A “Contemporary Classic:” Brooks Stevens’ Excalibur

Z. Taylor Vinson had the opportunity to meet and correspond with a number of automotive designers and manufacturers during his career as an attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. One of these well-known personalities was noted American industrial designer, Brooks Stevens, who created over 3,000 products throughout his career, including home furnishings, cookware, and farm machinery, as well as automobiles and automotive equipment.

Photograph of a Series II Excalibur (1970-1974) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

Photograph of a Series II Excalibur (1970-1974) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

In the early 1960s, Stevens worked as a design consultant for Studebaker. Company executives asked Stevens to design an eye-catching car for an upcoming series of automobile shows. Brooks decided to create what he referred to as a “contemporary classic” for Studebaker. He designed a sports car from contemporary automotive parts and a Studebaker chassis, but his new car had the aesthetics of a classic Mercedes SSK from the 1930s. Stevens named his new car, “Excalibur,” after his sports car racing career in the 1950s.

Although Studebaker was not interested in Stevens’ prototype, the Excalibur attracted the attention of attendees at the 1964 New York Auto Show. Stevens immediately began taking orders for his new sports car, and he sold the Excalibur exclusively through a New York City Chevrolet dealer for $6,795. An advertisement for the Excalibur placed in the December 16, 1964 issue of the New York Times declared, “It has the classic beauty of the original S.S.K. coupled with the power and the reliability of the 1965 Sting Ray.” By marketing the Excalibur as a custom-built, luxury sports car, Stevens and his newly formed company, S.S. Automobiles Incorporated, pioneered the market for reproduction classic cars.

Photograph of a Series III Excalibur (1975-1976) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

Photograph of a Series III Excalibur (1975-1976) from the album given to Z. Taylor Vinson by Brook Stevens.

In 1975, Mr. Vinson met with Brooks Stevens to discuss motor vehicle safety regulations pertaining to the Excalibur. Limited production automobile manufacturers like S.S. Automobiles worked extensively with the Department of Transportation after the passage of the National Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. Throughout this period, S.S. Automobiles struggled to meet the passive restraint requirements for passenger cars because of the projected expense of having to incorporate air bags and seat belts into their pre-existing design for the Excalibur.

Stevens wrote a letter of appreciation to Vinson after their meeting and expressed how happy he was to learn that Mr. Vinson was also an automobile enthusiast and collector. Similar to Z. Taylor Vinson, Stevens had developed a love of automobiles during his childhood, while accompanying his father to various automobile shows. In his thank-you note, Stevens included a photograph album of Excalibur Series I-III automobiles from the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Vinson preserved the photograph album presented to him by Brooks Stevens in his professional papers from the Department of Transportation. This album, as well as the correspondence between the two men, remains available to researchers as part of Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection now housed at the Hagley Library.

Sources

“Brooks Stevens,” Wisconsin Historical Society

“Classified Ad 20,” New York Times (December 13, 1964): S15.

“Excalibur: 1975-1995,” Temporary Exemption Petitions, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Excalibur History

“Excalibur- Photograph Albums,” Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 512-513.

Preston, Alice. “Excalibur: The Story”

Alison Kreitzer is the graduate assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at the Hagley Museum and Library.

The Vinson Pictorials Series: A Window to the Past

Hello, readers! My name is Annalise Berdini and I am the summer intern processing the Pictorials Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection. I’d like to give a little overview of what I have been doing since I started and highlight some of the interesting materials I’ve come across while working through the collection.

Postcard of a Baker electric car advertisement.

Postcard of a Baker electric car advertisement.

As a devoted collector of automotive literature and materials, Z. Taylor Vinson spent much of his life corresponding with other like-minded collectors across the globe, sharing tips, materials, and insights. Many of the items in the Pictorials Series, which consists of photographs, prints, postcards, and the like, include letters or notes from the collectors who sent them along to Vinson. This gives unique insight into the way Vinson was able to develop his collection, making global contacts, and often close friends, who sought out and shared the same items for which Vinson searched.

My job so far has been to process the Pictorials Series. This involves surveying the series’ contents, arranging the materials, and placing the materials in acid-free folders and protective sleeves. The images in the Pictorials Series depict the development and growth of the automobile, even including images of mockups, prototypes, or one-of-a-kind vehicles that never made it to the production line. Some of the images, especially the postcards, are as much an example of the automobiles of the period as the social and economic climate of that time period.

Henry J advertising postcard.

Henry J advertising postcard.

The Pictorials Series provides a fascinating look at how these early cars were marketed, and how those strategies evolved during each change that affected the countries in which they were made. For example, a Baker postcard of a reproduction of an ad from the early 1900s shows the car being marketed to “high society.” A set of Henry J. postcards from the 1950s includes images of the nuclear family ideal that was prevalent at the time. One item in the Chevrolet file is a photo of assorted ads depicting changes in attitudes towards women and the need for an economic car. Vinson’s pictorial materials also provide a unique window into the past, giving a taste of how automobiles developed and changed, along with the world itself.

Photograph of three Chevrolet advertisements.

Photograph of three Chevrolet advertisements.

Sometimes, the materials do not quite fit into the car make hierarchy, simply because they are not about cars! Vinson was a true collector, and as such, did not limit his acquisitions entirely to autos. The Pictorials Series contains materials depicting airplanes and airships, buses, trains, and ships. It also holds stamps depicting the royal families of some of the countries Vinson visited (he was extremely well-traveled) and postcards depicting scenes from various locales. An assortment of personal items that show Vinson and his family, and a few photos that capture the construction of his “Autotorium” are found in this series as well.

It is fascinating to have a collection of images that expand beyond automobiles into general transportation and travel, as well as to have a record of Vinson’s life and interests in images. Researchers and car enthusiasts alike will find the Pictorials Series of the Z. Taylor Vinson collection to be a valuable and exciting resource.

Annalise Berdini is a Summer Intern for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA – Displaced the Model T

Trade catalog for the 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA Capitol, featuring an image of the 2-Door Sport Cabriolet.

Trade catalog for the 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA Capitol, featuring an image of the 2-Door Sport Cabriolet.

At the beginning of the 1920s, the Ford Model T reigned supreme in the American automobile market. Cheap, mechanically simple, and easy to repair, the “Tin Lizzie” was much beloved by the American driving public. But Ford changed the Model T very little and by the middle of the decade, a combination of stiffer competition, advancing technology, and changing customer tastes rendered the Model T obsolete. Faced with such realities, in May 1927, Ford shut down its production lines for 6 months to retool for production for of the Model T’s successor, the Model A. When Ford temporarily went offline, other manufacturers sought to fill the gap in the market. One car succeeded in displacing the Model T as America’s best-selling car: the 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA.

The 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA was the end result of some very shrewd product planning and development. Starting in 1923, at the instigation of General Motors Corporation’s president Alfred S. Sloan, Chevrolet adopted a strategy of offering cars that were low-priced, but a little more expensive than the Model T. In return for a little more money, Chevrolet offered its customers much more in the way of updated technology, modern styling, and creature comforts. Built and marketed in accordance with this strategy, Chevrolet cars proved quite competitive with the Model T and the company dramatically increased its market share between 1924 and 1926. When the Capitol AA was formally introduced in January 1927, it helped drive the Model T out of the market. When Ford temporarily ceased production, the Capitol AA became the top-selling American car for the 1927 model year.

Trade catalog images of 3 of the 8 available body styles for the Chevrolet Capitol AA: Landau, Sedan, and Coupe.

Trade catalog images of 3 of the 8 available body styles for the Chevrolet Capitol AA: Landau, Sedan, and Coupe.

The 1927 Chevrolet Capitol AA was a reasonably modern low-priced car for its time. Riding on a 103-inch wheelbase, the car was powered by a 171 cubic-inch inline-4 engine, which was good for 26 horsepower and featured air and oil filters as standard equipment. The car’s engine was mated to a modern 3-speed sliding gear manual transmission. The Capitol AA was fitted with a handsome contemporary body shell, which featured full crown fenders and bullet-shaped headlights. Customers had a choice of 8 different body styles, ranging from a 2-Door Roadster to a 4-Door Landau Sedan. Of particular interest was the 2-Door Sport Cabriolet, which came equipped with rumble seat, a Chevrolet first.

Selling in the $525-$745 range, the Chevrolet Capitol AA typically cost $160-$200 more than the Ford Model T. Nevertheless, it was more than a match for the Model T and was well-received by the motoring public. American drivers liked the Capitol AA’s modern appearance and were pleased to discover that it was a more comfortable and better performing car than the Model T. The Capitol AA also earned a reputation for being a high-quality car over the course of its production life and was found to be quite durable. Such qualities made it a worthy top-seller.

The Chevrolet Capitol AA was superseded by the Chevrolet National Model AB for the 1928 model year. More than 678,000 Capitol AA’s were built. Largely due to the events of 1927, Ford and Chevrolet became archrivals in the American automobile market and remain so to this day.

Sources

83 Quality Features – Chevrolet for Economical Transportation: Chevrolet: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Chevrolet Range, 1925-1927, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

How Stuff Works – 1927 Chevrolet Series AA Capitol

How Stuff Works – 1908-1927 Ford Model T

How Stuff Works – 1923-1927 Ford Model T

Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 283, 292, 571, 586-587.

The Most Beautiful Chevrolet in Chevrolet History – World’s Lowest Modern Quality Cars: Chevrolet: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Chevrolet Range, 1925-1927, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia: Hollywood Status Symbol

Hollywood celebrities have long had a reputation for swanky and opulent lifestyles. Their taste for luxury often extends to the cars they buy for their personal transportation. For some entertainment luminaries, only the most exclusive and luxurious cars will do. During the late 1950s, there was one car in particular that was much-coveted by the Hollywood celebrity set: the 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia.

1956 Dual-Ghia Convertible.

1956 Dual-Ghia Convertible.

The 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia was a limited edition luxury car built by Dual Motors Corporation of Detroit, Michigan. It was based on the Dodge Firearrow, a concept car exhibited at the 1953 Turin Auto Show in Italy. Offered at a then-hefty sticker price of $8,000, it was specifically intended for a wealthy and stylish clientele. The Dual-Ghia was a decidedly large and heavy car, riding on a 115-inch wheelbase and weighing in at a hefty 3600 pounds. It was fitted with a striking low-slung convertible body hand built by Carrozzeria Ghia, an exclusive custom coach builder based in Turin, Italy. The car was also given a sumptuously appointed interior, which included Connolly leather upholstery, full-deck carpeting, and a chrome-framed dashboard.

Underneath its skin, to make this exclusive car easy to service, the Dual-Ghia used readily available components sourced from Chrysler Corporation. Customers had a choice of two engines: a Dodge Firebomb V-8 engine, which had a displacement of 315 cubic inches and was rated at 230 horsepower, or the more popular Dodge D-500 Hemi V-8, which had the same displacement, but was good for 260 horsepower. Both engine choices were mated to a Chrysler Powerflite automatic transmission. In addition to being easy to service, the Dual-Ghia proved to be an excellent performer for a large car. According to Motor Trend magazine, the Dual-Ghia could accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 8.2 seconds and had a top speed of around 124 miles per hour.

Publicity photo of the 1957 Dual-Ghia Convertible.

Publicity photo of the 1957 Dual-Ghia Convertible.

The Dual-Ghia made its public debut at the 1957 New York Sports Car Show, where it caused a public sensation and garnered rave reviews. It also attracted the attention of entertainment luminaries and soon became a very fashionable automotive status symbol among the Hollywood celebrity set. Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, high-living members of the famed “Rat Pack,” were probably the most iconic Dual-Ghia owners. Singer Eddie Fisher and actor Glenn Ford also owned Dual-Ghias. Actor Desi Arnaz and songwriter Hoagy Carmichael were noted Dual-Ghia owners as well.

Although the Dual-Ghia was a prestigious car and highly sought after by the Hollywood set, it was not a profitable venture for Dual-Motors Corporation. One reason for this was because of Dual Motors’ owner Eugene Casaroll’s insistence that the Dual-Ghia be built to the highest degree of craftsmanship possible, it was an extraordinarily expensive and labor-intensive car to build (it took 1300 hours to fabricate the body and 200 hours for final assembly). In addition to that, because the Dual-Ghia was aimed at a very wealthy clientele, the market for it proved to be quite small. As a result, it was not the financial success Dual Motors hoped for.

A total of 117 1956-1958 Dual-Ghias were built. It is believed that around 30 of these cars are still existence and surviving examples are cherished collector items today.

Sources

Adventure…with Elegance!, Dual-Ghia: Dual-Ghia: General Publication, Serial, and Trade Catalog: Specific Model, ca. 1956, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Conceptcarz – Dual-Ghia

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 259-260.

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 459.

How Stuff Works – 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia

MacDonald, Don, “Not Just a Bomb…A Dual Bomb,” Motor Trend, August 1956

Photograph of 1956 Dual-Ghia Convertible

Publicity photograph of the 1957 Dual-Ghia Convertible

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Datsun 240Z

During the 1960s, Japanese automakers were making inroads into the American market. At the time, they were widely (and I would argue unfairly) perceived as being manufacturers of cheap and unimaginative economy cars. One Japanese automaker who actively sought to change that perception was Nissan Motor Company, which at the time built and marketed cars under the Datsun nameplate. In 1965, Nissan designers started work on a sports car that was specifically aimed at the American market. The end result of the of the Japanese firm’s labors was a legendary sports car that is credited with establishing Nissan as a world-class automaker: the Datsun 240Z.

Photograph of a Datsun 240Z.

Introduced in late 1969 as a 1970 model, the Datsun 240Z (called the Datsun Fairlady Z in Japan) was a medium-priced sports car. Designed by a team led by Fumio Yushida, it was intended to compete with European mid-price sports cars in the American market, which included offerings from Jaguar and Porsche. In terms of engineering, the 240Z was a thoroughly conventional, yet state-of-the-art sports car for its time. It employed a front engine, rear-wheel drive layout and rode on a 90.5 inch wheelbase. Power came from a potent inline-6 engine, which displaced 2.4 litres (146 cubic-inches) and was initially good for 150 horsepower. Customers were offered a choice of either a 4-speed manual transmission or a 3-speed automatic. The 240Z was equipped with 4-wheel independent suspension, which employed McPherson struts and coil springs. Outwardly, the car was clothed in a sleek and stunning-looking body shell, which featured a long hood and a fastback roof.

The Datsun 240Z was also a very capable performer. According to Nissan, it could accelerate from 0 to 60 in less than 9 seconds and had a claimed top speed of 125 miles per hour. It was also blessed with outstanding road-holding abilities. Owners and automotive soon discovered the 240Z’s high quality of construction and it earned an enviable reputation for being tougher and more reliable than comparable European sports cars of the time. The 240Z’s reputation for high-performance, durability, and dependability was further enhanced by its successes in motorsports competition. In the United States, the 240Z became a dominant force in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) sports car racing. Elsewhere in the world, the 240Z proved to be a capable rally car, twice winning the prestigious (and notoriously rough) East African Safari Rally (1971, 1973).

Photograph of a Datsun 240Z.

To top it all off, not only was the 240Z a modern design capable of a high level of performance, it was noted for being a bargain package that gave exceptional value for the money. Initially offered at a base price of $3,526, it undersold other mid-price sports cars of the day. Due to its durability and reliability, it proved cheaper to operate and maintain than its European competitors. American sports car enthusiasts quickly grasped the exceptional value offered by the 240Z and the demand for it soon exceeded supply.

The Datsun 240Z enjoyed a successful, albeit relatively short, production life (1969-1973). For the 1974 model year, largely due to tightening American safety and emissions regulations, it was replaced by the Datsun 260Z, which was essentially a 240Z with a larger 2.6 litre engine. Over 140,000 Datsun 240Z’s were sold in the United States. Surviving examples are highly sought after today.

Sources

240Z: Datsun: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 240Z, 1970, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 212-215.

Datsun 240-Z: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 240Z, 1970, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 389.

How Stuff Works – Datsun Sports Cars

How Stuff Works – Nissan Z History

The Z Car Home Page

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Renault Dauphine: A Competitor to the Volkswagen Beetle in the United States

Trade catalog for the Renault Dauphine, 1956

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Volkswagen Beetle was the top selling foreign car in the United States. But the much-loved German import did not lack for competition. During this time period, a large number of foreign automakers sought to penetrate the American market and did so with varying degrees of success. Among those jockeying for position in the American marketplace was Renault, an internationally renowned French automaker based in Billancourt, France. During the late 1950s-early 1960s, the French firm marketed a car that was for a short time the Volkswagen Beetle’s most serious competitor in the United States: the Renault Dauphine.

Trade catalog cut-away image of the Renault Dauphine’s interior, 1960s

First introduced at the 1956 Paris Auto Show, the Renault Dauphine was a small economy sedan designed to compete directly with the Volkswagen Beetle. The Dauphine and Beetle had some design characteristics in common. Both cars employed a rear-engine, rear-wheel drive setup and both were equipped with swing-axle independent rear suspension. In most other respects, the Dauphine was designed to be a more modern alternative to the Beetle. Instead of an air-cooled engine like that found in the Beetle, the Dauphine was fitted with a water-cooled inline-4 engine, which displaced 845 cc (51.5 cubic inches) and was good for 30 horsepower. A three-speed manual transmission came standard, but the Dauphine could also be ordered with a Ferlec automatic clutch, which permitted gear changes without a clutch pedal. In contrast to the Beetle’s two-door body, the Dauphine featured an arguably more convenient four-door body shell. Renault also offered a performance variant of the Dauphine tuned by Amédée Gordini, which came equipped with a more powerful engine (good for 37.5-40 horsepower) and a four-speed manual transmission.

The Dauphine made its American debut at the 1956 New York Auto Show. When a sharp recession hit the United States in 1957, sales of the Dauphine unexpectedly took off and it became the Volkswagen Beetle’s most serious competitor. American customers were attracted by Dauphine’s cute looks, low sticker price ($1,645 in 1957) and excellent gas mileage (claimed to be capable of exceeding 40 miles per gallon). Led by the Dauphine, Renault became the #2 selling import make in the United States in 1957, a position it would hold for several years.

Trade catalog for the Renault Dauphine, 1960s

Although the Dauphine was initially well received by the American motoring public, owners soon became disenchanted with this car. The Dauphine was widely criticized for being too slow and underpowered for American driving conditions. Unlike its competitor, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Dauphine earned a reputation for being a low-quality car. American owners found the Dauphine to be mechanically troublesome and its body prone to rusting. Also in contrast to Volkswagen, Renault lacked a well-organized American dealer network for servicing its cars. This combination of factors caused Renault’s American sales to drop dramatically from a peak of 91,073 in 1959 to 12,106 in 1966. The Dauphine was withdrawn from the American market in 1967 and Renault ceased production of it in 1968.

More than 200,000 Renault Dauphines were imported to the United States between 1956 and 1967. Even though a significant number of them were brought to American shores, surviving examples are rarely seen today.

Sources

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 675, 677-680.

Dauphine, Renault: Renault: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Alliance, Alpine, Caravelle, Dauphine, Eight, and Encore, ca. 1950s-1986, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Dauphine, Renault, Régie National: Renault: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Alliance, Alpine, Caravelle, Dauphine, Eight, and Encore, ca. 1950s-1986, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1318-1319.

How Stuff Works – 1956-1968 Renault Dauphine

Renault

Ward’s 1960 Automotive Yearbook, Twenty-Second Edition; Detroit, Michigan: Ward’s Automotive Yearbook, 1960, p. 177.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference Spring Meeting Recap

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference Spring Meeting, which was held in Erie, Pennsylvania from April 25-27. At this professional conference, I had the privilege of participating in the panel session “Advancing the Front Line: Innovative Outreach,” which focused on innovative outreach methods used by archival institutions to promote their collections to the general public. The session was chaired by Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and featured a panel consisting of three archivists from three different institutions in the Middle Atlantic region: myself, Rachel Jirka of The Society of Cincinnati in Washington, D.C., and Sierra Green of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

As a member of the panel, I gave the presentation “The Z. Taylor Vinson Collection: 3 Years and 3 Types of Research.” In my presentation, I discussed Hagley’s innovative long-term outreach program for promoting Vinson Collection which employs three types of outreach methods: on-site, off-site, and online. I identified and described the actual outreach methods we use on the project and discussed the advantages and disadvantages each of them posed. I also analyzed the overall success of the outreach program. In addition to discussing the outreach program, I also showed images of items preserved in the Vinson Collections and invited my colleagues to visit the Vinson Collection Blog and the Vinson Collection Digital Online Archive.

My colleagues on the session panel gave fascinating presentations on the innovative outreach being undertaken by their respective institutions to promote their collection holdings. Rachel Jirka discussed The Society of Cincinnati’s Master Teachers Seminar, which instructs teachers on the use of primary materials preserved in the society’s archives holdings. Sierra Green gave a presentation on the John Heinz History Center’s digital repository for teachers, which it uses to promote its archival holdings regarding the history of Western Pennsylvania. Both of these institutions have wonderful archival holdings and I strongly encourage blog readers to visit their web sites.

I would like to thank my colleagues at MARAC for kindly attending “Advancing the Front Line: Innovative Outreach.”

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

Treasures from the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection – 1932 Chrysler Custom Imperial Eight Trade Catalog

Cover of the 1932 Chrysler Custom Imperial Eight trade catalog in the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection.

Over the course of his long career, Z. Taylor Vinson collected and preserved thousands of examples of automobile literature. In his autobiography A Collector’s Life, he listed a small handful of items that he referred to as his “Treasures,” which he was particularly proud of owning and considered to be especially significant. For this week’s blog, I decided to highlight an item that Vinson identified as being especially rare: a trade catalog for the 1932 Chrysler Custom Imperial Eight.

The Custom Imperial Eight was a prestige luxury car built by the Chrysler Division of Chrysler Corporation. Aimed at a wealthy clientele and selling in the $2800-$3600 price range, it occupied the top rung of Chrysler’s 1932 model lineup. Essentially an enlarged and dressed-up version of the smaller and less expensive Chrysler Imperial, it was intended to compete with other American prestige cars of the day, including those manufactured by Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard, and Pierce-Arrow.

Rendering of a 1932 Chrysler Custom Imperial Eight 4-Door Sedan Limousine from the trade catalog in the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection.

Like other American prestige cars of the time, the Custom Imperial Eight was a truly extravagant and luxurious machine. It was a very large and heavy car, riding on a 146-inch wheelbase and depending upon model trim, weighing in between 4900 and 5300 pounds. Customers were offered a choice of 6 semi-custom bodies: 3 built by Chrysler and 3 built by famed coach builder LeBaron, Incorporated. The cars’ interiors were sumptuously appointed, featuring high-end upholstery materials, a walnut dashboard, and amenities that included a cigar-lighter and personal accessory compartments.

In terms of engineering, the Custom Imperial Eight was a very innovative car for its time. The car was built on a rigid “Double-Drop, Girder-Truss” chassis, which gave the car a lower center of gravity and improved its handling. Power was provided by a 384 cubic-inch straight-8 engine, a high-compression unit that was good for 125 horsepower. The engine was mated to a 4-speed transmission which featured free-wheeling and an automatic clutch that permitted gear changes without the clutch pedal. Passenger comfort was improved by installing the engine on “Floating Power” rubber engine mounts, which reduced the amount of engine vibrations transmitted to the car’s interior. The car also came equipped with self-lubricating springs fabricated from a porous metal called “Oillite,” which blessed it with a remarkably smooth and quiet ride.

Rendering of a 1932 Chrysler Custom Imperial Eight Convertible Roadster from the trade catalog in the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection.

A single example of the 1932 Chrysler Custom Imperial Eight trade catalog is preserved in the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection. In his autobiographical manuscript A Collector’s Life: (an autobiography), Mr. Vinson describes this particular trade catalog as being very rare, stating that he had only seen one copy of it advertised for sale in over 40 years of collecting. He also revealed that he it took him nearly 20 years of searching to find it.

As for the 1932 Custom Imperial Eight itself, it is also quite rare. Due to its high sticker price and the bad economy brought on by the Great Depression, only 220 of these cars were built. Surviving examples are highly prized collectables today.

Sources

Brown, Arch, “Classic Chrysler, 1932 Custom Imperial,” Special Interest Autos, June 1988

Chrysler Imperial Eight Custom Models, Chrysler: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Imperial, 1929-1935, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Imperial Club

Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 317-318.

Vinson, Z. Taylor, A Collector’s Life (an auto-biography), Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The 1949 Ford

At the end of World War II, Ford Motor Company, which had just resumed peacetime automobile production, was in serious trouble. The company was in organizational disarray and losing money at a frightful rate. Because the war had prevented it from designing and developing any new cars for several years, Ford could only offer warmed-over cars of pre-war design to a car-hungry American motoring public.

Trade catalog for the 1949 Ford.

However, all was not lost at Ford. On September 21, 1945, at the tender age of 29, Henry Ford II assumed the presidency of Ford Motor Company from his aging and ailing grandfather Henry Ford. Surrounding himself with a crack team of executives, engineers, and designers, Henry II set out to modernize the company and its product line. In 1946, as part of this modernization program, he ordered the development of a brand new car that would “make or break” the company. The end result of Ford’s labors was the car that is credited with saving the company from its post-war troubles: the 1949 Ford.

Trade catalog images touting the specifications of the 1949 Ford.

The 1949 Ford was the company’s first completely new car of the post-war era. Designed by a team of engineers led by Henry Youngren, it represented a significant technological upgrade from the company’s earlier offerings. The car was built on a modern box-frame chassis and rode on a 114-inch wheelbase. The 1949 Ford also boasted a brand new suspension system, featuring coil springs with hydraulic shock absorbers in the front and longitudinal leaf springs in the rear, which gave the car better handling and a more comfortable ride than its predecessors. Customers could choose between 2 well-proven Ford power plants: a 226 cubic-inch inline-six (good for 95 horsepower) or a 239 cubic-inch Flathead V-8 (good for 100 horsepower). Both engine choices were mated to a 3-speed manual transmission, which was offered with automatic overdrive as an option.

The new Ford was clothed in a sleek and rigid new body. Designed by stylists George Walker and Richard Caleal, the car’s “Lifeguard Body” featured slab-sided styling, which eliminated the rear fender bulges seen on previous Ford cars. The body was also given distinctive looking chrome moldings on the front, which included Ford’s now-iconic “spinner” nose positioned in the center of the car’s grille. The car’s interior was designed for greater comfort over the previous year’s model, featuring “Mid-Ship Ride,” in which all of the passenger seats were placed between the front and rear axles. Passenger visibility was improved by increasing the window area and giving the driver and passengers a higher seating position.

Trade catalog image of the 1949 Ford Fordor Sedan.

The 1949 Ford made its public debut at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on June 10, 1948. Happily for Ford, the car was a smash hit with the motoring public. The car’s fresh new styling was very well received and drivers appreciated its overall improvement over the previous year’s model. Because of its popularity, the new Ford put the company back on the road to prosperity. On the strength of the car’s sales, Ford beat out Chevrolet as America’s best-selling make for the 1949 model year. It also helped Ford Motor Company overtake Chrysler Corporation and regain its position as the number two producer of the American Big Three automakers.

The 1949 Ford was replaced by a slightly revised successor for the 1950 model year. More than 1.1 million 1949 Fords were built.

Sources

The ’49 Ford!, Ford: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Ford Range, 1942-1949, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Ford Motor Company

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 563, p. 568.

Henry Ford Museum

How Stuff Works – 1949 Ford

It’s Here….the ’49 Ford, The Car of the Year, Ford: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Ford Range, 1942-1949, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 382, p.387-389.

The Lotus Seven – A No-Frills Sports Car

Photograph of a Lotus Seven, ca. 1950s-1960s.

Sports cars have long captured the imagination of the motoring public. Usually small two-seaters, they are designed to feature a combination of brisk performance and excellent handling. The philosophy regarding what a sports car should be varies widely from company to company. Some manufacturers believe that sports cars should be basic machines of simple design. One company that adhered to this philosophy was Lotus Engineering Company, a small specialist car manufacturer based in Hornsey, England. At the 1957 London Auto Show, the British company introduced one of the most basic, no-frills sports cars ever conceived: the Lotus Seven.

The Lotus Seven was the creation of Lotus’ founder and chief engineer Colin Chapman. Conceived as club racer that could also be legally driven on the road, it was built according to Chapman’s engineering philosophy of “simplify, then add lightness,” which remains a Lotus company hallmark to this day. To accomplish these ends, the Seven was constructed using as few materials as possible. The Seven was built on a simple, yet sophisticated, multi-tubular space frame chassis. The car’s chassis was clothed in an all-aluminum body. In lieu of full fenders, motorcycle-style fenders were placed over the front wheels. The car’s driver accommodations were decidedly spartan. The cockpit was cramped and barely had enough room for two people. Initially, only a small fold-down windshield provided any measure of driver comfort. Because the Seven was so insubstantial in terms of physical form, it was an extraordinarily light car, weighing in at a mere 1,655 pounds.

Trade catalog for the 1959 Lotus Seven Series 1.

Not only was the Lotus Seven intended to be simple and light, it was also designed to be inexpensive. To keep costs down, the car made extensive use of readily available components sourced from other automakers. The Seven was initially powered by a British Ford 100E inline-four engine, which displaced 1072 cc (72 cubic inches) and was good for 36-40 horsepower. At the time of its introduction, it also used a Ford three-speed manual transmission and a BMC (British Motor Corporation) rear axle. Most cleverly of all, to avoid Britain’s purchase tax on new automobiles, the Lotus Seven was for many years available only in kit form. According to Lotus, the Seven could be assembled using ordinary hand tools.

In spite of being simple and inexpensive, the Lotus Seven was a remarkably brisk performer for its day. Although the earliest examples were modestly powered, their light weight gave them a surprisingly high top speed of 81-90 miles per hour. The Seven was also renowned for its outstanding road-holding abilities. Such performance characteristics made the Seven one the most dominant club racers of all time, chalking up hundreds of class wins over the course of its competitive life.

Trade catalog image of a disassembled Lotus Seven Series 2, 1960s

The Lotus Seven enjoyed a long production run and was constantly developed. Four generations of the car made their appearance: the Series 1 (1957-1960), Series 2 (1960-1968), Series 3 (1968-1970), and Series 4 (1970-1973). Most of the changes to the Seven were evolutionary in nature, including, but not limited to, larger and more powerful engines, the full front fenders, and fiberglass body panels. But the car’s basic design concept remained remarkably unchanged.

Around 3,000 Lotus Sevens were built, but interestingly, the car never went out of production. Lotus sold the rights to the Seven to Caterham Cars in 1973, which continues to develop and build the Seven under the Caterham nameplate to this day.

Sources

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 479-484.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 924-927.

Lotus Cars http://www.lotuscars.com/

Lotus Seven: Lotus: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Lotus +2 and Seven, 1964-1967, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Lotus 7, the build-it-yourself sports car, 1959

Lotus Seven Register http://www.lotus7register.co.uk/


Photograph of a Lotus Seven, ca. 1960s.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.