The birth of a modern car.
In May 1945, after five gruesome years, the war in Europe was finally over. Car factories were turned into ruins and ashes but new hopes and ideas were already rising and one of them was a new body shape. Retrospectively called ‘ponton’ or ‘pontoon’ the new concept got rid of separate wings (fenders), headlights and sidesteps that were typical throughout 1930’s and 40’s. Everything was now enveloped into one hull, characterized by slab sides, passenger's cabin stuck on top of it and stepped boot (trunk). Of course, this concept can be traced way back into 1930’s, as in the Bugatti 57G racing car of 1936, or illustrated below Chrysler Thunderbolt concept of 1941. However, in this article I want to focus on saloon (sedan) cars that were available to the general public.
Taking that into account, the first car of this kind was the American Frazer introduced in 1946. The Kaiser-Frazer company emerged from the ashes of Graham-Paige that went bankrupt in 1941. Having the luxury of starting from scratch they designed their ‘Trail Blazers in Postwar Styling’. With all the ‘Big Three’ brands just re-introducing old 1942 models, the Kaiser and Frazer really stood out. In 1947 they made more than 100,000 cars. Not bad for a completely new brand.
The second American company to adopt this new body style was Studebaker with their 1947 models. GM, FoMoCo did not catch up until 1948, introducing it very, very carefully and gradually.
Back in Europe the situation was similar, with small brands taking on this new trend sooner than the big players.
The first creation to be considered was a design by a French engineer Émile Claveau introduced at the first post-war European motor show in Paris in October 1946. However, having all the ‘pontoon’ attributes, this streamlined limousine still looks very 1940’s and never made it into production.
The next car that has to be mentioned in this article is CEMSA Caproni C11. An Italian firm Caproni ElettroMeccanica Societa Anonima in Saronno introduced this car in 1947, but production never actually happened.
There were more curiosities similar to those two, but that is a matter for another article.
The autumn of 1948 finally brought some ‘serious’ ‘pontoons’ onto the European market and they came from an unexpected direction. Not from Germany, Italy or France, but from Great Britain known for its very conservative designs. The 33th International Motor Exhibition at Earls Court was the first post-war London show which brought not just one but three such modern designs.
The Rootes’ Hillman Minx Phase III was an entirely new model with unit construction bodywork inspired by American cars and sketched in collaboration from Raymond Loewy, the Coca-Cola bottle genius. Short and stubby, the Minx lacked the grace of the famous drink container, but sold well, being Hillman’s only model until 1956. It even found its way to Japan, where it was manufactured under license by Isuzu Motors.
Another Rootes’ model introduced at the same time was the Hawk Mark III from the famous, luxury brand Humber. Amazingly this high-end model was just a longer version of the Hillman with different grille, lush upholstery and bigger engine.
The third car came from Singer Motors Ltd. As the brochure stated: “The S.M.1500, being an entirely new car throughout, saw engineer and stylist working happily together to provide that combination of mechanical perfection and beauty which can only be possible in a motor car conceived as an entirety. In presenting this dramatically and completely new car, Singer engineers and stylists achieved such a combination allied with that dignity which is the prerogative of the British manufacturer.” The beauty lay in the eyes of the beholder and this one didn’t get many. Solidly built but one of the ugliest saloons of its period. The company struggled with falling sales and was taken over by Rootes in 1954.
1949 saw another two ‘pontoons’ coming on stage. In August the new German company Borgward introduced their first post-war model – the Hansa 1500, featuring not only a modern shape body but also all-independent suspension and, for the first time in Europe, flashing indicators. This car was the ancestor of the brand’s most famous Borgward Isabella.
The next newcomer to the ‘pontoon’ club appeared in September, introduced again in conservative Britain by the even more conservative brand: Rover. The 75 very quickly gained the nickname ‘cyclops’. With various modifications, including losing its middle eye on the way, it was produced until summer of 1964.
At the beginning of 1950 Europe still sees only a very few ‘pontoons’ being manufactured. But encouraged by the success in the USA and good sales from the brave ones at home, the era of the modern car was dawning. Geneva Show in March saw the introduction of the Fiat 1400. In May at the Turin Show Lancia launched their sensationally beautiful Aurelia powered by world’s first narrow vee-6 engine.
In October France joined the game with the graceful Renault Fregate shown at Paris Show. At the same time came the hot, spirited, Italian Alfa Romeo 1900. The British Ford used the International Motor Exhibition at Earls Court in London to show off their latest achievements: the Consul and the Zephyr Six, both of entirely new integral chassis-less construction with world’s first MacPherson strut independent front suspension and over-head valve engines.
Renault Fregate, Alfa Romeo 1900, Ford Consul and Zephyr Six.
In the meantime the German firm Borgward introduced the 'pontoon' concept into small car class, starting production of the Goliath GP 700 and the Lloyd 300.
The next year saw more new style cars: Simca Aronde, Talbot Lago Baby, Rosengart Ariette, Vauxhall Wyvern and Velox, followed by Czechoslovakian Škoda 1200, Wolseley 4/44, Humber Super Snipe Mk IV, Standard Vanguard II and Ford Taunus 12M in 1952.
The new era in motor car industry has began.
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