There is more to Austria than Schubert, Strauss and Strudel!

by James Kraus

JK - 1 (48)

Sobiesław Zasada and Kazimierz Oińsky on their way to a class win at the 1965 Rallye Monte-Carlo in a Steyr-Puch 650 TR II

I am not alluding to a certain well-known California actor and former politician, but a rather a more mechanical manifestation of Austrian muscle: The Steyr-Puch 650 TR II; a giant and gem among 1960s microcars. The TR II was a Fiat 500 injected with corticosteroids, human growth hormone and EPO; yet entirely legal.

The venerable firm of Steyr-Puch first began building their version of the Fiat Nuova 500 under license in 1957. Production began in the town of Graz, Austria, shortly after Fiat began their own production of their all-new rear-engine 500. While incorporating the Fiat’s monocoque structure and front suspension, the Steyr-Puch 500 utilized an in-house Steyr-developed powertrain and rear suspension.

While the Fiat 500 engine was designed to be as inexpensive as possible to manufacture, the Puch engine was incredibly lavish in design and execution, with a sophistication that put many larger and more expensive cars to shame.  Continue reading

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Fiat 600: Pearl of Torino

by James Kraus

JK - 1 (6)

Fiat 600

The Fiat 600, today mostly overshadowed by its smaller brother the 500, was the car that put post-war Italy on the road. Introduced in 1955, the 600 was one of the many miniscule masterpieces that emerged from the brilliant mind of Dante Giacosa.

Signore Giacosa, like many early automotive pioneers, was a true designer who not only oversaw engineering of the chassis and drive train, but also supervised body and interior design. This resulted in a unity of style, function and clarity of purpose that is all but impossible to find today, when car designs are the product of too many chefs.

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Ahoy! Amphicar 770

by James Kraus

JK - 1 (56)

Amphicar 770

I can think of no other vehicle that so epitomizes the unbridled optimism of the early 1960’s that pervaded Western Europe and the United States than the Amphicar 770.

This confidence in the future, born of an unwavering belief in technology and general good feeling at having survived wartime austerity (and indeed, the war itself) produced a unencumbered embrace of anything that appeared new, advanced or modern. The Amphicar certainly qualified on all counts.

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Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3: Ride of the Valkyries

by James Kraus

Stuttgart Express: The 300 SEL 6.3 at speed

The legendary and storied Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3 was a seminal automotive creation of the 1960’s; a comfortable, quiet, soft-riding, full-featured and meticulously crafted sedan that went like a Ferrari. Nothing quite like it had ever come along before.

The W108/109 S-Klasse Mercedes that served as the basis for the 6.3 was actually the first iteration of the S-Klasse as we know it today. Prior to its debut, The S models of the Ponton and Fintail era were simply mid-range models with longer front-ends, larger engines and superior trim.

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Tribute: Fiat 500 Topolino

by James Kraus

Designer Dante Giacosa with Fiat 500 Prototype, Piedmont, Italy, October 1934.  Antonio Fessia photo.

On 15 June 1936, Fiat began production of what was to be the first sophisticated, successful and universally admired mass-produced small car. There had been a number of small British and German cars available; most notably the Austin 7, originally introduced in 1922. However, none of these captured the imagination or garnered the accolades as did the new Fiat 500.

What set the 500 apart more than anything was what it was not. It was neither a bare-bones car like many of the cycle-cars of the day, nor was it simple a scaled-down large car. It was inexpensive to build; but not cheaply built.

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Tribute: Lancia Fulvia

by James Kraus

JK - 1 (48)

Fulvia Coupé

I never enjoy being coerced into selecting some favourite or best car. First off, for almost any given occasion or individual there is a vastly different car which would best warrant such a distinction.

Yet I must admit that there are a few vehicles that for me personally always seem to float to the top. The chosen few generally feature unique and technically intriguing engineering. Their uncompromising, sometimes idiosyncratic design show complete contempt for market research, study clinics or other dilutive influences. They represent what their designers thought right and proper for a motorcar and damn the torpedoes. The Fulvia is one of these.

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Tribute: The Volkswagen

by James Kraus

1952 Volkswagen Type 113

Volkswagen Type 113

Nearly anywhere you live, it has a name. Käfer (Germany), Beetle (US, UK), Coccinelle (France), Maggiolino (Italy), Fusca (Brazil), Buba (Croatia). It was the most mass-produced single model in automotive history and was like no other car on the road.

Under direction from Adolf Hitler to develop a affordable mass-produced car for the German people, Ferdinand Porsche came up with the concept that was to become the first VW, inspired heavily by the work of fellow Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka, designer of the mechanically similar Tatra T97.

Parameters laid down by the Führer included mileage of 7 L/100 km (36 mpg), air-cooling, seating for four and the ability to cruise endlessly at 100 km/h (62 mph) on the newly-built German Autobahns.

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Tribute: Alfa Romeo Giulietta

by James Kraus

Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint

It would be hard to name a car more quintessentially European or essentially Italian than the Alfa Giulietta in all its permutations.

Alfa Romeo developed an enviable reputation in the 1920’s and 1930’s in the art of designing and manufacturing high performance vehicles of first class quality. Their P2 Grand Prix car won the inaugural World Championship in 1925. The Alfa 158, campaigned for Alfa Romeo by Scuderia Ferrari, won thirty-one of the thirty-five events entered.

This experience was put to good use in the development of the Giulietta. The first model to debut in 1954 was the coupé version, the Sprint. To raise funds in order to tool up to produce the new range, Alfa held a lottery whereby winners would receive new Giulietta Berlinas. Unfortunately, development lagged the projected timeline and when the lottery results were announced, production was still far off. As a stopgap, Alfa arranged with Bertone to build what was meant to be a fairly small run of coupés. Being coachbuilt, these could be brought to market much quicker. The resulting Sprint was first shown at the Turin show in the spring of 1954. It won rave reviews and became a permanent member of the family. In 1955, the Berlina finally arrived and in 1956 the Spider, designed by Pininfarina.

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Tribute: Mercedes-Benz 600

by James Kraus

1964 Mercedes-Benz 600

For me, the Mercedes-Benz 600 will always be the gold standard by which large passenger cars are judged. By virtue of its size the 600 was imposing and magisterial, but due to its simple and elegant minimalist design, it was in no way ostentatious. It could be thought of as a Bauhaus limousine built to the less is more and God is in the details tenets of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

This car burst upon the scene in 1963 (first production in 1964) as a totally new and quite different concept in the rarefied world of exclusive automobiles. Prior to the 600, the choices in such a vehicle were the Daimler DR450, a Rolls Royce Phantom V or a Cadillac Fleetwood 75.

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