The late Gordon Buehrig’s design work is pretty well known by enthusiasts, so I’d imagine that professional automotive stylists are even more familiar with his work. His Cord 810/812 and Auburn Speedster are two of the all-time great car designs. Besides his aesthetic influence, he was also a technical innovator, attributed with the invention of the styling bridge, the gantry used to take measurements from, and insure the symmetry of, clay models.
That’s why I find it surprising that Rolls-Royce’s VISION NEXT 100, one of the deep forward looking concept vehicles intended to celebrate corporate parent BMW’s centennial, seems to borrow heavily from one of Buehrig’s less successful projects.
More photos, including the Tasco in 3D, after the jump.
As mentioned, Buehrig is best known for the “coffin-nosed” Cord and other work he did while working for E.L. Cord’s group of car companies, Auburn, Duesenberg and Cord. After leaving the ACD group, Buehrig worked for the Budd body company and later as an independent designer. After WWII he was hired by Raymond Loewy to help build up an in-house design department for the Studebaker company. Virgil Exner Sr., who would later head Chrysler’s styling team, worked with Buehrig for the Loewy studio, but when a design Exner had done in his South Bend home’s basement for the all-new postwar Studebaker was approved (with some machinations by the Budd company) Loewy accused Buehrig of involvement (which Buehrig denied) and fired him along with Exner.
The postwar era saw American servicemen coming back from WWII with an appreciation for European sports cars. Allied occupation of Germany lasted for years and there were still many Americans stationed in the UK after the war. How much is actual history and how much is auto enthusiast apocrypha I don’t know, but it’s generally accepted that the American love of sports cars can be largely traced to GIs bringing home examples of the MG-TC, first introduced in 1945.
The late 1940s was a fertile era for sporting automobiles. The car companies started by Donald Healey, Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman, and the Porsches (father and son) can all be traced to that time.
In 1948, Buehrig and a group of investors decided to produce an American sports car to compete in continental style races like the ones held at Watkins Glen. The car was to be called the Tasco, which stood for The American Sports Car Company. Working with Exner and Bob Bourke, another Loewy designer, they modified a 1947 Mercury chassis to take an aluminum body fabricated by the noted coachbuilding firm, the Derham Body Company. Both the exterior and the interior of the two-seater were heavily influenced by aircraft design, with standalone wheelcovers, and a Plexiglas canopy. The canopy featured removable roof panels which Buehrig patented – resulting in litigation when General Motors introduced the “t-top” on the 1968 Corvette.
Some say that the narrow nose of the car reminds them of the Edsel’s horse collar grille and Buehrig indeed referred to the Tasco as “my Edsel”, though I believe it to be a comment on the car’s lack of commercial success, not its design. With a target price of $7,500, a considerable sum of money when a 1949 Ford Fordor V8 sedan was about a fifth of that price, there weren’t that many potential customers. Buehrig’s group walked away after dumping $57,000 into the project on making the prototype, development and production costs.
The single prototype belonged to Buehrig, who donated it to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana, where it is on display in a gallery devoted to Mr. Buehrig.
To celebrate their company’s centennial, BMW has been introducing concept cars for each of its brands that are supposed to show how things may look far into the future. For Rolls-Royce this week they debuted the VISION NEXT 100 (all caps in original). As soon as I saw the front end, with the wheel spats, I immediately started looking for photos I shot of the Tasco in Auburn.
The near-standalone wheel covers are not the only similarity. The VISION NEXT 100’s proportions with an exceptionally long hood evoke the classic era of the 1930s and the Tasco, though a radical and advanced postwar design, still has ties to prewar designs. One can maybe even see a little bit of Buehrig’s 1936-37 Cords in the new Rolls concept.
The Rolls-Royce designers incorporated a narrow version of R-R’s famous upright grille, and while it’s not as narrow as the Tasco’s front end, the effect is still rather pointy. Also, like the Tasco, the VISION NEXT 100 is a two seat coupe with a fastback roofline. The Rolls concept has a novel roof, as the Tasco does, though it doesn’t have t-top panels. There is a more or less conventional (but rear-hinged) door, just one of them, on the driver’s side. Since the instrument panel features no steering wheel “driver” is just a figure of speech. One assumes an electronic chauffeur will guide the VISION NEXT 100. The left side window is attached to the roof, which swings open from hinge on the right side of the roof. It’s a novel take on a gullwing door, even if the door itself isn’t part of the gullwing.
I don’t like the way the Tasco looks and I haven’t liked many of the BMW era Rollers either, which generally are way too bulky for my tastes, so I don’t have to tell you that the VISION NEXT 100 is not to my tastes. Modern R-R’s are rather vulgar in the way they announce wealth coming down the street, though they are splendidly built motorcars. The VISION NEXT 100 carries on that tradition but is also kinda funny looking.
With such a respected designer as Buehrig himself acknowledging that the Tasco was an awkward design, it’s funny that BMW and Rolls-Royce appear to have used it as inspiration for the luxury marque’s long term vision.