Peppering the lists of great successes and dismal failures throughout automotive history are numerous episodes that can still raise eyebrows – either in awe or disbelief … or even derision. Hagerty Classic Cars will occasionally look into the past at moments of derring-do that sometimes bordered on lunacy but always left a lasting mark, large or small.
Badge-Engineering, 1940 Style
A lamentable trend in American cars from the late 1970s and even through the demise of the Mercury brand in 2010 was “badge engineering.” Sometimes, the only difference among corporate siblings was a plastic grille insert and, of course, the badges. Could you easily tell a ’75 Chevy Monza from a Buick Skyhawk or Olds Starfire or a 1982 Dodge Aries from a Plymouth Reliant?
The tradition of creating two or more different models with the same shell didn’t start in the 1970s, though. Two of the more curious cases occurred in the late 1930s and early 1950s. Three years after Cord collapsed in 1937, Hupp Motor Company acquired the dies to the beautiful, Gordon Buehrig-designed Cord 810/812 front-drive model and engineered a conventional rear-drive sedan with the body.
A redesigned nose eliminated the Cord’s unique louvered grille and pretty pop-up headlights, but the result was attractive enough, and the rest of the body retained the Cord’s lines. Unable to execute the project alone, Hupp teamed with another faltering independent, Graham-Paige, to produce the car. The result was two models, the Hupp Skylark and a slightly altered version called the Graham-Paige Hollywood. Fewer than 2,000 were built — just 319 of them Skylarks — before the endeavor ended in late 1940.
A dozen years later, Kaiser-Frazer (which had roots in the former Graham-Paige company) built a more deluxe version of its Henry J compact for Sears Roebuck’s Allstate automotive accessory outlets, mostly in the South and Southwest. Distinguished by a different grille designed by Alex Tremulus (Tucker 48), the Allstate also offered a nicer interior and added amenities compared to the Henry J, though, oddly, sold for a few dollars less. Just under 2,400 were built.
Four is Enough… to Win
Last year, fans of Formula 1 racing held their breath as the sport debated whether to change the formula to 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines. The idea was to lend the elite race series a closer tie to production cars and to reduce fuel consumption. In the end, the formula was changed from the current V-8s to V-6 engines, not fours, starting in 2014.
But what’s wrong with a four-cylinder race car? Harry Miller, whose great race cars were honored at the 2013 Amelia Island Concours d’ Elegance, found that four cylinders were enough when he created a 183-cubic-inch engine with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder to power the Duesenberg that won the 1922 Indy 500. From there, Miller developed his 91- and 122-cubic-inch fours, which won the Indy 500 nine times between 1926 and 1938, including four times in Miller’s front-wheel drive racers.
Miller’s associate, Fred Offenhauser, bought the bankrupt operation in 1933 and continued development of the engine as the Offenhauser, later selling to Louis Meyer and Dale Drake. The “Offy” would dominate Indy racing into the early 1960s and remain competitive into the 1970s, with some versions producing up to 1,000 horsepower.
W.O. Bentley was another proponent of four-cylinder engines. Bentley four-cylinder sports tourers won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times, three-liter models in 1924 and 1927, and a four-and-a-half-liter model in 1928.
The Franco-American Packard that Never Was
Among the pioneers of so-called “hybrids,” European luxury cars with American engines, was Facel-Vega of France. Solid engineering combined with distinctive design and exquisite luxury in a line of limited-production coupes built from 1954-1964. Chrysler-sourced V-8s powered all.
In 1958, a big sedan called the Excellence joined the coupe model. American-influenced design cues included a big wraparound windshield, tailfins and “suicide” doors. The 125-inch wheelbase was quite long for a European car, though overall length of 206 inches owed to a short front overhang. Under the hood was a Chrysler V-8, at first the 392 Hemi and then later 361, 383 and 413-cubic-inch “wedge” V-8s. Just 156 cars were made through 1964.
In 1959, Studebaker-Packard approached Facel-Vega with the idea of producing a version of the Excellence as a Packard. The car would get a Packard-style grille but would retain its Chrysler powertrain. By then, however, Studebaker-Packard had become the distributor for Mercedes-Benz cars in the U.S., and the German company objected to the new luxury model.