As soon as Karl Benz patented the first internal combustion engine car in 1886, it began to change society in ways that few would have imagined at the time. The automobile has become one of the most revered and relied upon possessions throughout most of the world, not only for its ability to move us from place to place, but because of its mystique of power, speed and gorgeous design. It was born out of an obsession on the part of designers and car manufacturers to create the perfect vehicle through streamlining and aerodynamics, which began early on in the car's evolution in the 20th century and continues today. While in the automotive industry it was about creating and combining extreme beauty of line and the science of aerodynamics, streamlined design soon was in the mainstream - from appliances to toys to clothing.
Curves of Steel, organized by Phoenix Art Museum, is the first exhibition in an art museum to explore the impact and influence of streamlining on American and European automobile design in the 20th century. It features 22 of some of the rarest and most stunning cars ever to be presented in one show - many are the only existing examples of their kind. They demonstrate the influence of aerodynamic testing and how it changed the look of the automobile from a rectangular "horse-less" carriage into the sleek modern automobile that embodies speed and efficiency. They exemplify the beautiful, sweeping lines, elegant details and perfect proportions where science and style intersect.
Emerging from aerodynamic studies seeking to improve the speed of ships and airplanes, streamlining is characterized by smooth, curvilinear shapes idealized in the tear drop shape. Amidst the Great Depression and strains of the impending war, the sleek, futuristic look of streamlined design represented an optimistic future of science and technology and provided a stimulus to the market by making former more ornamental styles look outmoded. The look of the designs became equally important to its physical ability to reduce drag and improve efficiency. While the design of the 1937 Delahaye 145 proved itself when it won the "Million Franc Prize" Grand Prix, the 1939 Delahaye 165 Cabriolet by renowned designers Figoni and Falaschi was the darling of that year's New York World's Fair, curving voluptuously from front to back in teardrop style and painted bright red.
Two of the most visionary, or even eccentric, designs in the exhibition are the 1936 Stout Scarab and the 1948 Tatra T87. Influenced by aviation design, the fenders disappeared into the smooth and rounded Art Deco "beetle" body of the Scarab and its airy interior featured movable chairs and a varnished wicker headliner. At the time, there was nothing else like the Scarab, and it was sold by invitation to people of means. Only six to nine were made. While many had experimented with streamlined design, the Czech company Tatra was the first to produce a car that truly adhered to aerodynamic principles. The unconventional Tatra T87 - with a front end that is now recognizable as looking like that of the Volkswagen, its third headlight that moved with the steering wheel, and a dorsal fin along its spine for stability in handling - was one of the fastest passenger sedans of its day.
Also featured in the exhibition are important race and concept cars that capture the 20th century's obsession with record setting speed, including the 1952 SoCal Belly Tank racer and the Oldsmobile Aerotech.
Phoenix Art Museum , the only place Curves of Steel will be shown, enlisted the assistance of an advisory panel of experts - Phil Patton, Geoff Wardle, Ken Gross, Michael Furman, Jonathan A. Stein and Richard Adatto - when gathering these 22 automobiles from the garages of some of North America 's most discerning collectors. Patton is a design and art historian who frequently assists museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art, and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. Wardle is associate chair of transportation design and director of advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California. Gross is the former director of the Peterson Automobile Museumin Los Angeles and currently is contributing auto editor for Playboy and the Robb Report, and works with the Speed Channel. Furman is considered one of the finest automobile photographers in the world with an expertise in pre-war coachbuilt cars. Director of publications for Hagerty Insurance and the former publishing director of Automobile Quarterly, Stein is a long-time automobile historian and the author of several books and hundreds of articles. Adatto is a member of the car selection committee and chief class judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and is a noted author and authority on coachbuilt French automobiles.
The exhibition is organized by Phoenix Art Museum. It is supported by Barbara Anderson Stoiber and Fred Stoiber, Fidelity Investments, Highline Autos, Collectors Foundation, the Museum's Connoisseurs Circle , and the Museum's Men's Arts Council/Copperstate 1000. Educational program support is funded by Ferguson Enterprises, Inc. Promotional support is provided by The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com, News Radio 92.3 FM KTAR, KJZZ/KBAQ Public Radio Phoenix, Jewish News of Greater Phoenix and Latino Perspectives Magazine.
Left: 1936 Stout Scarab Center: 1938 Darracq Talbot Lago Right: '39 Delahaye 165