Designing Art Deco Automobiles
By Ken Gross
Check out our recorded Video Event, Rolling Sculpture: Art Deco Automobiles, which continues our series of online events exploring the connection between functionality and design! In this recorded web-based tour, esteemed automobile expert Ken Gross shows us how these exquisite designs evoke an era fueled by an optimistic view of modernity, and a desire to convey social status through conspicuous consumption. This illustrated presentation that explores striking automobiles and motorcycles as masterpieces of Art Deco design is a real treat! Learn More
Art Deco embraces distinctive architectural, industrial, and fashion styles that originated around 1910, flourished through the late 1920s and early 30s, lasted until the beginning of World War II in 1941, and returned for a while after World War II ended. Although its influence had waned and the later examples were less ornate, Art Deco styling elements persisted into the 1950s, especially in the world of automobiles. Making excellent use of beautifully rounded forms, mixing baroque elements like the stylized rays of the sun, and artfully melding gentle, flowing curves with razor-sharp edges, these cars were quintessential examples of streamlining. Today many are considered classics.
Streamlining was equated with modernity as well as with efficient aerodynamics, especially in transportation. The automobile, an invention of the early twentieth century, rapidly changing and evolving mechanically during that period, was the perfect metal canvas on which to express the popular Art Deco style. Mark McCourt, who has written about Art Deco automobiles, said, “It was an era of unbridled, machine-driven technical advancement, of optimism in the unlimited possibility that the future held.”
“Automobiles reflected all this potential,” McCourt added. Despite the Great Depression, “the vibrant promise of modernity and speed” was reflected not just in luxury goods, but also in mass-produced items. “Some brave and revolutionary cars paid tribute to the zeitgeist with their overall design concepts,” he said, “but most showed their Machine Age influence in small ways, in subtle and glorious details.”
For automobiles and motorcycles, Gary Vasilash, the Editor-in-Chief of Automotive Design & Production magazine, agreed, claiming: “. . . the Art Deco style can be characterized as the combination of broad gesture and fine detail.”
Though the Art Deco influence wasn’t specifically labeled at the time, it was widespread. Acclaimed architects and industrial designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, and Walter Gropius fell under its spell, as did many noted automotive stylists, race car innovators and engineers like Jean Bugatti, Amos Northup, Phillip Wright, Harry Arminius Miller, E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, Gordon Miller Buehrig, and Walter P. Murphy.
The Streamline Cord
Perhaps the high-water mark of Art Deco influence on automobiles in America is found in the Cord automobile, built in Auburn, Indiana, from 1929 through 1937. The Model L-29 Cord was a highly advanced car in its day. Custom-bodied L-29s, such as the much-acclaimed one-of-a-kind Hayes/de Sakhnoffsky and Saoutchik custom coupes, as well as a few bespoke sedans and limousines by Walter M. Murphy, commissioned for Hollywood celebrities in Pasadena, California, used many Art Deco conceits. Although they look dated today, they remain artistically pure and perfect. Frank Lloyd Wright recognized that the front-drive L-29 Cord’s bold architecture facilitated a dramatically low silhouette, which greatly pleased the most noted architect of his time.
Its successors, the stunning Cord Model 810 and 812, introduced in 1935 and 1936, respectively, embodied nearly every conceivable Art Deco and streamline design element, inside and out. Gordon Miller Buehrig, who also designed the acclaimed Auburn 851 Speedster, created an amalgam of stark angularity and luscious curves. Even the external flex-pipe exhausts on the Model 812, a symbol that became a hallmark of supercharged Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg cars, spoke to a widespread yearning to repeat popular Art Deco forms in nearly every design and engineering application.
1937 Cord 812 Westchester.
The Art Deco Bugatti
In mid-1930s France, Jean Bugatti was the talented 25-year-old son of the automaker Ettore Bugatti, whose road and racing cars demonstrated a delightful flair that hinted at Art Deco influence. But it was Jean’s skillful and repeated applications of dramatically curved forms, punctuated with controlled edginess and sweeping lines, that created some of the most memorable automotive shapes of the interwar period.
Jean Bugatti’s stunning Type 57 Superprofile coupe employs a dashing ogee curve that races rearward from the car’s distinctive Bugatti horseshoe-shaped radiator (Ettore was a noted equestrian), rises in a picture-perfect arc thanks to a dramatically raked windscreen, and tapers to a flared, almost impudently shaped deck lid. It’s a pleasing form that makes you smile at its audacity. Auto stylists today are still influenced by this Bugatti’s exquisite roofline and its complementary side sweep panel.
American Art Deco Cars
Chrysler’s top engineers, led by the innovative Carl Breer, attempted to change popular automotive perceptions with a decidedly different approach to streamlining and design. The Chrysler Airflow emulated crack passenger trains like the fabled Union Pacific Streamline Express and the B&O Railroad’s Burlington Zephyr. But while the fickle public had accepted the shift from classic steam locomotives to modern diesels, it balked at buying a new car whose lines so abruptly departed from commonly accepted styling practice. Although the Airflow, with its smooth ride, built-in safety elements and flow-through cabin ventilation, was superior to its rivals, Chrysler was forced to redesign the Airflow’s pioneering shape and graft a conventional cover over its new grille.
Nearly out of business as the Great Depression endured, Pierce-Arrow, a once-proud luxury manufacturer based in Buffalo, New York, that vied with Packard and Cadillac, won a competition at the 1933–34 Chicago A Century of Progress International Exhibition with its shapely Silver Arrow, a streamlined leviathan limousine, armed with a locomotive-like 12-cylinder engine. Its Art Deco elements ranged from its sweeping flush fenders that hid the show car’s side-mounted spares, to “. . . an intriguingly sinister rear window treatment [that] perched two slivers of glass in a periscope-like rear peak.” Rear vision was terrible, but it looked great. Art Deco accents and details made the Pierce appear as if Erté himself had a hand in its conception. Phillip O. Wright, a prolific auto stylist, was largely responsible for the design. Just five Silver Arrows were sold, at a then-heady $10,000 each. Pierce-Arrow’s and Studebaker’s attempts to market a watered-down version of Wright’s design failed, as did Pierce-Arrow in 1938.
Some automakers embodied myriad Art Deco touches that are evident only upon close observation. The Jordan Model Z Speedway Ace and the Packard Model 1104 are two examples. Both boast lovely, intricate design elements like impossibly long hoods, overly ornate instrument displays, filigreed door handles, curved and skirted fenders, unusual headlight shapes repeated with tiny matching running lights, and wire wheels that, when spinning, resemble airplane propellers. It is not known who designed the Jordan, but Phillip Wright, who had previously worked for Walter M. Murphy and then LeBaron, had a firm hand in the Packard’s conception.
William B. Stout, a successful aircraft engineer, had designed the famous Ford Tri-Motor airplane. His radical Scarab is arguably one of the most Art Deco-inspired cars ever offered. Oddly beetle-shaped and aircraft-influenced, and a forerunner of the minivan, the Scarab had fluted headlamps, an Egyptian-style nose badge, pert rows of “whiskers” in lieu of a conventional grille (its Ford flathead V-8 was rear-mounted), and a prominent peak that divides the hood and the front windows, all whispering, “Art Deco, Art Deco.” However, only a few Stout Scarabs were ever made. The lethal combination of high price, high risk (buying an unknown make) and sheer unconventionality made them certain to become a lasting footnote to the best of Art Deco style, coupled with an all-too-human reluctance to move forward with bold new ideas.
1934 Chrysler Airflow Imperial C8 Coupe.
1936 Stout Scarab.
Classic Art Deco-influenced Designs
The innovative French scientist and engineer André Dubonnet teamed up with his country’s most imaginative aircraft designer, Jean Andreau, to design the aperitif baron’s personal dream car on a Hispano-Suiza chassis. The flamboyant Parisian carrossier (coachbuilder) Jacques Saoutchik performed the coachwork honors. Named to memorialize Dubonnet’s young wife Xenia Johnson, who tragically died at an early age, the strikingly attractive coupe resembles a sleek 1930s-era airplane minus wings. Gull-wing windows, parallel doors that open alongside the body, a wicker interior, and horizontal trim elements that accentuate this car’s racy shape made it a timeless Art Deco classic.
1938 Dubonnet Hispano-Suiza H-6C “Xenia.”
The worldwide acclaim for Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic to Paris in 1927 helped focus many auto designers on the merits of aerodynamics and aircraft shapes. At first, it was simply the look that captivated them. Then engineers and aerodynamicists began to realize that streamlining had an efficiency component. The next task was to ensure that the designs themselves, while making cars that began to resemble wingless airplanes, remained attractive and acceptably carlike, without alienating conservative buyers used to more standard styling.
In England in the 1920s and 30s, what became known as the Airline design practice popularly retained recognizable radiators, grilles and front-end elements of marques like Rolls-Royce, Daimler, Bentley, Jaguar, and even Singer and MG, while the designers streamlined, rounded and tapered the cars at the rear. The front-end visages remained largely the same, but from the rear, these free-flowing bodies appeared quite modern. Good examples include the Mercedes-Benz Autobahn-Kurier and the Delage D8-120S. The Mercedes-Benz 540K’s haughty grille was retained with all its baroque opulence, while from the windscreen to the rear, the body is curved and tapered.
The prototype for the Delage Aérosport Coupe offered a bold grille design that appeared windswept, but this conceit was not continued for the resulting small series of production models. The Delage D8-120S by Carrosserie Saoutchik displays the sweeping lines and chrome accents the flashy, Russian-born Paris-based coachbuilder preferred, but this coupe’s fascinating parallel doors were not a common D8 accouterment. A witty saying in France in the Art Deco era was that “one is driven in a Rolls-Royce, one buys a Bugatti for one’s mistress, but one drives a Delage.”
Edsel Ford, the only son of the auto magnate Henry Ford, was the consummate car enthusiast. Although he could have purchased any sporting automobile in the early 1930s and did own a Bugatti Type 37A, he ordered the Ford Motor Company’s styling chief, Eugene T. “Bob” Gregory, to design and build a sleek two-seater, with a race car-inspired, streamlined body, curvaceous cycle fenders, an alligator hood, and the latest Ford flathead V-8, fitted with straight exhausts.
Edsel’s natty sports two-seater was constructed by skilled workers at Ford’s aircraft facility, using sheet aluminum panels hand-formed into a pleasing shape that echoed the best racing car practice of that era. He hoped his smart-looking Continental-style roadster could become a limited-production model, but Henry Ford, his puritanical and eminently practical father, would have none of it. Despite rumors to the contrary, fueled because period photos of the Model 40 show it with two different hood treatments, only one example was built. Fully restored, after having been hidden for years, the Model 40 Speedster is a glimpse of what might have been. Edsel’s own hot rod remains a triumph of minimalist Art Deco styling.
In contrast, Gabriel Voisin’s automobiles often defied description, as the French so often follow their own distinct path in design. Voisin’s success as an aircraft builder helped underwrite his forays into automobile design. His cars borrowed techniques and styling touches from aircraft practice: angular shapes, dihedral struts to firmly attach fenders to fuselages, skirted fenders that aped airplane wheel pants, crank-out windscreens, sling-back seats and more.
Bold interiors like the one in the Voisin C27 coupe were a riot of geometric Art Deco patterns. Instrument panels borrowed their dial shapes and instrument typefaces from prevailing Deco design examples. Even in their day, Voisin’s cars stood apart, and his insistence on using complex Knight sleeve-valve technology perversely meant that while his power plants were virtually silent, they left a noxious haze of blue smoke in their wake.
Streamline cars from Czechoslovakia’s Tatra represented a different approach. Named for the nearby Tatra mountain range, and the third oldest carmaker in the world behind Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot, Tatra built uniquely engineered automobiles until 1999, then switched to building just trucks. Tatra’s engineers were Hans Ledwinka, who had his own unique approach to nearly every challenge, and Edmund Rumpler, a pioneer designer of aerodynamic cars. Protected by high tariffs in Czechoslovakia, Ledwinka began building Tatra sedans with air-cooled, rear-mounted V-8 engines.
Edsel Ford’s 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster.
1934 Voisin Type C27 Aérosport Coupe.
In 1934, Tatra obtained a license from the aerodynamicist and Graf Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray to build the Type 77, a full-sized fastback and the world’s first truly aerodynamic car. Wind tunnel tests of a model showed its coefficient of drag was 0.24. The actual car’s was 0.36, well below 0.54 for most cars of that period. The Volkswagen Beetle resembles the V750 Tatra, which preceded it. Ledwinka’s aerodynamic little 1936 Tatra T97 had a rear-mounted, air-cooled four-cylinder boxer-type engine, a central structural tunnel floor-pan, rear-wheel-drive, four seats and a front luggage compartment. The VW Beetle’s similarity sparked a lawsuit by Ledwinka against Volkswagen and its designer, Ferdinand Porsche. When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, the suit was dropped; after the war, it was re-initiated and VW had to pay a $3 million settlement.
Parisian carrosiers Claude Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi were by practice, and as expressed in their own advertisements, the “Couturiers of the Automobile.” Their ateliers handcrafted automobiles that truly resembled Parisian couture on wheels. Voluptuous shapes, fully skirted front fenders, dramatic speed line themes repeated in several places, low windscreens and rooflines, long hoods, selfish (single-person) cabins, teardrop motifs—all contributed to the unique appearance of a Figoni and Falaschi dream car. The coachbuilders impressed attendees at the 1936 Paris Auto Show with their first presentation of a custom Delahaye. French fashion enthusiasts pioneered the creation of the Concours d’Elegance, really a closely judged fashion show for fine automobiles, each accompanied and accented by a beautifully dressed woman whose designer ensemble was color-coordinated and themed to complement the car.
Figoni-built classics dominated these Concours exhibitions with their audacious, often impractical, but memorable designs, usually built on an expensive sporting chassis from topline marques like Delahaye, Delage and Talbot-Lago. It was as if a beautiful gymnast had been fashionably dressed by a top couturier like Coco Chanel. The underpinnings of these stunning cars were full competition variants, while their sleek aluminum skins were exquisitely molded, painted in bright hues or glittering piano black, then accentuated with delicate kisses of polished alloy and discreet chrome trim. Bespoke Delahaye 135M/135MS coupes and roadsters displayed a multitude of these variations—beautiful then, beautiful now. Nothing like them has been built since.
The Type 57C Bugatti, a perfect example of life imitating art, was a gift from the French government to Prince Reza Pahlavi, the future Shah of Iran, upon the occasion of his first wedding, to an Egyptian princess. While the design is reminiscent of the house of Figoni, the unique coachwork, featuring a functional roll down windscreen, was created by Vanvooren, another Parisian coachbuilding establishment. The Prince’s supercharged Bugatti, one of the top sporting cars of its day, was equipped with a race-inspired, 3.3-liter twin-cam straight 8 engine. Typically, the alloy surfaces under the hood would be engine-turned (or damascened) with a scroll or wave pattern, itself an Art Deco conceit.
1934 Tatra T87.
1937 Delahaye 135MS Roadster.
1938 Talbot-Lago T-150C-SS Teardrop.
The Last American Deco Cars
The Chrysler Thunderbolt, created and shown just before World War II, is both a continuation of 1930s-era Art Deco themes seen in the Scarab and a modern view of where cars would be heading in the postwar period: slab sides, a pancake hood, hidden headlights, minimal decoration, horizontal trim elements evoking speed and progress—all signaling the car of tomorrow. Unfortunately, the Thunderbolt, and its companion four-door phaeton, the Newport, were limited in production, partly by cost and partly because the American automobile industry would soon be gearing up to become a major part of “The Arsenal of Democracy,” the collective efforts of American industry in supporting the Allies.
By 1939, when the world sadly resumed the horrific battle that had ended with the Armistice in 1918, automobiles, in Mark McCourt’s words, “. . . had transcended pure function and become the ultimate personal accessories, desirable for their design as much as for their speed, luxury and practicality . . . [speaking] volumes about their owners’ tastes and their parent company’s engineering bravado. And in 1946, when automobile production resumed after World War II, the world was in a different place, with a new sense of the awesome (as well as awful) power of machines. Automobile design would soon take a different path, leaving the glorious Art Deco cars and (styling) cues of this late interwar period unique and forever celebrated.”
About the Author:
Ken Gross has authored 24 books on automobiles and is the former Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. His 13 critically acclaimed Art Deco and streamlined car exhibitions have appeared at major fine art museums nationwide. He is a 31-year Chief Class Judge Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and a member of its Selection Committee. He curates rare marques, historic racing cars, and historic hot rod classes.
A founding member of the International Chief Judges’ Advisory Group, Gross judges at many North American and European concours. He has received the Automotive Hall of Fame Distinguished Service Citation, the International Motor Press Association’s Ken W. Purdy Award, the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Bachelor Award and the Lee Iacocca Award.
•Barrie Down, Art Deco and British Car Design: The Airline Cars of the 1930s, Veloce Publishing, Ltd., Poundbury, Dorchester, Dorset, England, 2010.
•Donald J. Bush, The Streamlined Decade; George Brazilier, New York, 1975.
•Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, A Century of Automotive Style, Lamm-Morada Publishing Company, Inc. Stockton, California., 1996.
•Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood, Art Deco, 1910–1939, Bulfinch Press, Boston, New York, London, 2003.
•“Art Deco and the Automobile,” by Mark J. McCourt, Hemmings Classic Car, December 2012.
•Ken W. Purdy, The Kings of the Road, Atlantic: Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1949.
•Michael Zumbrunn and Robert Cumberford, Auto Legends: Classics of Style and Design; London and New York, Merrill Publishers, 2004.
•Jonathan Stein, editor; Curves of Steel: Streamlined Automobile Design at the Phoenix Art Museum, Philadelphia: Coachbuilt Press, 2007.
All Photos: © Peter Harholdt
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Winter 2021. View a digital version of the full journal here.