Classic Cars

Exploring the Engineering Renaissance of the 1950s in Seven Special Sedans

Sampling approaches from both sides of the Atlantic at Lime Rock Park

Emerging from World War II in 1945, the world’s automobile industry had plenty of rebuilding to do, not just in Europe, where bombs had dropped for years, but also in the U.S., where most factory capacity had been turned over to war work. The industry’s enthusiasm for getting back to what it loved most — designing, building, and selling new cars folks wanted to buy — showed. By the turn of the next decade, the cavalcade of automotive progress was back in full swing.

The 1950s: Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, McCarthyism, and the Red Scare. The rise of the military-industrial complex, the ascent of the Jet Age, the Space Age, and teenage culture. Bikini Atoll, Sputnik, “Rock Around the Clock.” Marilyn Monroe, Brown v. Board of Education — choose your change cliché, the ’50s had it. For cars, too, change was everywhere.

To experience this former future shock today, we summoned seven significant ’50s sedans to a race track also born of that time. Lime Rock Park in northwestern Connecticut, along with Willow Springs International Raceway in California and Wisconsin’s Road America, is one of the three longest continuously operating circuits in the U.S., celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2017.

A group of fine four-doors from seven carmakers. These classic cars ooze national character and idiosyncratic engineering.

Why sedans? They were the default choice during the era, available in all flavors and sizes. Our test roster tends toward middle-
and high-end sedans because that’s where technology was sweetest. These old cars strike us as fresh, wildly different from one another in conception, construction, and constitution, with dissimilar power plants and almost hilariously incongruent shift patterns for their different transmissions. They’re all sedans, but each is so different from the others. The fact manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic were defining themselves and creating what they created without the aid of computers was a gargantuan accomplishment.

1950 Citroen Traction Avant front three quarter in motion

1950 Citroën Traction Avant

In many ways the most up-to-date of our septet in conception, the Citroën’s engineering has roots in 1934, when the firm made its first real foray into futuristic engineering with this very model. Traction Avant equals front-wheel drive, and along with unibody construction it’s what we expect today, but in the 1930s the Tractions had no direct mainstream competitors.

With a long and low roofline laid out smack in the heart of the Depression era by Flaminio Bertoni (no relation to the Italian Bertone design house, which worked with Citroën years later), the Traction Avant must’ve really struck a chord in the ’30s. With wheels at the ragged edge of each corner and a postage slot for a windscreen, the car looks retro-sleek and incredibly gangster today — and probably always did. It is a credit to Bertoni and the French, who don’t always get their deserved credit for their contributions to OG style. André Lefèbvre is credited with the engineering, so advanced it carried — or should we say pulled — Traction production into the mid-’50s.

Modernity aside, the Traction has an engine as old a lump as it looks, with less than 60 horsepower to boot. But this well-worn example gets out of its own way. Despite 66 years in service, it keeps up with modern traffic, comporting itself nicely with firm but not unbearably heavy steering that rarely belies the front-drive arrangement and a ride that is velveteen by the low standards of 1934. The present caretaker of the car, which was once the property of racer Sam Posey’s feisty mother, is shop owner and former Group 44 mechanic Don Breslauer. He says that once you get used to it, it is easy to use the four-speed manual box with the gear lever sprouting from center dash.

1952 Chrysler Saratoga front three quarter in motion
Chrysler’s imposing dashboard is another distinctive feature that set sedans of the day apart from one another.

1952 Chrysler Saratoga

Chrysler’s 180-hp, Hemi-headed FirePower V-8 was big news in 1952. Journalists were blown away by the acceleration to 60 mph, a 10-second jaunt that was about as fast as it got back then. The four-door, six-passenger sedan brought to the track by Charles “Chuck” Schoendorf, who also owns a Saratoga coupe, was the subject of a splendid restoration prior to purchase.

Hydra-guide power steering was an exciting new option for Chrysler in 1952, and with the Saratoga’s 18.2:1 steering ratio and 4.75 turns lock-to-lock, you might argue an essential one, but this car doesn’t have it. Body roll aside, the Chrysler feels solid, comfortable, and well made. It rides impressively with front coil springs and a substantial heft of 4,000 pounds to haul around. It steers and corners better than you might fear, and this Chrysler moves out like it means it.

People remain excited by the idea of a Chrysler Hemi some 65 years later, which speaks to a profound and enduring reality: Whatever century you’re in, gobs of smooth power make drivers smile.

1952 Lancia Aurelia B10S rear three quarter in motion
Period plastics complement the painted metal dash, while a curious shift pattern may cause occasional botched gear changes.

1952 Lancia Aurelia B10S

The Aurelia was the baby of Italian motoring legend Vittorio Jano, who would design the great Lancia D50 Formula 1 car of 1955 following an already brilliant career in the employ of Alfa Romeo. This relatively early example of the sedan — a model made between 1950 and 1958 — sports Lancia’s signature unibody construction, which the company pioneered in the 1920s. It also has the world’s first production V-6, a forward-thinking 60-degree overhead-valve engine manufactured entirely from alloys, with hemispherical combustion chambers echoing the industry’s renewed love for older performance ideas that worked.

Climbing into the Aurelia, you first notice its pillarless construction; when the doors open, there is nothing but open space where the B-pillar ought to be. Although likely not the safest layout, it looks elegant, airy, and inviting. Better yet, the doors open and shut like exquisite jewelry — proof of serious engineering and superior build quality, which ’50s Lancias are all about. Ditto the precision column-shift that selects gears smoothly in a faraway rear transaxle, even though the shift pattern is backward to the others in this group.

The V-6 could displace up to 2.5 liters, but this B10S (the S stands for the Italian “sinistra,” or “left,” as in left-hand drive) makes do with 1.8 liters. So while it pulls well, revving enthusiastically to 4,500 rpm and beyond, it’s not the rocket ship that many American luxury buyers of the day wanted. It did, however, tempt our friend Santo Spadaro of New York’s Domenick European Auto, who imported it from Europe. Values for Aurelia convertibles and coupes (such as the one he sold too soon) are off the chart, and Aurelias like this are four-door gems. Not just of post-war Italy but in the context of all automobiles, ever.

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

Chevrolet embarked on a new era in 1955 as it built a mainstream sedan that piqued consumer desire with new, modern, slab-sided styling and exciting new vistas of performance. The latter came courtesy of a freshly designed high-compression V-8, an extra-cost option to Chevy’s standard Blue Flame six. Displacing 265 cubic inches in its first incarnation, the iron V-8 credited to future General Motors president Ed Cole, then a young engineer, lives today in the much changed but still recognizable Chevy small block.

It’s hard to find an unmolested ’55 Chevy — one that hasn’t been cut, torched, crashed, rodded, or resto-modded — and finding one with four doors is even harder. Richard Bogart, 83, bought his restored stock sedan a few years back, as it reminded him of his ’50s honeymoon with his recently departed wife. Its pristine condition and four doors make it a rarity, though it was converted at some point to eight cylinders from the six it was born with.

This example’s manual column shift directs three forward gears, and the “three on the tree” is a breeze to use. The Bel Air is not a unibody, with the heavy separate frame and lack of rigidity that tends to follow, but the driver is insulated from the jarring road by power-assisted steering that is close to flat-line numb. Four-wheel drum brakes are fine, if guaranteed to fade after hard use. For decades, ’55s were the muscle man’s first choice for a reason: fast in a straight line, looks cool — a formula that never tires.

1957 Alfa Romeo 1900 front three quarter in motion
Alfa’s first pass at the mass market is at once spartan and sophisticated, with minimal adornment yet a distinct sense of style, allied to performance most excellent for its day.

1957 Alfa Romeo 1900

The four-cylinder 1900 is not only the first Alfa with unibody construction but also Alfa’s first production model built on a line, the first fruit of its first modern factory. Built by American taxpayers with Marshall Plan money after the war, it vaulted the distinctly bespoke company into 20th century mass production.

Alfa’s 1900 came in many body styles, this one being the factory’s own four-door, steel-bodied Berlina. Its new-for-1950 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine incorporated racing practice with twin overhead camshafts. The 90 horsepower it generates in standard, single-carburetor form is enough to propel the base sedan we drove to a top speed of 94 mph. With a svelte 2,400-pound curb weight, it’s not surprising 1900 sedans won the Targa Florio and Stella Alpina races early in the model’s life.

The 1900’s four-speed gearbox is fluid, almost creamy in action, and its column shifter boasts simple operation. Ride is compliant with coil springs all around, and the steering feels tight and lively as we identified a refreshing absence of old-car rattles, though body roll is Old World substantial. A duo-toned interior with green vinyl accenting the dash and cloth seats with green wool inserts liven up the painted metal and sober instrument panel in a car that meant business — and in doing so helped create one.

1958 Jaguar Mark I 3 4 front three quarter in motion
The leather-lined interior and airplane gauges are a far cry from the soda shop look of the day, but with them Jaguar helped define luxury tastes and expectations for generations.

1958 Jaguar Mark I 3.4

The Jaguar Mark I debuted in 1955 with a front-mounted straight-six engine and rear-wheel drive. Of the cars here, it’s easily the sportiest and most fun to drive. It seems the most rigid, with the most aggressive suspension, the lowest roofline, and the sportiest demeanor, thanks in no small part to a strong engine and the only floor shifter in our group.

Launched as the Jaguar 2.4 liter, today’s example is a later model with 3.4 liters of displacement and 210 horsepower. It has a top speed of 120 mph and does 0-60-mph sprints in less than 8 seconds, which was hugely fast in the ’50s. Jaguar’s first entrant in the small luxury car market, which the Mark I helped to grow significantly, the model was built around Jaguar’s awesomely versatile XK engine, which in tuned form had powered the company’s contemporaneous Le Mans-winning D-Types. The base Mark I would have benefited from better brakes, although discs were a regularly specified option in all late-production cars, including this one. The combination of a rigid if arguably overbuilt unibody, a sporty chassis with strong disc brakes, and a manual gearbox — in this case, a four-speed on the floor with an electrically overdriven fifth gear — was and still is ideal.

The Mark I 3.4 is an emotive archetype for Jaguar sedans to the present day. In its day the car found success in saloon-car racing, and it’s easy to see why owner Todd Daniel threw a cage in it and went racing.

1959 Mercedes Benz 219 front three quarter in motion
Mercedes used leather and wood to a rugged, less sensual effect, but for solidity and reliability, Benz was in a class of one.

1959 Mercedes-Benz 219

Daimler’s sterling reputation in the U.S. began in 1953 with the introduction of the so-called “Ponton” series of Mercedes-Benzes. Drive this one and you know you’re in a carefully considered, high-quality machine from a long-respected German manufacturer.

Owner Jaime Kopchinski found this car in a warehouse in Hackensack, New Jersey, where it sat for the better part of half a century after driving but 12,000 miles from new. Seeing how Kopchinski is a senior telematics engineer for Mercedes, he is entitled to an employee discount on parts from the company’s Classic Center, which made reconditioning this smallish Benz sedan much easier. The Ponton series, which ran until 1962, comprised a suite of engines and wheelbases, all with fully independent suspensions, this being a W105. (Other related models include the W180, W121, and W128.) This Mercedes-Benz 219 is a unibody, the company’s first, and it has an inline-six displacing a modest 2.2 liters. The engine is notable more for its smoothness than any ability to snap necks.

Mercedes calls the Ponton the true ancestor of today’s E-Class. Silken smooth with a comfy ride, the 219 gives its driver a tangible sense of well-being, a cost-no-object excellence to which most other machines can only aspire.

Visit Lime Rock

Lime Rock Park is a fast, fun track in a quiet, densely forested part of Connecticut that’s really easy on the eye. Visit and stay at the Sharon Country Inn, less than 2 miles from the track and newly renovated by its helpful and jovial owner, Edi Cania. With a new wing, it now has 28 rooms, but be warned: Book in advance, especially for race weekends.

Sharon Country Inn, 1 Calkinstown Road, Sharon, Connecticut 06069-2127, sharoncountryinn.com
For track and events information visit: limerock.com

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