A Stitch In Time?

Is fabric automotive upholstery finally ready for a triumphant return after decades of leather fetishism? I recently received word that the new BMW 7-Series is available with woven textile upholstery; not just any fabric, but cashmere.

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Jettisoning the By-Products of Combustion, Then and Now

1966 Ford Mustang GT.

It’s hard not to notice how exhaust tips have evolved into fetish items over the past decade-and-a-half. Overly stylized and comically oversized, they have become carbuncles defacing the stern of the majority of mid and upper-range vehicles currently on offer.

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Timeless vs Of Its Time, Part II

James Kraus

First generation Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray.

In the first chapter of Timeless vs Of Its Time, we examined two American luxury cars, the 1961 Cadillac and Continental. Now we look at two sporting cars from the 1960s, The Corvette Sting Ray and the Porsche 911. The Sting Ray went on sale in the autumn of 1962, while the new Porsche made its public debut at the Frankfurt International Motor Show just one year later. Continue reading

1966: Year Of The Unilamp

James Kraus


1966 Ford Thunderbird

In the 1960s, many automotive designers began toying with the concept of a single tail lamp stretching across the stern like a single red florescent or neon tube. This idea was first expressed at the rear of the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans.   Continue reading

The Golden Years

by James Kraus

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1960 Ford Starliner. A touch of gold lends a lustrous sparkle of Jet Age swank

Since the dawn of the first horseless carriages, automobiles have been accented by shimmering metallic highlights. The earliest period of motoring is in fact popularly known as the Brass Era due to early radiators, acetylene headlamps and other accoutrements being constructed of brass, or protected by brass plating to resist high temperatures and corrosion. Brass was largely superseded by polished nickel plating in the early 1920s, producing a more durable surface and increased tarnish resistance. Finally, nickel was replaced by chromium which offered the advantages of being nearly tarnish and maintenance free.  Continue reading

A Toast to the 50th Anniversary of 1963

by James Kraus

Salon International de l'Auto, Geneva Switzerland, March 1963

Salon International de l’Auto, Geneva Switzerland, March 1963

1963 saw the Jet Age in full swing as the first Learjet took to the skies and a number of automobiles were launched that would become icons of the 1960s; one of which is still with us today.  Continue reading

The Allure of Period Colours

by James Kraus

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Lord Brett Sinclair’s Bahama Yellow Aston Martin DBS in The Persuaders!, 1971

Ancient wisdom once held that in the vintage car market, red, white and black were the best colours for resale. However, as Bob Dylan once declared; The times they are a-changin’.

Early Porsche 911 collectors for example often seek out and pay a premium for the colours that made those cars unique to their time period: Signal Orange, Viper Green, Aubergine, Tangerine; even the more esoteric shades of Olive and Golden Green. Continue reading

The Heyday of Cursive Script

by James Kraus

1964 Porsche 904 Carrera GTS. A masterwork in
the annals of badging: cursive lettering, gold-plating,
diagonal orientation, and unique placement flowing
over the curved transition from rear deck
to rear quarter panel

Free-flowing cursive script is not often seen on automobiles today. It still survives at Alfa Romeo, Ford, Lamborghini, Maserati and Porsche. Outside this quintet it is rare indeed. In days past, cursive was common throughout the industry.

Such longhand script was often utilized to enable casting a complete badge out of a single piece of metal. The alternative was to either run block letters together, or connect individual block characters with a bar across the top (à la Ferrari,) a bar at the bottom (typified by BMW and Mercedes-Benz) or through the centre in the style of Alfa Romeo.

Pre-war cars used cursive scripting almost exclusively, although badging itself was generally minimal or nonexistent. In the 1900’s manufacturer nameplates were usually affixed only to the front of the radiator, and model designations were not displayed. In the thirties, even this practice declined, with most vehicles displaying the manufacturer’s name only via a stylized logo atop the radiator shell. After the war, marque and model badging began proliferating and begat its own art form.

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Porsche, the Targa Florio and the Crocodile

by James Kraus

Umberto Maglioli and Vic Elford savor their victory at the 52nd Targa Florio, 1968. Photo: Vic Elford Collection

Many manufacturers offer polo shirts these days, but they are all knock-offs; all but one, that is. The one true authentic original short-sleeve mesh polo shirt is the Lacoste Classic Piqué L1212 Polo. It’s been around for 77 years.

It was invented by René Lacoste, a French tennis champion who twice triumphed at Wimbledon, won the U.S. Open on two occasions and thrice took victory laurels at the French Open. He was ranked Number One Player in 1926 and 1927.

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Cars with Chromatic Flair: A Celebration of Colour

by James Kraus Porsche Color Combinations

1966 MG 1100 Saloon in Glen Green over Pale Primrose. A distinctive (and distinctly British) combination.

In response to my November article on the rich history of automotive colouration in comparison to the monotonous and uninspiring colour combinations most often seen today (centering almost exclusively on black, grey and beige), I received a number of photos from owners of quite distinctive vehicles that took a stand in the battle against chromatic mediocrity. I am sharing the best of them with followers of Auto Universum in the hopes that they will offer inspiration to others.

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Terroir and Contemporary Automotive Design Trends

by James Kraus Bad Design

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Ominous, malevolent and sinister front ends of the 1950’s. Source: Design Quarterly

Automobiles have become more and more aggressive looking of late. A number of them, with their snarling grilles and squinting headlamps, have in fact crossed the line to surly and repulsive, displaying an unpleasantness last seen in the 1950’s.

This may have something to do with the fact that most of the world’s automobile manufacturers established design studios in Southern California some years ago.

Wine aficionados frequently discuss the effects of terroir on their favourite cuvées. The concept of terroir is that the local environment in which the vines grow (weather, soil, etc.) significantly affects the final product. In the same vein, could it not be that the local environment (architecture, clothing styles, attitudes, etc.) affects designers and their output?

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Alan Clark: The Thinking Man’s Enthusiast

by J Kraus

Back Fire: A Passion for Cars and Motoring by Alan Clark

I just recently finished reading Alan Clark’s Back Fire. It is a very refreshing book as he was a true connoisseur of automobiles and motoring; one of the few among enthusiasts that sought something special from his vehicles beyond performance and prestige.

In short; a man after my own heart. Alan could have as much fun behind the wheel of his 2CV, Beetle or 1950 Chevrolet as he would driving his Silver Ghost, Bentley Continental or 550 Spyder. As long as the car was imaginatively designed, well executed and entertaining to drive – that is what mattered.

Unlike the majority of enthusiasts and collectors, Alan was not so concerned with the bragging rights and bravado that come with high top speeds, low 0-60 figures and impressive lap times. These are the purview of those who evaluate cars as amusement park rides rather than automobiles. He was much more interested in the driving experience and character of his cars. To him, power and speed were subservient to soul.

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A Concise History of the Alloy Wheel

by James Kraus

1968 BMW 2800CS riding on unusually elegant alloy wheels featuring a polished chrome centre cap discreetly concealing the mounting lugs. Visible fasteners on a contemporary automobile are generally considered to represent a lack of refinement, yet seem to be embraced when they appear on otherwise highly stylized wheels. These were produced for BMW in Italy by FPS (Foundry Pedrini Siena).

Today, alloy wheels are all but ubiquitous and are used by automobile manufacturers as a key styling feature, often used to differentiate model ranges and equipment specification. They started becoming popular with the general public in the 1980’s, but were in fact offered sporadically since 1924.

Previous to the development of the alloy wheel, wheels were formed of two pieces of pressed steel, the rim and the disc, either welded or riveted into a single unit. Or, they were fabricated of a steel or aluminium rim, connected to a centre hub by metal spokes. A transitional design was a hybrid utilizing a steel disc for strength and an aluminium rim for weight saving. Such a design was used by Porsche and Jaguar in the 1950’s. Another example was the Borrani Bimetal, used on several Italian sporting models.

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A History of Automobiles and Colour before the Age of Chromophobia

by James Kraus


NBC Peacock, designed by John J. Graham, 1956

There is a distinct lack of coloration in today’s automobiles, with the majority seemingly finished in a shade that could be found on a greyscale chart. Things are no better in the interior; nearly always black, beige or grey, colours that architectural and couture designers refer to as neutrals. To make matters worse, these shades are all too often matched to the exterior pigment (i.e. black with black, silver with grey) to create insidious and mind-numbing monochrome vehicles that appear to have simply been dipped whole into a large vat of colourant.

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A Look Back: Classic Cold War Era Cars of the CCCP and the Eastern Bloc

by James Kraus

Coat of Arms of the former USSR (CCCP)

As a light rain falls outside on a chilly and moonless night in Berlin, I find myself sitting in the front room of the Café Adler on the corner of Friedrichstrabe and Zimmerstrabe, just a few meters from what was once Checkpoint Charlie. Men and women crossing through this notorious portal once faced life-changing or indeed, life threatening circumstances. Visitors to the East sometimes found that they could check in but not check out.

I invite you to throw on your trench coat, turn the collar up and join me for a glass of Kirschwasser as I travel back in time to the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Philby Affair and the Portland Spy Ring.

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End of an Era: The Last Air-Cooled Automobile Engines

by James Kraus

Air-Cooled Engine

Air-cooled horizontally opposed 12-cylinder powerplant

I have always been a fan of air-cooled engines. I even enjoy the mechanical noises that emanate from their insides, unmuffled by water jacketing and walls of cast metal. It serves as a reminder that the car is powered by an engine containing many precision parts moving in high-speed synchronization, akin to an Audemars Piguet running on high octane fuel.

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