An exhibition of Luxury Cars from the Art-Deco Era at MFAH
“Father made the most popular cars in the world; I just wanted to make the best.” — Edsel Ford
At the dawn of civilization, a scantily clad Sumerian put the wheels on a cart. Five and a half thousands years later, humankind came up with another great idea for personal transportation: an automobile. Motorcars burst onto the scene at the break of the 20th century and quickly made themselves indispensable in our lives.
At first, as it always happens, the new invention slavishly copied the trappings of its predecessor — a horse-drawn carriage. However, by the 1920s, the realization that an automobile was a radically different type of a vehicle had finally sunk in. Engineers and designers started to think about cars in terms of speed, aerodynamics and efficiency. They created a new “breed” of a motorcar, with a graceful streamlined body of a prowling panther, ornamental grilles, bug-eyed headlamps and chrome details.
This spring, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, showcases vehicles from renowned public and private collections in the exhibition “Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929–1940.” Fourteen cars and three motorcycles proudly rolled into the museum galleries to claim their place as true works of art, alongside such traditionally recognized museum objects as paintings or sculptures.
Looking at these gorgeous creations, with their fluid, undulating lines, brilliant color surfaces and luxurious interiors (in some cases, the upholstery was made of elephant and ostrich hide), one forgets that the car is a means of transportation. They cast a spell over us demanding our undivided attention. Our admiration is well justified: all these cars were created by extraordinary engineers and body designers and each was hand-crafted, with an utmost attention to detail. Some models were produced in very small numbers (6 to 9), and some were one of a kind.
As we enter the exhibition, we are greeted by two magnificent specimens, Bugatti Type 46 Semi-Profile Coupe and Cord L-29 Cabriolet. They epitomize two trends in automotive design that co-existed in the 1930s: classic and modern.
Designed by Jean Bugatti, a French engineer of Italian descent, the Bugatti Type 46 is an outstanding example of a classic design: streamlined elements, such as sweeping fenders flowing into the running boards, are tastefully combined with more traditional elements, such as the vertical radiator grille and the notchback roof. The automobile debuted at the 1929 Paris Auto Salon to a great success. Wealthy clients appreciated advanced engineering and sophisticated styling luxury. The Bugatti Type 46 is the only car in the exhibition that also had a commercial success, with about 467 cars built.
By contrast, the Cord L-29 Cabriolet, conceived by a self-taught designer Alan H. Leamy, Jr. in 1929 and produced by Auburn Automobile Company in Indiana, celebrates the industrial, machine-inspired design of the Art Deco era. The L-29 was a styling sensation. Its low-slung body was revolutionary for its time and changed the popular perception of an American car. The narrow and tapered hood stemming from the sharply V-shaped radiator grille was another radical new styling feature.
Intended to compete with Packards, the L-29 was embellished with luxurious details, such as the die cast door handles and fender-mounted whitewall tires which were in vogue at the time. However, the market for luxurious automobiles shrunk with the stock market crash of 1929 and Cord was forced to end production of the L-29.
One of the most unusual looking vehicles in the exhibition is probably the Stout Scarab, a whimsical precursor of today’s minivan. Inspired by the Egyptian holy beetle, it reflects the Art Deco era interest in exoticism. This futuristic car was the brain child of William Bushnell Stout of Detroit, Michigan, a technical journalist and an engineer whose mind was overflowing with new ideas for automobiles and airplanes. He introduced the Scarab in 1935 as “a friendly but direct challenge to the necessary conservatism of the big-production motor car manufacturers.”
The footage that captured the Scarab driving across the field is a testimony to the car’s speed and ability to negotiate a rough terrain. It moves with a relentlessness of a flying bullet, a comparison which is additionally suggested by the vehicle’s streamlined contour made of smooth aluminum panels.
Stout claimed that the interior of his car “offered more opportunity for improvement and bore more directly upon the comfort and convenience of passengers than any other part.” Indeed, the Scarab had more spacious accommodations for the passengers due to a large area in the back. It looked like a lounge, with a folding table, two adjustable seats and a davenport-like seat. A lowered floorpan provided five extra inches of headroom. At the same time, it must have been not so easy to sit back and enjoy the ride since the seats were not affixed to the floor.
Equipped with many technically progressive features, such as the rear-mounted engine, coil spring suspension, wheel placement in the corners of the chassis, flow-through ventilation system and insulation against temperature and sound, the Scarab was one of the most influential cars in automotive design. Stout aimed to sell about 100 cars, but only six to nine were built due to the expense and the economic conditions of the time.
While the Scarab was never intended for mass production, some companies tried and failed to market their cars, largely because of the public’s reluctance to accept a nontraditional design. The story of Chrysler Imperial Model C2 Airflow Coupe illustrates the insurmountable differences in opinions between forward-thinking designers of the era and general public.
At the 1934 New York Auto Show, Chrysler presented the Airflow, the first car created according to the principles of aerodynamics. Its engineer, Carl Breer, based his design on the data accumulated from the years of testing air resistance in a wind tunnel. The result of his labor was a streamlined car with a low roofline, elongated form and forward weight. It also featured such new styling features as a rounded hood, a curved windshield that matched a curved waterfall grille, and integrated headlights.
The Airflow’s revolutionary departure from the conventional upright styling practice was a fiasco when it came to sales. The public’s reaction was captured in the review published in Harper’s Bazaar: the reporter wrote that the car’s design was “so bulbous, so obesely curved as to defy the natural preference of the eye for horizontal lines.”
Nothing could save the Airflow: neither the aggressive promotion campaign which touted the car’s excellent performance and compared it in speed to a locomotive and airplane, nor the attempt at redesigning the model by replacing the most “offensive” features. Only two hundred 1935 Imperial C2 Coupes were sold and in 1937 Chrysler ceased the production. Ten cars still exist today.
My personal favorite in the show is the Ford Model 40 Special Speedster. Commissioned by Edsel Ford and designed by Eugene T. “Bob” Gregorie, the styling head of the Ford Motor Company, it goes against everything that Ford cars of the day epitomized: conventionality, mass production, affordability, simplicity. The Special Speedster was definitely not the car “for the great multitude,” to enjoy with one’s family “the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces,” as Henry Ford envisioned. In 1934, its cost was approximately $100,000 (and Edsel Ford paid for it personally), and it could accommodate only two people.
Edsel Ford realized that the Special Speedster was too expensive and radical to be put into production. But that was beyond the point. This car was a dream of the future, a Galatea of the automotive world brought to life by the genius and resources of the two men who dared to think out of box. Ford’s Aircraft Division assisted in the fabrication of its sleek aluminum body. Among its innovative features were louvered airflow grates on its side panels, airplane-style front fenders and a split-front radiator grille with small headlamps. The vehicle was equipped with a push-button starter and chrome-detailed instrument panel.
For six years Edsel Ford periodically drove his glamorous car monitoring its performance. In 1940, Gregorie, with Ford’s input, installed shortened upper radiator grilles and an additional horizontal grille to improve cooling and new larger headlights.
The story of this unique vehicle after Ford’s death provides a fascinating insight into the rollercoaster world of vintage cars. Valued only at $1,000 in 1943, the Special Speedster changed many hands until in 1958 it was bought for $603 by a man from Florida and stayed in his garage for the next 42 years.
This glamorous car resurfaced again in 1999 when it was purchased by Bill Warner, founder of the Concours d’Elegance in Amelia Island, Florida. According to Warner, the odometer read just over 19,000 miles. Today the Ford Model 40 Special Speedster, after being painstakingly restored, is on a permanent display at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan.
Every one of the 17 vehicles in the exhibition deserves a long, admiring look. The Henderson KJ Streamline motorcycle was a vision in streamlining ahead of its time. The completely enclosed steel bodywork is a one-off custom design made in 1934 by O. Ray Courtney, a metalworker in the automotive industry and an avid motorcyclist. The exhaust pipes alone are a work of art.
It must be noted that engineers worked side by side with body designers who provided an elegant custom coachwork. Some designers, such as the famous Parisian coachbuilding firm Figoni and Falaschi, worked for several companies, and their unmistakable style can be seen in the glamorous Delahaye cars — the 135M Competition Coupe and the 135MS Roadster — and in Talbot-Lago T150C-SS Teardrop Coupe which is the epitome of a teardrop shape.
Looking at these symbols of wealth and luxury, we find ourselves transported to the flashy era of the bobbed hair, low-waist gowns, smoky night clubs, cocktail parties and jazz. Vintage images and historical footage displayed throughout the show offer an additional opportunity to experience life in the Art Deco era.
For those who still want more, there is delightful complementary exhibit in the adjacent Law building. “Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age” features objects from the Museum collection that reflect the refinement and effervescence of “the cocktail culture” of the 1920s and 1930s. There are quite a few eye candies: elegant gowns, sophisticated jewelry, lavishly decorated cigarette cases and other precious trifles of the “decadent” era. For me, especially memorable were the cocktail cabinet made of rosewood, sharkskin and ivory; the skyscraper-inspired, chrome-plated cocktail set appropriately titled “Manhattan” which was designed by Norman Bel Geddes — who also was a famous automotive designer; and “The Savoy Cocktail Book” written by the London expert Harry Craddock. Apparently, the cocktail culture flourished regardless of the prohibition.
“Sculpted in Steel” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through May 30.
Elena Ivanova, ISSUE staff writer