Frank Lloyd Wright: Cars are Architecture on Wheels

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 01/2015
  • posted in: Great Garages

Frank Lloyd Wright loved great architecture, beautiful women and expensive cars.

The second annual Arizona Concours d’Elegance, Jan. 11, 2015, at the landmark Arizona Biltmore Resort in Phoenix will celebrate the cars once owned by America’s greatest architect and auto enthusiast. These cars will be among 90 cars shown at the event, which begins Arizona Auction Week, with six collector-car auctions taking place in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area.

Of course, the historic venue is perfect. Opened in 1929, the destination hotel was designed in Wright’s style by one of his apprentices, Albert Chase MacArthur, whose brothers owned a Dodge dealership in Phoenix.

“There’s just a mystique that travels with Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Ed Winkler, one of the three Valley directors of the Arizona Concours. “Because he has a grand presence in Arizona with Taliesin West, and his connection with the Biltmore Hotel, has inspired us to assemble as many of his former cars as possible.” Kevin Cornish and Chuck Stanford are also directors.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, based at Wright’s famous winter home and architecture school, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, has furthered the concours, with 17 specialty classes, antique and full classic to sports cars and exotics, and confers a number of honors, such as the Taliesin Award, created last year.

The Arizona Concours d’Elegance benefits Make-A-Wish Arizona, the founding chapter of the national organization that grants wishes for children facing life-threatening medical conditions.

The sale of artworks will also benefit the group, including an acrylic painting, “Fast Friends,” by Scottsdale artist Masha, of the legendary Sir Stirling Moss with Jaguar engineer and racer Norman Dewis OBE in a Jaguar C-type racer at the 1952 Mille Miglia. Moss and Dewis will appear as the concours guests of honor. Dewis has just received the distinguished Order of the British Empire honor from HRM Queen Elizabeth II “for services to the motor industry.”

Wright’s first car was a 1908 Stoddard-Dayton Model K roadster, which his neighbors in Oak Park, Illinois, called the “Yellow Devil” because of Wright’s predilection for speed, noted Mary Jane Hamilton in “Frank Lloyd Wright and His Cars,” published in the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Quarterly.

This was followed by a Knox Roadster, 1911, a Cadillac in the 1920s, a result of his income from the design contract for the Imperial Hotel (1916−23) in Tokyo. Down times followed in the Great Depression, with belt-tightening Dodges and a used 1925 Packard Phaeton experiencing oil-consumption issues.

Winkler has been able to research 50 cars owned and found 10 cars that can be traced to Wright or the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation through to current ownership.

These cars include a 1934 Duesenberg Model J Brunn Riviera Phaeton; two 1929 Cord L-29s, a Phaeton, which Wright described as a “locomotive on wheels” for the company brochure, and a Cabriolet, the latter in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg (ACD) Museum in Auburn, Indiana; a 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr; and two Lincoln Continentals, a 1940 Cabriolet and a 1941 Coupe.

Others: four Jaguars, including a 1953 Mark VII; a 1956 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing, regularly driven by William Wesley Peters, an architect at Taliesin West and Wright’s son-in-law, and three of Wright’s particular joys, the Crosleys, including a 1949 Hot Shot, also in the ACD Museum.

Of those 10 he can trace, Winkler has scheduled three to be showcased at the Arizona Concours 2015: a 1952 Crosley Super Sport; a 1937 AC Roadster; and a 1953 Bentley R-Type James Young Sedanca Coupe.

“This is the first time this many originally owned Frank Lloyd Wright cars have been shown together,” Winkler says. “The AC has never been shown and will be straight out of restoration.”

“Frank Lloyd Wright admired cars which had a unique design and engineering innovations,” says Arnold Roy, who joined the distinguished Taliesin Fellowship in February 1952 and completed his apprenticeship in 1964. Later for Taliesin Architects he was, among many positions, project architect for renovation of the Arizona Biltmore, 1973 to 1982.

FLW’s flamboyant style extended into the car dealerships. “He loved to walk into a VW dealer and say, ‘I will take five of those’; he did the same at the local Crosley dealer,” says Roy, who practices architecture and is today a Legacy member of the Taliesin Fellowship.

He recalls that from 1952 to 1959 Frank Lloyd Wright cars include the 1929 L29 Cord; the 1940 Lincoln, modified, and 1941 Lincoln coupe; 1954 Riley 4 door; 1954 Jaguar MK VII; 1956 Mercedes 300B sedan; the 1937 Acedes; and the 1953 Bentley.

The Bentley will be shown by its current owner, G. Brad Klein M.D., and his wife, Victoria, of Los Angeles, California, who purchased the one-off R Type in 1994 and restored it to the current maroon exterior and tan interior appearance. The roof slides over the driver’s seat into a rear roof compartment.

Outfitted with an approximately 150-horsepower inline six-cylinder, an aluminum alloy head, a GM Hydromatic automatic transmission and 3:73.1 rear axle ratio, the car was built for Charles B. Wrightsman, the oilman and art patron for his wife Jayne, friends of President and Mrs. Kennedy.

The third owner of the car, Wright acquired it in 1958 for $7,500 from J. S. Inskip, then the Rolls-Royce dealer in Manhattan, New York City, while he was completing work on the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, his final masterpiece. This was the last car he bought, as Wright died the following year. Among its other owners was Martin Milner, the actor who starred in Route 66 and Adam 12 in television.

Dr. Klein has been restoring and driving post-war (World War II) coachbuilt Rolls and Bentleys since 1970. In addition to the Wright car, he has two Silver Cloud I Rolls Royces, a 1957 H.J. Mulliner Drophead Coupe (1 of 21 built) and a 1958 James Young Coupe (1 of 2); and a 1961 Bentley S-2 Continental H.J. Mulliner two-door Coupe (1 of 25 LHDs). 

“For me, the history and individuality of these cars, plus the ability drive them on a daily basis with modern traffic conditions is what for me makes these automobiles, which represent the end of the coach-building era, special,” he says.

The 1937 AC 16-80 2 Seat Sport Competition Roadster, ivory on a fawn interior, was shipped from the company on June 2, 1937, to English Motor Cars Ltd. In New York City. Wright purchased the AC from in early 1948, the next owner, Harold Pickett, acquired it the car from the FLW Foundation in 1969, a decade after the architect’s death. The current owners, David and Rochelle Buice, bought it from Harold Pickett in San Antonio in 1973.

The AC company began in 1904 when John Portwine, a butcher, and John Weller, an engineer, formed Autocarriers Ltd., which produced the “Autocarrier” business tricar and, in 1907, the “Sociable” passenger version.

In 1911, the factory moved to Thames Ditton (“Tailor-made at the Savile Row of motordom-A.C. Cars, Thames Ditton”), and by 1913 the four-wheel Fivet-engined light car, the “Rolls Royce of light cars,” was available.

AC cars were later powered by the four-cylinder Anzani engine or the famous Weller-designed six-cylinder alloy OHC engine which were produced from 1919 to 1963. The ’37 Competition Roadster includes this powerplant.

“Rochelle and I feel really proud that we own and are custodians of an automobile that Frank Lloyd Wright previously owned and found attractive,” says Buice, who also built a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home 50 years ago, where the couple still live.

The AC has two spares, slab petrol tank, two petrol pumps, laydown windscreen, long swooping wings, long louvered bonnet, overhead cam 2-liter engine manufactured by AC, wire wheels, full instrument panel, cut-down doors and side curtains.

The Buices have always enjoyed British sports cars. Their first was a 1963 E Type Jaguar purchased new in 1963. Buice acknowledges his wife’s support in rebuilding the car, as well as that of his friend, Randy Gordon-Gilmore, who helped him mill components for the rebuild.

“The Sport Competition AC personifies everything that a classic pre-war British sports car should be and look like,” he says. “We are honored to have our car appear at this year’s Arizona Concours.”

Tickets can be purchased at the door or on line at ArizonaConcours.com.

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