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.
The Buick Gran Sport had Pontiac to thank. The latter’s GTO was the first muscle car. As such, it saw a big-block V8 fitted in a medium-sized chassis. The result was hard-punching power – at a competitive price. Not surprisingly, then, the GTO sold well. Again, not surprisingly, Pontiac’s rivals picked up on the fact. The muscle car era was about to be born.
One of those Pontiac rivals was Buick. In ’65, they took their ‘Skylark’ car – and mated it with their 401ci ‘nailhead’ V8. As a consequence, the Skylark’s output soared to 325bhp. While the Skylark ‘Gran Sport’ never played in the same sales league as the GTO, it nonetheless did good business for Buick. In ’66, they followed it up with a more powerful Gran Sport. It now kicked out a cool 340bhp. Sales, though, were down on its first year. Attractive as it was, a brand-new Buick did not come cheap! So – in ’67 – the ‘GS’ 400 was launched. A 3-speed auto transmission appeared. As an alternative, Buick offered the budget GS 340. Sales started to climb again.
The Gran Sport’s finest hour came in the form of the GS 455. Released in 1970 – complete with a 355ci engine – oomph was nominally upped to 360bhp. However, Buick were almost certainly underestimating it. Road testers swore it felt more like 400bhp. At any rate, it was in ‘Stage One Special Package’ tune. That comprised a hotter cam, larger valves, and a modified carb. With all that hooked up, the Gran Sport was good for 130mph. Exotic ‘GSX’ styling options were in sync with the performance stats. Spoilers, stripes and supersize tyres made the GS 455 look as good as it went. Sadly, all good things come to an end. As soon as ’71, the Gran Sport’s best days were behind it. Low-lead gas led to less power. Insurance hikes kicked in, too. One way or another, the muscle car game was up. Like its power-mad siblings from other marques, the GS simply faded away. Times change – and the world moves on. But – like everything else – progress comes at a price. In automotive terms, that meant cars like the Buick Gran Sport. For – despite all their foibles – driving has never been quite the same since!
Errett Cord was a man on a mission. To get rich – or die trying! Maverick to his core, cars were one of several saucers he was spinning. Cord may not have loved cars unconditionally – but he sure as heck loved selling them. Cars like the Cord 810, in fact.
By ’29, Cord had already acquired Auburn and Duesenberg. In due course, he returned both of them to profitability. Time, then, for him to start up his own company. The first model off the line was the Cord L-29. It featured a Lycoming engine and front wheel drive. The motor was not much to write home about. But the FWD most certainly was. Indeed, Miller racing cars were fitted with it. As a result, they were leaving rivals languishing in their wake. Cord decided he could use some of that. Sadly, its FWD was not sufficient to make the L-29 a commercial success. It was held back by its high price and transmission issues. As well as the mediocre motor!
The Cord 810 was launched at the NY show – in December ’35. Its unique selling point – FWD – had been upgraded. More to the point, powering it was a new V8. With the optional supercharger, it produced 190bhp. That gave a top speed of 110mph. Gear changes were electric – literally. A small lever activated cog-shifting solenoids. The 810’s innovative engineering allowed for radical styling. Its unitary construction – with no separate chassis – let Gordon Buehrig design a ‘low rider’ profile. Headlights blended in with the fenders – enhancing the car’s clean lines still further. Inside, too, the Cord cut a dash. Its instrument panel looked as aeronautical as it did automotive. A convertible, phaeton – and two sedans – were on offer. But – even with so much going for it – the 810 did not overburden the showroom tills. To be fair, the Great Depression was not the ideal time to launch a new car. Plus, Errett Cord had other things on his mind. His ‘creative’ business practices attracted attention – some of it from financial regulators. As a result – in ’34 – Cord sought a safe haven in England. With its erstwhile captain no longer at the helm, the good ship Cord was cut adrift. In ’37, it sank without trace. For all that, the Cord 810 – and its 812 successor – had well and truly made their mark. In the annals of avant garde design, that is. Alas, not at the cash registers!
To all intents and purposes, the AMX was a stripped-down AMC Javelin. It was a foot shorter – and weighed a lot less. On its release – in February ’68 – it was the sole US 2-seater sports car. It stayed in production until ’74. If AMC stood for American Motors Corporation, AMX did the same for American Motors eXperimental.
When a car sets 106 speed records, you know you are onto something. When it does so in a month, you know you have hit pay dirt! So it was when Craig Breedlove got behind the wheel of an AMX, shortly after its launch. Unsurprisingly, AMC saw fit to mark his success – with 50 red, white and blue AMX Breedlove specials. Rewind to the real world, and top speed for the AMX roadster was 120mph. The SS version – complete with a 390ci V8 – made at least 340bhp, and probably a whole lot more. Muscle car stats at the time tended to be understated. Built with one eye on the drag strip, just 50 SSs were sold. Partly, that was because its price was supercharged, as well as its power! If you needed more muscle from a standard AMX, way to go was a Go Pack. It included a bigger 401ci V8 motor. Output duly climbed to 330bhp. The Go Pack also provided uprated brakes, suspension and wheels/tyres.
By ’71, though, the AMX’s hot shot days were numbered. At that point, the top-of-the-range Javelin ruled AMC’s roost. Come ’74 – and the end of its run – its superstar status was substantially reduced. In its day, though, the AMX was more muscular than most. And certainly more modish. Saying that, the Mustang gave it a run for its money in the stylishness stakes!
In commercial terms, at least, the Fiat 508S Balilla Sport had much in common with the VW Beetle. As with the Volkswagen – or, people’s car – the Balilla was designed to be transport for the masses. Saying that, it was coachbuilt in Turin, Italy – at Fiat HQ. So, it went without saying that it was pleasing on the eye.
Gianni Agnelli was head of Fiat. Unsurprisingly, his core objective for the Balilla range was that it sell well. Agnelli was, after all, one of the wealthiest Italians who has ever lived. In line with his strategy, the Balilla was competitively-priced. 10,800 lire, to be precise. The first model’s unique selling point was that it had three gears. And – with hydraulic braking also part of the package – it did indeed fly out of the showrooms. In its five-year run, 114,000 Balillas were sold. That smashed Italian automotive sales records. And it was not just Italy that caught the Balilla bug. Other parts of Europe also succumbed. Production lines started in the UK, France and Poland. Indeed, the French firm Simca was founded to flog the new Fiat.
The style-laden Balilla 508 was released in ’34. And the 508S Sport had speed, too, on its side. Its four-cylinder engine made 36bhp – at 4,400rpm. Top speed from the 995cc side-valve set-up was 110km/h. More than enough to sweep a young lady off her feet! So long as you did not forget your petrol money. The Balilla Sport drank around 9.5 litres/100km. For Fiat, then – and Gianni Agnelli – it was mission accomplished. The 508 series did more than make its mark – it became the stuff of legend. In the Thirties, the 508S Balilla Sport was mass marketing big business. Like the team behind the VW Beetle, Fiat got its sales sums spot-on!
The Ferrari 250 GT was the base model for the most expensive car ever made. That was the Ferrari 250 GTO which sold at a Sotheby’s auction for silly money. Actually, $48.4m – in California, in 2018. It is easy to see where the GTO got its chops from. In the case of the Berlinetta, bodywork was by Scaglietti. He styled the 250 GT-based competition cars – and their sports siblings. The ‘short wheelbase’ SWB, for instance, fell within his remit. Pininfarina helped sort less race-oriented versions of the 250 GT – like the ‘long wheelbase’ LWB. Felice Boano – celebrated Italian coachbuilder – likewise contributed to the GT’s design.
The Berlinetta was launched in ’61. It was not just its looks that came out of the top drawer. Its 3.0-litre V12 motor was also hand-crafted. The man responsible for it – Gioacchino Colombo – was an industrial designer at 14. When most young men his age were gluing pictures of cars to bedroom walls, Colombo was engineering them. Suffice it to say, then, he was a child prodigy. At one point, he drafted a supercharger for homework – as you do. Subsequently, it was shown to Alfa Romeo. Alfa must have graded it A+, since he was offered a job on the strength of it. Several engines later, Colombo was approached by one Enzo Ferrari. The maestro was managing Alfa’s race department, at the time. By then, Colombo was aged 34.
When Enzo set up his own car company, Colombo was one of his first hires. The motor man arrived in Modena in ’45. Whereupon, he set about adding his own input to the 250 GT project. With such a wealth of design talent dedicated to it, it is little wonder the GT soared to the heights it did. In short, Ferrari’s 250 GT Berlinetta SWB was as iconic as a sports car gets. Apart from the Ferrari 250 GTO, of course. Sorry, Sotheby’s!
The driving force behind the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale was Franco Scaglione. He was an engineering whizz-kid from an early age. He was also blessed with precocious design sensibilities. A mechanical marvel of one sort or another, then, was always on the cards. It was just a question of what. Thankfully for car buffs, automobiles were amongst the subjects Scaglione found himself drawn to.
Engineering, then, was a walk in the park for the young Scaglione. Even as a student, he was a natural. He duly graduated to more advanced learning. That is, until the Second World War threw a spanner in the works. Scaglione’s studies – started so swimmingly – were decimated. Back in Civvy Street – in ’46 – he was 29 years old. Training to be an engineer was in tatters. Time to look for alternative employment. Maybe the motor trade held something for him?
The Fiat Abarth was Scaglione’s first full-on design gig. Not a bad way to cut your styling teeth! Launched in ’52, he was on Bertone’s books at the time. Surprised by the scale of the Abarth’s success, Scaglione opted to go solo. In ’59, he opened his own studio. The jewel in its crown would be the Stradale. Using Alfa’s Type 33 racer as a template, Scaglione fashioned a suitably muscle-bound sports car. Aluminium bodywork was draped over a tubular steel frame. Alfa’s 2-litre V8 was installed in the back. Scaglione drew the engine in plain view – in all its mechanised majesty. Once fired up, it made 230 bhp. And full use could be made of the power. For a start, the throttle was ultra-responsive. The gearbox was a flexible 6-speed affair. The Stradale’s dimensions were hang-it-out compact. Plus, it weighed in at just 700kg. In its short production run – from ’67 to ’69 – just 18 Stradales were built. Oddly – given the built-in exclusivity – the price tag was relatively low. That did not detract from the Stradale’s prestige one iota. Carrozzeria Marrazzi made a magnificent job of the coachbuilding. Franco Scaglione, of course, drafted a car design tour de force. In short, the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale radiated excellence. Scaglione, then – World War Two interruptions notwithstanding – got there in the end!
The Delahaye 145 was launched in 1946. The mastermind behind it was Henri Chapron. Born in 1886, he had been on the steel-crafting scene since he was a kid. Come the close of the First World War, he started his own company – in Neuilly, France. Its core business was importing Ford T ambulances from America – and refactoring them into saloon cars! The custom bodies Chapron created were impressive. So impressive, in fact, that he was recruited by Delage.
Chapron’s entrée to motoring greatness, though, came by way of Delahaye. In the mid-’40s, streamlining was all the rage. Which was tickety-boo – until the end of the Second World War. By then, even some upper-crust belts were starting to tighten. Streamlining – and automotive haute couture in general – came at a price. If the hooray Henrys could not afford it, sure as heckers like no one else could!
The 145 comprised Chapron bodywork on a Delahaye chassis. Plus, A V12 engine. The resulting coupé was bespoke to its core. Its luscious exterior was matched only by its luxurious interior. It went without saying that leather and walnut abounded. Of course, that fell foul of the current commercial climate. Chapron, though, was tossed a lifeline. This time, Citroën came calling – with the offer of design work. Chapron’s first brief was a cabriolet – the DS 19. Subsequently, he turned his hand to developing the Citroën SM … always a good career move in France. Indeed, at one point, Chapron was made coachbuilder to the President. Along the way, he helped turn some of Phillipe Charbonneaux’s dream-laden drafts into roadgoing reality. Chapron’s last legacy to Citroën’s oeuvre was the DS 23 Prestige. Always classy, then – never outré – Henri Chapron nailed it as a designer. From young apprentice – to superstar stylist – he was never less than a credit to his profession. The Delahaye 145 was proof of that – alongside many others!
André Dubonnet was a doyen of the drinks industry. Many a tippler has had him to thank. His finest hour, however – at least so far as Dubonnet was concerned – was the Hispano-Suiza H6B Xenia. From a wealthy background, Dubonnet was a car-crazed kid. It was a gimme, then, that he had plenty of toy automobiles to play with. The toy he craved most, though, was a one-of-a-kind supercar … a real one. Finally – in ’45 – he got it!
For all his wealth, Dubonnet was a worker … well, of sorts. After a lot of graft, he had made himself a respected fabricator. Hispano-Suiza was his marque of choice. Using their style-soaked creations as source material, Dubonnet fashioned several racing prototypes. They graced grand European events and circuits – Monza, the Targa Florio, Le Mans and Boulogne among them. Not only did Dubonnet build his cars – he drove them, too. And did so well enough to be asked to join the Bugatti race équipe – by boss Ettore, no less.
Over time, Dubonnet assembled an impressive portfolio of clients. Indeed, GM acquired some of his research work – into hydro-pneumatic suspension and pumpless oil delivery. Even Dubonnet, though, needed help. To that end, he recruited Jacques Saoutchik to the Xenia cause. The fabled Russian coachbuilder was tasked with sorting the aerodynamic aspects of the car. After all, Dubonnet had land speed record attempts in mind. So, Saoutchik’s sought-after streamlining skills would be vital. Saoutchik also knew how to design a stunning-looking motor car. Sadly, the Xenia never broke any speed records. It did, however, play a prominent rôle in the opening of the Saint-Cloud tunnel – situated near Paris. The publicity must have been some consolation to Dubonnet for the Xenia’s lack of sporting success. Not that the Xenia lacked all of the attributes of an LSR car. For starters, it was 5.7m in length – aiding straight-line stability. Partly as a result of that, it could clock up 200km/h. So, for all its shortcomings – at least in LSR attempt terms – Dubonnet’s Hispano-Suiza H6B Xenia was an innovative and spectacular autocar. Motoring had never been so à la mode. Cheers, André!