In ’57 – when the Fiat 500 was released – motorcycles ruled Italian roads. Whether solo – or attached to a side-car – they were the way most people got from A to B. The Fiat 500 was set to change that. It was convenient and economical. Okay, so were motorbikes. But, the ‘500’ came with a roof … and a sun-roof, at that! By ’77 – twenty years later – Fiat had sold over 4,000,000 of them.
The 500’s performance stats were not shattering! It had a twin-cylinder, 499cc motor – producing 18bhp, in standard trim. Top speed was 60mph. Enter Carlo Abarth! His 695cc SS model pushed 90mph. The ‘Abarth’ featured flared wheel arches, oil cooler, and raised rear engine cover. They were there to prevent over-heating, and increase stability. A pleasant side-effect was that the Abarth acquitted itself well at the racetracks. The roadster, too, handled well. Complete with rear-mounted motor, it delivered a desirable 52mpg. It cruised at 55mph. It was best not to ask too much of it, though – due to the drum brakes, and non-synchromesh gearbox. A modification made to later models was the move from rear to front hinges for the doors. That was especially good news for those still on two wheels!
So far as comfort was concerned, the little Fiat was ‘utilitarian’. That said, ’68’s ‘500L’ came with reclining seats – and carpets. Not quite to Rolls-Royce standards … but then a Roller did not do 52mpg! The Fiat 500’s mission was to provide stress-free motoring, to as many people as possible. Mission accomplished, then … with petite and impressive aplomb!
To an engineering student, the Citroën DS must be one of the most exciting roadsters ever built. Its 4-cylinder engine powered a hydraulic system – which found its way into just about every part of the car. The motor itself was straightforward – dating back to the ’34 ‘Traction-avant’. But, the hydraulic set-up it sparked was revolutionary. Most notable was the suspension. Instead of springs, the ‘DS’ was fitted with ‘self-levelling hydropneumatic struts’. As a result, the car was able to raise and lower itself in a way that had never been seen – or felt – before. Potholes and bumps were easy pickings for the DS. When stationary – with the engine switched off – the Citroën sank serenely down. The power steering, disc brakes, and ‘clutchless’ gearbox were all hydraulically-operated. In each case, performance was substantially improved.
At its Paris début – in ’55 – the DS’ avant-garde styling went down a storm! The fluid lines of the bodywork were – and are – unique. They were functional, too – cleaving cleanly through French air. Front-wheel-drive, the DS handled well. But, to custom coach-builders – like Henri Chapron – the standard car was just a jumping-off point. They created coupés and stretched limos – taking DS aesthetics to the next level.
The DS set a trend for Citroëns. The ID19, and D Super became stalwarts of the Paris taxi scene. Sprawling Safari Estates ferried many from ‘A to B’. The convertible version looked stunning – and had a price tag to match. The last of the high-end derivatives was the DS23. With a 5-speed ‘box – and fuel injection – it delivered 117mph. In the end, almost 1.5m DSs were sold … a fittingly high figure for a fine French product.
Had the 8V – or, Otto Vu – been built in the US, it would have been dubbed the V8! But since it was, of course, built in Italy, the Fiat powers that be opted to call it the 8V. Then again, countries often do things different ways round – like letting people drive on the wrong side of the road, for instance! Anyway – the engine in question was a 2-litre 70° V8 … in American money, that is. Whatever the nomenclature, once put through its paces, Fiat declared itself well-pleased with the result.
The 8V was released in ’52. At the beginning of the Fifties, the upper echelons at Fiat were in disarray. Rumours spread that chicanery and sharp practice were rife. It was an ideal time, then, to climb Fiat’s corporate ladder. Young Dante Giacosa – head of testing – saw the new car as a chance to impress. Amidst all the chaos, his superiors made it clear the 8V needed to deliver.
The 8V was conceived as a luxury sedan. So impressive, though, was its V8 motor, that thoughts soon turned to the sports car market. Initially, the 8V served up 105bhp. That was later upped to 115. After still more development, it finally maxed out at 127bhp. Top speed was a handy 190km/h. The 8V’s price tag was 2,850,000 lire. Value was added by all-round independent suspension – a first for Fiat. Originally, the idea was to lengthen – and co-opt – the Fiat 1400 chassis. Then have Pininfarina work its stylistic magic on top. Excess weight, however, put the kibosh on that plan. Into the design breach stepped Fiat’s Fabio Rapi. It was his proprietary bodywork which bewitched visitors to ’52’s Geneva Motor Show. Just 114 8Vs, though, would subsequently be built. By ’54 – a mere two years after its launch – it was game over for the 8V coupé. A bit of a damp squib, then, all in all? In a way – but, during its brief lifespan, the 8V returned Fiat to the sports car fold. It got the illustrious Italian firm back on track – manufacturing classy, fast and agile automobiles!
The Vauxhall Cresta PA appeared in ’57. At the time, Vauxhall – a mainstay of British car manufacturing – was under the aegis of GM, in Detroit. Unsurprisingly, then, the new Cresta PA picked up several US styling motifs. The rear fins, for example, were pure Americana … though suitably reined in for British tastes! Likewise, the PA’s wraparound windscreen clearly originated on the other side of the ‘pond’. Stateside-style two-tone paint – and whitewall tyres – were optional extras. The Cresta was Vauxhall’s answer to the Ford Zodiac. It was there in every larger-than-life line of the British-made car. The PA’s cabin continued the ‘Britmobile’ theme. Bench seats, white steering wheel and column shift all came courtesy of the American Dream.
Mechanically, the Cresta harked back to the E Series. Its pushrod straight-six engine produced 78bhp. That gave it a top speed of 90mph. Capacity was 2,262cc. Power was delivered in relaxed fashion. The gearbox was a 3-speed synchromesh set-up. Soft suspension was via a leaf-spring rear axle, wishbones and coil springs. Many of these components derived from the Vauxhall Velox – the Cresta’s slightly less sophisticated predecessor.
In ’59, the Cresta got a face-lift. Its three-piece rear screen became one-piece. Up front, the ‘egg-crate’ grille was revised. Coachbuilders Friary built an estate car version. The Queen gave it her personal seal of approval … she drove one for years. 1960 brought further Cresta updates. Its motor was taken out to 2.6 litres. That upped output to 96bhp. The PA was given larger wheels and fins. The gearbox was now a two-pedal Hydramatic auto. Or, alternatively, a dual overdrive manual. Front disc brakes were servo-assisted. British motorists gave the improvements a thumbs up. The PA sold soundly, right up to ’62. By then, though, its fins – whilst the ‘in thing’ in the Fifties – were starting to show their age. Its production run now over, the Vauxhall Cresta PA was put out to well-earned pasture. British cars would seldom seem so American again!
By the time the RM series was launched – in ’45 – Riley’s glory days seemed gone. Dating back to 1898, the firm had produced a steady stream of successful saloon and sports cars, throughout the ’20s and most of the ’30s. At race circuits, too, Rileys met with much success. Sales had been consistently impressive. By the late Thirties, though, financial fissures were forming. As a result, ’38 saw Nuffield take over the Riley reins. It worked. Before long, there was a resurgence of interest from investors. And, the post-war launch of the RM series saw Riley right back on track.
The RMA and RMB models were stylish saloons. Timber frames were wrapped in swooping steel bodywork. Topping it all off was a woven removable roof. Both A and B were fitted with Riley’s high-cam inline-four engine. The A was good for 75mph. The B took that out to 95mph. Riley’s motor had the longest stroke of any post-war British production car. As you would expect, then, torque came by the barrelful. Again, both A and B featured torsion-bar independent front suspension. So, good handling was also a given.
The most glamorous member of the RM club was the C. Since it was a tilt at the American market, it came with column gear-change. Well, it was only polite! Other notable updates were a fold-flat screen and lower bonnet-line. The RMC was pure roadster – to wit, an open 3-seater, with cutaway doors. In due course, the RMD appeared – as a 4-seater drop-head. It reverted to a more traditional body than the C. Completing the series were the RME and RMF. Improvements included hydraulic brakes, a hypoid back-axle and larger rear windows. In ’54, Riley revisited the E version. It received the honour of the final RM makeover. Its running boards were removed – and headlight pods streamlined. A set of rear wheel spats was grafted on. By this point, though, Riley were clutching at straws, commercially. Revered as it had been, the brand-name was now in decline. There would be one final throw of the Riley dice – in the form of the Pathfinder. But – according to critics – its four-cylinder motor was about all it had going for it. Back in the day, however, Riley combined British panache with sporting prowess. The RM series had made that abundantly clear!
The Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz was one outrageous roadster. Launched in ’59, it looked like a Saturn space-rocket. Certainly, you could have seen it coming from a mile away. Not that it would have arrived as quickly as a rocket – its top speed being 115mph. It would have helped, too, had said mile been a smooth stretch of freeway. The Biarritz’s springy suspension might have got the jitters, otherwise. But – given the right road – the Biarritz was a car like no other. The epitome of OTT styling, it took Fifties sci-fi mania to another level. Rear fins had never been higher – up to a skyscraper-like 42″. Jutting out of them was a ray-gun of indicators and brake-lights. And – were they tail-lights or after-burners? A cosmetic rear grille inspired further flights of spaced-out fancy.
Powering the plot was a 6.3-litre V8. It made a more than respectable 345bhp. Much of that, though, was soaked up by the Biarritz’s two-ton weight problem. It did not do the fuel economy any favours, either. A measly 8mpg were available. There again, petrol in ’50s America was cheap as chips. Holding it all together was a perimeter frame chassis. Drum brakes were fitted all round. Not exactly space-age, technically. But, then, that had been sorted by the design department!
The Biarritz was off-the-clock comfortable. Zero-gravity, you might say! That was due, mainly, to its super-soft suspension settings. All six seats were power-adjustable. The boot-lid opened electrically. Headlight-dipping was automatic. Of course, there was power-steering. The hood and windows were also electrically-operated. Transmission was via a 3-speed auto. The car was named after a mythical city, made out of gold – and a sophisticated French seaside resort. Cadillac’s Eldorado Biarritz was everything you would expect from a machine so dubbed. Oh – space-walks were an extra!
The BMW 507 was styled by Albrecht von Goertz. He was a German aristocrat – who owned an American industrial design agency. Goertz took the big box-section chassis of the BMW saloon car – and shortened it. The result was a more than tidy 2-seater. The 507 was an unabashed attempt to crack the American glamour market. Post-war, BMW had watched their brand-image slide into mediocrity. It was high time the great German manufacturer raised its profile again. The 507 was supposed to do just that. It was not to be. Only 253 BMW 507s were sold. To all intents and purposes, the 507 was automotive haute couture. But – as in the fashion industry – it costs gargantuan amounts to produce. The Second World War was not long gone. For most motorists, the 507 simply was not affordable.
The 507 got its well-heeled occupants from A to B with a minimum of fuss. Not that it could not push on, if required. Should you have been a tad late for the opera, for instance, a firm brogue on the go pedal would definitely get you there for curtain up. The 3-litre V8 engine gave 160bhp. That translated to 140mph, flat out. 0-60 came up in 9s. The sounds emitted from the 507’s twin rear pipes were music to the ears. Even at speed, its ride was unflustered. Front and rear torsion-bar suspension saw to that.
The 507’s detailing was exquisite. And not just the beautiful BMW badge. The cross-hatched heat-vents were a notable touch. They were matched by the car’s kidney-shaped grille – a trademark BMW feature. The 507’s front-end was almost shark-like – courtesy of its stylishly protruding nose. The long, flowing bonnet-line was complemented by a cute stub-tail. The 507 stayed in production for just four years. Consummately-crafted, it mated motoring and fine art. Ultimately, the 507 cost BMW more than it recouped. But then, what price do you put on perfection?
In the Fifties, the Spanish firm Pegaso made some of the most glamorous cars in the world. Among them was the Pegaso Z-102. Designed by Touring, the Z-102’s alloy bodywork combined beauty with light weight. For whatever reason, though, the car suffered in the showrooms. Its replacement – the Z-103 – was a toned-down version of the Z-102. Its engine, for example, came with a single-overhead-camshaft. Not surprisingly, Pegaso intended that the Z-103 sell better than its predecessor. Between the pair of them, however, only around 100 units were shifted. Thankfully, Pegaso’s bread and butter sales were in trucks and coaches. Their foray into sports car manufacturing was something of a sideline.
At the race-tracks, too, the Z-102 under-achieved. It started out with a 2.8-litre V8 engine. Baseline power was 175bhp. Bolting on a supercharger substantially upped that number – to 280bhp. Taking the 2.8-litre motor out to 3.2 upped it still further – to 360bhp. That should have been enough to be competitive. Especially, given that at lower speeds, the Z-102 handled well. Despite its light alloy body, however, in overall terms, the Z-102 was heavy. That could make it recalcitrant through higher-speed corners. Its top speed of 160mph did redress the balance somewhat – but not enough. At least it sounded great – courtesy of its gear-driven camshafts!
It felt almost as if the Z-102 had been built on a whim. Dominant though they were in the commercial vehicle world, Pegaso were less than savvy about the sports car business. The Z-102 stayed in production for seven years. The last cars left the factory in ’58. As a money-maker, it had been pretty futile. On the bright side, Pegaso had demonstrated that it could make stunning-looking automobiles – on top of its more monolithic stock-in-trade. Ultimately, insufficient attention had been paid to the Z-102’s bottom line. The Z-103 had tried to make amends – with its more prosaic approach. But, the financial damage was done – and a line had, eventually, to be drawn. The marque of Pegaso – based in Barcelona – will probably never be spoken of in the same breath as Ferrari or Lamborghini. But, for a while, the Pegaso Z-102 showed that Spanish sports cars could be every bit as exotic as their Italian counterparts!
In brand-name terms, the Edsel and Mercury were peas from the same pod. In reality, the Edsel was made by Ford. Technically, though, Edsel was a marque in its own right. Certainly, it was sold as such – from ’58 to ’60. Ford forecast that – in the first year alone – it would sell 200,000 Edsels. As it turned out, a mere 62,000 shunted through the showrooms – in the whole of its two-year run. The Edsel had cost Ford $250,000,000 to develop – so, the mediocre sales figures were not good! To say the Edsel was a white elephant would be an understatement. Which was a shame, actually – because it was a car that could have had a lot going for it. Sadly, though, Ford’s timing was out. Not that it was really the Blue Oval’s fault. Ford’s sales team had targeted lower-middle demographics – lodged somewhere between their up-market models and the cut-price Mercury. When the Edsel went into production, however, the automotive industry was depressed. Customers were looking to buy cheap. The Edsel was stuck in marketing no man’s land.
As with the Mercury, there were echoes of the Ferrari Dino in the Edsel. At least, insofar as both were presented as stand-alone marques. Both, too, were named after prematurely deceased sons. Dino Ferrari – and Edsel Ford – passed before their time. The cars were fathers’ tributes – from Enzo and Henry, respectively. It was especially sad, then, that in the case of the Edsel, sales were so poor. A front-end feature that definitely did not help was the vertically-shaped grille. American buyers simply did not take to it. Ironically, the rest of the car was quite conservatively styled. As compared with its Fifties rivals, at any rate. The Edsel ‘brand’ comprised 15 models – including saloons, convertibles and station-wagons. The one part they had in common was the floor-pan!
The Edsel’s engine came in one of two flavours – straight-six or V8. Peak power was 350bhp. Top speed, 108mph. Manual and auto ‘boxes were both 3-speed. Biggest capacity was 6,719cc. Edsels are now highly sought-after. In different economic circumstances, the Edsel may well have been a success. As it is, it has to settle for an impressively high ‘one that got away’ rating!
The Lotus Elite is widely regarded as one of the most stylish cars the firm made. Primarily, that was down to Peter Kirwan Taylor. Though not a leading light in the automotive design field at the time, Lotus put their faith in him – and it was rewarded. Launched in ’59 – along with the Mini and Jaguar MKII – the Elite was produced for four years. In the course of that time, it became one of the iconic British sports cars. As always – with Colin Chapman at the helm – light weight was key. With that in mind, the Elite was the first car to be built on a glass-fibre monocoque chassis. That helped it reach a top speed of 130mph. Aerodynamic lines assisted. The Elite was agile, too. Few sports cars could hold a candle to it through corners!
Power was provided by an overhead-cam Coventry Climax motor. When kitted out with a single carburettor, it delivered 71bhp. A twin-carb set-up increased that to 83bhp. A 4-speed gearbox came courtesy of BMC. The SE version would be fitted with a close-ratio, 5-speed ZF gearbox. Power increased to 105bhp. The Elite was economical, though – as a result of its light weight. As impressive as the Elite’s straight-line speed, was its handling. The car was suspended by coil-spring dampers at the front – and Chapman struts (modified MacPherson struts) at the rear. Steering was by rack-and-pinion. The full complement of high-grade disc brakes came as standard. Of more questionable quality were the windows. While pleasing on the eye, their unique profile meant they were difficult to wind down fully. Not what you wanted, on a hot summer’s day!
Generally speaking, though, the Elite did its name justice. In styling terms, it was from the top drawer. The Elite’s dashboard, for example, echoed its chic low profile. Nevertheless, there were faults – other than the wind-down windows issue. The car’s monocoque – cutting edge, though it was – was prone to noisy vibration. Also, interior décor was somewhat sparse. All things considered, however, the Lotus Elite was a fine example of a top-flight British sports car!