When we look at an imposing pre-war Duesenberg or swoopy Talbot-Lago, we’re knocked off our feet by handbuilt masterpieces crafted with little regard to cost. After World War II, we still had some amazing cars to catch our fancy, but most were built in large numbers and must be judged by a different set of standards.
The cars I'm celebrating here are production cars. They are exceptionally good and interesting designs from their respective periods but were built in significant numbers, with all of the constraints imposed on mass production. Even better, they are all still available at reasonable prices. Their sometimes-questionable traits are important because they indicate an artistic “reach” — a quality and financial risk not usually accepted by huge corporations interested only in bottom lines. In some cases it didn’t matter: If a visionary executive with the power to overrule a boardroom deemed it necessary to establish a marque as the epitome of quality, style or engineering, even financial loss was deemed worthwhile. For that we are fortunate, because those rare exceptions often stand out as leading contenders for universal acceptance.
Like all great art, the names associated with classic design also deserve recognition, so what makes each of the following choices unique to me is their creative origin — the designers responsible for the forms we’ll still treasure years from now. Understanding classic design is as much about who created what as it is the final importance of the visual result. Because great talent usually can be counted on to produce great automotive art, it’s vital to start with an understanding of who was behind the lines and try to discern how they achieved greatness, often against the designer’s universal nemesis: resistance to change. History is what makes design and the appreciation of art so fascinating.
1968–75 BMW 2800CS, 3.0CS & CSI
Known internally as the E9, BMW’s stunning CS series of coupes actually began with the BMW 3200 introduced at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1961. When Nuccio Bertone was awarded the contract, he assigned a young Giorgetto Giugiaro to the project. The result was a clean but not ideally proportioned coupe.
The next step in the coupe’s evolution came with the 2000C and CS in 1965, when key elements of the 3200 design were adapted by designer Wilhelm Hoffmeister for the smaller “new class” chassis. First used for the 1500 sedan of 1962, the chassis was fitted with a new two-liter engine for the 2000C coupe. The original greenhouse remained largely intact, but, with the exception of the nose, the earlier awkwardness of the 3200 design was eliminated.
In a world when the first iteration of a design is often the best, the third version of the coupe approached perfection. Introduced in 1968, the new class chassis was stretched to accommodate BMW’s 2.8-liter straight-six. Fitted with a new grille and twin round headlights, the entire car was stunning. It eventually evolved into the 3.0CS, which spawned lighter and more powerful versions for competition. These jewels were made even more famous in Europe with the larger-engined and bewinged “Batmobiles” that dominated Continental touring car racing in the 1970s. The lithe CS coupes were actually built for BMW by Karmann, the highly respected coachbuilder known for quality finish. After 1974, the E9 coupes left the U.S. market; new federal safety standards mandated a strong B-pillar, which prevented the CS’s lovely pillarless roof structure from continued sales.
1956–57 CONTINENTAL MARK II
In contrast to the styling trends from GM and Chrysler in the mid 1950s, the Continental Mark II was elegantly simple. Chief stylist John Reinhart, along with body engineer Gordon Buehrig, who had penned the classic 810 Cords, relied on long straight lines and flat panels to accentuate the car’s length. Only a slight raised interruption of the belt line, to indicate the start of the rear fender, resulted in glittering, flawless flanks giving it an immutable image of quality and status much like the hand-built Rolls-Royce and Bentley bodies of an earlier era. The Mark II really needed its distinctive, high, squarish greenhouse, with the privacy of its signature rear quarter panel, to both accentuate the angular simplicity of the body and also to remind patrons of the original Continental that was built for Edsel Ford in 1939.
The Mark II’s bold rear quarter might have been enough, but Reinhart also included a faux “Continental” spare tire in the rear deck just to make sure. The necessity of that integrated bustle is still a matter of debate among designers who point to the accent and ask if the car’s entire form would have been too bland without it. There’s no question that the fine detail work within the Mark II’s egg-crate grille, bumpers and beautiful hand-assembled wheel covers remains a benchmark of quality. The Mark II, originally priced at $10,000, cost far more than the highest-priced Cadillac that year, yet still lost Ford at least $1,000 per copy. It didn’t matter, though, because, Henry Ford II got exactly what he wanted, and today we’re all the better for his exquisite taste.
1955–74 Volkswagen KARMANN GHIA
The basic lines of the VW Karmann Ghia were initiated by Virgil Exner as a “small car” for Chrysler in the early 1950s and penned by Ghia’s owner and chief stylist, Luigi Segre. The concept never made it to production for the American automaker.
Fortunately for us, Segre later secretly resurrected the design on a VW Beetle platform for his friend Wilhelm Karmann, a German body manufacturer. Together they took Segre’s prototype to VW in 1953 and received approval to build it. The car was initially shown at the Paris Motor Show that year and went into production as VW’s Type 14 in 1955. Perhaps the real beauty of Segre’s form is that it defies the observer to determine the engine’s position. It is one of history’s few designs that remains timeless and could even be built today as a hybrid electric and not look out of place.
The front fenders flow gracefully back into the doors, just as the lower line of the rears becomes the rocker panels and integrates the front with the rear. The airy greenhouse is both aerodynamically correct and wonderfully practical as the side windows, rear backlight and windscreen all integrate into a financially producible form that shows no hint of compromise. VW’s equally pretty convertible version came along in 1957 and proved incredibly popular. Unfortunately for purists, Segre’s original lines were slightly compromised over the years by Ghia’s Sergio Sartorelli, who raised the headlights, enlarged the taillights and, later, replaced Segre’s graceful elliptical bumpers with sturdier, squarer sectioned units to meet American regulations.
Happily, the Karmann Ghia’s basic form remained almost untouched and lasted until 1974. Almost 450,000 units total were built in Europe during the car’s run, making it one of the most popular special designs ever produced. This may have been an infinitesimal number compared to the 21 million Type 1 Beetles on which it was based, but that only makes the Karmann Ghia that much less expensive to restore because of the availability of parts.
1961–73 VOLVO P1800, 1800S, 1800E & 1800ES
Volvo’s remarkable P1800, designed by Pelle Petterson at Frua in Italy, came to production via a rather circuitous route. Volvo initially didn’t have the capacity to produce its new star, first shown at the Brussels Motor Show in 1960, so the first 6,000 units were made at Jensen Motors in the UK. When capacity was improved at Volvo in 1963, production moved to Sweden and the car became known as the 1800S, with the “S” denoting Sweden.
Petterson’s stunning design, which was unlike anything ever seen from Scandinavia, was intended to compete with Jaguar’s E-Type. Despite modest performance from its pushrod four-cylinder engine, it sold well through the 1960s and early ’70s. For 1972, Frua’s Sergio Cogglia proposed a three-door “sportwagen” hatchback that was considered too radical. Instead, an alternative was penned by Volvo designer Jan Wilsgaard and immediately accepted by management. Wilsgaard’s refined version of Petterson’s original coupe had the advantage of greater interior space and improved aerodynamics resulting from the flatter roofline.
This final ES version sold well until 1973, when it was clear that the aging design wouldn’t comply with impending American safety and emissions regulations, and the model was discontinued. In either coupe or sportwagen form, these Volvos were avant garde for their time and are still considered very practical exotics by their enthusiastic owners. Wilsgaard’s glassier ES version, of which only some 8,000 were produced, is especially wonderful from behind, where its distinctive large rear window lightens the entire aft end and imparts a practical futuristic look that still wears well today. Because of their popularity, many of the approximately 40,000 1800s produced have survived, making it possible to find well-cared-for specimens at reasonable prices.
OTHER GLIMPSES OF PERFECTION
Some other hidden gems are still out there. Citroën’s Maserati-engined SM is probably one I’d most like to own, as its distinctive lines are still in a different designer’s dimension yet to be equaled. Robert Opron and Paul Nocher are not familiar names, but their work on this triumph of Gallic vision cannot be dismissed.
Then there’s the Cadillac Eldorado of 1967–68, which GM’s VP of Global Design, Ed Welburn, recognized as one of his favorites in the Spring 2015 issue of Hagerty Classic Cars. Designed by Chuck Jordan under the direction of Bill Mitchell on the platform used for the front-wheel-drive Toronado, it featured tighter exterior lines, combined with Mitchell’s signature razor-edge crispness in all its exterior form and detail fittings. This gave it an especially elegant visual compactness that made it especially desirable in an era when no excess seemed out of line.
Another Italian-designed Japanese contender for possible classic stardom is Subaru’s amazing all-wheel-drive SVX, built from 1992 to 1997. Designer Giorgetto Giugiaro really pushed the styling envelope with this creation by wrapping the windscreen’s glass edges around the front A-pillar and using extremely curved side glass to achieve a spectacular canopy effect that has to be driven at speed to be really appreciated — no wind noise! Glass curvature was so extreme that Giugiaro’s solution was one of the few production cars to borrow from aircraft design by using a small “window within a window” technique to solve the problem of combining superior aerodynamics with a practical roll-down side window. The detail was never readily accepted by the general public and has yet to be repeated, but its time will come.
Finally, the 1970 Datsun 240Z deserves mention. Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the idea of a Japanese-built car becoming a classic seemed pretty slim, but if ever a car appeared unexpectedly on the world scene with the lines to make it unforgettable, it was the 240Z. The elegant simplicity was proven by the succeeding “refinements,” which were all fussily complicated and heavier in appearance. (Stefan Lombard covered the Z in more detail in HCC Summer 2014).
Though built in relatively large numbers compared with their coachbuilt prewar cousins, any of these cars offer exceptional styling that will continue to age with grace. We should all be so lucky.