Fast wheels, modernist dreams

The sleek cars and motorcycles in the Portland Art Museum's "Shape of Speed" reflect the swift rise of Modernist design in the 1930s and '40s

The striking black-and-silver 1934 BMW motorbike in the Portland Art Museum lobby sits in front of a digital reader board that intermittently displays an image of one of Monet’s Water Lilies – an apt reminder of the The Shape of Speed’s leitmotif: vehicles can be art.

Certain vehicles. Not Toyota Camrys or Dodge minivans or even split-window ‘Vettes; but these 17 cars and two motorcycles most definitely. The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930-1942 is the latest exhibition in the Portland Art Museum’s design series, guest curated by Ken Gross, former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The show is open now and runs through September 16.

Beauty meets beauty: Monet water lilies and 1934 BMW. Photo: John Foyston

Gross previously curated the Museum’s 2011 exhibition The Allure of the Automobile, which celebrated automobiles as kinetic art. This never-before seen collection celebrates Modernism as expressed by the streamline dreams of the 1930s, when the ever more slippery shapes of airplanes influenced everything from architecture to steam locomotives, radios and automobiles; even Raymond Loewy’s gorgeous – and it could be said – essentially pointless chrome teardrop of a pencil sharpener. (Not that I wouldn’t feel like Tommy Tomorrow himself if I had one on my desk…)

And that’s the point: “The Shape of Speed celebrates great design that moves us,” said Brian Ferriso, the museum’s director and chief curator. “During the Great Depression, the forward-leaning, beautiful designs of streamlined vehicles were aspirational, inspiring a sense of hope for the future. We look forward to bringing that excitement to Portland again.”

The show also celebrates that Portland Modernist gem, the Pietro Belluschi- designed Portland Art Museum, whose original Belluschi main building is a 1930s contemporary of these cars and bikes, and whose glass partitions erected on the main floor display area in the 1990s have recently been removed. The resulting space restates Belluschi’s original sweep and linearity and perfectly complements the machines on show – and reminds us to bless our lucky stars for a board of trustees that opted to give a young Modernist this plum of a contract during dark economic times.

Chrysler Imperial Model CV Airflow Coupe, 1934: a chrome waterfall of grille. Photo: Peter Harholdt. Courtesy of Miles Collier Collections @ the Revs Institute.

But the cars are stars. “Cars don’t look like this anymore,” said Gross. “A lot of the beauty has been designed out of cars thanks to safety features and crash testing.” True enough, you won’t see a collapsible steering column, padded dash, or seatbelt among them, let alone shoulder harnesses, airbags or antiskid braking systems.

These are cars from a time before disc brakes and computer-controlled engines, cars that – were they to be started and run – would likely reduce a DEQ emission tester to tears. “By the 1930s, cars were in their fourth decade,” said Gross, “but they still looked much like the boxy carriages they replaced. Streamlining became a real goal for designers – engineers at Chrysler consulted with Orville Wright to build a wind tunnel – and soon found that some contemporary cars were more efficient going backwards…”

The black-and-chrome 1934 Chrysler Airflow coupe on display was designed to modernize the lineup, thanks to its strong unibody construction and lines that sweep back from a chrome waterfall of grille to a seductively rounded body. Unfortunately, the car of tomorrow wasn’t something that buyers were inclined to buy that year, and Chrysler and DeSoto sales were disappointing, despite a redesign that attempted to cushion the shock of the new.

Lincoln-Zephyr Coupe, 1937. Photo: Dale Moreau. Courtesy of Alan Johnson.

Edsel Ford’s beautiful 1937 Lincoln Zephyr not only revitalized the marque, it generated considerable enthusiasm among the auto-buying public despite being priced beyond the reach of many who likely opted for a popularly priced Ford V-8 instead of the elegant and expensive Lincoln V-12. But done right – and the Zephyr is right as a raindrop, especially compared to the Airflow – streamlining would sell.

The beauty of The Shape of Speed is its scope, from mass market cars such as the Chrysler and Lincoln, to rarities such as the rear-engined, V-8 Tatra T-77 which never sold on these shores, and prototypes such as the Stout Scarab – the minivan predecessor that DOES qualify for the show – and the “sharknose” Graham – officially “the spirit of motion.”

Then there are the true rarities: the Henderson KJ built by a determined body-and-fender man to rectify the lack of streamlining and weather protection that he saw as hampering motorcycle design of the time. The stunning Bugatti Type 57 Aerolithe, whose body panels were of Elektron, a magnesium/aluminum alloy that didn’t take kindly to the welding technique of the time; hence the saurian riveted spines running atop the body and fenders. Bugatti originally built two show cars and disassembled both. The car on display is a recreation built on the earliest Type 57 chassis, and still features Elektron body panels and riveted spines despite being welded by modern means.

 

Henderson, KJ Streamline Motorcycle, 1930. Photo: Peter Harholdt. Collection of Frank Westfall, Ner-A-Car Museum.

 

Bugatti, Type 57 Aérolithe, 1935. Photo: Joe Wiecha. Courtesy of Chris Ohrstrom.

 

Talbot-Lago T-150C-SS Teardrop Coupe, 1938. Photo: Michael Furman. Courtesy of Mullin Automotive Museum Foundation.

 

Nor are all the cars are uniformly beautiful. The Bugatti, yes; the Delahaye and Talbot Lago are stunning – they look like momentarily cohering clutches of soap bubbles, yet are made of steel and aluminum hammered and pressed and fettled by master craftsmen, confections of a culture of bespoke coachbuilding that has nearly disappeared. The aforementioned Lincoln is a beauty too, but the Graham? To my eye, it looks as if the sleek grille and hood is from a different car than the staid, foursquare bustle of cabin and trunk in tow.

Some are elegant, such as the Cord Westchester Sedan, which has the iconic Cord coffin nose and flexible chrome exhaust pipes but is more practical – less raffish – than the convertibles favored by movie stars and aviators of the soaring Thirties.

Some are cute: The Stout Scarab with its eyebrows and louvered mustache of a grille – actually a winged scarab reminding us that the discovery of King Tut’s tomb was still very much a part of the culture; the Hoffman X-8, and Steyr 55 Baby which share visual DNA with KdF-Wagens – sires of Volkwagen Beetles; and the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt show car with its hideaway hardtop and headlamps, and the chrome thunderbolt adorning its Fiestaware-red flanks.

 

Stout Scarab Sedan, 1936. Photo: Peter Harholdt. Courtesy of Ron Schneider.

 

Hoffman X-8 Sedan, 1935. Photo: Peter Harholdt. Courtesy of Myron and Kim Vernis.

 

Airomobile, 1937. Photo: Jeff Dow. Courtesy of National Automotive Museum, The Harrah Collection.

And some are simply odd, such as the 1937 three-wheeled Airmobile, which, as Ken Gross aptly pointed out, looks like a lobster when viewed from the rear. The front – well, clown car comes to mind, none of which diminishes its status as an ultra rare piece of automotive history – but does remind me of one of the sayings we had around my motorbike shop in the 1980s – “rare, and should be…”

Some look like a glimpse of the future, such as the prominently tailfinned Tatra, one of my favorite cars – and said to be such a handful to drive with its early-Corvair combination of rear weight bias and swing axles that Wehrmacht officers occupying Czechoslovakia during the war were supposedly banned from driving Tatras after several fatal accidents.

Tatra T77a Sedan, 1938. Photo: Peter Harholdt. Courtesy of Helena Mitchell & John Long.

And speaking of Germans, the Mercedes-Benz 540 K Stromlinienwagen is easily the most imposing car here. Most of the cars in the museum are light, or look light, as if barely tethered to the pavement. Not so the big Benz, which is an imposing dull-silver thundercloud of a car riding on huge juggernaut wire wheels with knock-off hubs the size of stockpots and crowned with a glowering split-windshield cabin that looks as if it could do duty as a machine gun emplacement.

The car was shipped from Germany and was the last to be wheeled into the museum, arriving the day before the show. But we’re lucky to see it at all: originally sold to Dunlop Germany for high-speed tire testing in 1938, the car disappeared from history. A diligent search through hundreds of entries in the Benz museum records revealed that a chassis, differential and one road wheel with correct serial numbers were in the collection and drawings of the original bodywork were still in the archives. So began a herculean restoration effort, not dissimilar in scope to that of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, the World’s Most Expensive Painting at 450 million bucks. We’ll assume that the Mercedes was somewhat cheaper.

Nor is it the only fortuitous save in the show. The Art Deco BMW R7 languished in a crate at the factory for decades before it was rediscovered and lovingly restored over a couple of years at the factory. And the Bugatti was a complete reconstruction on a vintage chassis done by The Guild of Auto Restorers in Ontario, Canada. Even that fetching crème de menthe green is period-correct, taken from a painting of the original car made by one of the engineers.

Delahaye 135M Figoni and Falaschi Roadster, 1938. Photo: Scott Williamson/ photodesignstudios.com.

The Delahaye was found in Algeria after surviving WWII, intact except for its aluminum trunk lid and bought for the princely sum of 60 English pounds. It was subsequently restored and, safe to say, is worth a fair bit more now. Come to that, any of these cars would quickly – albeit not as quickly as the Salvator Mundi – remind us that one percent of the people on the planet now own about half of its wealth, so the lack of price tags is refreshing. Yes, I know I can’t afford it, but it’s fun to look and dream.

And the show doesn’t address – nor should it, perhaps – the dark side of the classic car world, where almost every vehicle has been scrubbed clean of history by successive restorations. The magpie instinct to make everything shiny and bright and new is in direct contravention to entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. Yes, modern restorers take the utmost care in replicating the finishes and techniques of the original constructors, but at the root of it, nothing can be “restored to original” without a time machine.

The argument can be made that these vehicles are worthy of restoration by virtue of their historical importance, but it was refreshing to see just a hint of entropic anarchy through the louvers of the Scarab’s engine bay. Just a hint, mind you.

Also, there is a resurgence of interest in “barn finds,” old vehicles which are recommissioned with patina intact instead of being restored. And you’ll see an example of that on Sunday, June 24, if you attend the Streamlined Sundays Bikes in the Park (11 a.m.-3 p.m.) in the South Park Blocks. Museum patron and Shape of Speed sponsor Jim Mark will ride his very original, unrestored Ducati 500SL Pantah.

I’ve known the bike for years and recommissioned it mechanically after Mark bought it. It had been dropped in a showroom, scuffed and dented, and had to have its windscreen and turn signals replaced, but after rebuilding the front cylinder head and fitting new timing belts, it runs and sounds as it should. And Mark resists the temptation to restore it and lose a survivor’s undeniable patina. “I’ll take it to a display of more expensive, way shinier motorcycles,” he said, “and somehow the Ducati always draws the crowd.”

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After a decade owning an Italian motorcycle shop, John Foyston was an arts writer with The Oregonian’s A&E for more than 15 years, during which time he covered general assignments, local music, and craft beer. He still blogs about Portland beer for Brewpublic.com, makes oil paintings and handmade picture frames, restores vintage Ducati motorcycles for West Coast customers, rides his bicycle and motorcycle, and reads fairly voraciously. Some would say he has too many workspaces in which to putter.

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