The Fiberfab Gazelle (and...
The Fiberfab Gazelle (and its twin, the CMC Duke) was an early Neoclassic kit based on VW or Pinto running gear. They are easy to find at swap meets.
The conventional wisdom is that the day of the Neoclassic has come and gone. Not really replicas, Neoclassics were generally flashy touring cars inspired by classics from the 1930s. Long hoods, flowing fenders, running boards, convoluted exhaust pipes sprouting out the sides of the hood, and multi-spoke wire wheels (both real and imitation) were trademarks of the style; and chrome. Lots of chrome. Don't forget the chrome.
But after the 1980s, the flashy Excaliburs, Moselles, and Clenets went the way of the triceratops, with only Zimmer left to carry the torch. In the kit car industry, which once hosted the Gazelle, Marlene, Tiffany, Diamante, Archer, Centaur, Howland, Cormorant, Spartan, Squire, Wade, Besasie, Blackstone, Peerless, Jenmarti, and Phantom, only the Gatsby and Griffin remain. The flashy "look-at-me" Neo attitude was once popular with sports figures, entertainers, high-flying real-estate agents, and would-be celebrities, but about the time the TV show Dallas went off the air, the era of conspicuous excess left with it.
The Clenet was a high-end...
The Clenet was a high-end Neo built on a Lincoln chassis. They sold well and were made to a high standard.
Free of the stigma of being last year's fad, the concept of using '30s-era styling cues is now seeing renewed interest. If Ford, GM, and Chrysler can use styling cues from the '40s (PT Cruiser and Prowler), '50s (Chevy SSR), and '60s (Viper, Mustang, and Ford GT), then the '30s seems like a likely styling target as well. But the inspiration for this revival is coming from an interesting place--the high-bucks hot-rod scene.
For years, the most exotic hot rods evolved farther and farther away from the original (usually pre-war Ford) body lines. In order to stand out from the crowd at the most prestigious shows, bodies were chopped, channeled, stretched, and decked to the limit of both creativity and budget. Finally, a few rod builders began to think, "Why not just throw the body away and start from a clean sheet?"
An example of the Figoni et...
An example of the Figoni et Falaschi coachwork can be found in the 1937 Delehaye 135 MS roadster. Extreme? Perhaps. Stylish to the point you can't take your eyes off of it? Definitely!
Steve Moal has built many conventional-looking hot rods, but when actor Tim "Tool Time" Allen came calling, Steve and his team of craftsmen fabricated a street rod Allen soon nicknamed, "The Licorice Special." The black roadster featured a one-off, hand-fabricated metal body inspired by Italian road-racing cars of the '50s. Moal calls his most recent creation for NorCal's Eric Zausner a Torpedo 8C Roadster, which uses styling cues from Alfa Romeo racing cars of the 1930s. With its ostrich interior and powered by a Ferrari 550 engine, it is one expensive rod, and has been featured in many magazines.
Not to be outdone, rod builder (and now found on TV) Boyd Coddington set to work on a one-off rod whose design is based on a '36 French Delahaye, which he calls the "Whatthehaye." After utilizing the talent of ace metalman Marcel DeLey and his two sons, Marc and Luc, to scratchbuild the elegant and unique body, Coddington then dropped a Viper V-10 engine into it. The car recently sold for $540,000 at auction.
The Corsair is a rare Neoclassic...
The Corsair is a rare Neoclassic kit built along classic lines.
Another rodder with his own TV show is automotive illustrator Chip Foose, who has penned many famous rods of late. One of his highly stylized interpretations of a '35 Auburn 851 Speedster is sold by Deco Rides as the Boattail Speedster (only in turnkey form) starting at $85,000. It borrows only the basic lines of the original and rides on a ladder frame carrying late-model suspension and running gear.
Another pioneer in the new-Neo movement is Milt Brown, builder of the Apollo sports cars of the '60s (KIT CAR Mar. '05 "Carchives") and the Apollo Verona kit car of the '90s. While the Verona was a reinterpretation of the traditional British sports car, Brown now has a prototype for a new Apollo Monza Spyder using BMW running gear and a '30s Alfa-inspired body with voluptuous lines. It won Top Sports Car at the prestigious 2005 San Francisco Custom Car Show and is intended for limited production at over $200,000 each.
The Zimmer was a very popular...
The Zimmer was a very popular Neoclassic built in turnkey form. After going out of production in the 1980s, they are available again.
One of the few survivors among the Neo kits, the lovely Gatsby Griffin, also displays more Euro-inspired lines than the Excalibur-clone kits of old. It was originally styled by Tom McBurnie and Ray Kinney in 1979, when it was called the Scepter. It is based on a Mercury Cougar chassis with an MG body on the back.
Another lovely Neo kit is the recently announced Devaux coupe sold by DC Cars in Australia. It has pure '30s styling with a ladder frame and provision for a variety of engines. The designer, David Clash, was inspired by Bugatti, Alfa, and Bentley models. The Devaux may be coming to the U.S. in the near future.
The Gatsby Griffin is a survivor--one...
The Gatsby Griffin is a survivor--one of the few Neos still on the market. It has a definite European sophistication.
New Neo Kits Next?
Will kit car companies follow the lead? It remains to be seen since the cloning instinct is such a proven concept; it will take both nerve and vision to break away. However, the Neoclassic kit cars of the past created a niche that is not filled by many current kits. The Gazelle and others of its kind were simple, easy to build, and inexpensive. Most were VW-, Pinto-, or Chevette-based, and had four seats to ferry around grandkids and friends. These kits were aimed at older customers around retirement age who wanted to build sporty runabouts for sunny days, not asphalt-pounders for clandestine butt-kicking--thousands were sold.
The bigger Neos, like the Tiffany and Gatsby, were stately transport demanding attention in a more genteel fashion than a smokey burnout. With a few exceptions, the four-seat kit market is empty today. Until the outbreak of Cobra-clone fever, the Fiberfab Gazelle was the biggest selling kit of its era.
The Apollo Monza Spyder is...
The Apollo Monza Spyder is a new Neo from Milt Brown, creator of the Apollo and the Verona. Photo by Ron Kimball.
In the past there were two basic types of Neoclassics: low-end kits built on either a VW floorpan or a simple tube frame mounting Pinto or Chevette running gear. A simple fiberglass body was dropped on top. High-end kits generally used stretched or fullsize Detroit chassis (Cadillac, Chevy, and Ford being the most popular) with truncated bodies (from the firewall, back) borrowed from small sports cars mounted on the back of the frame (Clenet and many others used the MG Midget, while others used the Fiat 124 and even the Opel GT). Even bigger versions used Cadillac or Mustang bodies mounted to the rear of the frame. Up front, a long hood, a massive chrome grille, and other chrome (did I mention the chrome?) doodads were bolted on. The final touch was a set of elegant running boards, often with side-mounted spare tires. By using production bodyshells, the builder was saved the effort of fabricating doors, side glass, a windshield, a top mechanism, wipers, and trunk. A side benefit was tagging onto crash testing done by the original manufacturer.
Today, the same basic concept would work--perhaps with a simple frame-mounting single-donor Mustang or Camaro running gear. This would save a lot of assembly work and uses current technology already familiar to the kit car industry. Either platform would allow for V-6 or V-8 engines with automatic or manual gearboxes.
Seen before completion inside...
Seen before completion inside builder Marcel DeLey's shop in Southern California, the "Whatthehaye" is an example of what current-day coachbuilders can do. The finished car, with its Viper V-10 engine installed, sold for $540,000 at the recent Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, AZ (see pg. 51 for more on the auction).
But while most Neos of yore borrowed from the angular, massive styling traditions of Duesenberg, Mercedes, and Packard, the Neo of the future might take a more sophisticated Euro approach. Like the Moal, Brown, and Coddington cars, the inspiration would be more Italian and French (think Alfa Romeo 2900B, Delahaye Type 145, Talbot Lago 3.9, and Bugatti Atalante). The top body builders of the era, Carrozzeria Touring, Figoni et Falaschi, Zagato, Saoutchik, and Corsica Coachbuilders, were all masters of understated elegance and displayed a highly developed unity of design elements. They were quite simply, stunning.
The concept for a modern Neo would include svelte bodylines and flowing fenders, not vast splashes of chrome (OK, I'm through with the chrome bashing). The appropriate response from onlookers would ideally be an appreciative smile, not "golly gee." The mechanical specification would call for reliable and comfortable transportation allied with sporty, but not brutal, performance (in keeping with the subdued styling). Two- and four-seat versions would be appropriate, as well as coupe and roadster body styles.
It remains to be seen if the new Neos will catch on with mainstream manufacturers or the kit car industry, but at least the style is being explored by top designers. Let's cross our fingers!