Getting a Handle on Design

Door handles as a microcosm of Abarth, Alfa, and Porsche engineering

In the lobby atrium of Revs Institute, the visitor can see three cars grouped together on individual stands that together comprise an island. You can walk all the way around the grouping and study the cars individually or together.

The cars are all small-bore GT coupes from 1964. To underscore their similarity, they are all painted red: an Alfa Romeo Giulia Tubolare Zagato (GTZ), a Simca Abarth 2 Mila Corsa short nose, and a Porsche 904 GTS. While the Alfa is only 1600cc, it was sufficiently potent in the day that it could contend for two-liter class honors against the larger 904 and Simca 2 Mila.

1964 Alfa Romeo Giulia Tubolare Zagato (GTZ).
1964 Simca Abarth 2 Mila Corsa.
1964 Porsche 904 GTS.

The point of the three-car display is to show how different engineering traditions, developed in different automobile companies, produce very different solutions to a common problem. In this case, the problem was to win the International Championship for GT Manufacturers Division II (two-liter) honors for their respective manufacturers as part of the 1964 World Sportscar Championship season. To that end, these three cars were introduced to the racing world early that year with no little fanfare.

The three cars at Revs differ radically in architecture — the layout of engine and drive line within the chassis — while showing remarkable similarities in most other technical details: four-cylinder, double overhead cam engines with two dual choke Weber carburetors, five-speed transmissions (the Abarth was actually four or six), and four-wheel disc brakes.

The Alfa was designed around a conventional front-engine rear-drive platform that reflected Alfa’s decades-long design tradition. The GTZ drew heavily on the factory’s Alfa Giulia road car experience, architecture and  components including using a racing version of the basic Giulia engine.

The Simca 2 Mila was contracted from Abarth to do for Simca what Abarth had done so well for Fiat with the dominating small, 1000cc, GT class Fiat Abarths. The design brief was to incorporate into a world-class racing GT automobile the maximum number of components from the unpromising Simca 1000 economy sedan, a car almost as unprepossessing as the Fiat Abarth GT car’s basis model, the Fiat 600. The Simca platform placed the engine behind the rear wheels as was common then with so many economy cars like Volkswagen, Fiat, Renault, etc. Of course, as with the Fiat Abarth, the Simca 2 Mila would have a new, from the ground up, full-tilt, Abarth-designed racing engine.

Porsche had been building and winning championship races, sometimes even overall and outright, with their under two-liter, mid-engine, competition sports-racing Spyders for years. It took no stretch of imagination to build their new racing coupe with an aging, two-liter Spyder engine. The 904 continued Porsche’s conventional mid-engine with transaxle design. More radical was Porsche’s decision to copy their “belt and suspenders” Spyder chassis that combined a tube frame and a stressed skin body structure by employing a novel sheet metal, ladder frame bonded to a stressed fiberglass body.

But, of course, if corporate culture and tradition shaped the large architectural decisions, what can we say about that cultural influence on the small ones, even down to the “jewelry” that embellished and decorated these very handsome cars? Let’s look at door handles as a microcosm of each engineering team’s design practices.

The door handle used on the Simca Abarth is a type seen on coach-built Italian automobiles, a so-called “switchblade” door handle.

We’ll start with the Simca Abarth. The door handle used is a type we see on coach-built Italian automobiles, a so-called “switchblade” door handle. Pushing the button releases a spring that pops the pull lever out of its housing. Pulling the lever unlocks the door. Closing is accomplished by pushing the lever into the housing so it is held flush, and then closing the door. Abarth was a scrappy engineering firm, living pretty much hand to mouth. Naturally, they would choose a common, off-the-shelf design that was available from an outside supplier. This thinking doesn’t mean that the company was without design flair as the switchblade handle is stylish and quintessentially Italian. This same handle with minor variations can be seen on cars designed by many Italian coachbuilders such as Pininfarina, Vignale, and others. The Simca 2 Mila is the work of body builders Sibona and Basano, although kingpin Carlo Abarth insisted the cars carry Carrozzeria Abarth badges. The door handle assemblies used here were hand fabricated by Sibona and Basano and therefore labor intensive, and perhaps needlessly complex. But, to their advantage, they required no expensive fixed tooling and have that inimitable Italian coach-built panache.

The Alfa designers chose a simple, U-shaped pull with an adjacent lock release button – visually minimalist and easily operated.

The Alfa designers, by contrast, chose a simple, U-shaped pull with an adjacent lock release button. This design is visually minimalist, easily operated by the left hand for those Le Mans starts, and, compared to the Abarth, cost efficient. But is it? A close examination of the pull shows that it is actually a casting with a tapering design of varying cross-section. It requires significant drafting time to achieve this level of elegance. Compared to the Abarth, it is lighter, very ergonomic, more pared-down, and beautifully designed as behooves a major manufacturer. Less costly to make than the Abarth, it probably could be readily ordered from the GTZ parts catalog. Try that with the Abarth back in the day.

Like the Alfa, the Porsche “handle” is a button and pull design – in this case, probably a five Deutsche Mark component ordered in from a volume supplier.

The Porsche is one step further in its design thinking. Like the Alfa, the “handle” is a button and pull design. The chrome button was probably a five Deutsche Mark component ordered in from a volume supplier. The pull is cleverly the actual door edge itself. A recess has been molded into the lock post/cab side of the car allowing the driver’s fingers to gain purchase. The cost of something that doesn’t exist is nothing and its weight is equally non-existent. It is also unbreakable. Of course, where the Alfa pull was forward of the door button, the Porsche pull is behind. Opening the door for a Le Mans start therefore requires the driver to use his right hand, or invert his left, or even work the button with his left hand and pull the door with his right. These more complex evolutions may be a tick clumsier to use than the Alfa solution.

The stories told by the door handles are a microcosm of the respective cars. The Abarth is artisanal, difficult to produce in quantity. Indeed, while the homologation requirements for GT cars in 1964 ran to 100 units, probably no more than forty Simca Abarths of either racing or road tune were ever produced. Like the door handle, the cars were an exercise in making do; in putting serious money only where it counted – in the car’s engine. The jury-rigged and wholly inadequate Simca 1000 transaxle proved to be the downfall of Abarth’s exercise in practical improvisation.

Alfa applied volume-manufacturing aesthetics to their door pull. It is a beautiful piece of industrial design. Simplicity has been elevated by Italian flair into a miniature sculpture. The car as a whole is redolent of that thinking. The modified-for-racing Giulia engine and transmission are works of light-alloy beauty. We see no inspired design thinking but, like the door pull, exquisite development of a simple and basic idea.

Porsche applied their vaunted engineering prowess to the door handle problem. They came up with the absolute minimal mechanism to accomplish the job. Moreover, they let the door edge itself become the pull. Like so many Porsche designs, in reality it took a bit more to master in use, but once done, was simple, light, reliable, and unbreakable.

And that is how those teams fared in the 1964 Championship. Porsche won Division II with ninety-nine points, followed by Alfa with thirty. Abarth, with that improvised four- or six-speed Simca 1000 transaxle that wasn’t up to the magnificent engine, finished third.

Door handles can tell quite a tale.