While you might think this article is going to address the Chrysler Norsman, we are instead going deep sea diving, but not for the wreckage of the Andria Doria…at least not this month.
Nearly every show and production car is designed with a main theme. Sketched and rendered by the designer and modeled by the development team, these themes emerge from trends and cultural interest. Throughout decades of car design, a wide range of themes have been explored and expanded, from carriage and bicycles to animals, aircraft and rockets. The shapes of our cars have been inspired by multiple cultural influences.
During the early 1950s-mid ’60s, explorers all over the world were diving into the furthest depths of the ocean in an effort to understand fully Earth’s mysterious aquatic world. By 1960, the Swiss-designed, Italian-built and U.S. Navy-owned “Trieste” would dive to 36,000-feet., exploring the Marianas Trench. Deep-sea photography and colorful artist renderings accompanied magazine articles depicting sea creatures few had ever experienced. These were not mythical creatures of imaginative literature—these were real, beautiful and inspiring. It did not take long for these stunning animal forms to reveal their fluid motion in our cars. Not until the late ’60s, when we would turn our heads to the sky and pursue space travel, would we develop more linear and jet-streamed designs. Speed evoked not in the smooth and undulating forms of earthly animals but rockets, comet streaks and elliptical orbital paths.
Let’s take a look at three prime examples of this marine animal theme and how aquatic creatures informed much of the show car landscape of the ’50s and ’60s.
Alfa Romeo BAT series cars
Originally developed as Alfa Romeo/Bertone show cars with the intention of cultivating new aerodynamic ideas for cars (hence the acronym Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica), this stunning triplet is perhaps one of the best examples of marine design. Penned by Franco Scaglione, the BAT cars remain among the most amazing post-war cars ever built. BAT 5 and 7 feature side gills and vent work highly suggestive of shark’s gills and slick mammalian side surfacing much like the dolphins and slick-skinned forms. Both cars are finished off with gorgeous tail fins arched, mimicking the fluid upward stroke of a Manta Ray, ready to power downward to propel the animal forward. The “mouth” of both cars is strikingly reminiscent of the Manta Ray as well, with the outboard “eyes” appearing as headlights. Even the coloring of aqua marine and silver metallic is reminiscent of these elegant creatures and the images evoked from the turquoise-blue waters surrounding Italy.
Nardi Blue Ray 1 and 2
Constructed by Enrico Nardi in 1955 and 1958, respectively, with designs carried out by Michelotti and construction by Vignale, the Nardi Blue Ray cars feature two-toned paint of marine distinction, but also offer several visual references to aquatic themes. Blue Ray 1 is the more fluid and organic form, offering a blue tinted canopy, trimmed aquatic fins, subtle side gills, and a wide mouthed grille reminiscent of sharks and lower sea floor dwellers. Even the hood scoop features the Manta Ray imprint recessed in the opening. Blue Ray 2 is more linear in design, but carries the marine theme with the wider opening grille and minimal side vent/gills. The blue-tinted roof and two-toned paint complete the illusion around the dream of undersea exploration—inside either car, you feel as though you are undersea. Much like BAT9, Blue Ray 2 was considered more of a production design with the themes still present, but less obvious.
By 1961, GM was exploring the marine theme in its flagship sports car, the Corvette. GM VP of Styling, Bill Mitchell, challenged Larry Shinoda and his design studio to create a show car based on the successful Corvette XP87. While both cars would heavily influence the 1963 Stingray (even the name was aquatic), the Mako Shark is perhaps the ultimate visual expression of marine-themed show cars. Complete with a blended two-tone paint (inspired by of one of Mitchell’s fishing trophies). Multiple details abound in the forward gills, side exit exhaust, vented hood, clear bubble roof and distinct emblems. When the Mako Shark II arrived on the show scene in 1965, GM made it clear (through marketing and promotional materials) the influences were the Great White Shark and the Manta Ray. Aquatic themes continued throughout the car in surface treatment, paint and gilled and vented details. Mako Shark II would go on to its last iteration in 1969 as the show car “Manta Ray.”
Of course, many other marine-based automotive shapes and forms would emerge as part of our fascination with aquatic life forms; the AMC Marlin, Plymouth Barracuda, and GM/Opel Manta to name a few. And while the dominant architecture in modern cars no longer carries obvious marine themes, many design details persist today in the form of air vents, intake shapes, grilles and scoops, canards, and trailing edge fender lines. With more emphasis today on fuel economy and improved aerodynamics (actually a subset of fluid dynamics) we might very well see designs in the future informed by yet undiscovered deep sea marine life.