Here’s my latest from the WSJ, my review of the Dream Cars exhibit at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
The Wheels of a Dream
By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
Concept cars, those futuristic models that auto makers unveil at auto shows to demonstrate how cutting-edge they are, almost never get made. I can remember going to an exclusive viewing of the Ford Forty-Nine, created by designer J. Mays as an homage to the revolutionary 1949 Ford. Another Detroit beat reporter and I walked out of there saying to each other, “That thing will never get made.” And it didn’t.
But that’s really not the point of concept cars. Beyond the media buzz they create, such automobiles are exercises in “What if . . . ?” And often they predict the future.
That’s certainly the case with the 17 exquisite cars in the High Museum of Art’s new “Dream Cars” exhibit. Not only are these vehicles gorgeous, but visitors can clearly see how a concept car introduced in the 1940s had styling and engineering cues that appeared on the production line a decade or more later.
The curators of this show, which fills three large galleries and several smaller rooms, hit you right away with what is arguably the best-looking car in this collection, the 1947 Norman Timbs Special. The car was a 2½-year vanity project that cost the designer and engineer about $10,000 (about $100,000 today)—and landed this beauty on the cover of the second issue of Motor Trend in October 1949. Timbs’s experiment in aerodynamic design featured skirted fadeaway fenders, a split windshield and no doors. Underneath was a Buick straight-eight and a tubular frame capped with a compressor providing air for stiffness and to operate the air horn.
Also in the opening gallery is the 1936 Stout Scarab, a living room on wheels that was more like a small recreational vehicle, but which many consider a precursor to the minivans that became so ubiquitous in the 1980s. Inspired by the ovoid shape of the scarab beetle, it featured an aluminum body, tubular frame and lace-wood interior walls. Later in the exhibit, in one of the smaller galleries, we see a 1981 work by artist Chuck Byrne, who took Buckminster Fuller’s patent drawing for the 1933 Dynaxion car, similar in size, shape and function to Stout’s Scarab, and overlaid it on a screen print of the actual vehicle.
There’s a 1934 Edsel Ford Model 40 Special Speedster here as well, the scion’s take (with the help of Ford designer Bob Gregorie) on the “continental cars” he saw while traveling in Europe on his father’s Model T money. It features an elongated alligator hood, louvered side panels, low headlamps and molded fenders. Perhaps on his deathbed the Ford most famously linked to one of the auto maker’s biggest flops thought to himself, “Why didn’t I build the Model 40 instead of the Edsel?”
While these were all one-offs for men with money and ideas, Gordon Buehrig’s 1948 Tasco (The American Sports Car Company) had the most long-term impact on the mass market. The famed designer of the Cord 810 and the Duesenberg Model J created a beautiful, one-of-a-kind car. But perhaps the designer’s most lasting legacy was his use of a new vacuum-form process to create 3-D models that eventually became industry standard and shaved valuable time off the design process. The Tasco’s T-top roof with removable panels was later incorporated into the 1968 Corvette. An informative plaque nearby tells us that because the car was never produced, Buehrig considered it a failure.
A 1940 airbrush-and-pastel work on colored paper by Arthur Ross ties all these themes together, showing a car much like the cutting-edge models on display being followed closely by a fighter plane reminiscent of the P-38 Lightning, with a modern obelisk in the background. As a panel nearby tells visitors, it “illustrates the strong influence aeronautics had on car design.”
That’s a running theme through the rest of the exhibit, which moves quickly. Anyone who has followed cars since, say, the 1960s, can look at these prototypes and see familiar styling cues. No other U.S. designer—then or now—has been as good as General Motors’ Harley J. Earl was in getting people comfortable with change through concept cars and then introducing the most important functional and design aspects a few years later on production models. Earl is rightfully given much attention in the second and largest gallery.
His 1951 GM Le Sabre XP-8 gave consumers a glimpse into the future of wraparound windshields, aircraft instrumentation and heated seats. His 1956 Buick Centurion XP-301 had the long, lean body design, sweeping fenders and distinctive tailfins that influenced a generation of Chevrolets and Buicks. GM briefly produced a Centurion model in the early 1970s, but the body style is perhaps best seen in the 1971 Buick Riviera, perhaps the last gasp of an industry still hooked on big-block V-8s and elongated, sculpted tails.
But even the great Earl sometimes went too far. His 1959 Cadillac Cyclone XP-74 paced the first-ever Daytona 500 and featured a fully enclosed cockpit, complete with a plastic bubble over the driver and passenger that retracted when the doors opened and an intercom for communicating with people outside the car, two things that never went into mass production.
In the late-1960s the focus of concept cars changed markedly to create what the exhibit calls “the ultimate wedge,” small cars with pointed noses and a gradually expanding slope that were much smaller than what was on American roads at the time. While not as exciting as the designs of the ’40s and ’50s, the contest to create the smallest, most aerodynamic car was essentially won by Italian car maker Ferrari (with help from longtime partner Pininfarina) in the form of the 1970 Ferrari 512S Modulo. Debuting at the Geneva International Auto Show, it was a two-seater that was just 37 inches tall.
The exhibit closes with a tribute to GM’s Motorama, a traveling circus of sorts that toured the country from 1949 to 1961, taking what had been exclusive previews for industry executives to the masses. It was at the 1953 Motorama that Earl introduced one of his most famous concepts, the Firebird I XP-21, dubbed by the press at the time as “a jet fighter on four wheels.” The first gas-turbine car ever built in the U.S., it was, of course, never made. Partly because it was too loud and the tailpipe temperature was about 1,000 degrees Farenheit. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important—like most of the cars on display here—in giving consumers a glimpse of what was to come.
Mr. Yost, a former Dow Jones Newswires reporter in Detroit, now lives and writes in Houston.