The NEW Cars of 1952: 70th anniversary. Another BIG year
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The NEW Cars of 1952: 70th anniversary. Another BIG year

By retroautos - 07 December 2021

It is 70 years since the all-new cars of 1952 appeared on the road. As time passes it is easy to forget just how many interesting cars appeared that year. There was Bentley’s R-Type Continental. Sensational! Over in the USA, Ford raced ahead of GM and rebodied every car in every division, developed two new OHV engines and established the template for the car-based station wagon for the future. Willys released their compact Aero. Prince in Japan unveiled its first ICE powered car. Austin’s A30 and A40 debuted and Nash invited Battista “Pinin” Farina to help shape its biggest sellers. And that’s just a sample from a BIG year.

Bentley: Doing the Continental.

Championed by Rolls-Royce’s chief engineer, Ivan Everton, and chief designer, John Blatchley, the R-Type Continental was the world's fastest four-seat car when it appeared in 1952. Unique to Bentley, it had no Rolls-Royce twin. It was a true 100mph/160kmph grand tourer at a time when 60mph/97kmph was a struggle for many cars. Zero to 60 was achieved in around 10 seconds, a stunning achievement at the time.

I doubt anyone who bought a Continental ever needed to ask “how much?” Rather, the question was “when will it be delivered?”

Legend has it that when the Rolls Royce Board members saw the prototype, named Olga, they thought it too sporty. Lobbied from within and by dealers they were eventually persuaded that a market existed for a large, fast, sports-luxury coupe. The majority of the 208 that were built had their handcrafted panels shaped by coachbuilder H. J. Mulliner.

The Continental prototype was called “Olga”. It had a slightly higher roof line than the production version. Bespoke bodies by various styling houses, including Farina, played with the lines but never the overall theme.

If you had bought a Continental your accountant would have authorised payment of an invoice of around £6,300. That amount of money represented three times the average price of a UK house and twelve times the average annual wage.

The elegant shape, with its long bonnet and short boot, informed the design of the 1955 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and Bentley S1, which Blatchley styled.

It was the concept car you could buy from legendary Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealer, Jack Barclay Ltd, on Berkeley Square, Mayfair. 

Ford: Setting the template.

Ford restyled its entire car range and introduced new OHV six and eight-cylinder engines. The 318 cubic inch/5.2 litre V8 went into Lincolns and trucks. The “mileage maker” six was standard for Ford. Mercury and Lincoln finally gained hardtop coupes, three years behind GM. Ford and Mercury station wagons became all-steel. Lincoln used GM’s HydraMatic transmission and employed a new ball joint front suspension designed by Earle McPherson.

What is often forgotten is that Lincoln finished first, second, third and fourth in stock car class of the gruelling and dangerous 1952 Carrera Panamericana race. They won again in 1953 and 1954.

Matching the size and style of a house with the status of the car is an often-used automotive theme. A new Customline for the young family in their new suburban paradise. A Mercury is the car for the quietly wealthy, domiciled in a large house with a sweeping driveway. A luxury Lincoln Capri coupe speeds its occupants away from an architect designed ultra-modem water front home.
© Ford Media 2021

The move to an all-steel body ended Ford’s long tradition of “woody wagons”. It was not a leader in this trend. In fact, it was almost last. GM’s Suburban had been all steel since 1935. Willys/Jeep and Chevrolet had sold all steel wagons from 1946 and 1949, respectively. What Ford did, however, was redefine a wagon’s purpose and status. It went from being generally perceived as a commercial hack to a consumer desirable.

Gordon Buherig, of Cord 810/812 fame, had specific responsibility for the project. He delivered practicality and style with a lowered roof line that only accentuated the high roofed panel van-like products of the competition.

Three years late to the hardtop party was Mercury’s Monterey.
© Ford Media 2021

While other car makers gave scant visibility to their limited range of wagons, Ford elevated its models to centre stage alongside its convertibles and hardtop coupes. They came in three levels. The two door Ranch Wagon was the price leader. Next was the strangely named Country sedan. At the top of the tree was the luxury Country Squire, with Di Noc (fake) wood panels, standard V8 and three rows of seats. It was Ford’s most expensive car. Mercury offered two V8 powered models.

No longer the commercial van converted into a station wagon or a high maintenance Woody, Ford’s three models promised car like comfort and driveway appeal. That’s the basic Ranch Wagon at the top. Fake wood panelling identifies the expensive Country Squire. The mid-range Country Sedan was ideal for growing families.

The wagons arrived just as families were moving from crowded cities to the wide-open spaces of suburbia. They needed a car with room to accommodate their growing brood of children, haul stuff back from the newly built malls, cruise comfortably on the expanding freeway network and, importantly, look great in the driveway. Ford set the template for the visually appealing family wagon for the next 70 years.

The circular tail lights with a centre indicator and “tubular” fender styling theme became a Ford design trademark lasting into the late 1960s. 

Sales of Ford wagons increased from around 29,000 in 1951 to over 53, 000 in 1952. By 1954 they’d reached 150,000, 15% of total output. By comparison, buyers avoided Chevrolet’s stodgy “vans” with sales plummeting to just 33% of Ford’s tally in 1954.

If you think these Fords, Mercurys and Lincolns appear similar, you are right. Ford was beginning to emulate GM by sharing components, inner structures, glass and selected panels across multiple models to save money.
The shape of the 1952 Ford was generally finalised in 1949, as seen in this 3/8ths scale model. The print advertisements and brochures emphasised that the new Fords were BIG.

Splish Splash it’s another bathtub Nash.

In 1950 Battista "Pinin" Farina was contracted to bestow his design talents on Nash’s volume models, the Ambassador and Statesman. Nash was the first American company to request his services and brand name.

When the Pininfarina Nashs appeared in ‘52 it was the company’s golden anniversary as a car maker. The advertisements and brochures loudly proclaimed the Italian’s significant contribution to their styling. Nash was less vocal about using GM’s HydraMatic transmission.

Nash gave Farina lavish praise and all the credit. Retaining fully enclosed front wheels ensured mocking “bathtub” description continued in use until the wheels were progressively exposed beginning in 1955.

But things were not all as they seem. In the April 1996 edition of Collectible Automobile Patrick Foster disclosed that two design proposals had been developed. One came from Pininfarina. The other was the work of Nash’s in-house design team, led by ex-GM designer Ed Anderson. Nash executives chose the in-house car and incorporated a few of Pininfarina’s ideas, such as the reverse angle C pillar, to align with the advertising and marketing strategy.

The Nash brochure “revealed” Farina’s sketches from his supposed “secret notebook”.

Pininfarina was quoted in Nash advertisements that the 1952 range would be “memorable cars of the era.” The buying public thought otherwise. Compared to 1951, Nash’s total sales dropped 10, 000 to 162,000. The slide continued through 1953. In 1954 Nash sold only 63,000 cars and was forced to merge with Hudson to form American Motors.

Pininfarina was also given credit for the major restyle of the Hash-Healey, an expensive US-only sports car. Only 150 people were interested in buying one. A V8 Cadillac coupe de Ville cost 30% less.

No wonder the Hash-Healey was an expensive car. The Nash engines were shipped to Healey’s UK factory where they were mated to the chassis. This was sent to Pininfaina’s Italian workshops where the body and interior was added. Then it went back to USA for sale.

Borgward 2400. Hansa and regrettable.

Let’s face it, the Hansa 2400 is no design trend setter. Thus, is it not surprising that Carl Borgward’s “executive” automobile was a slow seller. The car’s styling was a mix of 1930s rear hinged doors, a 1940s fastback roof line and flow-through fenders. To me, it resembles a 1948 Standard Vanguard with a chop top roof. Do not mistake that comment as praise.

The 2400’s rear hinged doors are out of place, even in the early 1950s.

An automatic transmission, called the Hansamatic, was optional. Some say it is Europe’s first auto shifter. Whatever its claim to that bit of fame, the transmission proved troublesome, adding another reason not to buy the car. What was impressive were a series of print advertisements that almost rival the famed mid-sixties Pontiac artworks by Fitz and Van. A beautifully rendered 2400 is always shown surrounded by young, thin, affluent looking people.

Borgward’s print advertisements look fresh and vibrant seven decades later.

Panhard Dyna Junior: could nothing be finer?

Would you buy a car called Junior? Well, between 1952 and 1956, 4700 people gave money to Panhard dealers and drove away in a Dyna Junior. It was originally aimed at the US market but when its American backers backed out of the deal Panhard focused on Europe. A 52 cubic inch/0.845 litre four-cylinder OHV engine powered the car through its front wheels. This was no luxury auto. It had no boot lid nor external door handles. The gear shift protruded from the dashboard.

I’ve used the Junior’s advertising material to protect your eyes from the horror of the real thing.

Austin A30 and A40: Leonard Lord’s look-a-likes.

What is the link than ties together the Austin A30, 1958 Edsel, 1936 Ford, mid-sixties Lincolns, Studebakers of the late 1940s and early 1950s, 1949 Ford and mid-fifties Hillmans? Give up? Well, all were in some way influenced by American car designer Holden “Bob” Koto.

Koto’s contributions to all of these cars, and many others, deserves more recognition than he has been given over the years. But for now, I’ll focus on his styling of Austin’s little A30.

Do you think it was intentional that the tall woman was positioned in the foreground of this photo to make the A30 look even smaller than it was?

In early 1950 the A30’s styling contract was given to the famed American industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Koto was one of Loewy’s team and spent four months in the UK on the project. After Koto retuned to the USA, Austin’s boss Leonard Lord, and his chief stylist Ricardo Burzi, changed the A30s shape to align it more with the A70 and upcoming A40.

The A30 was first shown at the 1951 Earls Court Motor Show, but production did not start until May 1952. The little car pioneered Austin’s transition to unitary construction and featured the new A-series 49 cubic inch/ 803cc OHV engine. Austin sold 223,000 A30s.

Austin’s other big news was the mid-sized A40 Somerset. It replaced the Devon which had seen service since 1947. The roly-poly shape of the sheet metal was based on the larger Herford A70 and the 1948 A90 Atlantic.

Hooray for Hollywood! An A40 in Los Angeles. What was it doing there? I have no idea, except that this photo was taken (circa 1953) on the corner of Deronda and Linforth Drives, in the old Hollywoodland real estate development area. The streetscape is very different these days.
© Los Angeles Water and Power 2021.

An A40 convertible appeared in late 1952 and in December a deal was inked with Datsun in Japan to sell locally assembled Somersets. You can read more about this arrangement in my February 2020 Retroautos story. There is a link at the end of this story.

Studebaker: Coupe by Bourke and Koto.

It was the 100th anniversary of Studebaker’s commencement of wheeled vehicle manufacture and 50 years since they’d unveiled their first powered automobile.

Joining Lincoln and Mercury in tardiness, Studebaker’s hardtop coupe belatedly joined the pillarless trend. It was styled by Robert Bourke, the elder brother of future Ford Australia boss, Bill Bourke. Also on the design team was Holden “Bob” Koto. The hardtop gave us a glimpse of what would appear in 1953, the glamourous Starlight and Starliner coupes, which Bourke and Koto also shaped. Their boss, Raymond Loewy, took the credit.

Like Mercury and Lincoln, Studebaker handed GM a three-year advantage with hardtop coupes. The styling team of Bob Bourke and “Bob” Koto gave new life to a body structure that dated back to 1947.

Fiat 8V: Copy, right?

The Fiat 8V was a V8 sports car which appeared at the 1952 Geneva Motor Show. Automotive folklore says Fiat believed that Ford owned the copyright for the term “V8”, so they switched it around to avoid potential legal problems. The engine was 70-degree V configuration of 122 cubic inches/ two litres capacity. Bodies differed depending on which coachbuilder did the shaping. Production ended in 1954 after 114 were built. The car delivered racing success in the Stella Alpina rally, 12 Hours of Pescara and at Monza.

Fiat has an 8V in its museum and it is “raced” at historic meetings on a regular basis.
© Stellantis 2021

Skoda 1200: Frugal and durable

The 1200 was Skoda’s first car to feature integrated fenders, or as some folks like to call it, the “ponton” styling theme. Powered by a 74 cubic inch/1.2 litre four-cylinder OHV engine, it was not a quick car by any means, but it was frugal and durable.

I like the appearance of this automobile. It is as modern as most shapes of the day and has a resemblance to the 1951 Simca Aronde. To put the 1200’s size into perspective, think EH Holden. Skoda built 33,600 of them until 1956 and they came in sedan, wagon, panel van and convertible. It was the car that gave Skoda a post war foothold in Europe. The brand thrives 70 years later.

The Skoda’s flush door handles give the car the appearance of a mildly customised 1949 Ford, especially the convertible.
© VW Group AG 2021

Aero Willys: Sky high price results in hard landing.

Willys, the maker of the Jeep, entered the compact car market in the USA with the Aero. When first released it came as a two door only and sat on a 108 inch/2743mm wheelbase. It could be had with an L-head and F-head six-cylinder engines.

Bottom of the range was the spartan Lark, with the L head. The mid-range Wing and upper end Ace boasted the F head. The hardtop Eagle coupe also had the F-head. Eagles and Aces had a three-piece wraparound rear window, while the Larks and Wings had a smaller one-piece rear window. So much complexity for a supposed economy car!

The Aero Willys failed to get off the ground. American car buyers were not interested in compact cars in the early 1950s. Even VW’s 1952 sales were a meagre 887 units.

Willys made two strategic errors which severely reduced sales. First, no four door. It did not arrive until 1953. Second, the cheapest Lark was priced within a few dollars of a mid-range range Chevrolet two door. Mechanix Illustrated automotive writer Tom McCahill summed it up perfectly. He wrote that Willys ought to be given the “greaseball Oscar for the year for introducing the most overpriced car in America.” It’s hard to overcome that sort of reputation and potential buyers agreed. Why purchase an Aero when you could do a deal on a bigger Chevy? Only 31,300 were sold in 1952.

Kaiser Industries bought Willys in 1953. By 1955 Aero sales were a pitiful 5,100 and it disappeared from US market. It was resurrected in Brazil and built from 1960 to 1972, by Willys, American Motors and, lastly, Ford. In 1963 it was restyled by Brooks Stevens.

Famed industrial designer Brooks Stevens gave the Aero a serious makeover for the Brazilian market. The restyled car, with its more formal lines, appeared in 1963. © Stellantis 2021.
© Brooks Stevens Archive and Milwaukee Art Museum.

Ford Taunus: New outside, old inside.

The Taunus 12M was Ford of Germany’s first new model since the end of World War II, at least on the outside. The “ponton” body was styled in Dearborn and naturally resembled Ford’s 1952 US models. Its unitary platform was engineered in Germany with some assistance from Ford in the UK and other German car makers.

But under the bonnet the 12M was the same old same old. The 73 cubic inch/1.2 litre side-valve four-cylinder engine dated back to the mid-1930s. It was launched with a three-speed column manual. A four-speed gearbox came one year later. Ford sold 31,000 12M’s in 1952, which was about all they could build.

The 12M’s relevance and message is that only seven years after the end of WWII, Ford in the USA was willing to bankroll a competitive and stylish product for the German and other European markets. Rivals could ignore the challenge at their own risk.

The circular plastic globe emblem above the grille gave the small Ford a weird “cyclops” appearance. It remained a feature until 1959.
© Ford Media 2021

Prince: Crowning a new ICE age.

The Tama Electric Car Company of Japan built non-ICE vehicles until November 1951. It switched to petrol engine cars in 1952 with the March release of their ASHI-1 Prince. The name honoured the impending investiture of Crown Prince Akihito, who would become Emperor of Japan in 1989.

To further honour the Prince, Tama changed its name to the Prince Motor company in November 1952. Yes, you guessed it, the 1952 Prince is the forerunner of the Prince Skyline aka Datsun Skyline aka Nissan Skyline.

Nissan acquired Prince in 1966. This 1954 ASHI-2 is part of Nissan’s heritage collection. It is almost identical to the ASHI-1.
© Nissan Motor Corporation 2021

One of the wonderful outcomes when researching earlier stories about the new cars of 1951 and 1961 (see the links below) was the rediscovery of cars I had forgotten or long overlooked. For 1952 my rediscovery, however, was not a car. It was the influence of American designer Holden “Bob” Koto. Many of the cars he helped shape were familiar sights on Australian roads: Austin A30, 1950s Hillman Minx, 1936 and 1949 Ford and post-war Studebakers. He deserves recognition and I will do so in 2022.

Do I have a personal favourite from 1952? Sure do. It is the Lincoln Capri two door hardtop coupe. There is no way I can resist the new OHV V8 bolted to GM’s HydraMatic and the clean lines of its pillarless styling. Make mine red with a black roof.

Retroautos is written and published by David Burrell with passion and with pride. TheAustins in Japan” story is at this LINK. The “Cars of 1951” is at this LINK. The two part “Cars of 1961” are here: LINK-1 And LINK-2.