10 December 2013

Postcards from Europe: A look at Euro-influenced American collectibles

With its rear-mounted air-cooled engine and taut lines, the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair was perhaps the most overt example of European influence on an American car. A look back to the 1960s-1980s reveals a number of other examples, notably from GM, that showed a less blatant though still strong link to “the continent” while retaining American character.

1963 Studebaker Avanti

The Avanti stands out as an American original, with a design that went on to influence both American and European coupes. The struggling carmaker adopted features more commonly seen on European GTs, most significantly proportions that were trimmer than on American personal luxury coupes. Bucket seats, full gauge instrumentation and a floor console-mounted shifter combined influence from both aircraft and high-end Euro models.

1963 Buick Riviera

Even before GM decided that its Thunderbird rival would become the Buick Riviera, design chief Bill Mitchell had put his stamp on the car. Mitchell called for a look that combined Rolls-Royce elegance with the low stance and presence of Ferrari coupes. You can see the Rolls inspiration in the Riviera’s crisp roofline, and the Ferrari touch shows in the grille and also the relationship between the fenders and hood.

Like the Avanti, the Riviera adapted interior themes from European GTs, including its four-seat layout, round-gauge instrument panel, sweeping console and elegant trim.

1967 Mercury Cougar XR-7

The exterior design of the first-generation Cougar is purely American, and one of the best of the era. But look inside the upscale XR-7 version to see how Mercury applied a Jaguar-like look with the wood trim and toggle-switch controls. Even the Cougar name and big-cat insignia echoed a Jaguar vibe.

1967-1969 Pontiac Firebird Sprint

When Pontiac introduced the Firebird, the division’s fabulous 400 cu.-in. V-8s were joined on the option menu by the division’s overhead-cam inline six, an engine configuration more commonly seen on European cars like Mercedes-Benz. The Sprint package included a high-output version (215 gross horsepower) as well as handling tweaks to appeal to the sports car set.

Road & Track tested a ’67 Firebird Sprint with a 4-speed and recorded 0-60 mph in 10 seconds and the quarter-mile in 17.2 sec. at 81 mph, well behind the pace of Firebird V-8s. Even with the Sprint engine enlarged from a “3.8 litre” to a 230-horse “4.1 litre” (complete with British spelling) for 1969, it’s easy to understand why buyers favored the V-8s.

1975-1976 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega

The Cosworth Vega continued the idea behind the earlier Firebird Sprint – “Europeanizing” an American sporty coupe with a smaller but more sophisticated powertrain and handling-focused suspension. This special Vega came with a racing pedigree from Britain’s Cosworth Engineering, which had built and raced a twin-cam engine based on the Vega’s aluminum block.

The 1975 Cosworth Vega’s 2.0-liter engine produced 110 horsepower, 40 percent more than a stock Vega 2.3-liter unit. The engine featured a dual-overhead cam cylinder head with four valves per cylinder, as well as Bendix electronic fuel injection, features that even many European models lacked. The 1976 version offered a 5-speed manual transmission.

The automotive media praised the Cosworth Vega for its well-rounded, European-like performance. Unfortunately, its $5,900 price — 50 percent more than a base V-8 Camaro — seemed European, too. About 3,500 were built for the two model years.

1970 Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird

Creases gave way to curves when the second-generation Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird debuted for 1970. Once again, GM design chief Bill Mitchell drew inspiration from Ferrari, notably the early 1960s 250 GT berlinettas.

The long hoods, big grilles, headlights faired into the fender tips, and single-window fastback profiles drew a direct link to the fabled Pininfarina-shaped Ferraris. Yet, the GM ponycar designs were uniquely American in their long and lean but muscular proportions.

The Camaro’s optional Rally Sport option included a different front-end design with bumperettes and directional lights flanking the grille, a further nod to classic Ferraris. The Firebird’s split Endura grille evoked the 1961 Ferrari “sharknose” Formula 1 racecar.

How much did Mitchell love Ferrari? He had GM Design concoct a special Firebird called the Pegasus for his personal use. Behind an even more Ferrari-like nose sat a 350-horsepower Ferrari V-12.

1973 Pontiac Grand Am and Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon

When GM introduced new midsize designs for 1973, Pontiac and Oldsmobile offered models with strong European overtones. The Pontiac Grand Am seemed almost like a “grown up” successor to the GTO, with as much a focus on “Radial Tuned Suspension” handling as performance from the still-potent 400 and 455 cu.-in. V8s offered.

The Euro-influenced interior featured bucket seats, console floor shift, full-gauge instrument panel and wood trim on the dash (later changed to simulated wood). The debut Grand Am coupe and sedan sold 42,000 compared to about 4,800 GTO-optioned 1973 LeMans models.

Similar in concept to the Grand Am, the Olds Cutlass Salon included radial tires and suspension specially tuned for handling. Reclining front bucket seats were a real Euro touch, and in case anyone missed the point, the exterior badge with a row of international flags conveyed the car’s worldly demeanor.

1984-1992 Lincoln Mark VII

The 1984 Lincoln Mark VII surely caused apoplexy in at least a few brand loyalists. The sleek design deftly adapted Ford’s “aero” look to taut coupe proportions inspired by the BMW 6-Series coupe. The Mk. VII even briefly offered an optional BMW turbodiesel engine.

The biggest Euro influence showed in the LSC version, which ditched the chrome and whitewalls for more subdued trim and outfitted the cabin in a style closer to BMW and Mercedes coupes. Performance was a weak point until the Mustang’s 200-horsepower 5.0-liter H.O. engine arrived for 1986, boosted to 225 hp in 1988. All Mk. VII models had air suspension.

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