DG Top 10: Most Glamorous Cars, 1945 - Present

Aston Martin DB5 James Bond

This week's Top 10 list is by our resident car nut Diego Rodriguez, who blogs about design at Metacool and cars at Unabashed Gearhead Gnarlyness, leaving only a little time for DG. He last wrote for DG about fashion in World of Warcraft.--VP

I can only imagine the hate mail this post will generate. Even if you dislike cars, my sense is that you'll have a list of cars you believe are more glamorous than others. And it is very likely that none of your cars are on my list of glamorous cars. For a person like me, who suffers from an abiding love of automobiles, as well as a deep fascination for all the people who've designed, built, and raced them, putting this list together was pure torture. In the span of fifteen minutes I created a list of 47 contenders, and only via much gnashing of teeth and multiple strokes of the delete key was I able to whittle it down to the final ten.

Here they are, the ten most glamorous cars made after 1945 (in order of date of manufacture--any other ranking is just too difficult):

No 27, Lancia Aurelia B20GT, 1953, Driver Chris Gawne Lancia Aurelia B20GT (1950): the archetypal two-door gran turismo, this Lancia is a most elegant expression of Italian design in the postwar period. This is the auto for two people deeply in love to tour the lakes of Lombardy. I fell in love with it after seeing it at speed in the pages of Tintin. Of all the cars on this list, this is my favorite.

Sunbeam Alpine Sport (1955): Grace Kelly took Cary Grant for a ride in one in To Catch a Thief. Not a macho car, nor one of classic proportions, but a memorable shape nonetheless.

Aston Martin DB5 (1963): Goldfinger. Silver. Ejector seat. Tire-slashing wheel spinners. Not so much about James Bond, more about Sean Connery. British glamour at its best, and arguably the high point of Aston Martin design.

Ferrari 400 Superamerica (1963): For those of you who equate the Ferrari brand with gold-chain reruns of Magnum PI, please consider this: in the early sixties, Ferrari made just 47 of these bespoke beauties, each fettled with a hairy V-12 motor up front and exceptionally pure bodywork from Pininfarina. These were fast, glamorous cars built for kings. This was the Ferrari of Rockefellers, the Aga Khan, and Gianni Agnelli.

Mercedes-Benz 600 (1964): When a movie director wants to tell us that a very evil, very powerful, very nasty dictator (albeit one with good taste) is about to arrive, he is likely to choose this car. All joking aside, some truly awful human beings occupied the back seat of this car. Ultra expensive in its day, the 600 is still the ne plus ultra of the Mercedes brand. It's rumored that you can still buy a new one today if you have enough cash...

Lamborghini Miura (1966): One of these came to a tragic end at the start of The Italian Job. I've stayed away from out-and-out sports cars on this list because the experience of driving them is often less than glamorous, but because the Miura captures all that was outrageous about pre-Vietnam '60s culture, it made the cut. If you could afford to buy and run one of these, you had money. And if you were attractive enough not to be shown up by its timeless styling, you certainly qualified as glamorous.

Cadillac Eldorado Brougham (1957): Harley Earl's unique view of the universe is best personifed by this car, with its tailfins, dagmars, brushed stainless steel roof, and intricate metal detailing throughout. It featured suicide rear doors, stainless steel drink tumblers, a cigarette case, and even a perfume dispenser. Open those doors, and you half expect Marilyn Monroe to tumble out in all her platinum glory.

Porsche 911S (1970): I had to put a Porsche on the list. So I chose the one that Steve McQueen drove around the countryside of Le Mans at the start of his movie of the same name. Before the 911 became a testosterone wagon, it was a compact, even lithe vehicle powered by a relatively small motor. An elegant Porsche. As such, I think it's the most glamorous car ever driven by McQueen, who was one glamorous dude.

White-original-range rover Range Rover (1970): the first generation Range Rover was styled by engineers, but like the American Jeep which came thirty years earlier, its design process spawned something of great purity from an aesthetic point of view. As its basic, utilitarian design added layers of luxury and power over the years, it was transformed in to the ur-SUV, a temple of jet-setting glamour and power. If in 1957 the Eldorado would have been your vehicle of choice, in 1987 you wanted to be seen in a Range Rover. The most glamorous ride ever to sport external door hinges.

Toyota Prius (2004): not the dowdy first-generation model, nor the overly angular third gen edition. The second-generation Prius defined "hybrid" as a glamorous technological paradigm. Not only is this the only Japanese car on my list, but the Prius is the only one that Leonardo drove. Like all the other cars on this list, its glamour has its roots in power, but in this case it is about its relative lack thereof. What a difference 50 years makes... given a choice between this and the Sunbeam, I bet Grace Kelly would have driven one, too.

[ 1953 Lancia Aurelia by Bill Martin (Flickr photostream here), used with permission.]

Mechanical Watches: Symbols Of Status, Power, And Conquest

Breitling As mentioned in a recent post, mechanical chronograph wrist watches are symbols of status, power, and conquest for men that can afford them. One of the most interesting blogs about watches is Ablogtoread.com, and as was once posted there:

A lot of the time I wake up and want to wear a serious "show me the money" watch. That isn't about glitz, but rather about "I am going to go out and conquer the day!"

Some history is required to explain why some watch makers are "show me the money" brands, and why these watches are usually mechanical. Making an accurate, portable mechanical clock is extremely difficult, but the need for one was critical. The invention of the marine chronometer in the 18th century by Yorkshire carpenter John Harrison revolutionized marine navigation. It has been argued that the building of the British Empire depended on the dominance of the Royal Navy, and that this dominance occurred during a period when the ships of the Royal Navy had marine chronometers and their opponents’ ships did not. Accurate chronometers later proved crucial for aviation navigation, and they are useful for land warfare. During World War II the American watch company Hamilton perfected the mass production of accurate wrist watches and shipped more than a million of them overseas.

Wood_tag Given this history, it is not surprising that manufacturers of prestige watches like Omega, Rolex, TAG Heuer, Breitling and others advertise this association with marine and aviation navigation. They also use images to connect to airplanes, trains, and racing and luxury ships and cars. Breitling, for example, frequently uses images of military planes, and also has an association with Bentley automobiles. And any male athlete who is a highly dominant figure in his sport may be approached to represent a luxury watch company. Thus the ads for Tiger Woods and TAG Heuer suggest that wearing a their watch implies you are “made of” the same dominating stuff as Tiger Woods.

 Ironically, in the 1970s mechanical watches were quickly outclassed in accuracy by quartz watches. A typical quartz watch is accurate to 1/2 second a day, and rated quartz watches can be accurate to within ten seconds a year. Highly accurate mechanical watches can be accurate to about 1/10 second a day, but this kind of accuracy in a mechanical watch comes at enormous expense, especially as you add “complications.”

Complications are watch functions other than telling you the time. Typical complications are date functions, stopwatch functions, lunar phases, and so on. To give an example of the relative costs of adding complications to a watch using electricity versus purely mechanical means, consider the Citizen Campanola Grand Complication. This watch is discussed in detail at ablogtoread, and there he estimates that this complex watch (which sells for approximately $3,000) would cost $80,000 if duplicated as a mechanical watch.

Campanola Much of the work on the Campanola is hand done, with attention to finishing details that would rival any luxury watch. But for years neither Citizen nor Seiko attempted to sell their high-end watches outside of Japan. They realized that in places like the U.S.A. they could not compete with the brand snobbery associated with luxury watches. They faced the same issue that Toyota faced in trying to compete with Audi or Mercedes Benz. In the U.S.A., Toyota was known mostly for making well-made, but relatively inexpensive cars. So Toyota created Lexus as a division of high-end automobiles. Likewise Citizen has created Campanola as a separate division in order to market this watch. (The watch that ablogtoread first reviewed was labeled Citizen, but now the watches are labeled Campanola. After all, what CEO would want a watch that suggested he was an ordinary “citizen.”)

Once upon a time owners of mechanic watches might have taken comfort that if a worldwide catastrophe stuck while they were out on their yacht, causing all electrical battery supplies to vanish, their mechanical chronometer would still allow them to keep accurate time. But now there are quartz watches that use light (or pivoting mechanisms that move when the watch is worn) to power storage batteries, and thus they never need replacement batteries. So owners of those watches would still be able to tell time (and most likely more accurately too).

Because of their accurary and advantage in production costs, quartz watches now account for the majority of watch sales. Because of their tradition, high price, and mystique, mechanical watches still retain top status as collectibles. But even the luxury brands now use quartz movements in some of their watches, and who knows if future generations will care that mechanical watches might at one time have helped conquer the world. As reader belle de ville pointed out relative to my last post on watches, jewelers don’t yet know whether the cell-phone, iPod generation will bother to wear watches at all.

Can Buses Be Glamorous After All?

I've always said that every form of transportation has been glamorous, except buses. But Todd Lappin at Telstar Logistics has posted this image, scanned from The Big Book of Real Trucks (1950), and made me reconsider the bus exception to the glamorous transportation rule.

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The Glamour Of Speed

ShowImage-4.asp Even at the command of a skilled typist, an old-time manual typewriter is not all that fast--and it never looks fast. So how is a designer to suggest speed and the modernity that speed represents?

By association, of course. And this one is a clever one. Not only does the poster, up for auction at Swann Galleries, turn the typewriter into a train-by-association, it stylizes the train to make it look faster and more modern than anything you'd actually see on the rails.

The one flaw in the message: Most of us don't want to turn out blank pages. It is faster though...

Tomorrow's Transportation...Yesterday

Tomorrowland2

This 1967 poster, once on display at Disneyland, goes on sale at Sunday's L.A. Modern Auction. Although not as sleek as the Seattle Monorail, the PeopleMover partakes of the same mid-century transit glamour--the dream of clean, collective transportation looks effortlessly speedy in renderings. Trains Are the Future!

Despite brilliant satire, the essence of this monorail fantasy survives. Witness the success of Prop. 1A, a "fairy tale" initiative committing California to nearly $10 billion in bonds for high-speed passenger trains--the top reason for supporting it was that high-speed rail was important to "the future" of the state--and, of course, L.A.'s glamorously named Subway to the Sea.

UPDATE: The PeopleMover poster sold for $3,250, less than the anticipated $4,000-6,000. Disappointing, I'm sure, but more than bidders offered for two other Disneyland posters, one for the Peter Pan ride and one for the "America the Beautiful" Circarama. Lacking the futuristic glamour of the PeopleMover, neither made its reserve price.

More Futures Past

Bonneville_2In 2005, Steve and I happened to catch this great exhibit, "Driving Through Futures Past," at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Although the highlight of the exhibit had to be the 1954 Bonneville Special (sorry for the low-quality of my snapshot), the real revelation was the art on the walls: concept car renderings done by mid-century car designers. (Here's a slide show of samples from the exhibition.) Although I'm far from a car buff and don't even like the fins-and-chrome look of mid-century cars that much, I loved both the aesthetic feel of the renderings and their exuberant futurism. What a great thing to collect, I thought. I wonder where you get them?

At the June Art Deco and Modernism Show in San Francisco, I met one of the sources: Leo Brereton, who has rescued many of these drawings from Detroit area basements and attics and sells them to collectors. (He also collects and sells original illustrations from pulp fiction and, as you can see from the photo, mid-century science fiction.) He talked to me about car renderings.

Q: How do you define what you collect and sell?Leo_6

A: I deal in automotive concepts or renderings, which are the drawings done by the designers for the Big Three as well as independent automobile manufacturers, from the '30s through the '70s, with an emphasis on the '50s and '60s.

Q: Where do you get the drawings?

A: Primarily from the designers themselves. As a designer, you were not encouraged to keep the stuff you were working on. However, if you were the guy who worked for 24 years in the Buick Division and all of a sudden you were transferred to Cadillac, your boss might say, "All the stuff in these files that we haven't cleaned out in 20 years, if you want it fine. If not just throw it out."

There was no thought--not a moment's thought--at a place like GM that this archive might be important one day, that we should open up a museum, if nothing else to toot our own horn. That lack of vision is astounding. So routinely the work is now found in landfills across Metropolitan Detroit.

Q: How long have you been doing this?

A: About 10 years. There really wasn't a market for it when I started.

Q: And what do these represent to people who buy them today?

A: Visions of the past, examples of great designs. It's a nostalgia thing, as well as a clear recognition that this work has gone unrecognized.

I wound up buying several renderings by automotive designers from Leo. Here's a slide show. But only one of the drawings, by a Czech designer Leo knew nothing about, is of a car of the future. The rest take the glamour of high-speed transportation to the sea and to space, in inspiring but wildly impractical forms. When I showed them to our friend Greg Benford, the astrophysicist and hard science fiction writer, he rolled his eyes. Looking at the moon vehicle John Aiken (later famous for the Mercury Cougar) designed as a student project, he asked, "Why would you want streamlining in a place with no atmosphere?" For the same reason Golden Age Hollywood put actresses in gowns they couldn't sit down in and Cecil B. DeMille demanded high heels even for Paulette Goddard in Northwest Mounted Police--to transport viewers to a world that transcends the practicalities of real life.

Here's a gallery of renderings from designers' student days from a blog devoted to concept car art. And here's design critic Phil Patton on automotive illustrations.