Aaaannnddd we’re back, for part two in our CLT Editorial Series: A Brief History of Car Design. This week, we’re taking a look back at the fifteen years between 1945 and the end of the ‘50s: a time of stark contrasts, economic hardship, the beginning of the cold war and achingly beautiful cars.
It was a time that saw the motorcar both grow and shrink, evolve technologically in opposing directions and gain many new bodystyles, all in reaction to the varying economic situations and changing lifestyles across the globe. It also proved to be an incredibly fertile time for car design and creativity, so we’ll be breaking it down by segment, both new and old, and delving into each one in turn to show you the transformations that occurred throughout the ‘50s. Up first, the US and the “Golden Age” of American car design.
World War II thankfully came to an end in 1945 after six years of world-defining heartache and the dramatic changes to communities and countries around the world were reflected in every aspect of life; including the car industry. The outcome of the war proliferated the customer base like no other period during the motor vehicle’s lifetime. It was, after all, an already-established part of everyday life for people around the world, especially in the USA, Japan, Britain and mainland Europe.
Whilst the majority of these regions had been physically decimated by the outcome of the war, the United States of America, to a certain extent isolated from the most devastating effects by the Atlantic ocean, was heading towards an unprecedented period of prosperity that was reflected in people’s spending habits. Technology such as the refrigerator, telephone, television and transistor radio would soon be commonplace in households throughout the country, and a competitive spending culture sprouted, with neighbours seeking to out-purchase each other in a demonstration of status.
The last vehicle produced in the US before the war was the 1942 Pontiac Streamliner and, in many ways, it was a stark example of 1940’s vehicle design, with curvaceous fenders, a bulbous front-end and a long, sloped rear. It’s stance was intentionally large and grounded, and in stark contrast to the first post-WWII vehicles such as the Studebaker Champion, that debuted in 1947 and was one of the first to demonstrate a new trend of Ponton styling, with removed running boards and fenders that ran flat and parallel to the rest of the vehicle.
Not just that, but Studebaker were also one of the first to move away from the prominent front-end towards a smoother, more consistent design, with a lowered hood the same height as the fenders, something we take for granted now. There were also clear nods towards aviation with the wrap around rear-screen and sleek chrome front fins, a later model year adding a revised front end with the grill proudly displaying a nod to the gas-turbine, the “bullet nose”.
Whilst not widely recognised as a design icon, the Champion and Starlight Coupe were pioneers of a design language that would continue all the way into the 60s, within a US society obsessed with futurism and the future of aviation. But it wasn’t the nation’s only obsession. Since the war, a real sense of national pride had gripped the nation, even down to the desire to buy local, or at least American.
It saw companies such as Ford, Chrysler, Lincoln, Pontiac, Mercury, Plymouth, Packard, Nash and DeSoto all produce record numbers of vehicles and, by the end of the decade, a total of almost 58 million cars had been produced and sold by American manufacturers; and almost all were sold in the US. By the end of the ‘50s, the US had a population of around 179 million people, so that’s almost one new vehicle for every three people! But there was one company, led by a legendary designer, who would really dominate the ‘50s in America: GM. And Harley Earl.
By 1920, GM was already a conglomerate, an umbrella organisation that included Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Pontiac (originally Oakland) and Elmore. But they had long held ambitions to be more than just an automotive company and also owned Frigidaire (the consumer and commercial home appliances brand), had stakes in various media companies and sponsored many films and documentaries.
Why is this important? Because, following on from their famous (and very successful) Parade of Progress fairs that were widespread across the USA in the 1930s, GM raised their game again for the ‘50s, beginning in earnest in 1949 with a series of product shows that can only be described as marketing extravaganzas.
Commencing in the Waldorf Astoria in New York, before visiting cities including Boston, Miami, LA & San Francisco, GM’s Motorama was a showcase for some of the wonderful concept cars being designed in GM’s now famous Styling Section under the stewardship of the legendary Harley Earl.
I would be gobsmacked if you could spend thirty minutes with any global car designer without the name Harley Earl cropping up, especially when the conversation turns towards icons and inspiration. Earl grew up in a coachbuilding family with car design a dominant strand running through his genes, and in 1927 he was appointed to run the brand new Art and Color Section of General Motors after impressing with his work for Cadillac.
Up to this point, GM, other American manufacturers and, to be honest, any car producer that wasn’t a coachbuilder, had put very little emphasis on car design and the style of vehicles; but that would all change, and very quickly.
The board and the majority of engineering staff looked down on Earl’s early work, such was the culture at the time, but his bullish determination saw the department changed to the Styling Section in 1937. This was swiftly followed by his promotion to Vice President, an unprecedented move by an engineering company. Alongside Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s president at the time, they implemented vehicle lifecycles and annual models updates, two product management principles that are vital in today’s product development environment.
They then went a step further by, arguably, inventing the concept car. The stunning Buick Y-Job debuted two years later, in 1939, a unique model because it was the first car built by a mass manufacturer for the sole purpose of determining the public’s reaction to new design ideas. And boy did they love it. In fact, many of its principles guided the following two decades of products that left the Styling Section for production.
And it was at Motorama, in 1949, that the Cadillac Sixty Special debuted, 600,000 people in total getting a glimpse of the now famous rear tailfin design that would come to define American car design for all of the ‘50s and most of the ‘60s.
The tours quickly expanded to showcase not just production cars but a wealth of incredible, often unrealistic concept designs that were exactly that; concepts. They were design studies to gauge public reaction to vehicle design and its use in their lives, whilst pushing what was possible with modern manufacturing techniques, all inspired by the very context of ‘50s American society.
Alongside the several production cars and an assortment of wild and wacky concepts, there were kitchen technology stalls, dancers and performers, advertising films on huge, wall-sized screens and several other rooms that were each dedicated to an engineering division, displaying exhibits, working models and cutaways of current and future technology. Extravaganza is probably under-selling it!
GM were onto a winning thing, and it showed the public’s hunger for their products, validating the new-found importance that they’d placed on design, and the work of Earl and his team. The decade or so that followed saw concepts such as the GM LeSabre, Oldsmobile Golden Rocket, Cadillac Cyclone, Pontiac Club de Mer and the absurd GM Firebird Series (I-III), whilst iconic cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette, Impala and Bel-Air all came to fruition. America was booming, and it was being led by a public thirst for improved lifestyles, new technology and sleek design.
Over the water, however, it was quite different: The end of the 1940s and the early stages of the ‘50s in Europe had been dominated by the Marshall Plan, the aid initiative from the US to western Europe. With entire cities decimated and economies, families and homes destroyed, there was a real squeeze on public finances, especially in mainland Europe where countries including Italy, Germany and France were rebuilding from scratch. The car was already too ingrained in daily life, but people’s finances could only stretch to a motorbike, especially in terms of running costs; so something had to be done.
Whilst even the cheapest American cars continued to grow and advance technologically, their European counterparts were heading in the opposite direction: minimalism. The Beetle was as popular as ever and was soon joined in the segment by the Renault 4CV (1947), Morris Minor (1948), Saab 92 (1949), Fiat 600 (1955) and the Seat 600 (1957 – re-bodied Fiat 600). But it was the micro-car segment where things got really interesting.
Voiturettes and cyclecars had maintained a core but small following throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, mainly due to their limited use. Sharing the same principles as the Tata Nano, these early vehicles were seen as a way of bridging the gap between motorcycles and the more expensive, larger motorcars. As manufacturing techniques progressed throughout the 1930s, however, and volume increases helped to reduce the cost of car assembly, they soon died out, vehicles like the Austin 7 becoming realistic, affordable and practical alternatives.
However, the war had changed the economic environment dramatically and, to exacerbate the situation, the price of steel had risen severely, leaving many people in Europe once again unable to afford the motorcar despite having the need for one. The micro-car was the solution. These things really pushed both the engineering and design boundaries to maximise space whilst minimising the materials used and the propulsion required to keep them moving.
We’re talking three wheels, front ends and roofs that hinged as doors and even single seat versions that could fit into elevators! There were other, less absurd versions, but most maintained three wheels and all of them had an engine size less than 1,000cc, though most were less than 700cc.
Whilst never selling in huge volumes, some of the most successful European attempts include the Iso Isetta (1953 – BMW rebodied it in 1955 and saved the company), the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller (1953) and the Heinkel Kabine (1958). As you can see from the names, they were especially popular in Germany and were a way for companies who had previously supported Germany’s war effort to maintain factory production under the harsh regulations set by the Allied forces in post-war Germany.
In Japan, the segment proved incredibly popular and kick-started the kei-car culture that we know today, which we’ll cover later in the year in a separate article. But in Europe, the market never really reached the heights of the small car segment, due in part to their performance limitations and lack of practicality, but also thanks to economic stability as the decade progressed. There wasn’t the abundance of the US, but by the end of the ‘50s, and with European cities expanding as people flocked inwards for jobs, the need for vehicles remained strong and people’s incomes steadily increased to the point where they could, once again, afford small and practical cars. And not one, but two, debuted at the end of the decade that have become absolute icons, their nameplates still famous today thanks to modern remakes.
… and Minis
Towards the end of the ‘50s, the end of both the French and British empires had been compounded by the creation of the European Common Market (the precursor to the EU) and the dividing of Europe by the Iron Curtain. The war had destroyed the remnants of European empires around the world, predominantly in Africa, and each country had begun to look internally, towards their own people and borders, and then outwardly towards Europe as a community, a collection of countries desperately seeking peace.
Not only that, but thanks to the brutality of the war and its ability to destroy everything material, Europe’s population, in stark contrast to Americans, had become accustomed to living simpler lives, compounded by the growing trend of people moving to cities seeking work.
In Italy, Fiat had been producing the compact 500 Topolino since 1936 with features quite similar to French competitors, and in 1949 released an updated version with characteristics more appropriate of the time; integrated front headlamps, a bulbous nose, curvaceous front and rear fenders and a sloped back. It was small, had multiple body options and survived until 1955, when it was replaced by the even smaller Fiat 600, a more modern interpretation of the “Topolino”, a cheap car for the mass-market.
But when the 500 was re-released two years later, it was perhaps the first time a car had been conceived specifically for the city: it had just 13hp from a two cylinder engine, could be parked almost anywhere and house four people (just) thanks to its opening suicide doors and a fabric roof. In its first three years, more than 180,000 were produced, all for the home market.
It was unlike anything before, or since, with every feature small, but practical and considered. Its clamshell bonnet allowed full, unhindered access to the engine bay, whilst minimising the complexity of both the front bumper and fenders for tooling; cheaper and practical. It was front wheel drive, so saved the complexity of a driveshaft and differential, whilst the fabric roof reduced the metal content. Inside, it was sparser than a nun’s wardrobe: the instrument panel was painted bodywork with essential items bolted on.
It was elegant minimalism with Italian style, and it lasted all the way to 1971, incorporating the Giardineira – an “estate” bodystyle – and a panel van model into the lineup. And it was then remade in 2007 on it’s 50th birthday, a model that is as popular as ever and widely credited with saving Fiat from bankruptcy.
Two years later, in 1959, another tiny icon arrived, this time in Britain, thanks to the people at BMC (British Motor Corporation). We’re not going to cover the ins and outs of the icon here, or the complex nature of the various companies that built it as Britain’s automotive industry went through a period of incredible instability; we’ll cover that in another article. But we’d be idiots if we didn’t give an overview here, so important was the vehicle. For starters, it was voted the second-most influential car of the twentieth century, behind the Ford Model T. Why?
Well for starters, it was produced for 41 years, from 1959 to 2000. Any product of any shape or size that is produced, essentially unchanged, for 41 years is doing many things right. Its space-saving transverse engine and front-wheel drive layout allowed 80% of the car’s floorpan area to be used for passengers and luggage, something widely copied by many automakers since.
Again, it was a vehicle that hosted multiple bodystyles to cater to as many customers as possible, including the Clubman (an estate body), a pick-up truck, a van and a jeep-like buggy (the Moke). Such was its popularity, that it was built in the UK, Australia, Spain (Authi), Belgium, Italy (Innocenti), Chile, Malta, Portugal, South Africa, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia.
And, once again, it’s success was down to a design that understood society’s needs during turbulent political and market movements. 1956 saw the Suez crisis and a huge squeeze on fuel supplies, but also a surge in prices as well. People didn’t have access to plentiful supplies of petrol, never mind the money to fill large fuel tanks, so something was needed.
Whilst countries such as Italy, Spain and France were already producing vehicles that were perfectly positioned to cope, Britain’s nearest offering was the Morris Minor – also engineered by the legendary Sir Alec Issigonis – or the visually languid Ford Anglia. And both of them were considerably larger than the Mini. But it’s practicality would have meant nothing if it hadn’t also been eye-catching. And I think we can all agree that it is.
There were many technical challenges that were brilliantly achieved by the engineering team involved, enabling a vehicle with classic proportions, simple lines and minimal features, whilst retaining all the functionality and performance that people had come to expect. Unlike the 500, this was not just a vehicle for the city – urbanisation in England was still not as prevalent as in continental Europe – so this diverse functionality embedded it firmly into British pop culture that exploded in the 1960s.
So, that’s enough about small family cars for one day. Now for the other end of the spectrum: luxury motor vehicles.
If it ain’t broke….
The American car market, particularly large family vehicles, were growing in every way, and the design of them was advancing rapidly thanks to the cultural influences of the jet-age, Art Deco and influencers such as Harvey Earl. In Europe, luxury vehicle design was incredibly consverative, thanks in part to the aftermath of the war and a reluctance to be seen spending large amounts of money on extravagant vehicles; for daily runners anyway.
The likes of Bugatti, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar were producing vehicles very much in line with late ‘30s and early ‘40s designs. Cars such as the 1951 Mercedes Benz W187, 1953 Daimler Regency MKII, 1955 Bentley S1 and the 1955 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud all retained many of the pre-WWII features that distinguished elite cars, including prominent front grilles and headlamps, curvaceous fenders and long-sloped rears with large overhangs. By the end of the ‘50s, there were admittedly encouraging signs of change, with vehicles such as the 1959 Bentley S2 Continental and the Bugatti Type 101 showing some attempts at progress. However, perhaps due to shifts in lifestyles and priorities, the roadster and tourer segments were bursting into life and progressing rapidly, both in terms of technology and design. In fact, they were some of the most elegant and iconic vehicles ever created.
So where better to begin exploring beautiful roadsters than Germany. Wait…what?!
The Roadster Revolution
When you think about German cars nowadays, I’m guessing you don’t drool over the latest BMW 3-Series, Mercedes Benz E-Class or Porsche Cayenne; but in the ‘50s, some of the most beautiful cars were created by these very brands.
One of Ferdinand Porsche’s greatest achievements was certainly the Volkswagen Beetle, but the company he founded, Porsche AG, have also produced some decent cars since they were founded all the way back in 1931. We’re not going to cover the murky world of Nazi collaboration, imprisonment and slave labour that is so often linked with the Porsche family, that’s for another time. And whilst Porsche is undoubtedly most famous for its 911, we’re focussing here on it’s first, and perhaps most overlooked vehicle: the 356.
It was the Austrian marque’s first production vehicle and it could have all been very different. The very first prototype, the Porsche 356/1, was rear-mid engined, a very common setup, but the production vehicles switched to a rear-engined layout, something Porsche is now famous for amongst performance car makers.
Not only is the 356 where things started, and the basic DNA that is in every Porsche, it was also achingly elegant, some would say pretty. Curvaceous yet dignified, compact yet well-proportioned, it carried the racing genes of the Porsche family and came in both roadster and coupe forms when it was launched in 1948. During its lifetime, the emphasis remained on racing dynamics, lightweight design and a small but powerful 4-cylinder engine, whilst gradually reducing the reliance on VW parts and maintaining the elegant design of the original.
Another car to be heavily influenced by racing was the sumptuous Mercedes Benz 300SL. At the beginning of the 50s, racing had well and truly returned to post-war Europe, and automakers were clamouring to be involved in one way or another.
Mercedes Benz entered the Sportscar series in 1952 with its W194, an aerodynamic, lightweight design that used a welded aluminium tube spaceframe chassis and incorporated all of the main body structure into a metal skeleton that surrounded the passenger compartment, all with the aim of minimising weight. Though it meant conventional doors wouldn’t work, and this led to the now famous “gullwings” that we know and love today, a feature carried through onto the production vehicle.
Whilst the Porsche 356, particularly in Coupe form, could easily be described as “classic” design, in that it was an evolution of what had gone before, the 300SL was certainly a look to the future and very similar to the “berlinetta” style of the Italian racers that were just debuting on race tracks at the time. Whilst the doors certainly draw most of the attention, the chrome finishings and side grilles are a nod to the influence of Americana, and the balance of proportions, especially the long nose and short, tapered rear, have come to define many sports cars since. And those wheelarch eyebrows… *writer bites his fist*… let’s leave it there.
BMW, not to be outdone, debuted its 507 in 1955 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, after several years of being perilously close to going out of business. The idea belonged to the famous American importer Max Hoffman, who had somehow persuaded the board to build a roadster version of the 501 & 502 saloons. The U.S. market was crying out for a cheaper alternative to the new 300SL, he argued, and BMW was best placed to deliver this. And deliver they did.
Utilising the sultry curves of the saloon, but placing the driver far lower down in the vehicle, allowed the natural flow of the bodyshape to dominate the design and the proportions are far better suited to a roadster than the saloon. I mean, the thing’s a stunner. And it sold like hotcakes, right? Wrong. It was marred by fuel tank issues, a lack of storage space and rising manufacturing costs that doubled its eventual sale price, meaning it was vastly outsold by its German rival, the 300SL. In total, only 252 were ever made, and 202 still exist, so these things are highly collectible, and it’s easy to see why.
So if the BMW wasn’t selling well in the US, then what was?
As we already know, the ‘50s were the peak of the American car industry, led by a clear trend of aviation-inspired vehicles. So when GM debuted a rather subdued but beautiful concept car at the 1953 Motorama, no-one expected it to grow into one of the most famous nameplates ever. The Corvette.
Conceived as an American competitor to the MGs, Jaguars and Alfa Romeos being bought by GIs returning from duty in WWII, Harley Earl and his team conceived a $2000 concept that debuted in January ‘53 at the Waldorf Astoria Motorama. The public reception was overwhelmingly positive to the fastback concept, so GM rushed roadster and station wagon (!) versions into production, though neither had the same profile as the concept and perhaps this is partly why it was, essentially, a flop.
Despite its beauty, practical four seats and array of colour and trim options, it was far more expensive than originally planned and throughout the entire first generation suffered from a lack of identity. No-one doubted its looks and proportions, but below its features lay existing Chevrolet components from other vehicles and a lack of sports car thinking. It also suffered from poor build quality during the early days and failed to escape this poor reputation despite several updates, until 1962 when a brand new Corvette arrived.
However, it still goes down as one of the most beautiful sports cars ever made, its crisp lines and elegant rear tailfins a prime example of the importance of simplicity. There are no complex features, no lines or folds where there shouldn’t be; it’s a well-proportioned, elegant motor car that makes you want to drive 3000 miles across the country, then turn around and go all the way back again. And there’s a lot to be said for that.
At the other end of the spectrum, but equally deserving of a mention, sit the Chevrolet Bel Air and the Cadillac Eldorado.
For many people, these are the icons of ‘50s Americana, the vehicles that represent the period in its purest form. If the Corvette was America’s interpretation of the European compact two-seater sports car, the Bel Air and Eldorado were simply statements of what America could be, something unique in their own right and never to be created anywhere else. They were pictures of excess, with soft suspension setups for long, leisurely, cross-country driving that has since made them incredibly popular amongst hot rod and lowrider fans, a culture that also originated in the US.
America’s long straight roads bred a culture of leisurely, long distance driving, and these are both models of that thinking; Europe’s small and windy roads created a need for lightweight, agile cars, and where better for some of the windiest roads and most agile sports cars than Britain.
Best of British
Since the 1930s, British brands including MG, Riley, SS & Triumph were creating compact and agile two seat roadsters for the windy roads of Britain, and they were pretty popular amongst the middle classes as motoring became a bigger part of life.
By the end of the ‘40s, racing and motorsport were becoming increasingly popular in Britain. People were building their own vehicles, or modifying existing ones, and racing them in hillclimb competitions dotted around the small towns of England’s countryside, whilst 1950 saw the first Formula 1 World Championships debut in Silverstone in the UK. Manufacturers quickly caught on, building agile, lightweight, race-inspired roadsters for both the track and everyday life.
Whilst bodystyles varied between the classic British roadsters of Triumph, Austin-Healey and Jaguar, the “Barchetta” style ACs and the track-focussed Lotuses, they all shared short wheelbases, low-driving positions and incredible agility that is difficult to find nowadays. And they were all very popular.
More was to come as the decade evolved and the racing influence grew even stronger. Body panels were pushed ever closer to mechanical components underneath, until the metal was simply shrink-wrapping the chassis and structural ribs of the vehicles in an attempt to save weight, gain speed and apply the latest in aerodynamic knowledge. And then came the Jaguar XKSS.
The Jaguar D-Type was built and raced between 1954 & ‘57 with Le Mans victory firmly in its sights. It won, in 1955, ‘56 & ‘57 before Jaguar temporarily withdrew from competition. With extra chassis in storage and no plans to race, the remaining 25 were re-designed for roadgoing purposes. And God, are they beautiful. If you’re still not won over, Steve McQueen owned one. I rest my case, your honour.
With Ferrari on the scene since 1939 and already disrupting the industry, both on the track and road, and with historic marques like Maserati and Alfa Romeo back up and running, Italian car manufacturing quickly picked up speed. Italy’s history of car racing is well known: the world’s oldest sports car racing event, the Targa Florio, was held in 1906 in the mountains of Sicily near the island’s capital, Palermo. And whilst many British & European companies were being influenced by the rebounding successes on race tracks across the continent, this lineage was undoubtedly strongest in Italy.
Ferrari were still getting to grips with producing cars and designing them for the road and not just the track, where they were already very successful. As was still typical, the majority of production Ferraris were coachbuilt exteriors with the Maranello company’s underpinnings, and there are some wonderful examples – which we’ll cover in a separate story later in the year – but for now we’re concentrating on the core icons. So it’s the 250 series that’s of interest here, specifically the 1959 Ferrari 250 GT LWB California Spider.
Although it was designed by the coachbuilder Pinin Farina, it certainly wasn’t a one-off: 50 were made in 1959, at a time when Ferrari, still in its infancy, sold a total of 183 vehicles in 1958. Many of you will know the 250 series for the 250GTO, which is still the most expensive vehicle ever sold thanks to a very limited production run, an impressive racing pedigree and, to be honest, its looks. In a rugged sort of way.
But if the 250 GTO is ruggedly handsome, the California Spider is quite the opposite. Again, it’s classic in style, with rear tailfins very similar to classic American & British roadsters and a long front end to squeeze in that V12. But everything is done well, with gentle curves, smooth consistent lines and minimal “extra bits” that make it graceful from any angle. You might also recognise it as the car from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And a 1959 Competizione version sold for $18,150,000 in 2016.
However, the 250 Series also deserves an overall mention for arguably creating the Berlinetta bodystyle that became so popular well into the ‘60s.
Astons, Berlinettas & Coupes
If racing was having an influence on the design of roadsters during the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was almost the sole influence of coupes and tourers.
Ferrari, Mercedes and Porsche aside, there were many other marques who were jumping head first into racing and feeding the lessons-learned into the cars that were then rolling off the production line.
Maserati, who had debuted two A6 race cars in 1947 and raced them in May of the same year, followed shortly after with their first production car, but things really kicked into gear in 1951 with the single seat A6GCM “Berlinetta” style race car. Two years later, in 1953 the A6SSG won the 1953 Italian Grand Prix driven by none other than Juan Manuel Fangio. And that same year, to allow it to compete in the World Sportscar Championship, the A6GCS/53 was born. And it’s here where we’ll start. Only 52 were made and it’s now one of the most exclusive vehicles on the planet. And certainly one of the most desirable.
The A6 1500 that debuted in 1947 was a pretty advanced design for its time and still is wonderfully dignified. But we’ve covered enough elegance for one article, and besides, the A6GCS/53 had a far greater influence on future Maserati designs and, with one winning the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2014, it’s fair to say I’m not the only one to appreciate its beauty.
It pushes the envelope of a Grand Tourer to the limit, whilst accentuating all the proportions of a Berlinetta: the prominent front grill and raised, flared front fenders emphasise the Formula-1-esque long nose, whilst the low roofline and steadily sloping rear push the driver deeper into the chassis, connecting them with the car. It’s a thing of beauty; but also a thing of pure racing performance.
‘So what’s a Berlinetta?’ I hear you ask. Originally an Italian word that literally means “little saloon” – although the French also say Berlinette so… – it refers to a (typically) two seater sports coupe. However, type Berlinetta into Google Images (other search engines are also available) and you get a host of sports cars with long front-ends, short, sloping rears and a cramped cockpit perched on top of a low, sleek body.
We’re talking Ferrari 250GTO Europa, Cisitalia 202 GT, Aston Martin DB2 and, as we’ve mentioned before, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. More recent examples that, somewhat surprisingly, carried the Berlinetta nameplate include the ‘79-’86 Chevrolet Camaro and the Opel Manta of the early ‘70s. Better examples of suitable proportions include the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, Jaguar F-Type, Mercedes-Benz AMG GT and the Aston Martin Vantage. Speaking of which…
Aston Martin, who began all the way back in 1913 as a small sales company before progressing to breaking world speed and endurance records during the 1920s, had a long history of financial difficulties before David Brown Ltd. rescued the company in 1947. And it’s here that the “DB” moniker begins. In 1950 they built the DB2 as a prototype for Le Mans, before going on to produce 411 in total for customers. Aston produced several, race-inspired “grand-tourers” during the subsequent years, but one stood out: the precursor to one of the most famous cars in the world.
The Aston Martin DB5 debuted in 1963 and went on to become the most famous Bond car of all time and, therefore, one of the most famous vehicles of all time. But it owes many of its most beautiful design cues to the 1958 DB4.
Like a lot of vehicles in this list, the DB4 stands out for its simplicity and well-balanced design. It has a clean feature line from front to back, with fenders that lead perfectly into the headlamps and a cockpit that’s neither too big nor too small, providing plenty of space inside for passengers, whilst blending perfectly the trailing edge of the long bonnet and the gently sloping rear that emphasises the taillamps and rear fenders. It’s a classic design, and certainly not revolutionary, but when compared with the DB2 and MKIII before it, and the DB5 that followed, the DB4 is the purest example of Aston’s Grand Tourer and is still unmatched to this day. Perhaps because it owes its design to Carrozzeria Touring, the Milanese coachbuilder.
Whatever the reason, there’s no doubting its beauty. And it started a lineage of grand tourers that perhaps no-one does better than the British marque. And this wasn’t the only segment that grew during the ‘50s.
Brand New Segments…
As we already know, the 1950’s saw a huge increase in vehicle types and segments as companies strangled by financial challenges and increasingly cautious customers looked at ways to entice people through their doors. Not only that, but the wealth divide had only grown yet the motor car was increasingly seen as a useful tool in people’s lives; and something capable of creating a new lifestyle.
Following the trend set by the US military’s Willy’s Jeep and the brand new Land Rover (read our blog post) which debuted in 1948, other companies soon jumped on the 4×4 bandwagon as Alfa Romeo began producing its Matta in 1953 and Toyota joined in 1955 with the Land Cruiser.
A van segment was also beginning to bloom, as the VW Kombi began production in early 1950 and was swiftly followed by campervan offerings from Lloyd (LT500 – 1953) and Bedford (Campervan – 1958) whilst the truck segment in the USA was already in full flow.
And as always, there were a few oddballs.
… And a Beautiful Sore Thumb
I’ve left, for me, the best ‘til last. But not for any other reason than it can’t be placed. It didn’t have any direct competitors, couldn’t be placed in any specific segment and didn’t follow any of the trends at the time. In fact it hasn’t even set any since really. It simply sits alone in time, untouched, incomparable and absolutely wonderful. What am I talking about? The Citroën DS.
I can promise you that CLT will deliver a separate article dedicated to everything DS but, for now, a couple of paragraphs to explain what it delivered from a design and technology standpoint and why it stands out as a defining vehicle of the ‘50s.
Firstly, it was voted third in the 1999 Car of the Century poll and was named the most beautiful car of all time by Classic & Sports Car magazine. Good start.
Secondly, it took eighteen years to develop, as a successor to the Traction Avant, yet on its debut at the 1955 Paris Motor Show, it collected 743 pre-orders in the first 15 minutes of the show, and 12,000 on the first day. In fact, the 80,000 deposits it took during its 10 days at the show is a record that stood for over 60 years, until it was beaten by the Tesla Model 3. Well, trounced actually. Still not convinced?
It’s also an exhibit at MoMa alongside icons of automotive design such as the Willy’s Jeep, Fiat 500 & VW Beetle.
Aside from its design, however, it also pushed many technological boundaries. It was the first mass-produced vehicle to use disc brakes, whilst it’s hydro-pneumatic suspension system came with 5 different ride heights and an auto-levelling system that made it arguably the best riding car in the world at the time. And because of this system, it gave the designers greater freedom to create a unique silhouette, whilst still delivering excellent ergonomics.
There hasn’t been a vehicle since that has pushed so many boundaries, and is therefore the perfect symbol of car development for the 1950s.
So, it’s been a hell of a journey through the fifteen years from 1945 to the very end of 1959… sort of. We’ve covered the eccentricities of Americana and the great age of American car design, we’ve seen the other end of the spectrum and some of the mini- and micro-cars that became popular in Europe and elsewhere and we’ve touched on the emergence of now-famous marques like Ferrari, Porsche & Aston Martin.
We’ve, briefly mentioned the abundance of new markets emerging, with vehicles such as the Land Rover following on from the iconic Willy’s Jeep, whilst VW introduced the Type 2, Citroen gave us the DS and famous nameplates such as the Corvette, the Mini and the 250 & DB series came into being from Ferrari & Aston Martin respectively. And we’ve had two of the top three “Car of the Century” nominees.
We’ve not even touched on some of the stunning coachwork, prototype and one-off vehicles that were produced during this time: that’ll have to wait for another article. Because part three will be stepping headfirst into the next decade. Be prepared for the most beautiful car ever made (in the words of Enzo Ferrari), two icons still going strong at 56 & 57 years old respectively, the birth of the muscle car and several vehicles that well and truly pushed car design towards the next century. It’s the swinging sixties! I hope you’ll join us.
So, if you’ve enjoyed this, please follow us and be the first to know of any new articles. You won’t want to miss part three in our A Brief History of Car Design series.
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