling. Viewed in that light, the Chrysler Airflow was anything but a failure.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily. Written by Kurt Ernst.
In the recent article on the 1954 Plymouth Belmont concept car, many people expressed doubt that Virgil Exner actually penned the Belmont’s lines, despite the fact that Exner had taken credit for the car for many years. Indeed, it would be a stretch to say that the Belmont uses any of Exner’s love-it-or-hate-it design language, but that’s the way design studios worked at that time – the head of the studio would more often than not take credit for the work that the designers who worked under him produced, no matter how many brushstrokes he applied to the work.
Still, the truth eventually makes its way out, and we have reader Dave Langstone and author Peter Grist to thank for setting the record straight here. Grist, author of Virgil Exner, Visioneer, pointed out in his 2007 biography of the designer that Bill Robinson, a designer with Briggs Manufacturing, actually designed the Belmont and that he later let Exner take credit for the design. Langstone pointed that out to us too, and took it a step further, not only by providing photos of Robinson’s sketches for the Belmont, which he donated to the Walter P. Chrysler Museum last year, but also by putting us in touch with Robinson.
Robinson said that Chrysler’s K.T. Keller did indeed want a Corvette competitor and that he instructed Al Prance at Briggs to begin work on one. Prance turned to Robinson, who had been with Briggs as a designer for about five years at that time. “At first, I was thinking they wanted a real concept car, so I had drawings with fins and that nature,” Robinson said. “But as the project progressed, I figured that they were looking more for a true sports car than a concept car, so I grew more conservative in my designs.”
According to Robinson, he wasn’t much of a fan of sports cars at the time, so he didn’t take inspiration from any particular car. In addition, he had a few design limitations around using production pieces – specifically the chassis and bumpers – so he said he instead wanted to experiment with new forms and shapes in his design. “I was most concerned with getting rid of the outboard headlamps,” he said. “The body shapes trail off from outboard headlamps, so I figured that if I moved them inboard, I could try out different side contours.”
That effort shows in at least a few of the design sketches that Robinson provided to the museum, in particular the two-tone copper-over-gold sketch and the pair of sketches with the iridescent blue paint that rather closely matches the color the Belmont originally wore.
Of course, a number of changes took place between sketch and final product. “Any time you see a concept drawing that looks just like the real-life car, you know it’s a fraud and was done after the fact,” Robinson said. The most significant change that took place was, of course, his superiors’ insistence that the headlamps be moved back to an outboard position, thus scrubbing most of the impact Robinson aimed for. Robinson said he also didn’t much like having to change his design to raise the hood a couple of inches for engine clearance. “The hood and the decklid had the same contour until then,” he said. “Fortunately, Walt Brocker, who worked with me on the full-size drawing, kept as much of the existing form as he could when he added the hoodscoop.”
Sometime during or shortly after the completion of the Belmont, Chrysler purchased Briggs and Robinson transferred to Chrysler’s styling department. He said he wasn’t too pleased with the result (“Those gunsight headlamps were the only real way to make it distinctive.”), so when Exner approached him and asked to take credit for the Belmont, Robinson was more than happy to let him do so. “I felt good that Exner thought enough of it to want to take credit for it,” he said. Over the years, he remained silent on the issue because “I always felt the owner could get more for it as an Exner car than as a Robinson car.”
Robinson stayed with Chrysler until 1980 and followed his career there by teaching automotive and transportation design at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily.
Could Plymouth have benefited from a challenger to the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird in the two-seat sporting car field? Automotive historians could debate that question ad nauseam, but we at least know what such a car might have looked like: the 1954 Plymouth Belmont concept car that will cross the block at the upcoming Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, next January.
By the start of 1954, Plymouth’s sales had fallen to a fraction of rates once considered normal. In an effort to shore up Plymouth’s performance and build some excitement around the brand, Chrysler’s chief of styling, Virgil Exner, led his department in producing a pair of concepts for the 1954 show season, the other one being the six-cylinder-powered Ghia-built Plymouth Explorer Coupe.
The Belmont, built for Chrysler by Briggs Manufacturing Company on a Plymouth 114-inch wheelbase chassis, boasted a couple of firsts for the struggling Chrysler division. It was the first Plymouth to carry a body constructed of fiberglass instead of steel, and it was the first Plymouth fitted with a V-8 engine. The provenance of that engine seems to have caused some confusion over the years: Plymouth didn’t offer its 157hp poly-head 241-cu.in. V-8 in production cars until 1955, so when it introduced the Belmont, Chrysler claimed that a 150hp Dodge Red Ram Hemi V-8, available in production form in 1954 and also measuring in at 241 cubic inches, powered the Belmont. Not so, said Don Williams, who owned the Belmont during the 1990s; he said it has always had a poly-head 241, the same engine that powers it today. Indeed, Allpar notes that the engine’s serial number is P27-1014, which identifies it as the 14th Plymouth V-8 built for the 1955 model run.
Backed with a Hy-Drive semi-automatic transmission and stretching out long (nearly 192 inches from tip to tail) and low (maximum height of just 49 inches), the Belmont debuted at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show in a metallic light blue and exhibited what Exner and his team believed to be an aerodynamic design theme.
Unlike later “show only” concept cars, the Belmont was a functional automobile, as long as driver and passenger were willing to make a few concessions to style. Its windshield, for example, was formed from thick plexiglass, meaning the view ahead was somewhat distorted, especially through the curved portions. It’s unclear how much effort was put into the weather-sealing of the top, as the car was never intended to be driven for any distance in the rain. The car lacked exterior door handles, too, meaning that driver and passenger had to reach inside the car to open the doors, though this would likely have been addressed had the car gone into production.
Following its appearance on the 1954 auto show circuit (and its film debut in the 1954 motion picture Bundle of Joy, starring Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds), the Belmont was retired as “too old” a design to fit the company’s image. At this stage, most concepts either get locked in corporate vaults or stripped of usable parts before being shipped to the crusher, but the Belmont survived as a road car, passing through a string of owners over the years.
The Belmont’s ownership is unclear until 1968, when it was sold to Marie DeAngelo. From there, it was sold to Don Heckler in 1970 and remained in his possession until 1989. Unearthed by Loren Tyron in 1989, the car was purchased for Williams as part of the Blackhawk Collection and underwent a complete restoration (during which Williams had the car sprayed red instead of its original blue). In 2001 Williams sold it at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction to Ele Chesney in New Jersey, and from there the ownership history is lost, though when it came up for sale on Hemmings.com in 2010, a dealership on Long Island advertised it.
As part of Barrett-Jackson’s Salon Collection, the Belmont is expected to cross the block with a reserve. Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale auction is scheduled for January 12-19, 2014. For more information, visit Barrett-Jackson.com.
Written by Kurt Ernst. Article courtesy of Hemings Daily.
If asked to name the first production American sports car with a convertible top, inline six-cylinder engine and a fiberglass body, most enthusiasts will immediately identify the Chevrolet Corvette, launched in 1953. While this is correct if the qualifier is first-to-market, it’s incorrect if the qualifier is first-shown-to-the-public; in fact, the Kaiser Darrin 161 was shown to the public at the 1952 Petersen Los Angeles Motorama, held nearly two months before the January 1953 introduction of the Chevrolet Corvette in New York City. Had the Darrin 161′s manufacturer, Kaiser-Frazer, been in better financial condition, perhaps the stylish and innovative sports car that bore the company’s badge would be more than just a footnote to history.
Many argue that Kaiser-Frazer was the last independent automaker to give the Detroit “Big Three” a run for their money. Formed in July of 1945, the start-up company combined the talents of shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser and automotive veteran Joseph W. Frazer, whose resume included executive leadership positions with Chrysler, Willy-Overland and Graham-Paige. As post-war America’s appetite for the automobile grew, Kaiser-Frazer offered family sedans across a variety of price points, and the company’s growing sales reflected this sensible approach to business. By 1949, all-new designs from the Big Three automakers began to severely impact Kaiser-Frazer’s business, and one counter-punch to declining sales was the automaker’s first compact car, the 1950 Henry J two-door sedan.
Not everyone tied to the Kaiser-Frazer organization believed that a small and inexpensive automobile was the path forward, however. Designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin, who had contributed to pre-war Packard designs and had part ownership in a Parisian coachbuilding firm before being hired by Kaiser-Frazer in 1949, believed that a small American-made sports car was exactly what Kaiser-Frazer needed to distinguish itself from other domestic marques. Knowing that registration data on Jaguar and MG automobiles would not be enough to convince Kaiser-Frazer management to stray from its family-car mission, Dutch Darrin spent his free time designing and building a convertible sports car on the Henry J chassis, which he believed capable of far more than its economy-car mission. In addition to stylish and contemporary lines that still bore a resemblance to Kaiser-Frazer’s sedans, the sports car would carry doors that opened in a rather unconventional manner; instead of swinging outward, the convertible’s doors would slide on tracks, disappearing into the front fenders (a design that Darrin had patented in four-door form in 1948). It would wear a three-position convertible top as well, with functional landau bars that allowed opening the front of the roof for quiet and calm ventilation. By the end of the summer of 1952, Darrin was ready to present his design to Kaiser-Frazer management.
To say the car was not well received is a gross understatement. As author Richard M. Langworth cites in his book, Kaiser-Frazer – The Last Onslaught on Detroit, Henry J. Kaiser exclaimed:
Dutch, what is the idea of this? Who authorized this? We’re not in the business of building sports cars. I cannot forgive your audacity in going ahead without our authorization.
Dutch countered by explaining that the convertible was developed on his own time, using his own money. Adamant in his belief that a convertible sports car was exactly what Kaiser-Frazer needed to begin rebuilding sales, Darrin reportedly told Kaiser that he had backing to produce the car himself if his employer wasn’t interested. It was then that Kaiser’s new wife intervened, saying:
Henry, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I don’t understand why you say you’re not in the business of building automobiles whether they are sports cars or conventional cars. I don’t think there will be many companies, after seeing this car, that won’t go into the sports car business.
Perhaps subscribing to the adage of “happy wife, happy life,” Kaiser had a change in heart, immediately giving the project a green light. In November of 1952, the Kaiser Darrin 161 (named for its designer and the cubic-inch displacement of its Willys-sourced inline six-cylinder engine) first appeared at the Petersen Publishing-sponsored Los Angeles Motorama, some two months before the Chevrolet Corvette would make its official appearance at the GM Motorama in New York City. Had the Darrin beaten the Corvette to market, perhaps the car would have had a larger impact on automotive history. Instead, Kaiser-Frazer became bogged down in the acquisition of (and merger with) Willys-Overland, and the Kaiser Darrin 161 would not appear on the market until January of 1954 (although production reportedly began at the firm’s “Special Products” plant in Jackson, Michigan, in September of 1953).
Though the number of prototypes constructed is unclear (ranging from 12 to 62), early models were tested with a variety of engines, including at least two equipped with a McCulloch supercharger. Others used a Willys L-head engine, complete with three single-barrel carburetors, a hot cam, headers and dual exhaust (yet producing a somewhat mild 100 horsepower), but the production version would come with the 161-cu.in. Willys F-head engine, rated at 90 horsepower. Thanks to a curb weight of just 2,175 pounds, this was still enough to return reasonable, if not impressive, performance: According to period publication Motor Life, the run from 0-60 MPH went by in 16.3 seconds, while Motorsport magazine clocked it at a slightly more impressive 13.8 seconds. As for handling, the Darrin’s economy-car roots (including its live rear axle and leaf spring rear suspension) relegated it more into the “sporty” car category than the sports car category.
Just as the Darrin’s overall performance didn’t win over many buyers, its pricing also failed to help make a case for that car. At $3,668, the Darrin was $145 more expensive than the Chevrolet Corvette, a car that was also more powerful (its larger Blue Flame six-cylinder made 150 horsepower), quicker to 60 MPH (by some four seconds) and blessed with a higher top speed (106 MPH for the Corvette, versus 98 MPH for the Darrin). Though the Darrin was better equipped than the Corvette, buyers avoided Kaiser Motors (the post-1953 name for Kaiser-Frazer) for another reason: By 1954, the company was in deep financial trouble, and consumers didn’t want to buy an expensive sports car from a manufacturer that seemed doomed to failure.
The Kaiser Darrin 161 was dropped from the company’s lineup after a single year on the market, and assembly ended by late summer 1954 with just 435 production versions assembled. With Darrin models stacking up at the factory and on dealer lots, the company quickly increased dealer discounts on the two-seat convertible, and even allowed dealers to offer a $700 trade-in on the purchase of one. Even these incentives didn’t help, and Kaiser was left with an inventory of about 100 Darrin models at its Willow Run plant. Stored outside, uncovered, these convertibles were reportedly discovered by Dutch Darrin, who promptly cut a deal to buy 50 of his namesake cars back.
To increase the car’s appeal, Darrin reportedly pulled the anemic Willys engine and dropped in a Cadillac V-8 for customers willing to pay the $4,350 asking price. One of these buyers was reportedly Briggs Cunningham, and his wife used the car in SCCA and hillclimb competition with some measure of success. Other versions (now simply called Darrins) kept their inline-six engines, but were fitted with superchargers, and late in the car’s life Dutch Darrin even constructed a removable fiberglass hardtop for the car. Struggling to sell the 50 he had repurchased from Kaiser Motors, Dutch Darrin ended his experiment in the car-building business when the inventory was depleted.
Of the 435 examples constructed, about 280 remain today. Like other small-company attempts to build a sports car (like the Edwards America Coupe, or even the Cunningham C3), the Kaiser Darrin 161 was never a commercial or financial success. Still, many of its features (lightweight fiberglass body, inline six-cylinder engine, convertible top) mirrored those appearing in the independently developed Chevrolet Corvette (and later, other sports cars); it can be argued that Dutch Darrin had indeed found a recipe for success, even if he did offer that recipe to a manufacturer not able to deliver that success.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily.
Fortune, the saying goes, favors the bold. Were that truly the case, the Tucker Model 48 would have been an uncontested success for Tucker Corporation and Preston Thomas Tucker, the visionary jack-of-all-trades inventor behind its creation. Instead, just as production of one of the 20th century’s most innovative automobiles was about to start, the government (as some believe, pressured by Detroit’s Big Three automakers) stepped in and effectively shut Tucker down.
Preston Tucker was not an automotive engineer by trade, though few would argue that he possessed the ability to comprehend and advise on technical matters. With a background that included everything from automotive sales through race car and even armored car design (with partner Harry Miller), it was almost inevitable that Tucker would someday turn his attention towards constructing a production automobile that carried his own name.
As originally envisioned by Tucker, the Tucker Model 48 (named for its debut year of 1948) featured some truly groundbreaking designs. Alex Tremulis George Lawson penned the streamlined coupe bodywork, featuring the driver in a central position instead of offset to the left (a design that would much later be embraced by McLaren on its F1 supercar). Located in the rear of the car, the proposed 589-cu.in. aluminum flat-six engine was so under-stressed that an overhaul would not be required for the first 180,000 miles. Tucker’s original design lacked a conventional transmission, too, and in its place a pair of torque converters would have sent power to the rear wheels.
For a production facility, Tucker opted for the largest single-building factory in the world, the former Dodge B-29 assembly plant in Chicago, Illinois. The War Assets Administration (WAA) agreed to lease the plant to Tucker with the provision that he raise $15 million in working capital by the following year. Partnering with well-funded businessmen would have meant relinquishing control, so Tucker adopted a more innovative way of raising money: He’d sell dealership rights to companies eager to peddle the Tucker 48 to a waiting public. To further boost funding, he’d later offer shares of Tucker Corporation stock to prospective buyers, and would even sell accessory items such as radios to those on the waiting list for a Tucker automobile.
The original coupe design was dropped for the initial Tucker concept, replaced by a sedan body penned by Alex Tremulis (with design elements from J. Gordon Lippincott) that would become known as the “Tin Goose.” Revealed to an eager public on June 19, 1947, at Tucker’s massive Chicago plant, the prototype impressed many of the 3,000 people reported to be in attendance.
Few noticed that the engine was loud, or that the car overheated while being driven on stage, or even that the prototype lacked a reverse gear. Some critics were less kind, however, pointing out the Tucker’s flaws and even going so far as to call the car a fraud. Tucker had gotten the media exposure he’d hoped for, but negative coverage in the press soon painted the company in an unfavorable light.
It also became clear that the breakthrough designs called for in early ads couldn’t be implemented, at least not at the car’s projected selling price of $2,450. The Ben Parsons-designed flat-six engine was proving troublesome, so the decision was made to fit production models with a 345-cu.in. Franklin six-cylinder engine, manufactured by Air Cooled Motors (which Tucker would soon purchase to reduce supply costs) and intended for use in aircraft. As delivered, the engine was modified from its original air-cooled design to water-cooled, and its output was rated at 166 horsepower and 372 pound-feet of torque. Tucker abandoned the complex torque converter design, instead opting for more conventional Cord pre-selector manual transmissions, and a fastback sedan body style (also penned by Tremulis) with conventional seating for six was chosen for the final design.
Production models did away with seat belts (because Tucker Corporation vice president Fred Rockelman felt they sent a message that the car was unsafe), four-wheel disc brakes and swiveling outboard headlamps, too, mostly in the name of cost savings. The three-headlamp setup remained, however, and the design was changed so that the central headlamp turned with the front wheels. Because volume production had yet to start, each of the cars produced to date (51, counting the Tin Goose prototype, though only about 35 had been finished by the time production ended, and about 58 bodies in total were built) exhibited a few differences from the car that preceded it, leading some to consider all Tuckers as prototypes.
Just as initial Tucker 48 production was beginning to trickle out of the Chicago plant, things went from bad to worse for the Tucker Corporation. In early 1948, the government rejected Tucker’s bid to acquire a war asset steel plant in Cleveland, Ohio. Tucker had submitted the highest bid, but instead the plant was awarded to the company running it, depriving Tucker of a source for low-cost steel. The refusal of the Tucker bid, combined with the launch of an SEC investigation in May of 1948, prompted Tucker to publish a rebuttal in newspapers across the United States on June 15, 1948. In the missive, Preston Tucker detailed his company’s accomplishments (such as designing the model 48 in half the time of a conventional automobile, acquiring the largest factory in the world and establishing a dealer network in advance of production) while intimating that forces within the government and auto industry were conspiring to shut Tucker down.
If 1948 was bad for Tucker and his dream of producing the car of the future, 1949 was worse. Early in the year, the SEC seized the records of the Tucker Corporation and turned control of the company (which had already halted production, laying off some 1,600 employees) over to administrators. Preston Tucker and six other executives were indicted on numerous fraud-related charges, all stemming from the creative ways that Tucker had raised capital to fund Model 48 production, or from the differences between the initially proposed Tucker design and the manufactured Model 48 sedans.
Ultimately, the government failed to prove its case, and on January 22, 1950, Tucker and his executive staff were found not guilty of all charges. The outcome of the trial was moot, however, as the damage to Tucker Corporation had already been done. Its factory was gone, leased by the government to the Lustron Corporation, a manufacturer of pre-fab housing (although Lustron never occupied the entire factory, which Ford later used to build jet engines). Faced with a series of lawsuits from prospective buyers and dealers, as well as an insurmountable accumulation of debt, the assets of the Tucker Corporation (including unsold Model 48 production) sold for a reported 18 cents on the dollar.
To this day, the real story behind the failure of the Tucker Corporation remains unclear, though many buy into the version iterated in the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola film Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Some pin it on the ambitions of Preston Tucker, reportedly far more of a visionary than a businessman. Others blame it on the evil machinations of the Detroit Big Three automakers, who allegedly convinced the government that the success of a small, upstart automaker with a revolutionary design was in nobody’s best interest. While the truth likely lies between these extremes, this much is clear: The Tucker Model 48 gave us a brief glimpse into the future of the automobile, showing what’s possible when automakers favor innovation over profitability.
Thanks to Tucker historian Mike Schutta for his assistance in preparing this article. Article courtesy of Hemings Daily.
Just like in years past, the 16th Goodguys PPG Nationals in Columbus, Ohio played host to thousands of amazing rods and customs, and countless enthusiasts last weekend. But the PPG Nationals also plays host to the top honors – the Optima Batteries Street Machine of the Year award winner and the Classic Instruments Street Rod of the Year award winner. This year’s winners were more than deserving and we join the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association in congratulating the owners of these amazing rides.
With the competition hotter than ever, it was Tennessee’s George Poteet and his 1969 Ford Torino that fittingly took home this year’s Optima Batteries Street Machine of the Year Award.
Vintage NASCAR-inspired, the Torino blends old-school design ques and racing heritage with the performance and reliability of modern performance products, making it the perfect choice for the award.
As for the performance of the Torino, it gets all its power from a fuel-injected Ford Boss 429 engine boasting 750hp and topped with a glorious muted bronze finish. The Tornio also makes use of an Art Morrison chassis and C5 Corvette front suspension matched with a Detroit Speed 4-link with Watts link and Mark Williams 9-inch axle.
It also features massive 14-inch rotors and 6-piston calipers from Wilwood, and 8×10-inch (front) and 20×12-inch (rear) GT40-style Billet Specialties wheels. Built to look good and drive better, the Torino and Poteet will be making their way to the Bonneville Salt Flats in just a couple weeks for the SCCA Speed Week, where the two will compete in the street-legal, 150mph class.
While the Torino is certainly exquisite, the Ridler Award-winning 1940 Ford dubbed “Checkered Past” is not to be outdone. Owned by Ron Cizek of Nebraska, this exceptional ride is taking the hot rod community by storm this year. After winning the 2013 Ridler Award, the car went on to win the Goodguys 2013 March PerformanceStreet Rod d’Elegance award at Del Mar, and has now taken the title of the 2013 Classic Instruments Street Rod of the Year.
Completely reinvented, Checkered Past still sports many traditional 1940 Ford body lines but that only adds to the rod’s appeal. Built by Andy Leach of Cal Automotive Creations, the 1940 Ford was wedge-sectioned by an inch, chopped by 3/8 of an inch and lowered extensively. The hood and fenders were then completely reshaped, along with the hand-shaped running boards. The frontend is then topped off with a custom grille and thinned headlamp rings.
Taking the job of powering the high-class hot rod to heart is a 1953 Mercury Flathead topped with a 4.71 GMC blower, both dusted in a coat of gold anodized paint. Supported by a boxed and reinforced chassis, the hot rod also makes use of a Tremec 6-speed transmission, custom A-arm front suspension, independent rear suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and one-off gold Halibrand style wheels.
Tying everything together is the cranberry red hue, sprayed over the entire car by Charlie Hutton’s Color Studio.
For dedicating themselves to these fantastic vehicles, both Poteet and Cizek will receive custom Snap-On tool boxes as well as travel accommodations to the Goodguys 16th Southwest Nationals this November at Westworld in Scottsdale, where the vehicles will both appear in the “Champion’s Arena” for the Goodguys Terrific 12 award winners.
Congratulations goes out to Poteet and Cizek for their extraordinary wins, as well as to all those individuals who owned vehicles in the top five finalists for each award.
Article by Lindsey Fisher, courtesy of the Rod Authority.
From One Seat to Four
The Firebird II could seat four adults comfortably. It had air conditioning, power seats, and even built-in snack trays, which passengers could use to enjoy a meal. Whereas the Firebird I was intended for solo pilots, its successor was clearly created to appeal to more practical tastes.
A Kinder, Gentler Jet Engine
Like its predecessor, the Firebird II was powered by a gas turbine engine. In the first version this created a number of problems, including dangerously hot exhaust gasses that might have melted any vehicle that pulled up too close behind it. This time around the builders dropped the power output almost in half, from 370 to 200 HP output. They also added a regenerative system that lowered the engine temperature by 1000ºF. This, along with a system that vented the fumes at a 90º angle, relieved any worries that the Firebird would set anything behind it ablaze.
An Early Vision of Accident-Free Driving
The biggest single cause of traffic accidents is driver error. That’s why many recent innovations, such as rear view cameras, are aimed at reducing the potential for human misjudgment. Auto builders in the 1950s were aware of this problem as well. A solution proposed at the time will sound familiar to anyone who ever owned a slotted toy race car track. The idea was for a highway that operated by remote control. It would allow the person behind the wheel to sit back, relax, and enjoy a snack, while human or machine controllers guided the vehicle, keeping it from colliding with others.
The Firebird II was built with an internal guidance system designed to link up wirelessly with this anticipated traffic system, via electronic cones that were in the front section of the vehicle. Once automated control took over, the driver and passengers could kick back and relax while the central network (eerily similar in concept to the Internet) took over. The fact that this was done using 1950s technology makes it all the more incredible.
A Vision That Never Came True – Yet
The idea of a remote control road system never became more than a nifty concept, and the Firebird II, along with its predecessor and its later 1958 version, is now used as a draw at car shows. But the principles that underlie its design remain at the cutting edge of transportation technology. And, with computerized driving devices becoming more common, a future version of this groundbreaking vehicle may yet be seen cruising down a fully automated highway while its passengers watch TV. Time will tell.
Article by Bill Wilson, courtesy of Boldride from Yahoo Autos.
Kaiser was one of those brands of car that had a shot at success, but didn’t have the right stuff; defunct after only eight years (1945-53), Kaiser started strong in the postwar market selling cars to a nation that hadn’t seen anything new since the start of the war. Unfortunately, it couldn’t keep up with the industrial might that the Big Three had at their disposal, and suffered fates not unlike Packard, Tucker and Hudson.
Kaiser got its start in the automotive industry as Kaiser-Frazer. It was founded by Henry J. Kaiser, a big-time magnate and industrialist who manufactured large ships during WWII and wanted to break into carmaking. Joseph Frazer was a like-minded man, having spent the years prior as a president of Willys-Overland (responsible for the Jeep, whose story is an epic yarn all its own) and owner of Graham-Paige, a carmaker business.
1945 was an opportune time to have made the merger, as Detroit was still emerging from wartime production. The corporation moved quickly to lease the Ford-owned factory in Willow Run, Michigan, and began production of their flagship model, the Special.
Featuring such things as welded all-steel construction, large trunk, aluminum alloy pistons, and a bevy of other features, the Special was a hit with the postwar public in 1947. Kaiser wasn’t blind to the concept of upgrading, and sold the Custom–complete with leather-trimmed dashboard and upholstery, interior trim and bright metal windshield frames, and more–to his more well-off patrons.
In a last-ditch effort, Kaiser attempted to breach the sports car market with its classy Darrin in 1954. Designed by the great Howard “Dutch” Darrin, they were a limited production fiberglass wonder that boasted a low center of gravity, doors that slid into the fender (a patented Darrin invention), and a three-point Landau top for that extra touch of class.
Most of the 435 Darrins were powered by the measly inline-six, though about 100 of them featured Cadillac V-8s under their hoods after production ended–an even smaller number had superchargers installed. Alas, shut down after only a few months of production, the Darrin was not to be the saving grace of the Kaiser name.
From there on out, it was only a matter of time. Kaiser Motors had little money left over, and as such there was little choice but to offer boring, bland consecutive models with mere trim changes like adding chrome here and there, as well as minor mechanical enhancements.
Last-gasp concepts, such as the Henry J and Darrin models, took money away from developing the flagship Special. Interesting and visionary enhancements like the McCulloch supercharger (available on the 1954 Manhattan) were mere flashes in the pan, and detracted from Kaiser’s ability to compete with the Big Three.
The ultimate fate of Kaiser Motors was its shutdown of production in the continental U.S. in 1955. The company went in different directions: in America, Kaiser Jeep produced Jeeps; in Argentina, Industrias Kaiser Argentina produced Manhattans; both were under the aegis of Kaiser Industries. All ties to the automotive business were cut in 1970, when American Motors bought Kaiser Industries.
Despite its short life, Kaiser Motors had some of the more interesting and ahead-of-its-times design choices. Things like the aforementioned supercharger, the Darrin’s completely fiberglass body, and independent suspension, just to name a few. Still, it made an indelible mark upon American automotive history for being the hallmark of American craftsmanship that it was.
Article by David Chick, courtesy of Rod Authority.