Art Deco’ streamlining influenced every aspect of American life in the 1930s, from architecture and appliances to railroad cars and even automobiles. But while Art Deco successfully sold washing machines, radios and houses, it didn’t prove overly popular with auto buyers. Cars that radically embraced the new look failed to sell, even though they influenced car design for decades.
And it’s that legacy that’s examined in a new exhibit, “Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles” at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn. The exhibit opened last month and runs through Sept. 15.
Here are some highlights from the show. Even if you don’t check out the exhibit, these cars are an interesting chapter in automotive history.
• 1929 Cord L-29 Cabriolet: If you ever wondered what Frank Lloyd Wright drove, here’s your answer. This L-29, which he owned until he died, was the first front-wheel-drive car to reach mass production. The L-29’s unusually low stance was afforded by front-wheel drive and accentuated the car’s long hood. Wright’s admiration for the car was prophetic. “I believe the principle of the front drive to be logical and scientific, therefore inevitable for all cars,” he said.
• 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow: Once among America’s most prestigious and highest-quality automakers, Pierce-Arrow pioneered the use of cast-aluminum bodies, four-wheel hydraulic brakes and column-mounted shifters. The Silver Arrow was the automaker’s last gasp of brilliance, an Art Deco masterpiece in an era of boxy sedan design. Just five were hand-built.
• 1934 Bugatti Type 46 Superprofile: From 1911 to 1939, Ettore Bugatti, an Italian engineer living in France, built what are considered some of the most extraordinarily sporting and beautiful cars ever created. The influence of Type 46 was widespread among European coachbuilders, despite few being built. One sample survives. This one is a reproduction body on an original chassis.
• 1934 Packard Twelve Model 1106: Tradition defined Packard design. So when this model appeared, styled by American coachbuilder LeBaron, it was a startling announcement that Art Deco was widely accepted by the public. While it avoided the radical look that doomed other Deco rides, this sleek, aerodynamic coupe was radical for a Packard, which sold its cars as “Socially — America’s first motor car.”
• 1936 Cord 810 Beverly: Originally designed as a “baby” Duesenberg, the Cord 810 is considered one of the most beautiful American cars ever built. And it was quite advanced. It featured front-wheel drive, a fully independent front suspension, unitized body, a 125-horsepower V-8 engine with aluminum heads and a four-speed transmission.
• 1936 Stout Scarab: Perhaps the most radical car of the 1930s sprang from the mind of aeronautical engineer William Stout. Using aircraft construction techniques, the Scarab used a tubular frame covered in aluminum panels. Power came from a rear-mounted Ford V-8 engine and a Ford three-speed transmission. Passengers entered through a central door on the right side.
• 1938 Talbot-Lago T-150C-SS Teardrop: This curvaceous coupe was designed by Parisian coachbuilders Joseph Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi. Powered by a powerful 4.0-liter six fitted with three carburetors, this powerful engine produced more than 170 horsepower. Twelve Talbot-Lago coupes were built from 1937 to 1939.
• 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt: Touted as “The Car of the Future,” the Thunderbolt’s aerodynamic aluminum body, full-width hood, hidden headlights, enclosed wheels, one-piece windshield, hydraulic-powered side windows and retractable one-piece metal hardtop were advanced for their day. Hand-built by LeBaron, the Thunderbolt was priced at $8,250, or more than $130,000 today. Five were built; four survive.
Frist Center for the Visual Arts: 919 Broadway, Nashville; 615-244-3340; fristcenter.org. Admission $10 ($7 for college students, seniors 65+ and active military. Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles runs through Sept. 15.