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September 11, 2007

Concours Touring

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Every couple of years or so I visit the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance automobile show. It's a pricey but interesting event for car buffs who are into automobile aesthetics. Since this is a blog written by arts buffs, I feel it's my sacred duty to pass along some of the more interesting items on display: recently I posted on a rare Voisin that I spied in the sales / auction area.

Today I'll show you two examples of Italian styling at its best. Both cars were designed and built by Carrozzeria Touring, an important firm from the 1920s into the 1950s.

The first car is a 1939 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Sport Touring Berlinetta. When it was designed, car styling was in the later stages of the transition from boxy, non-aerodynamic shapes where headlamps, fenders, trunks and other exterior components were separate forms to all-enclosing "envelope" bodies that were streamlined in appearance, if not quite in reality. The Alfa's components are still distinct, though partly blended. Many contemporary cars were at this same evolutionary point, but more awkward-looking. Touring created a car where everything fits into a pleasing, well-proportioned whole.

The other car was built ten years later, though the evolutionary span is really only five years or so if the disruption of World War 2 is subtracted. Whereas the Alfa was a passenger car, the 1949 Ferrari 166 MM Touring Barchetta was a racing car -- the "MM" refers to Mille Miglia, Italy's long-distance road race that was run for decades until it was finally deemed too dangerous. As I reported here, I'm not much of a Ferrari fan. Nevertheless, the styling of early (up through the mid-1950s) Ferraris was generally very good, and the 166 MM is one of the outstanding examples. Here the transition to the "envelope" form is complete. The car is taut and purposeful. No extraneous detailing; the crease along the upper sides of the body adds visual length and probably adds some stiffness to the sheet metal.

Here are some photos I took.




Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Sport Touring Berlinetta - 1939




Ferrari 177 MM Touring Barchetta - 1949

I've been to three Pebble Beach Concours. The event is normally held the third Sunday in August, a time of year when the Monterey area can get foggy. My first two visits featured overcast -- not usually a good thing for picture-taking. This year was sunny, as you can see from the photos above. Nevertheless, even sunshine has it photographic downside. That's because the cars shown at Pebble Beach can be so shiny that one's photo might show more reflections than car; I certainly took a lot of reflection-filled photos. Despite that, I got enough good stuff for a few more posts. Hope you won't mind.



posted by Donald at September 11, 2007


"...I got enough good stuff for a few more posts. Hope you won't mind."

Not in the slightest, Donald.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 12, 2007 12:23 AM

Holy Moley--I covet, desire, and would be willing to give my firstborn for that '49 Barchetta.

Posted by: susan on September 12, 2007 8:35 AM

Nice photos, and excellent info and appreciation too. Looking forward to more such. Your bit about Carrozorria Touring reminds me of one thing that's always baffled me about car-design history. In Europe, there seem to have been these outfits that didn't exactly build cars but that designed them. Didn't Ferrari use them too? Anyway, what were they exactly? Just outside design firms? Is that something that's distinct about the European car industry? Has design always been done in-house in America? Yours in ignorance... M.B.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 12, 2007 10:47 AM

Michael -- The custom body business started pretty much the same in Europe and here. Firms would design and build everything save the radiator/hood part of the body (that part was usually retained so that the rest of the world would know that they were viewing a Rolls, Hispano, Duesenberg, Packard, Minerva, etc. and not a crummy old Buick or Citroen).

By WW2, most American coachbuilding firms had failed due to the Depression. The Depression evolved differently in different parts of Europe, and many such firms survived until, say, the early 60s (I simplify greatly). Post-war Italy had a number of coachbuilders that thrived because their designers and craftsmen were very good. But demand gradually fell as wages for the craftsmen rose while Italy's economy improved relative to the rest of Europe.

So some firms such as Touring dropped by the wayside. One firm, Ghia, built a number of prototypes for Chrysler (designed in Detroit, not Italy), and later was bought by Ford, who later sold it -- check Wikipedia for its fate. Pininfarina became the main designer-builder for Ferrari and other firms tried to get into the small production run business. Giugiaro's ItalDesign specializes in design, prototyping and production engineering for major automobile firms (who also have their own design staffs or, at the time, were developing their staffs -- think Koreans). Pininfarina and others also provide consultation and prototypes for manufacturers, but probably with less engineering input. My guess is that this is done to keep internal design staffs sharp via competition. Or maybe internal staffs are overtaxed and outside help is needed for a few projects.

These surviving coachbuilders also build the occasional show car for publicity purposes: Giugiaro had a Ford Mustang at Pebble Beach this year.

Bespoke bodies are still built, but in very small numbers. They cost a ton of cash.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 12, 2007 12:47 PM

I don't even care about cars (on my third Corolla now) and I like those cars!

I always thought overcast was better than bright sunshine for pictures. Nature's glare filter, or something like that. But your shots look great, whatever the conditions were!

Posted by: communicatrix on September 12, 2007 12:49 PM

So that's what a "coachbuilding firm" was, tks. I could never figure out what the hell they were, or what the hell they did. Pininfarina -- I remember that name from my days in the '60s following cars ... Great stuff.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 12, 2007 2:08 PM

Check this thing out -- a stretch Ferrari limo. Not quite sure what to make of it myself. Feels like I'm on funny drugs ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 12, 2007 2:11 PM

I wonder whether the Edsel design team got their idea for the vertical horse collar radiator grille from Alfa Romeo? Of course, AR managed to make their vertical grille look appealing whereas the Edsel's was plug ugly and IMO was the single feature that killed the Edsel. Just a thought.

Posted by: ricpic on September 12, 2007 5:53 PM

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