Rolling Sculpture: A Look at the Cars from the Art Deco Period

Calling all car lovers, Great Gatsby fans and art aficionados: the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh just rolled out a new exhibit this week that pays homage to the motoring masterpieces of the Art Deco period.

The “Rolling Sculpture: Art Deco Cars from the 1930 and ‘40s” exhibit — on display between now and January 15, 2017 — showcases 14 cars and three motorcycles, including a Bugatti Type 57S Aerolithe (1935) and a Hispano-Suiza H6B “Xenia” (1938). The Art Deco period “is known for blending modern decorative arts with industrial design and is today synonymous with luxury and glamour,” according to the museum’s website. “The automobile, a rapidly evolving mechanical child of the 20th century, thus became the perfect metal canvas upon which to express the popular art deco style.”

Bugatti Type 57S Aerolithe, 1935.

Bugatti Type 57S Aerolithe, 1935.

Many of the automobile styles took inspiration from the international art movement and aircraft design at the time, as expressed in sleek, streamlined and sensuous forms, handcrafted details and luxurious finishes. In short, it was a time when “innovation and elegance reigned supreme” and modern decorative arts fused with industrial design.

We recently sat down with Ken Gross, guest curator for the exhibit and former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, to ask him about this inspiring display of rolling sculpture.

From your perspective, what is distinct or unique about the luxury automobiles from the art deco period?

Many of these cars were designed the same way a couturier would fashion a special gown or a bespoke suit. The cars were simply built to be beautiful, a tribute to their owners’ good taste (and wealth). I would add that the designers of these cars were’t concerned as much with with function as much as they were obsessed with fashion. Fuel economy, safety, crash resistance, practicality, etc., were secondary to producing stunning designs that, in their era, took one’s breath away — and many of them still do.

Henderson KJ Streamliner, 1930.

Henderson KJ Streamliner, 1930.

What makes them “rolling sculpture”?

In 1951, Arthur Drexler, the Curator of Architecture at MoMA in New York City, presented “8 Automobiles,” a ground breaking exhibition of automobiles. He referred to the cars as “Hollow Rolling Sculpture.” Gordon Buehrig, who designed the classic Cord 810, wrote a book on his design experiences in the 1930’s and the title was “Rolling Sculpture.” If you think of it, elegant, limited-production or one-of-a-kind automobiles of this period are kinetic art of a sort. They are hand-crafted, exclusive, artistic and evocative — and of course, they are functional, hence the “Rolling Sculpture” descriptor.

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Talbot Lago T-150C-SS Teardrop Coupe, 1938.

What were some of the most luxurious items included in the cars at the time?

Classic, high-end automobiles in the 1930s were distinguished by fine wood craftsmanship in the interiors, elegant broadcloth and brocade seating, soft leathers, German silver trim, and more. It was not uncommon to have a full bar with crystal decanters in the rear seat area of some limousines and sedans. A radio was a rare accessory. The antenna was usually mounted under the running board. Air conditioning as we know it did not appear until the very late 1930’s and it was not generally offered until the 1950s. But some clever flow-through ventilation systems ensured occupants weren’t uncomfortable in warm weather. Duesenberg owners could adjust braking responses, from a lever on the dash, for improved results in wet or snowy weather. Bugatti had self-adjusting DeRam shock absorbers. Many French and some British cars used Wilson and Cotal pre-selector transmissions which allowed the driver to select a gear in advance, then press a small lever to engage it. This was before automatic transmissions as we know them. Cord and Ruxton had front-wheel-drive and the Cord also used a Bendix pre-selector gearbox.

What were the main differences between the American and European models of the era, in terms of style or engineering?

Fine cars in both countries had custom-designed, aluminum coachwork. American cars tended to have large-displacement engines; European cars, often because of tax reasons, used smaller displacement engines.

Hispano Suiza H6B "Xenia," 1938.

Hispano Suiza H6B “Xenia,” 1938.

How much did the aircraft influence the automobile forms of the era? (and can you point out a few specific models that really exemplify this?)

Andre Dubonnet’s one-off Hispano-Suiza “Xenia” resembles an airplane without wings. It also has Targa Top style removable roof panels, like a new Porsche 911 Targa. Aircraft designer Jean Andreau styled it and Carrosserie Jacques Saoutchik built it — that’s a nice pedigree.

Some of the models are incredibly elegant – and also futuristic at the same time (even though they are decades old). I’m thinking specifically of the Hispano-Suiza “Xenia,” Bugatti and Peugeot.

It’s correct that the three cars you mentioned, along with the Scarab, were brave peeks into the future. So was the Tatra, with its aero-influenced styling, dorsal fin for stability at high speeds, platform frame and magnesium block, air-cooled V-8. And the Scarab was really the first minivan, long before that phrase was coined.

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Tatra T87, 1940.

Are any cars in the exhibition that you see as influencing or inspiring a current car(s) on the road today?

The Hispano-Suiza’s trend-setting panoramic windshield, gull-wing side windows and cantilevered doors can be found on a few modern cars.

Visitors have no trouble seeing the Stout Scarab as the forerunner to the minivan, but people in the mid-1930’s didn’t understand it and it’s heady $5,000 price tag (a Ford DeLuxe sedan was $650) discouraged sales in the mid-Depression era.

Stout Scarab, 1936.

Stout Scarab, 1936.

The Chrysler Thunderbolt’s disappearing metal top was ahead of its time — and you can find that type of design on today’s convertibles.

Chrysler Thunderbolt, 1941.

Chrysler Thunderbolt, 1941.

Are the models in the collection still operable?

Yes…they all run, including the motorcycles. And I have driven many of them.

If you were going to drive one of the models from the collection down 17 Mile Drive next August, which one would it be and why?

This is like asking what’s your favorite child! It would probably be the Bugatti. It was a sensational-looking car with a powerful twin-cam engine and sporting chassis. It would turn heads, but it’s no slouch in the performance department, so it would be fun to drive. The exhaust note is thrilling.

What’s the one thing you wish people to know about these special cars?

Due to modern regulations, especially safety, fuel economy and certainly advanced electronics, we will never see cars built like this again, so it’s important to come see them.

Are these autos owned by private collectors?

Several are owned by private collectors.These include the Scarab, the Airflow, the Thunderbolt, and the Bugatti, to name a few. Willard “Bill” Marriott owns the Talbot-Lago.

The Mullin Museum, The Revs Institute, The Petersen Automotive Museum, Chicago Vintage Motor Carriage Museum, Walter P. Chrysler Museum and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House are among the museum lenders.

Previews Inside Out Do you happen to know the provenance of any of them (who they were owned by and when)? Anything interesting in their back stories?

In nearly all cases, we know the histories of these cars and they are detailed in the “Rolling Sculpture” catalog. A few tidbits…the Delahaye was purchased at one time in its life for just 60 British pounds — it was derelict and decrepit. Restored today, it’s valued in the millions.

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Delahaye 135MS Figoni Roadster, 1937.

Roger Willbanks, owner of the Chrysler Thunderbolt, first saw that car in 1940, when he was a kid — and now he owns the same car he saw. Georges Paulin, the designer of the Peugeot Darl’mat coupe, was a hero in the WWII French Resistance and was executed by the Nazi’s when his identity was revealed.

Peugeot 402 Darl'mat Coupe, 1936.

Peugeot 402 Darl’mat Coupe, 1936.

Edsel Ford’s Speedster was discovered in Deland, Florida, purchased for a nominal sum — the owner no longer wanted it — and later sold at auction for $1.35MM.

Edsel Ford Model 40 Speedster, 1934.

Edsel Ford Model 40 Speedster, 1934.

The Ruxton was the next-to-last of 96 Ruxtons ever built. After the company closed in 1930, it was assembled from leftover parts in 1932. Today, just 19 Ruxton’s survive.

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Ruxton Joseph Urban Sedan, 1931.

The Pierce Silver Arrow is the actual 1933 Chicago “A Century of Progress” showcar.

Pierce Arrow Silver Arrow, 1933.

Pierce Silver Arrow, 1933.

The BMW R7 was sown in 1934, then crated up and not rediscovered until 2005, after which it was restored by BMW Classic.

BMW R7 Concept Motorcycle, 1934.

BMW R7 Concept Motorcycle, 1934.

Thank you for sharing these beautiful cars with us. What a treat it will be to see these masterpieces in person.

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