Car and design enthusiasts alike celebrated what would have been Raymond Loewy‘s 120th birthday earlier this week. Indeed, the Franco-American visionary was born on November 5th, 1893 and this date sure seems awfully far off given how relevant Loewy’s work still is today.
Copyright: LIFE Magazine
For the part of his work that regards cars, he’s first and foremost associated with Studebaker. The venerable make hired Loewy and his collaborators as consultants in the late 1930s, quite amazingly, and their collaboration almost made it to the final days of the company in 1967. Their collaboration was so fruitful actually that the works of his team are probably what makes most of Studebaker’s legacy to this day: the Starlight Coupe and its wraparound rear window, the bullet-nose Studes’ from the early fifties or the gracious and timeless 1953+ Starliner/Starlight series as well as.. the Avanti.
1963 Studebaker Avanti, Studebaker Corporation, at StudebakerHistory.com
Much has already been said about this incredible automobile, and you will find quick links at the bottom of this page.
Raymond Loewy was actually a industrial designer before he was a prolific car designer who crossed paths with other icons such as Virgil Exner of Chrysler Co. fame and Bob Bourke who later took over Studebaker styling. His works in the field of branding and home design include a number of things we still know and use today, which is probably telling of how ahead of his time he was and also how he managed to convey the spirit of an item, of a brand, in a simple design that pitched essence against temporary fashions.
Apart from objective talent, why then is he featured in our pages? Well, Mr. Loewy happens to have a little known Lincoln connection that is worth revisiting. As it happens, he had the peculiar habit of designing custom bodywork for his personal automobiles, sometimes going as far as revamping other designer’s acclaimed lines: the list includes baroque redesigns of a BMW 507 and a Jaguar XKE, a surprisingly subtle revamp of the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado and… a 1941 Lincoln Continental.
The original Lincoln Continental, which will we cover on this blog in the future, was definitely already a handsome car. Its flowing lines married the presence of American cars with the grace of European tourers, making it the perfect incarnation of Edsel Ford’s idea of a vacation car fit for the French Riviera (Loewy himself would, incidentally, put that very idea to work with the conversion of his 1959 Eldorado).
Still, in 1941, Loewy decided Bob Gregorie’s design could use a few improvements and commissioned this one-of-a-kind, chauffeur-driven iteration of the Continental. Changes on the finished car (which, for historical reasons, only saw the light of day in 1946) are as minimal as they are important, and surely preserve the original Continental’s grace better than the official redesign of 1942.
Photo copyright Hemmings.com
Up front, the “bow wave” grille was replaced by what appears to be a two-dimensional version of the Bullet Nose design Loewy would apply on Studebakers just a few years later. While controversial, this smaller grille allowed for a lower, sleeker hood atop which was perched an impressively high, blade-like hood ornament. Today’s safety regulations probably would not let that one pass..!
The car’s midsection was mostly preserved, except for a blue-tint Plexiglas panoramic roof once again quite ahead of its time: it won’t be until 1954 before Ford reprises the idea for its Crestline Skyliner and Mercury Monterey Sun Valley coupes. Also of note was a fender-mounted medallion featuring Loewy’s initials within… a trim ring from the iconic Frigidaire refrigerator he himself designed.
Out back is where the Continental’s lines are the most transformed, to the point actually of not carrying any of the car’s signature lines! Indeed, in keeping with the idea of a chauffeur-driven Lincoln, the entire rear passenger area was enclosed in a large painted Landau roof with a diminutive limousine-like rear window. Interestingly enough, this arrangement, especially with its twin porthole opera windows, foretells the trends of the 1970s while retaining a decidedly European flair that would not seem out of place on a British Daimler.
Although it once featured the Continental spare, the car as it has been restored seems to have lost it for good, its mount replaced by a finned rear assembly and simple bumper unit. An integrated trunk that would also be right at home on some top-of-the-line British or French custom coachwork gives the car a rather massive appearance from the rear. These squared-off rear decks (which could also be had on production Lincolns in 1941) reproduce the shape of actual trunks and luggage that would be strapped at the rear of vintage automobile, and which then turned to steel trunks used to expand the storage capacity of touring cars.
The very distinctive lines these trunks created didn’t survive the arising of the modern three-box sedan design and disappeared for decades, until the stars aligned again and they reappeared as “bustle backs” on the 1980 Cadillac Seville, 1981 Imperial and… 1982 Lincoln Continental.
1983 Lincoln Continental, Lincoln Motor Company.
All in all, it’s a truly unique Continental, befitting of Raymond Loewy’s sense of form and function, all the way down to the gold-plated horn rim on the steering wheel or the enclosed license plate mount and its Plexiglas safety cover. This car has showed up on the auction block and at auto shows every now and then, including a particularly successful display at the 2008 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. From the information I could gather it is still alive and well, showing up at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show with the Classic Car Club of America.
It was, and surely still appears to be, “the fanciest thing on wheels” as newspapers reported then.
- The Essential Cars Of Raymond Loewy, Today’s Google Doodle (jalopnik.com)
- Studebaker Avanti, Wikipedia
- The Fanciest Thing on Wheels, New York Times