By David Grainger
My pursuit as a restorer of antique and classic cars as well as a builder of customs gives me a unique viewpoint on the automotive industry. I get to see the brilliance of some designs, the abject stupidity of others and how the automobile has evolved from its carriage-like single cylinder origins into the slick computerized package we purchase today. I think that we are on another threshold at the beginning of this century which will prove every bit as dramatic as the one which we crossed at the beginning of the last, and I am sure that it will be at the least interesting.
One thing is sure. The car will change as drastically in the coming century as it did in the past. We can see the beginning of that change now and it really is about time. Manufacturers are starting to combine fuels and electricity and for ten years or so I’ll bet we see lots of hybridized cars coming out. These cars are just going to be a stopgap though, because they still depend on fossil resources for all of their power.
I am positive that hydrogen will finally put in its long overdue appearance and we will all be able to breath easier when that happens, literally. Unfortunately hydrogen was done a huge disservice in the thirties when the Hindenburg exploded and burst into flame in front of the world. Most of what you see in those images is not the hydrogen burning, it flashed almost immediately, it was the dopes and flammable fabrics used to construct the Zeppelin's skin. Ever since then that image has been synonymous with hydrogen and it has made the public on the whole view it as far too dangerous to use. In reality a car powered by hydrogen is safer in a collision than one powered by gas as even if it leaked it instantly rises skyward and it is so volatile that if ignited it is consumed in a moment. Gasoline on the other hand soaks everything it touches, pools and when ignited burns for quite some time.
One of the most interesting things about the present development of the automobile is the trend to give cars a retro look. Many manufacturers have jumped on this bandwagon lately but it was, despite the Bug, really started by Chrysler and more specifically Bob Lutz while he was at Chrylser’s helm, which sadly since its marriage with Daimler, he is not.
Bob Lutz is first a car enthusiast and secondly an automotive executive. His passion for cars was shared by the design teams that he assembled. He encouraged those teams to come up with cars like the Atlantic which was a modernized Bugatti Atlantique, the Prowler, a true American Hot Rod, the Viper, the car which took the title of the American sports car from Corvette who hadn’t deserved it since the beginning of the Seventies and most recently the P. T. Cruiser styled from the cars of the thirties. Chrysler also built prototypes which looked very much like the cars that they put into production. The original Concord changed very little from the model that went into production and the same was true of the 300 M cars which really hearken back to the fifties in spirit and advertising if not in appearance.
Volkswagen entered the retro fray with of course the Bug and this car has certainly been successful as a sales and promotional tool for the company. Its huge doses of retro cute including the bud vase on the dash have appealed to the entire spectrum of the buying public although its purchase price of over twenty thousand is a far cry from the original Beetles eleven hundred dollars in 1970.
Jaguar, now a subsidiary of Ford, brought out first the XK-8 which is a continuation of the E Types. It was after they produced the E Type that Jaguar lost its way, so it is only fitting that they re-establish themselves with its re-creation. Hot on the heels of the XK-8 came the S type which is a wonderful modern copy of the 3.8 S sedan that they built in the sixties. Incidentally Ford uses this same platform for one of the Lincolns, although without the retro style of the S.
Ford has had a tough time from a design standpoint. For pure and simple ugly no one has been able to beat them. The got so carried away with curves that they forgot to stand back and look at the end product. The redesigned Taurus which ruined their best selling car was a perfect example of how to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.
The new Mercury Cougar almost made it with its razor edges but here again they fell by the wayside.
I co own a Fifties Mercury prototype and was invited with that car to an event where Ford was fielding its prototypes. Jack Nasser, Ford’s top executive, announced to the media the new Mercury Cougar at that event, but the groans of his design staff said that "This is the car that Ford will be producing". It actually wasn’t. The Cougar prototype was spectacular with the most interesting interior I had ever seen. It was however, very little like the car that ended up being produced.
Ford also made a mistake when it dropped the Thunderbird name. It is one which they are currently trying to remedy with the introduction of a two passenger sports car styled along the lines of the original Thunderbirds. I think that they were trying too hard. There are so many of the baby birds feature grafted on to this car that it starts to look a little silly. It also strongly resembles a 1953 Corvette (I wonder if they meant that?). Time will tell if the car is a success however and I am sure that it will sell, at least for a while.
General Motors is also taking a kick at the retro can, but their kick has certainly been the laziest. It has been composed of hanging old names on new and nondescript cars like the Monte Carlo and Impala. I think it will take a little more than a couple of crossed flags glued to the side of a fairly ugly car to convince people that they are recreating their youth. That they have lost their way is evident by their proposed dropping of both the Firebird and Camaro in a period when every one else is rushing to dust off old names of famous cars and use them again.
Something else that has been happening in the automotive world is the gobbling up of companies by larger companies.
Daimler and Chrysler merging set off the latest wave of company amalgamations and buy outs although it has always been a part of the industry. Examples of unsuccessful mergers include Studebaker with Pierce Arrow, later Packard, and the formation of American Motors from smaller independents allowed them to limp along for a while until acquired by Renault who a short while later sold out to Chrysler.
The most interesting round of acquisitions lately have been the purchase of Rolls Royce and Bentley by Volkswagen, who have then had their hand forced to sell Rolls to B.M.W. while keeping Bentley. Now there are rumors that Volkswagen is trying to take over B.M.W. which will give them back Rolls. The funny thing to me is that Rolls Royce throughout most of its history didn’t make cars, it made chassis and drivelines which were then bodied by independent coach builders. If a car has a B.M.W. engine and chassis with a Rolls Royce body is it a Rolls or a B.M.W. In the classic definition it is a Bimmer just the same way a 1929 Rolls with a Mulliner body is still a Rolls not a Mulliner. Poor old Rolls Royce. After maintaining the world's longest running con game and having convinced the world that they produced the world’s finest cars, even though they were at best mediocre when compared to many of their contemporaries, they finally have been gobbled up by a company which built cars from the exact opposite end of the spectrum.
Volkswagen has also acquired the rights to build cars with the Bugatti name attached after a horrendous automotive catastrophe brought the famous name but nothing else into the world of super car manufacturing. Unfortunately for the backers of the Bugatti E.B. 110 and 112 the launch of a car with a three hundred thousand dollar price tag during a recession was destined for failure. After years of law suits Volkswagen bought the name and so far has used it to adorn interesting prototypes and tease the media with proposed luxury cars.
Automotive history is a very important part of the history of the twentieth century.
It reads with as much suspense and intrigue as any relationship between governments and truth be told, it has had far more impact on our day to day lives. The fact that the whole industry is in one of its most turbulent periods since the nineteen twenties is largely missed by the public at large and even by the enthusiasts who should be paying far more attention than they are. After all, you may not know what you're driving. Did you know that a Volvo is a Ford?
David C. Grainger
President, The Guild of Automotive Restorers.
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