Imports In The Land Of Giants

Wealthy Americans indulged in foreign cars from the earliest days of the Automobile Age; an imposing Rolls or Renault for the East Coast industrialist; a parade of extravagant Mercedes, Hispano Suiza and Voisin for Hollywood's movie colony - Norma Desmond's leopard-skin gold-plated Isotta Fraschini 8A Castagna transformable town car from Sunset Boulevard a case in point. It wasn't until after WWII that imports aimed at everyday people began to arrive in numbers. Certainly the war played a part. American GIs were exposed to a variety of foreign cars during their time overseas, many gaining first hand experience driving whatever local vehicles turned up in military motor pools. Following the war, Allies and enemies alike needed American dollars to rebuild struggling or obliterated economies and were soon sending us cars that were beyond the means of their own citizens due to austerity restrictions and steep postwar purchase taxes. As a result, many woefully inappropriate vehicles ended up here, spreading slowly from seaports on both coasts to the interior. In Fostoria, Ohio when I was growing up, you could get an Opel from the Buick dealer or a Vauxhall Victor from Pontiac. There was also a mom & pop Saab operation at the edge of town, with a tiny storefront showroom, a service bay and a patch of weeds out back with a couple of Model 93 parts cars and a dead Lloyd. You could get a VW, Fiat, Simca, Mercedes, Austin or MG by driving fifteen miles of corn field to Findlay or Tiffin. By the early seventies, the farms you passed typically had rusty import carcasses stashed with the prehistoric tractors and trucks on the far side of the barn, victims of road salt along with relaxed attitudes toward maintenance acquired through years of driving job-tough American iron. My friend Tom's dad owned a succession of used Buicks including a silver '58 Limited, ranked by how many years they ran without an oil change. An extreme example, but Americans had grown unaccustomed to fussing over their cars, especially new ones. And it soon became clear that rigorous testing over cobblestone streets and winding country lanes could not prepare a car for Dwight Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System, where one could glide from howling blizzard to tropical heat in a single day. Fortunately, enthusiast publications like Road & Track, Car And Driver and Sports Car Graphic sprang up to give hardy pioneers guidance as to which imports might fit their personality and pocketbook.

Fiat Topolino w/ '47 California dealer plates. A very early attempt to sell Americans on the Italian Dream, leading the postwar Desoto lurking behind to ponder how easy it would be to catch the little mouse and how it might taste.

British MG Hollywood Nov.'49.

Jaguar XK-120 with '51 Colorado plates.

Fresh arrivals at the port of Long Beach, California, including Lloyd, VW Beetle Cabriolet and Renault 4CV, the latter so tiny it makes the Beetle look big, Gran Torino to the 4CV's Pinto.

Likely WWII vet and pre-A Porsche 356 in postwar tract house heaven.

Allard J2 w/ '53 New Jersey plates.

Circa '53 MG TD.

Independent / orphan car fans easily adapted to imports, personality quirks intact. Here's a brand new '57 NSU Prinz w/ '56 California plates, nuzzled up to the family Nash.

Oval window VW Beetle w/ '55 Alaska plates. Having fitted an aftermarket windshield defroster, the owner is dreaming of a gasoline heater to keep his toes warm.

'55 Arnolt-Bristol Bolide w/ Massachusettes plates. 'American' car devised by Chicago industrialist Stanley H. "Wacky" Arnolt, in actuality a Bristol chassis shipped from the UK to Italy for Bertone bodywork designed by Franco Scaglione. Most of the approximately 142 built were then shipped to and sold in the US.

'55-6 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Coupe by Bertone with a couple of South Bend's sportiest - Bob Bourke's original '53 Studebaker 'Loewy' Coupe & a facelifted '56 Golden Hawk. 6/30/56.

Circa '57 Volkswagen bus in Texas Brown over Bamboo, w/ pink Cadillac.

That house with the funny cars, Kaiser Manhattan and Lloyd LP 400, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Porsche 356 open and shut, somewhere in upstate New York.

Morgan Plus 4 @ Holland Hill Climb, New York, August 23-4 1958. Joe McJury and Bob Pierce trying to figure out what opposition will clobber them. Their main competition was the TRs and an AC.

Mighty Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster set up for SCCA competition.

New '58 Jaguar 3.4 w/ New York plates & white bucks.

Circa '57 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider.

Circa '56 Panhard Dyna.

Circa '59 Abarth 750 Monza Record Zagato. Fiat seen across from Central High.

New BMW Isetta with trusty stepdown Hudson demoted to curbside parking.

Messerschmitt KR200 helping sell tickets at City Yacht Basin in Miami, Florida.

Vintage Car Store in Nyack, New York; authorized Renault, Peugeot and Rover dealer; with Bentley in showroom and used lot at left.

At least a couple of Rockland County's riskiest pre-owned vehicles, including MGA & TD, Renault 4CV, '53 Pontiac wagon, '57 T-Bird and Aston Martin DB2/4.

Late 50s Simca Aronde w/ '60 Ohio plates getting a taste of real winter somewhere near Burbank, west of Akron. As close as we could get to the house.

Circa '60 Skoda Felicia convertible, Feb. '65 Kodachrome print.

1950 Aston Martin DB2, one of the first 49 built as indicated by the three-piece grille and kick panel vents.

New '60 Fiat 600.

Circa '58 Borgward Isabella TS Coupe somewhere in Southern California.

'60-3 Simca 5 in film noir setting.

Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite w/ whitewalls and Buick sweep-spear.

Late 50s DKW 3=6 somewhere in California.

Anyone recognize this California Citroën garage? Just above, a bullet-nose Studebaker helps a fellow eccentric over a pass on the Blue Star Memorial Highway, while middle photo shows a typical American scene - Citroëns outnumbering Fords in a motel parking lot.

Renault Caravelle and twin-screw Amphicar sharing more styling cues than you might expect.

Circa '62 Jaguar Mark X. This was taken (by Dad, of course) after we came out of the airport.

Donald Young and '64 Austin Healey Sprite Mk. III, 2nd in Class at Norridgewock (Maine) Time Trials, Aug. 64.

Late starters with great promise from the other side of the other pond, circa '65 Datsun Bluebirds somewhere in Southern California.

'66 Sunbeam Tiger Series I w/ Ford 260 and Playboy front plate.

Jaguar E-Type in sunny Southern California.

'66 Datsun 1600 Sports w/ Oregon plate. Marilu & Rog in Colville (Washington) at the Richardsons, Sept. 1967.

Circa '69 Opel Kadett B fastback somewhere in small town Ohio.

Citroën 2CV w/ '69 Nevada plates. Owner catches up on reading during long desert crossings.

Peoria, Illinois vicinity hill climb featuring Mustangs, Stingrays, Triumph TR4, MGB, Austin Healey, Porsche 356, MG 1100 Sport Sedan, Morgan Plus 4, Bugeye Sprite, Formula Vee, Sunbeam Alpine, Karmann Ghia...

Circa '70 BMW 2002 w/ California vanity plate.

Circa '70 Porsche 911 somewhere in Greater Los Angeles.

Circa '71 Fiat 850 w/ Illinois plates.

Novel attempt to increase top speed of two-cylinder Autobianchi Bianchina.

This '71 Renault 16 was my fourth car, after two VW campers and an Austin America. The first owner was the older brother of a girl from my high school. Stranded in San Francisco after the ancient Beetle I'd ridden in from Ohio broke down for good, I answered a ride share ad and a couple of days later the 16 showed up downstairs, hometown bound. Speeding up a long on-ramp arc to the Bay Bridge, the car heeled smoothly over on its torsion bars and I was sold. Along with everyone who rode in it after it was mine, a couple of months later. Of course it broke regularly, and getting it repaired in Ohio was a nightmare before someone tipped me to a competent and honest dealership in Alliance. But I still loved it. With bi-level ventilation, reclining seats, center armrest and electric sunroof, it was more luxurious than my mom's Electra 225. Especially after pieces of shoestring were carefully fitted between halves of the hard plastic control stalk pod to stop the buzzing. Front-wheel drive was a revelation as well, even though as soon as you replaced the half-shaft on one side, the joints on the other would start to go. But I drove it from Ohio to Boston and then back to California before it wound up on its top in downtown Pomona after being broadsided by a red light runner.

'74 Datsun 260Z w/ Texas plates and aftermarket spokes.

The Japanese eventually won. Here's a circa '80 Honda Accord, Connecticut plates, modern lifestyles on the rise.