The Art Deco Design Era and the Automobile

In 1924 a new international design theme, Art Deco, appeared at a Paris decorative arts exposition, taking much of its inspiration from modern art and the motifs of ancient Egypt. Initially Art Deco appeared in furniture, paintings… even women’s fashions. But before long it migrated to architecture and thence to the mass market, including those icons of 20th Century transportation… airplanes, ocean liners, and railway trains. It also coincided with the arrival of “streamlining,” the first realistic attempt at integrating aerodynamics with style. It was inevitable then that Art Deco would influence automobile design in everything from streamlined body shapes to grilles, dashboards, door handles, seats, and hood mascots. A few brave designers totally embraced the theme; it is their cars that we salute in this article.

1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow

The Pierce-Arrow company of Buffalo was a builder of luxury cars (not exactly the best segment to be in after a massive stock market crash). In 1933 Pierce-Arrow announced a special model, the V-12 Silver Arrow, built around streamlined forms and considerably influenced by Art Deco themes. Only five Silver Arrows were made; at $10,000, enormously expensive in depression dollars. Miraculously four of those Pierce Silver Arrows survive, still to be viewed and enjoyed in museums and classic car shows.

The Chrysler Airflow

The Chrysler Airflow was, for its time, radical in design and engineering. One of the first cars to be developed with the aid of a wind tunnel, its streamlined shape was also dictated by the engine location and back seat placement. Until then, engines had typically been situated behind the front wheels, while back seat passengers sat over the rear axle. Chrysler’s engineers moved the Airflow’s engine 20″ ahead, reaching past the front axle, then brought the back seat forward so that passengers were located within the wheelbase for a more comfortable ride. The Airflow also pioneered unit construction by integrating the body’s skeleton with a pressed steel frame. Built in both Chrysler and DeSoto derivatives, it made extensive use of Art Deco ornamentation inside and out, as evident in the grille, instrument panel, and seats; indeed, the latter would not have looked out of place in an Art Deco-themed living room. The Airflow proved a failure with the public; perhaps a little too radical for the tough economic times.

The SS Normandie

When she arrived in New York harbor in 1935, the Normandie was a ship of superlatives. Largest in the world, first liner to exceed 1000 feet in length, largest turbo-electric powered liner, first to make a 30-knot eastbound Atlantic crossing. All told, Normandie earned the much-coveted (though mythical) Blue Riband for five record-breaking crossings. Her design and decor were as innovative as her engineering accomplishments and daring hull form, for the great ship ushered in a new era in ocean liner interiors. Art Deco was everywhere. It could be found in paintings and sculptures adorning the public rooms, in objects such as carpeting, flooring, and tableware, in the sensational light fixtures designed by Lalique. Some were over 15 feet in height, earning Normandie the accolade “Ship of Light.” The Normandie came to a tragic end. While being converted to a troopship at New York’s Pier 88, she was set afire by a careless welder’s torch, then subjected to a series of mistakes by the crew and firefighters. The ship turned on her side and sank. Refloated in September 1943, she was scrapped in Newark, NJ, in 1947, but not before numerous artifacts had been rescued, some of which still sail the oceans in contemporary Celebrity liners. The first image shown above, created by the legendary poster artist Cassandre, simultaneously honors the Normandie and the Art Deco era.

The Cord

Among American cars, a few are so distinctive in shape that they’re instantly recognizable. Perhaps the most distinguished of these is the 1935 Cord Model 810. Originally planned as a baby Deusenberg and named after Auburn/Deusenberg company head Errett Lobban Cord, the 810 was designed by Gordon Buehrig, one of the most talented stylists ever to set pencil to paper. The Cord featured front-wheel-drive, retractable headlights, a powerful V-8 engine, and a unique body that was soon dubbed “coffin nose.” Well… if it was coffin-shaped, the Cord was very much in the Art Deco mold, with its six chrome-plated hood strakes and matching bumper. Even the instrument panel absorbed the Bakelite influence prevalent in radios and other household appliances of its time. The Cord was produced in 2-door and 4-door sedan and fastback variants, plus a gorgeous convertible. For a variety of business mismanagement reasons, it led a short life and the body dies were sold to two struggling and soon-to-disappear manufacturers, Hupp and Graham. In its final resurrection, as a Graham Hollywood, the Cord may have been the ultimate Art Deco machine.

Chrysler Building

According to Architecture in the Twentieth Century “Walter P. Chrysler wanted a provocative building which would not merely scrape the sky but positively pierce it. Its 77 floors briefly making it the highest building in the world — at least until the Empire State Building was completed — it became the star of the New York skyline, thanks above all to its crowning peak.” There could be no more perfect symbol of autos and architecture than the Chrysler Building. Totally fashioned in the Art Deco mode, the Chrysler Building remains a feature of the New York skyline, albeit outshone in height by modern competitors. It’s dazzling roof has been the subject of countless posters, ads, and artworks. All over the world Art Deco buildings are the target of developers who would raze them for something new, while preservationists struggle to save these magnificent sculptures. The Chrysler Building is a living symbol of an epoch in design that forever changed the automobile.

1937 Ford

The 1937 Ford may have been aimed at average buyers with average incomes but this affordable mid-price car was a work of art. Or Art Deco, in this case, because there existed a member of the Ford family with creative genes and superb taste. In spite of having a disastrous marketing error named after him in the 1950’s, Edsel Ford influenced many of the most attractive Ford products, including the Lincoln Zephyr, the Lincoln Continental, and the more plebeian but no less attractive ’37 Ford. As shown above it could be purchased as a convertible, but two-door and four-door sedans and phaetons were more popular. Two engines were available, both V-8’s, both years ahead of the competition, in 60hp and 85hp configurations. In other areas Henry Ford refused to accept progress; an independent front axle had yet to appear, while brakes were mechanical, not hydraulic. Never mind… enjoy a richness of design handed down from the father of the mass-produced automobile.

The 20th Century Limited

Prior to the airliner age when we humans would be herded into silver tubes with little regard to comfort, railways provided a quick, convenient and, yes, comfortable way of getting there. Each company strived to offer a faster service, with trains pulled by ever-more powerful engines. “Express” meant fast from point-to-point. Trains took on fancy names like 20th Century Limited and Burlington Zephyr, the latter being one of the first to switch to diesel power. Industrial designers, a relatively new phenomenon in American industrial expansion, were called on to create streamlined trains that appeared as a cohesive form from locomotive to rear car viewing platform. Art Deco was a common theme outside and in; automobile and railway enthusiasts alike can spot the similarities in car designs and railway styling. The New York Central engine depicted here has appeared in countless posters, calendars, collectible photographs. Still, it is interesting to point out that the fastest railway steam engine was British, not American. In 1937 the streamlined Mallard, with a consist of passenger cars behind, topped 136 mph over a measured mile.

1939 Delahaye

European car designers were no less influenced by Art Deco than their American counterparts. Especially in France, where custom body builders tended to be flamboyant, to say the least. This magnificent Delahaye 165 was designed by master builder Guiseppe Figoni on a Delahaye chassis featuring a 4.5 liter V-12 engine said to be capable of 235 hp. Parts for ten were made but only five such cars were assembled, each having unique styling touches though all with those same enclosed teardrop fenders and swooping curves. Our subject car made its debut at the Paris Automobile Salon in 1938, the same year Teflon was first made available to auto manufacturers. A 1939 Delahaye 165 appeared at the New York World’s Fair, wowing North American visitors who had never seen such extravagant design before. The beauty, by the way, was seen and photographed by Andy Marks at Pebble Beach in 2004.

Pontiac Silver Streak

The Silver Streak gave Pontiac something to distinguish itself in an era when speed, even if it was only illusory, added glamour and excitement. It got its name from the five parallel silver strakes that streaked across the hood, matched by a trio of speed ribs on the front and rear fenders, which were added to give a feeling of motion. Earlier Silver Streaks also featured a vertical-type grille, with even more chromium ribs racing up to meet the hood lines. This was a familiar Art Deco theme; similar decorative striping being applied to everything from tableware to intercity buses. In the 1940’s Silver Streak trim adorned the Deluxe Torpedo and Streamliner Torpedo series, racy-looking two-and-four door fastbacks with names that perfectly characterized the times. But in the early 50’s the Silver Streak streaked off into history: the Art Deco era of automotive design had ended.

As time goes on, these cars are increasingly sought after. Collectors attempt to restore the entire car to original specifications, from OEM wheels to the knobs on the radio. It is obviously quite difficult to track down original parts for these cars, especially those that were produced in such small quantities. If you’re trying to restore an antique auto, Blackburn’s offers classic wheel covers and vintage hubcaps dating back to the 1940’s. If you’re in the market, don’t hesitate to contact us. If we don’t have it, we’ll do everything in our power to help you track it down.

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