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After the dark days of the 1940s and ’50s, there must have been a palpable feeling of optimism as the 1960s got into full swing.
A newer, brighter age was dawning. An age of freedom, of unhindered fun.
And what better expression is there of such a mood than basking in the sun behind the wheel of an open car?
Our featured triumvirate takes the concept of a small, moderately powered drop-top for four closely coupled friends, and moulds it in three distinct ways.
Three cars, then, that set out to achieve a broadly similar goal, but which do so in quite disparate ways.
By dint of its ubiquity, the most instantly recognisable today is, of course, the Volkswagen.
By the time ‘our’ car left the Karmann works in 1966, the shape may have already been past its prime, the roly-poly styling a relic from a bygone era when viewed alongside its sharply styled rivals from Britain and France, but it wasn’t ready for retirement just yet.
The concept had been previewed before WW2 – open-topped versions of the KdF Wagen had been seen as early as 1936 – but not until 1949 did this officially sanctioned drophead conversion get the green light.
Willhelm Karmann’s coachbuilding concern had been keen to develop an open variant of the Beetle ever since the model had entered production, but purchasing restrictions in post-war Germany had made obtaining a car from which to build a prototype impossible.
Eventually, and at the behest of Major Ivan Hirst, the British military overseer who had put the Wolfsburg factory back on its feet, a car was presented to Karmann in 1946.
The 10,000th Beetle to have been produced since the end of hostilities, the VW was duly converted by the Osnabrück firm, with a second being built shortly afterwards.
While a neat design, however, the project stalled and it wouldn’t be until three years later, under the guidance of Volkswagen’s newly appointed managing director, Heinz Nordhoff, that it finally took off again.
In 1949, a third prototype was built, followed by a batch of 25 pre-production cars.
The latter were subjected to an extensive testing regime, each covering 20,000km in the hands of the development engineers before the convertible was signed-off on 5 August.
With the model officially designated Type 15, Karmann was given an order for 2000 units and series production began.
Complete cars were dispatched from the Volkswagen factory to the coachbuilder’s workshops (Nordhoff believed that Wolfsburg should concentrate on the mass production of standard cars), where they would be stripped to a rolling shell and have their tops lopped off before being painted, trimmed and screwed back together.
In compliance with Nordhoff’s wishes, they incorporated as few modifications as possible, but substantial bracing was required to ensure that structural integrity was maintained.
The combination of simple, dependable running gear and high-quality construction meant that the car proved to be a hit.
By the end of 1950, some 2695 had been built, volumes increasing rapidly to peak in 1971 at 24,317 units.
Ongoing development of the model enabled production to continue until 1980 (outliving German-built versions of the saloon by two years), by which time 331,847 had been produced – the lion’s share heading for the US.
Buoyed by Volkswagen’s success in North America, by the mid-’50s Renault’s Pierre Dreyfus and Fernand Picard (respectively the president and head of the design department) were keenly eyeing up that most lucrative of markets.
The firm had begun selling its rear-engined Dauphine saloon there, albeit with mitigated success compared to the Beetle, but during the course of an extended tour of American dealers it soon became clear to the pair that what was required was a stylish model aimed squarely at local tastes.
A plan for a sleek Dauphine-based cabriolet was hatched, the car being dubbed internally as Project 1092.
Aware of the importance that the new car’s aesthetics would have on its success, Renault turned to Italian styling house Ghia (which had been involved in the development of the Dauphine) to pen the outline.
There remains much contention over who was responsible for the end result: the consensus suggests that it was largely the work of Ghia’s Luigi Segre with input from Virgil Exner Jnr, but other sources have credited Pietro Frua with the design.
Whoever the stylist may have been, the project was quickly given the go-ahead by Renault bosses and Ghia was instructed to come up with a prototype.
That task was subcontracted to Frua, but when the car was complete and he heard nothing more from Ghia or Renault, the out-of-pocket carrossier decided to unveil it himself.
Thus, the Dauphine GT, as he chose to name it, first saw the light of day at the Geneva Salon in March 1958 – much to the consternation of Dreyfus.
In October, with the tension between the Régie, Ghia and Frua apparently resolved, the car reappeared at the Paris Salon – this time badged as the Renault Floride.
Setting aside the mystery surrounding the designer, what cannot be denied is that the Renault is an unashamedly pretty car.
Alongside the dumpy Volkswagen, the little seductress exudes chic in an effortlessly sophisticated way. If the devil is in the detail, the Renault will whisk you straight to the gates of damnation.
Marketed from 1959 in coupé and cabriolet forms, interest in the new model was considerable.
With Renault’s own facilities already running at full capacity, the pressing of Floride bodies was outsourced to coachbuilder Chausson, while final assembly was subcontracted to Brissonneau et Lotz of Creil.
Over the course of a decade, the Renault received numerous upgrades and modifications, as well as a confusing duality of names; it was variously badged as a Floride or Caravelle, depending upon where and when it was being sold, as well as to what specification.
By the time the Caravelle featured here left the factory in 1968, the Dauphine had morphed into the R8 and the latter car’s underpinnings (including a torquier 1108cc ‘four’ and all-wheel disc brakes) had replaced those found in the earlier Floride.
When production ceased that year, in excess of 117,000 ‘Floravelles’ had found buyers, but of the three cars featured it is by far the least likely to be recognised today.
The Triumph, on the other hand, remains as familiar as the Volkswagen.
But where the Beetle trades on curves and the Renault on a feast of subtle detailing, the angular Herald relies on creases as sharp as those in a freshly pressed suit.
Penned by Michelotti, those fancy Italian lines were quite possibly the car’s (and Triumph’s) saviour.
Standard-Triumph’s chief body designer Walter Belgrove had walked out on the firm following a row in 1955, and without his input the company had been struggling to style its replacement for the ageing Standard Eight/Ten, work on which had begun in 1956.
Codenamed ‘Zobo’, the new car was once described by the firm’s engineering director Harry Webster as looking like “a mechanical bathtub”, which was clearly not a recipe for success.
Fortunately, the Coventry firm had already flirted with Turin-based Giovanni Michelotti, and it was agreed in a board meeting on 12 August 1957 that, given the difficulties thus far encountered, the Italian would be commissioned to style the new car.
Starting again from scratch, his creation was a masterpiece and made the transition from styling sketch to production reality almost unaltered.
Envisaged from the outset as a saloon, coupé and estate as well as a convertible, its separate chassis construction (a compromise forced upon the company when BMC’s Leonard Lord refused to supply Fisher and Ludlow-built monocoque shells for the project) made it the ideal basis for a drophead version.
Slicing the roof off Canley’s latest model was little more complicated than taking a tin opener to it.
Launched in 1959, the Triumph would form the backbone of the company’s small-car line throughout the 1960s and would endure in facelifted 13/60 form (as here) until 1971.
By that time, approximately half a million Heralds of all types had left the works.
Climb behind the thin-rimmed steering wheel of the Triumph today and the first thing to hit you is that the company must have employed some very oddly shaped development engineers.
Not only are the pedals heavily offset to the right, leaving your left foot wondering where the clutch pedal has gone, but the wheel is canted over towards the centre line.
It’s an odd driving position – and not a patch on the Beetle or the Caravelle – but in fairness you soon grow used to it, focusing instead on what a wonderfully eager companion the Herald makes.
Of the three, the Triumph is without doubt the most rorty.
With 61bhp on tap from its 1296cc ‘four’, that should hardly come as a surprise: the Renault gives away 6bhp to the British car, and the Beetle’s flat-four can muster only 40bhp.
The Volkswagen busily chatters away without ever encouraging spirited driving. It’s a pleasant place to be, but has a more relaxed, lazier feel.
It is a car that feels as though it will always get you to your destination, but that it might take some time.
The Caravelle lies somewhere between the two. Its pushrod ‘four’ is a willing unit and, with less weight to haul around than its rivals, the car zips along very nicely without making a fuss.
In a world of leaf springs and jarring rides, all three cars boasted the novelty of independent rear suspension.
But with their cheap-to-build swing-arm set-ups, they could also have given rise to the term ‘Spinning Sixties’.
I have no intention of replicating the lift-off oversteer with which all three gained a certain notoriety in period, and at sensible speeds they feel utterly benign, but you can’t help thinking that these are cars whose handling limits are to be respected.
Some might argue, then, that our trio offers style over substance, but in the case of the Triumph the chorus of rattles and creaks – a corollary of its separate chassis – leaves you wondering whether perhaps there shouldn’t be a bit more substance holding it all together.
The Beetle feels far more rigid, yet neither comes close to the Renault.
Forget all preconceptions of French cars being tinny – the Caravelle is beautifully built, as well as a lovely place to be.
The dashboard, for instance, though minimalist, is a visual delight. Where the Beetle is a stark exercise in painted-metal austerity and the Triumph’s simple plank a homage to the G Plan sideboard, the Caravelle is like a junior-level exotic.
From the lovely two-spoke steering wheel to the switchgear, the detailing feels remarkably well executed and belies the car’s humble origins. In the front at least, it also feels wonderfully spacious.
The Volkswagen’s cabin seems narrower, while the tall sides engender a feeling of being cocooned – a sensation heightened by the bulk of the car’s folded hood.
That bulk was, of course, dictated by the soundness of the hood’s design. Ignore the flimsy tent of the Triumph, this was a properly insulated roof to keep the worst of German winters at bay.
And that perhaps sums up the cars, because they really do exude certain national characteristics.
The Beetle feels dependably reliable, a car for climbing into the cool, clear air of the Eifel mountains, whereas the Renault is a Riviera starlet, keen to bask in admiring glances as it bobs along the Croisette.
And the Triumph? A blast across the South Downs followed by an ice cream on the Brighton seafront.
All three are endearing, but it’s the indefatigably gruff Herald that snares my affection. It’s a car that wears its heart on its sleeve, and which it’s impossible not to love – warts and all.
Images: Tony Baker
Volkswagen Beetle 1300
- Sold/number built 1949-’71/331,847 (all convertibles)
- Construction steel platform chassis, pressed-steel body
- Engine rear-mounted, air-cooled, overhead-valve 1295cc flat-four, Solex carburettor
- Max power 40bhp @ 4000rpm
- Max torque 65lb ft @ 2000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension independent, at front by trailing arms, anti-roll bar rear swing axles; torsion bars, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and nut
- Brakes drums all round
- Length 13ft 4in (4070mm)
- Width 5ft ½in (1540mm)
- Height 4ft 11 in (1498mm, saloon)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10½ in (2400mm)
- Weight 2557lb (1160kg)
- 0-60mph 23 secs
- Top speed 75mph
- Mpg 28
- Price new £1003 (1967)
- Sold/number built 1959-’68/c117,000 (including Floride)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine rear-mounted, iron-block, alloy-head, ohv, 1108cc ‘four’, Solex carburettor
- Max power 55bhp @ 5100rpm
- Max torque 65lb ft @ 2500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear swing axles, radius arms; coils, telescopics f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs all round
- Length 14ft (4260mm)
- Width 5ft 2in (1570mm)
- Height 4ft 3½in (1308mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 5¼in (2267mm)
- Weight 1644lb (746kg)
- 0-60mph 17.6 secs (956cc)
- Top speed 89mph (956cc)
- Mpg 45 (956cc)
- Price new £965 (1967)
Triumph Herald 13/60
- Sold/number built 1959-’71/63,329 (all convertibles)
- Construction separate steel chassis, pressed-steel body with bolt-on panels
- Engine front-mounted, all-iron, overhead-valve 1296cc ‘four’, Stromberg carburettor
- Max power 61bhp @ 5300rpm
- Max torque 73lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension independent, at front by wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear transverse leaf spring, radius arms; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs/drums
- Length 12ft 9in (3886mm)
- Width 5ft (1524mm)
- Height 4ft 5½in (1359mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 7½in (2320mm)
- Weight 1818lb (825kg)
- 0-60mph 17.7 secs
- Top speed 84mph
- Mpg 30
- Price new £691 (1967)