Crossroads exhibition highlights Italo-American relations in car design
For those interested in car design, one of the hot topics of recent times has been the way the influence of auto design trends and designers can spread between countries and lead to a blending of styles. One of the most debated and interesting examples of this phenomenon, in terms of the results it produced, was the influence, in the post-war era, of Italian design and designers on the style of American cars, and, vice versa, the influence of the American cars, with their particular style, on Italian production in the same period. Italian designers like Scaglione, Savonuzzi, Michelotti and Revelli di Beaumont shared their knowledge, style and culture with people like Virgil Exner and Harley Earl, from whom they were happy to learn in return. This two way exchange resulted in the development of a sort of art movement, and also in the creation of some of the most beautiful cars ever built.
One of the most interesting and comprehensive books on this subject, published less than a year ago, is Stile Transatlantico, written by classic car writer and historian Donald Osborne, with photographs by Michael Furman. Their book has already become the reference volume on the topic, and the amazing selection of cars featured shows the very best of the two worlds.
The Crossroads exhibition
Clearly inspired by the book, which is acknowledged as the source for some of the videos and presentations, Crossroads is a temporary exhibition currently being hosted by the Museo dell’Automobile in Turin. With 13 cars on show, picked from among the most interesting of the 1950s and 1960s, its purpose is to celebrate the post-war period in question and its protagonists. Curated by Luca Beatrice and Rodolfo Gaffino Rossi (the museum’s technical director), it chronicles the artistic and cultural influences, from the worlds of art, industrial design, cinema, dream cars and fashion, that inspired designers on both sides of “the pond”. It is easy, when visiting the museum, to appreciate how the style of the period was interpreted in a particular way in each country, laying the foundations for the car designs of the years that followed. In a still poor Italy, stylists had to adapt to what was available, and this resulted in the minimalist style that went on to become the country’s trademark in cars, fashion and architecture. In America, on the other hand, opulence and size became the main dictators of automotive style, starting a process that reached its peak with the Jet Age style, characterized by large, heavy cars, with baroque details and big, often chrome, fins.
Some of the cars shown:
Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Sport Cabriolet “Extralusso” Stabilimenti Farina (1947)
Unveiled at the Paris and New York motor shows of 1947, the “Extra Luxury” model by coachbuilder Stabilimenti Farina is an imposing cabriolet mounted on an Alfa Romeo 2500 chassis, designed by Giovanni Michelotti. Available in a choice of versions, including one built on a small Fiat 1100 chassis and a fastback coupé, this particular model stands out for its front section, characterized by horizontal bars taking up the entire area between the headlights. This car is one of just two surviving examples from a small run built on a sport chassis with a 3m wheelbase. The dashboard, designed by Mario Revelli di Beaumont, has a unique steering wheel installed, patented by Revelli himself, and is equipped with a rudimentary onboard “computer”.
Cisitalia 202 SMM Spider Nuvolari (1947)
Named after Tazio Nuvolari, who drove it in the 1947 Mille Miglia, this spider was designed under the direction of Giovanni Savonuzzi, Cisitalia’s chief engineer from 1945 to 1948. It has an all-aluminum body and streamlining fins, barely noticeable, on the rear mudguards. The car exhibited is one of the 10 survivors of a total production run of 20, all built between 1947 and 1948.
Plymouth Fury (1957)
One of the most revolutionary cars of the period, this model year 1957 by Plymouth shows the amazing progress made and embodied by the model, which was created following the idea of a young American engineer, Virgil Exner, who inaugurated a new, modern and innovative design approach that prefigured the trends of the 1960s. The Fury coupe was the top of the range and used the most powerful engine of any Plymouth car. It was available only with a Sand Dune White body featuring side moldings and a golden grille in anodized aluminum.
Fiat 8V Démon Rouge (Red Devil) (1953)
Featuring a unique and striking design created by Giovanni Michelotti, this 8V, first shown at the 1953 Turin Motor Show, was built by Vignale and based on the famous Fiat supercar. The semi-circular, vertical rear window under the extended roofline, an aerodynamic trick serving to keep the rear window clean and dry even in heavy rain, is one of the most distinctive details. The roof itself is largely made of Plexiglas, to give the impression of an open car, and the door handles are incorporated into the rear pillars. There are no bumpers and the headlights are framed by the grille.
Lancia Aurelia B52 Coupé Vignale (1953)
In 1951, Lancia produced the B52, a chassis specially designed to be outfitted by coachbuilders; of the 98 chassis produced, 11 were handed over to Vignale, who asked Giovanni Michelotti to design the bodies. Michelotti styled cars with highly elaborate, even somewhat excessive, lines, and this B52 is no exception, featuring showy chrome plating, striking bumpers, and unique headlights suspended within round air intakes. This model, also available in a cabrio version, was displayed at the Turin Motor Show in 1952.
Buick Roadmaster Convertible 76 (1947)
The Roadmasters (initially named Series 80, and later Series 70) were built on the longest wheelbase Buick had to offer and, from 1946 through 1957, they were the most elegant and prestigious automobiles that Buick sold. This Roadmaster Convertible has already been restored (the original color, Sherwood Green was changed to a yellow that the 1947 Buick catalog called Sequoia Cream), while the color scheme of the interior is the same as when the car was manufactured in Flint, Michigan: green leather and beige fabric trim.
Cadillac Sixty Special Fleetwood (1954)
The Cadillac Sixty Special is a luxury full-size automobile, offered only in a four-door sedan version. Both from 1938 to 1976 and from 1987 to 1993, its name was used by Cadillac to denote a special model. This car has its original black paintwork, while the interior is a combination of leather and fabric in a two-tone green/green combination.
Hudson Commodore Coupé Six (1948)
Innovative, reliable and elegant, the models produced by the Hudson Motor Company contributed to the evolution of American-made cars from 1909 to 1957, when the company ceased production. In the post-war years, with the restrictions imposed by World War II having come to an end, the Hudson Company got its assembly lines rolling again and soon unveiled a number of totally unprecedented cars, characterized by their modern, highly innovative design, undoubtedly among the best of the post-war period. These models were known for their “step down” design: you had to step down, instead of up, to get into the car, a solution that offered significant benefits in terms of comfort and road holding. The car on show in Turin once belonged to Prince Ranieri of Monaco and in all likelihood it was used by members of his entourage.
Lancia Florida Pinin Farina (1954)
At the 1955 Paris Motor Show, Pinin Farina presented its first Lancia Florida prototype, whose innovative style, with its straight lines, would influence car design for a decade. The car displayed in Paris was a two-door sedan built on an Aurelia chassis, but later that year, a more elegant version was shown at the Turin and Geneva motor shows. Three examples of the four-door Florida were built, all characterized by the absence of the B pillar and with rear-hinged doors. Of these three cars, two were right-hand drive models, whereas the one on display in Turin (chassis #1006S) was the only one with left-hand drive. In 1956, it was exported as a used car to the USA.
Lancia Aurelia Pininfarina PF 200 Spider (1952)
The “PF 200” by Pininfarina, a concept car unveiled at the 1952 Turin Motor Show, used the chassis and mechanical parts of the Lancia Aurelia B52 and was originally designed as a show car. It had a streamlined body evoking the fuselage of the jet fighters of the time, equipped with a huge air intake at front. It is the only car to which Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina gave his name, naming the model with his initials, PF, followed by 200, which indicates the 2000 cc displacement of the six-cylinder engine. It is believed that, between 1952 and 1955, seven or eight PF 200s were built, in roadster and coupe versions, but each with unique characteristics. The car now exhibited in Turin (chassis number B52 1004), which is one of the three or four open cars built, is even more unique, having been the 1952 Turin Motor Show car.
Lincoln Continental 4-Door Convertible (1965)
The Lincoln Continental of the 1960s is considered another icon among historic American cars, although its fame is sadly linked to the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The unusual four-door (nicknamed suicide door) Lincoln Convertible is indisputably a cult car.
Packard Super-Eight 1501 (1937)
Among the biggest and oldest names in American car history, Packard, founded in 1899, is renowned for its precise construction and for its 12-cylinder engine, used to equip luxury vehicles. Maintaining a low production rate, at least by American standards, the company always remained true to its tradition of quality. The vehicle on show, preserved, has covered only 124,000 km.
Fiat 1400 Nuvolari (1950)
In the post-war years, when the Italian automotive industry was at the apex of its success, Fiat assigned its best technicians, headed by engineer Dante Giacosa, the task of developing project “101”: the future 1400, to be unveiled at the 1950 Geneva Motor Show. The car was inspired by the US-styled bodies that were all the fashion at the time. The idea behind the development of its engine was to take full advantage of the concepts developed for the latest American models, and this is the first Fiat to adopt a self-supporting body. The car shown was purchased by Nuvolari in 1950 and still has its original documents bearing Nuvolari’s name. After his death, the car was inherited by Tazio’s wife Carolina. Since 2013, the car has been a feature at the Museo Tazio Nuvolari in Mantua.
Timing and cost
The Crossroads show will remain at the Museo dell’Automobile di Torino, Corso Unità d’Italia 40, until June 25.
The museum opening time are:
Mondays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Tuesdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Tickets are 12 euros each, or 8 euros for visitors aged over 65 or under 14.
All photos courtesy of the author.