The Italian, German & French Carmakers
1950s European Car Brands
The Volkswagen Microbus goes into production in Germany with a design sketched 3 years before by the first U.S. importer of VW Beetles, Ben Pon. The loaf-shaped, air-cooled van will be called the Bulli in Germany, the Combi in Brazil and Mexico.
The Volkswagen Microbus, which debuted in 1950, became a favorite of hippies for its unique styling and plenty of space for travelers.
The Mercedes-Benz Corp. offered 300SL in its lineups of 1950s cars. It is a two-seat, closed sports car with characteristic gull-wing doors, and later, offered as an open roadster. Built by Daimler-Benz AG the road version of 1954 was based on the company’s highly successful competition-only sports car of 1952, the Mercedes 300SL which had less power, as it still had carburetors.
The 300SL was best known for both its distinctive gullwing or butterfly wing doors and for being the first-ever gasoline-powered car equipped with fuel injection directly into the combustion chamber. The gullwing version was available from March 1955 to 1957. American well-heeled buyers couldn’t get enough of these 1950s imported cars.
More widely produced (25,881 units) and starting a year later was the similar looking 190SL with a 110hp 4cyl engine, available only as roadster (or with an additional hardtop, as Coupe Roadster). Production for both the 190SL and 300SL ended in 1963 when the 230SL was introduced.
A street version of the 300SL would be a commercial success, especially in the US hungry for sporty 1950s foreign automobiles. Built completely with steel except for the aluminum bonnet (hood), doors and boot (trunk), the 300SL could have been ordered with an all-aluminum outer skin, saving 80 kg (176 lb), but at tremendous added cost.
First with fuel injection was the 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster. In Mercedes-Benz fashion, the “300” referred to the engine’s cylinder displacement, in this case, three liters. The “SL”, as applied to a roadster, stood for “Sport Leicht” or “Sport Light.”
In 1952, the 300SL racing history includes overall wins at Le Mans, Berne, Nürburgring, and Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana. These successes, especially those on the high speed open road races, were rather surprising as the engine was fitted with carburetors and produced only 175 hp, less than the competing models of Ferrari and Jaguar, and less than the road car later on.
But low weight and low aerodynamic drag made the 300SL fast enough to be a challenger. Superior reliability made it a winner among 1950s imported cars.
Today, the 300SL with its unique doors and technological firsts is considered one of the most collectible Mercedes-Benz models of all time, with prices reaching well past the US$400,000 mark. In addition, Sports Car International magazine ranked the 300SL as the number 5 sports car of all time. Great 1950s imported cars.
Ferrari (now owned by Fiat) is passion on wheels. The theme continued through such models as the Ferrari 340 America and 375 MM of the early 1950s cars. These 1950s cars could be driven to the track, compete for the checkered flag, and carry their driver to dinner that night. This was the romance of the dual-purpose sports car, an ideal that culminated with the Ferrari 250 GT SWB coupe of 1959.
The Ferrari 375 MM racer of the 1950s wasn’t a world apart from Ferrari road cars. After that, the all-out performance demanded by competition and the veneer of civility required by Ferrari’s wealthy non-racing customers sent his road cars along their own route.
When Volvo (now owned by Ford Motor Company) presented an open 2-seater sports car with a body made of fiberglass-reinforced plastic in 1954, it was something of a sensation. However, the car did not go into production until 1956 and, after a great many problems, production was wound up in 1957. By this time, 67 of these 1950s imported cars had been produced.
From the beginning, the idea was that this car would only be exported. A convertible was not regarded as wholly suitable for the Swedish climate. However, in spite of this, most of the 1950s cars were sold on the Swedish domestic market.
The car was based on standard components, mainly from the Volvo PV444, but it was built on a separate tubular frame. The engine was a developed version of the 4-cylinder, 1.4-litre engine from the PV444. Using twin carburetors, a different camshaft, larger intake valves and higher compression, this engine developed 70 bhp.
1956 Popular mini of the Fifties: the Isetta signals BMW’s entry into the small car sector 1957 “Stretch” version of the Isetta: the BMW 600 with a Boxer engine takes a maximum of four passengers. In 1959, after sustaining heavy financial losses in the big limousine sector, a merger with Daimler-Benz is planned. The 700 model is the first big-time series success for a BMW car.
The 1955 BMW Isetta 300 was the world’s first mass-production 3-Litres/100km car. It was the top-selling single-cylinder car in the world, with 161,728 units sold. It was a small car that used the scooter and named it Isetta—an Italian diminutive meaning little. Renzo Rivolta who built the small car, licensed Isetta to BMW and to companies in France and Brazil.