In the spirit of the Holidays, I wish to present you with a bit of festive ‘eye candy’ to offset the increasingly desultory news on TV, news that is hardly relieved by the spate of inane automobile ads to which we are subjected in between local, national and global disasters. About those ads: Does any educated car-buyer really go gaga over J.D. Power claims for Fords, Chevys or Lexuses? Do we really believe–or care–about Chevrolet’s “Real People, Not Actors” ads? Would anyone sitting in a cafe among friends really be suddenly and totally distracted by a passing car, which is only distinguished from the other cars seen on the street because it’s shot in slow motion and comes with musical accompaniment?
I know I’m not the only person who feels this way. Take Christopher Borelli, who last year wrote an article titled, “Can we all agree holiday car commercials are contemptible trash?”
Among this year’s examples of tepid (at best) automobile ads are the GMC commercial, “Holidays: One for You, One for Me” [0:29] involving some unexpected gift-swapping; the Hyundai commercial, “Just Around the Corner,” [0:15] depicting a failed attempt at gift-wrapping; and Lincoln’s “Snow Globe” [0:30] showing a mother rejecting her children’s holiday spirit to selfishly lounge in privacy. There may be some cleverness to each ad’s story, but, really, the car itself is secondary to these little dramas.
And so, as I play the Grinch in my assessment of automobile ads, I also will now play Santa by digging back into my bag of photographs and presenting you with the eye candy–selections from a brief 2016 visit to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, where cars (and motorcycles) are truly inspiring ‘eye candy’ and worthy of our attention.
Located in the downtown Los Angeles area known as Miracle Mile and forming part of the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard dubbed Museum Row, the Petersen Automotive Museum can hardly be missed in its present configuration. From afar, it looks like a silver tornado or like gigantic strands of tinsel being swept across the city.
Its interior, seen here, directly above, as red walls, was once a department store dating to 1962. The museum took it over in 1994. It then closed for a year-and-a-half for the renovation and new design that we see in these photographs.
This new Kohn Pedersen Fox [KPF] design covers the building with undulating ribbons of stainless steel. They sweep over three sides and top of the original building. Although they attach to the old building, they are designed to support themselves. In essence, their connection to the actual building is analogous to the way a car body is mounted to its chassis.
The flowing, undulating forms of these stainless steel ribbons–308 of them–are not merely eye-catching. They also are emblematic of movement and speed, and resemble the flow of air over the body of a moving car.
The three photographs below clearly reveal the separation of the museum itself–the chassis, so to speak–from its more expressive outer body of silvery ribbons. In the words of KPF Chairman, Eugene Kohn, the aerodynamic exterior design of the Petersen Museum (in the context of Museum Row) makes the other museums “the gentlemen in black tie, [while] this is a ballerina.”
The Eye Candy
Here is the horseless carriage, clearly. Karl Benz’s 0.75 hp, 4-stroke, water-cooled engine carried this 3-wheeled vehicle to a top speed of 10 mph. I find this view from the rear quite beautiful, and also mechanically ingenious. Benz only made one prototype–this is one of 25 replicas built later by John Bentley. If you wish to know more, Dennis Adler offers further information on this earliest of cars.
The year of 1915, when this Model T Runabout came out, was the year in which the Ford Motor Company produced its one-millionth vehicle. By then, Ford’s Runabout cost $440, about half of what it cost in its first year (1908). Its 4-cylinder engine produced 22 hp and could reach a top speed of 45 mph. The Runabout, as the name implies, is a pared-down vehicle with a single row of seats, no roof, and often no hinged doors and sometimes no windshield.
For more on this car, see this Sotheby’s auction brochure from 2014.
The Mercer is also a pared-down vehicle, but one designed for racing as well as normal road driving. With its low-slung design, lack of the extra weight of a body and a powerful T-Head engine and four-speed transmission, it was considered one of the fastest automobiles in the world. Petersen rates its engine at 34 hp with a top speed of 60 mph, but an article by Daniel Vaughan of April of this year says it could produce 60 hp, and an article in Bonhams from this March claims its top speed “was a genuine 100 mph.”
I don’t think the Mercer came with a windshield, but owners could add, as this one did, a circular monocle windshield. Even lacking many amenities of comfort, this meticulously engineered car had a hefty price tag of close to $2,600. Its main engineer and designer was Finley R. Porter. The company president was Ferdinand Roebling (John A. Roebling’s son). Its general manager was Washington A. Roebling II. Clearly, quality engineering was a genetic given for the Mercer.
Here’s an interior most certainly more comfortable and luxurious than offered by the much earlier Mercer, and it is encased in one of the more enticing bodies to come out of the GM “Art and Color Section” under Harley Earl. This is one of the icons of what became known as the Tri-Five Chevrolets: the Bel Airs of 1955, 1956 and 1957. For a look at the entire vehicle–inside and out–watch this YouTube video of 2013 [3:05], featuring a fully restored version.
Some of us are old enough to recall ads in which we heard Dinah Shore’s lilting voice encourage us to “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.” I was one, a 15-year old, not seduced by Dinah Shore but definitely over-the-moon for this gorgeous, streamlined car. Chevrolet referred to its new body as “Motoramic Styling:” the word a neologism, an adaptation of the Futurama exhibit from the General Motors Pavilion at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.
This 1956 Bel Air Convertible had several engine options from a straight 6 to a V-8, which itself offered various options, one of which could upgrade its 162 hp basic version to 225 hp. The cost of the standard V-8 convertible was $2,443.
If one wished for living room comfort and eye-to-eye conversation among passengers, instead of speed and power, a Detroit Electric would be the smart choice. No hand cranking was involved in starting this car, and it required no transmission shifting. Its controls were two levers (one for steering, one for speed) and these folded away so as to turn its interior into a sitting room. The company focused its market sales, in particular, on women and certain professionals who needed ease and dependable starting. Among its many owners was Henry Ford’s wife, Clara.
Its top speed was ca. 20-25 mph and it would drive ca. 80 miles on a single charge, although in one test it drove for over 210 miles.
As one can see in this photograph, the view out is truly panoramic, aided in part by the fact that this is the first factory production automobile to have curved glass windows. Some 13,000 were manufactured between 1907 and 1939. This YouTube video [5:22] shows all of its features.
That yellow Mercer Raceabout could have been called a Supercar, had that term existed in 1913. This is because, even if it was sold to be driven on the road, it also could be raced successfully at major races with no modifications. In essence, a Supercar is a high-performance, street-legal sportscar, which is what the Bugatti EB110 is. Bugatti had closed shop in 1952, but a Ferrari dealer named Romano Artioli decided to revive the name with this Supercar. He unveiled it on September 15, 1991–exactly 110 years after the birth of Ettore Bugatti: thus the name, EB110.
Its body styling was by Giampaolo Bendini and Marcello Gandini, and in this front shot, we can see that they gave its grille a tiny, arched opening–possibly a vestigial reference to the large radiator maw of the original (see below–more on this 57SC later). Because the engine of the EB110 was located in the middle of the car, this front grille is not where the engine gets its air. That engine, by the way, is an amazing V-12 with 60 valves (5/cylinder) and 4 turbochargers, powering all four wheels through a six-speed transmission. This version is rated at 552 hp with a top speed of 210 mph. An SS version offers 610 hp with a top speed of 219 mph.
How one drives this on the road is beyond me. Either the owner only uses the first three forward gears or gets the engine re-tuned twice a month. Here is a 2015 video from Dream Car Garage [5:50] showing it in operation.
This Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa is a true race car. During the years of its production (1957-1961), it won ten World Sports Car Championship races: Le Mans 24-hour (1958, 60, 61), Sebring 12-hour (1958, 59, 61), Targa Florio (1958), Buenos Aires 1000 Km (1958, 60) and Pescara 4-hour (1961). Using a Gioacchino Colombo-designed V-12 engine of just under 3 liter displacement fed by 6 Weber carburetors, it provided 300 hp and a top speed of 168 mph.
The body was designed by Sergio Scaglietti (with a re-design in 1961). Only 34 TR 250s were produced and, according to the the technical editor, Jacob Joseph, “it’s the 19 units of the original body style that are the really valuable ones [for collectors].” The name, Testa Rossa, by the way, comes from the fact that the valve covers of the engine were painted red.
Three years before the Ferrari 250 was produced, Mercedes-Benz came out with this W196 Grand Prix race car. Not only did this car win 9 of 12 races it entered in 1954 and 1955, but in its first race on July 4, 1954 in Reims, two of these cars, driven by Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling, lapped the entire field and ended in a line-abreast finish. The third W196 entered at Reims and driven by Hans Herrmann, posted the fastest lap. They all agreed that it was not an easy car to drive, yet, as Fangio remarked some 25-years later, the W196 might be “not so nice to drive as a Maserati 250F, but you were almost sure to finish.”
That was very likely his salute to the reliability of German engineering. Also, the W196 engineering offered some important firsts for engine design: desmodromic valves which replaced valve springs with cams and a system of direct fuel injection that had been used on the German Messerschmitt fighter plane. The engine was rated at 290 hp with a top speed of over 186 mph.
Mercedes-Benz built a total of 15 of these cars. Its chassis was a space-frame of welded aluminum tubes on which was mounted a super-light Elektron magnesium-alloy body. The version we see here was called the “Streamliner”, and its aerodynamic contours had never before been seen in a racecar in 1954. However, an open-wheeled car would perform better on certain racetracks, and the W196 “Streamliner” body could quite easily be interchanged with an open-wheeled body, called the “Monoposto.”
Before leaving the world of super-fast engines, here is a photograph of the guts of the first motorcycle to come equipped with a supercharger from the factory. I’m sure this close-up view is confusing, but I wanted to capture the green “chassis” that looks like a space-frame worthy of Buckminster Fuller (only irregular), into which the engine seems shoe-horned.
The engine of this Kawasaki H2R Ninja is rated at 310 hp. Its 2019 version attained a top speed of 220 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats: [see Video, 4:37]. For those who want to go fast with practically no protection, watch this Kawasaki Wild World ad [1:07], in which the narrator admonishes you with these words: “What’s more frightening…the wild unknown or a life of quiet desperation?”
The external attachments to this green, carbon-fiber chassis are unusually-faceted stability winglets and similarly-formed, angular body parts. The design concept is far from the older ideas of streamlining (like the Mercedes W196 above). More than anything, these jagged facets remind me of the early Cubo-Futurist paintings of the Russian, Kazimir Malevich. See below:
My last look at a super-fast vehicle, again shown in close-up, is this Viper V-12 Tomahawk. It’s telling that the first word of its name is that of an insanely-overpowered sports car, the Dodge Viper, even though what we are seeing is the Tomahawk, which sure looks like a motorcycle. The Viper and Tomahawk are totally different, except for their engine. The one can’t morph into the other as was the case with the Mercedes W196 from “Streamliner” to “Monoposto.”
They only share an engine: a Dodge Viper V-10 engine rated at 500 hp with an estimated top speed of 420 mph. I don’t believe that anybody has actually tested the Tomahawk’s top speed. I said that it “sure looks like a motorcycle;” but it isn’t. That’s because, in order to handle its power, it needed four wheels, each suspended independently. Apparently the fourth wheel classified it as a car, and–of course–it has none of the safety features required for a car.
The Tomahawk was a concept vehicle made by Chrysler for the 2003 North American International Auto Show. Because it is not street-legal, and very likely for reasons of liability, Chrysler has called it “Rolling Sculpture.” With this in mind, I give you links to two radically different forms of rolling sculpture: A video from 2010 titled Dodge Tomahawk vs Dodge Viper [1:12], and a video from 2012 [7:46] of the work by one of the early creators of rolling and moving sculpture, the Dada artist, Jean Tinguely.
I use this Duesenberg as a transition from the above, high-powered vehicles because of the way it reveals its internal “guts” in those chromed exhaust header pipes that snake through the hood. This, of course, is not an original Duesenberg, as its date clearly indicates; Duesenberg stopped production in 1937. It is a replica of the 1932-1937 SJs with one major difference: it is powered by a modern Ford V-8 engine and drive train. The engine is rated at 365 hp with a top speed of 120 mph.
This particular Duesenberg was the one driven by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2013 Baz Luhrmann movie, The Great Gatsby. Even at a price of $150,000 (or more), it was more reliable, easier to maintain and cheaper than an original Duesenberg.
We now come to some of the more extreme examples of “eye candy.” The Delahaye (above) and most of the cars that follow are identified by the manufacturer of the chassis, engine, drivetrain and all the accompanying systems that make it work. The maker would then send this package to a coachbuilder, who would design and install a body on it. This system worked well up to ca. 1940, particularly for luxury vehicles affordable mainly to wealthy clients.
The body of this Delahaye Type 165 “Touring Cabriolet” was designed by the French coachbuilding firm of Figoni et Falaschi, in which Giuseppe Figoni was the artistic designer. Aircraft design and aerodynamics were behind his inspiration for its sweeping, pontoon-like fenders, fender skirts enclosing each wheel, headlights and door handles flush with the body, and even a raking windshield that could be cranked down to disappear into the cowl. When Figoni et Falaschi-bodied cars were shown at auto shows, they often were accompanied by fashion models whose dresses matched in style and color. In fact, Falaschi called his sweeping fenders enveloppantes, or wraps.
Still, hidden under the wraps is a serious bit of mechanical engineering: an overhead valve, V-12 engine with triple camshafts and triple Solex carburetors. Its output is rated at 184 hp with a top speed of 120 mph. This particular car was sent to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 to represent France and serve as its “Car of Tomorrow.” Many have called it “the most beautiful French car of the 1930s.”
In 1925, Rolls-Royce launched its new Phantom I, and this particular car started out with a convertible body by the British coachbuilder, Hooper & Co. It was first purchased by the Raja of Nanpara, a regional Indian potentate. It then found its way to Belgium, where the coachbuilder Jonckheere (best known for building busses) gave it this aerodynamic form which includes circular doors, half-moon windows that split in the middle in order to disappear into the door, twin sunroofs and a stabilizing fin that runs down its back.
The new Jonckheere design would win the Prix d’Honneur at the Cannes Concours d’Élégance and then found its way to America just before WWII. A nice set of photographs of this vehicle can be found in this article.
This earlier model Delahaye also owes its body to Figoni et Falaschi. The Petersen Museum descriptive plaque notes that its extraordinary front fender shapes were inspired by the wheel fairings of the Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) planes designed by the French aeronautical engineer and aircraft manufacturer, René Couzinet.
Again, Figoni et Falaschi is responsible for this sleek, streamlined coupe. They made 16 of these bodies for Talbot-Lago, and although each had variations from the others, all possessed the basic, elongated form that Figoni nicknamed Goutte d’Eau (Teardrop).
Evan Bleier, senior editor of Inside Hook, calls the Bugatti Atlantic Coupé “the most valuable car in the world.” He may be right. It was the brainchild of Jean Bugatti, the son of founder Ettore, and the entire design for this car was in-house. The body is Bugatti’s as well.
Its name, alone, tells us much about it. The “S” stood for surbaissé or lowered. The “C” stood for compresseur because it had a supercharger; its inline-8 engine was rated at over 170 hp and its top speed was also over 120 mph. The “Atlantic” is in memory of Bugatti’s friend, the pioneering aviator Jean Mermoz, who was lost in the South Atlantic in 1936; airplane design plays a part in the Atlantic’s design.
In 1935, Bugatti made a prototype of the 57 SC, the Aérolithe, using a material found in aircraft and much lighter than steel called Elektron. This is an alloy of 90% magnesium and 10% aluminum. Since magnesium would burn up under the heat of welding, the stamped body sheets were riveted instead. You can see the riveted, raised seams in the fenders. The most pronounced raised seam ran down its entire middle from front to back (my blog of April 21, 2019, “Two Lane Blacktop…” has a good picture of this seam).
The Aérolithe was seen no more after its Paris unveiling in 1935, but Bugatti retained the riveted seams in his subsequent production of four 57 SC Atlantic Coupés, even though their bodies were of plain aluminum. Before we move on, take note of another unusual design feature–the elegant way the doors curve up into the roof to make entering and exiting easier in this low-slung coupé.
This later Type 57 Bugatti was sent out to a coachbuilder–the Parisian firm, Carosserie Vanvooren. It was commissioned by the French Government to become a wedding gift to Mohammad Pahlavi, the son of Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran. Mohammad would become Shah in 1941, but on March 14, 1939, he married the Egyptian Princess Fawzia in Cairo. This twin passenger Cabriolet was their present from France.
Besides its sleek form (described as “in the style of Figoni et Falaschi”), its top is concealed under a metal panel when down and the windshield also can be lowered to disappear into the cowl.
Beginning in 1896 as A. Darracq & Cie., the firm became known as Talbot-Lago in 1932 when Antonio Lago became managing director. His interest was in racing cars, and in 1948 he developed a single-seat Type 26-C as a Formula 1 race car. Its engine technology was then transferred to this touring version Grand Sport, the Type 26-GS. It’s top speed was rated as greater than 124 mph, powered by a double overhead camshaft, Inline 6 engine rated at 194 hp.
This elegant body was the work of Jacques Saoutchik, a Ukrainian Jewish cabinetmaker who left Russia in 1899 and started his own coachbuilding company in 1906.
The term “drophead coupé” identifies the car as a four-seater sports car with two doors, a folding soft-top roof and a sloping rear. This Delahaye Type 175 had a body designed by Figoni et Falaschi and it was purchased off the floor of the 1949 Paris Salon by the Maharaja of Mysore. One of its later owners was Elton John.
In contrast to the earlier coachbuilders, who were responsible for creating the entire (one-off) body, American customizers, like George and Sam Barris, started with the complete factory production car, body and all. Barris Kustoms in Lynwood, California transformed this 1951 Mercury Coupe into what is often termed “the most famous custom.” The client was Bob Hirohata, and most of the customizing of this car was done by Sam Barris.
The Barris Kustom Industries history claims that Sam was the “first to chop a hardtop” (a 1951 Bel Air fastback, his own 1950 Buick, then this Hirohata Mercury). Chopping meant lowering the roof to achieve a sleeker profile–a complicated process, in this case cutting the pillars 4″ in front and 7″ in back. But this was hardly all Sam did. He nosed it (taking all trim off the front), decked it (removing trim and handles from the trunklid), shaved it (removing all door handles and side trim), frenched the headlights and double rear antennas (sinking them down into the body). He also raked the rear window angle forward, which meant making a new roof section.
Then came what I want to call the collaging, to borrow a term from the art world: He added spear-like side trim from a 1952 Buick and combined it with with three grille teeth per side from a 1952 Chevrolet. He combined three 1951 Ford grilles to make the single front grille we see here. He replaced the taillights with 1952 Lincoln Capri taillights. Topping it off was a two-tone paint job of 30 coats in two shades of green.
This is customizing at its finest; but if one doesn’t get too radical, one needn’t be wealthy to do it. As a teenager in high school, I had a 1951 Mercury Coupe with very modest customizing: it was nosed, it had a grille from a 1956 Chevrolet Corvette, it had 10 coats of black lacquer paint and, to pep it up a little bit, it had a 4-barrel carburetor. Then one day, alas, on a curved and bumpy road, I put it sideways into a telephone pole!
The Rolls Phantom I was a coachbuilt car (Brewster & Co of NY and MA), but the following photographs only focus on details and not the entire car. In this case, the detail is the ornamented radiator cap, used as a logo from early on by many car companies. It is a sculpture of a woman leaning forward with arms stretched behind her. It was designed by the British sculptor, Charles Robinson Sykes about 1910 and named the Spirit of Ecstasy. It has an intriguing story, which you may read about here.
Although my focus remains on the ornamented radiator cap, I wish to note that this 1933 Pierce Arrow, powered by a V-12 engine, was the car seen by visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, the Century of Progress International Exposition. The Archer served as the Pierce hood ornament from 1931-1938. Its designer, Herbert Dawley, had worked for Pierce until 1916, then moved to Chatham, NJ, where he began a motion picture studio and gained recognition for his work in stop-motion animation.
Gabriel B. Voisin, an aviation pioneer and contemporary of the Wright brothers, began making cars in 1919. Most of his cars were completely designed in-house. However, this Roadster featured coachwork by Joseph Figoni and was first owned by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the future Shah of Iran.
The Voisin ornamented radiator cap was designed by Gabriel Voisin. It’s a beautiful, abstracted eagle made of aluminum. The choice of this metal was a reference to airplane design, lightness, and modernity. In fact, even though most of the European coachwork bodies from the 1930 that we have seen could be linked to Art Deco, one of the major artistic movements of the decade, the abstracted and angular form of this Eagle, makes the strongest connection to this art style.
We return to this automobile, simply to appreciate the way its sensual curves enhance and activate whatever it reflects…
…or appreciate the abstract simplicity of a chromed hinge, its gentle curves revealing its motion, even as it remains fixed…
…or this simple doorhandle, flush with the body, waiting for the driver’s left thumb to press in the circle and grasp the accommodating handle.
In contrast to the four details of 1930s design (above this Ruxton Roadster), all of which reveal the intention to integrate doorhandles, turn-signals and most any other external device with their bodies, the 1929 Ruxton headlight is designed as a separate element. Clearly it is intended to stand out as a piece of sculpture. There is no intent to integrate it into the body of the car. It is directional and faces forward, yet it looks more like some elegant sconce than an automobile headlight.
Popularly called the “cat’s eye headlamp,” it was designed by William G. Wood and was officially known as the Woodlite. It was standard equipment on the Ruxton, but often became a replacement part, for purely aesthetic reasons, on other expensive cars of the period. If one drove at night, this was clearly a problem that forced many owners with Woodlites to purchase auxiliary driving lights. As David LaChance wrote for Hemmings Motor News (October, 2008), for nighttime driving, the Woodlite proved “itself inferior to practically every useful factory headlamp that it replaced.”
Neither Coachbuilt nor Customized
On my way out of the Petersen Museum, I saw this fabulous BMW 850 CSi. Under the hood is a V-12 rated at 380 hp and a top speed of 155 mph. But its main appeal is the paint job, done by the British artist, David Hockney in April of 1995. See this BMW video [2:03] which discusses this car and shows Hockney painting it (look for “mediabox”).
It’s not that Hockney was overcome by a sudden inspiration and had run out of canvas. Rather, this is the 14th BMW Art Car. The first Art Car was done by Alexander Calder in 1975. Among the other artists who have made an Art Car are Roy Lichtenstein (1977), Andy Warhol (1979), Robert Rauschenberg (1986), Jenny Holzer (1999), and John Baldessari (2016). For a look at many of these cars, see this video of the BMW Art Car Tour [39:32] (again, look for mediabox).
I end with a coda and return to the introductory topic of automobile ads. After a long search for appealing ads, I found two so good that I am compelled to share them:
The first promotes a Truck Audio System for the Honda Ridgeline [1:10]. Its director is Bryan Buckley, who must be a fan of Gary Larson’s The Far Side.
The second is an ad called The Sculptor [0:47] by Giovanni Porro, promoting the Peugeot 206 with a hilarious take on car customizing.
Happy New Year, everyone.