Hands Across the Water: American-Influenced European Cars

For decades, American car enthusiast media held up European cars as the benchmarks for American manufacturers to follow, at least in terms of design and dynamics. Meanwhile, European carmakers of all stripes offered a few cars with decidedly American character and style. Results varied from inspired to insipid. Here’s are some examples of both.

1947 Volvo P444/544

Volvo’s first postwar car, the 444, was introduced in 1947 and came to the United States in 1955. The bulbous Volvo stood out among a slew of European imports for one key reason: it looked like a ¾-scale 1941 Ford. It was a familiar look at a time when some European cars looked alien to American eyes.

The 444 became the 544 for 1958 thanks to numerous upgrades, even though Volvo had already introduced a more modern model, the 122. The 122, as well, adopted American-influenced styling, such as a split grille design that seemed inspired by a 1955 Chrysler.

If there was any doubt about the Volvo 444/544’s design muse, a Volvo ad in 1965 announcing the end of production admitted the car looked “like a ’41 Ford.” Ford fans would say it looked even more like the 1946-47 update on that body.

1959 Mercedes “fin tail” models

Mercedes-Benz could never be accused of trying to Americanize its cars. However, from the late 1950s through at least the 1970s, Benz customers and dealers found themselves wishing for American-style comforts like smooth automatic transmissions, air conditioning systems that actually cooled and decent-sounding radios. What they didn’t ask for were tailfins, but they got them on the brand’s sedans built from 1959 through the 1960s.

The so-called “fintail” models looked tasteful enough, and their fins were hardly the towering impalement weapons seen on Chryslers and Cadillacs. The Mercedes fins seemed more like those on the 1958 Rambler, and even the Benz’s boxy bodies and tall greenhouses bore a resemblance to the late-’50s AMC sedans. Whitewall tires and column gearshifts were further nods to American tastes, perhaps reflecting influence from Studebaker-Packard, which distributed Mercedes in the U.S. at the time.

1961 Ford Consul Classic and Consul Capri

One glimpse of the 1961 British Ford Consul Classic and Consul Capri models shows American design influence gone awry. The styling could charitably be described as bizarre. The designers concocted a strange brew of cues from the 1958 Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Turnpike Cruiser and the 1959-1960 Chevys, all on a car just 170 inches long. Then, someone got the bright idea to create a hardtop coupe version, the Consul Capri. Its roofline looked like it had come off the 1960 Ford Galaxie Starliner coupe and gone through the dryer.

Fortunately, the next European Ford to carry the Capri name followed quite a different American pattern and unequivocally redeemed this catastrophe.

1969 Ford Capri (a.k.a. Mercury Capri)

Following the 1965 Mustang’s success, Ford’s British arm adapted the ponycar formula to its own economy sedan, the Cortina. The resulting 1969 sporty coupe took the Capri name, which was already familiar to American customers from a 1950s Lincoln and 1966-1967 Mercury Comet models.

Ford built the Capri in Britain and Germany, the latter models exported to the U.S. starting in 1970 and sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers.  Though billed as “the sexy European,” the Capri showed an undeniable American influence. The long-hood, short-deck proportions and semi-fastback roofline were pure ponycar, with details like a “power bulge” hood and mag-style wheels also Yankee-influenced.

The standard engine was initially a weak 1.6-liter four, but in 1971 the optional Pinto 2.0-liter four offered sprightly performance in the 2,300-pound coupe. The even stronger “Cologne” 2.6-liter V6 arrived for 1972. The European Capri was a noteworthy success in the U.S., with more than 500,000 sold through 1977. A Mustang-based Capri replaced it for 1979.

1964 Opel Diplomat

Did General Motors’ German subsidiary build a Chevelle clone in 1964? That year, a three-tier Opel sedan series debuted that included the base Kapitan, the more upscale Admiral and the top-of-line Diplomat, all sharing the same body. Dimensions were nearly identical to those of the GM A-bodies in America. Aside from its rectangular headlights, the Diplomat could have looked at home in a Chevy or Oldsmobile dealership.

The German and U.S. cars were unrelated, however. The Opels were unit-bodies on a 112-inch wheelbase and with leafspring rear suspension, and the Americans were body-on-frame on a 115-inch wheelbase with coils all around.

The German sedans did offer a genuine bit of Americana under the hood: a Chevy 283 small block V8 with a Powerglide automatic was standard for the Diplomat. A 327 came later, and eventually, a Turbo Hydramatic. The interior, too, looked American with a wide, flat dashboard fascia, ribbon speedometer and faux wood trim.

A redesign for 1969 gave the Diplomat a grille and headlight treatment reminiscent of the 1965 Buick Riviera, and this car was briefly considered as a potential basis for the 1975 Cadillac Seville. Two decades later, an Opel model served as the foundation for the ill-fated Cadillac Catera.

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