Moving ‘Sensuous Steel’

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 07/2013
  • posted in: Great Garages

They are fast and furious — beautifully.

This summer, through Sept. 15, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, is presenting Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles, an exhibition of 18 show cars and three motorcycles from the 1930s and ’40s.

Selected from renowned car collections and organized by Guest Curator Ken Gross, former Petersen Automotive Museum director, the exhibition celebrates Art Deco, which combined craft motifs with aircraft-inspired materials, embellishments and an iconography of motion suggesting optimism and progress.

Brought to prominence in 1925 through the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, the style influenced architecture, passenger trains, luxury liners, furniture, appliances, jewelry, objets d’art, signage, fashionable clothing and, of course, automobiles. The style flourished until WWII, when the “space-age” style of the ’40s and ’50s began.

“This is the first exhibition of Art Deco autos in a fine art museum, and there could be no more fitting a venue given the Frist Center’s historic Art Deco building, which was dedicated in 1934 and served as Nashville’s main post office,” says Frist Center Executive Director Dr. Susan H. Edwards. “The works in this exhibition convey the breadth, diversity and stunning artistry of cars designed in the Art Deco style.”

Explains Gross: “To give the illusion of dramatic movement and forward thrust, cars of the 1930s and ’40s merged gentle curves with angular edges. These automobiles were made from the finest materials and sported beautifully crafted ornamentation, geometric grillwork and the elegant miniature statuary of hood ornaments.”

Among the automobiles included in Sensuous Steel: a 1929 Cord L-29 Cabriolet, designed by Alan Leamy, known for styling the famed Auburn Speedster, and painted burnt orange color by former owner Frank Lloyd Wright; a 1934 Edsel Ford Model 40 Speedster, a one-off two-seater with an aluminum alloy body, designed by E.T. “Bob” Gregorie for Edsel B. Ford; a 1934 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow Sedan, penned by Phillip Wright for the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition (1933–34), one of three surviving examples; and a 1935 Stout Scarab — an antecedent of the minivan created by Bill Stout, an aircraft engineer who developed the Ford Tri-Motor.

Working from his extensive knowledge and the notes written for the show by other automotive experts, Gross discusses five of these very special cars with Highline Autos:

•1936 Delahaye 135M Competition Court Coupe (Jim Patterson/The Patterson Collection, Louisville) — “With Figoni & Falaschi styling, the 135M rests on a short-wheelbase competition and features a 4-liter Delahaye with three downdraft Solex carburetors and a four-speed, competition-style manual transmission.

“The body is hand-crafted aluminum, and the car emphasizes Art Deco flowing lines, with teardrop-shaped chrome accents, fully skirted fenders and a split rear window. Inside, the dashboard has a splendid Jaeger rally clock, and the dashboard is made of rich wood, curved at the edges.

“French racecar driver Albert Perrot commissioned this coupe, hidden from the Nazis during World War II and then owned by Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, a well-known collector of exotic cars. In 2004, James Patterson reinstalled the original engine and performed today’s restoration including its return to the original black livery.”

•1936 Cord ‘Armchair’ 810 Beverly Sedan (Collection of Richard and Debbie Fass, Vienna, NJ) — “The quintessential Art Deco-styled sedan, the 810 was designed by Gordon Miller Buehrig, famous for his Auburn and Duesenberg work, and named for Errett Lobban Cord, the car and aircraft entrepreneur.

“The “baby Duesenberg” included front-wheel drive; independent front suspension; a streamlined, unitized body with pontoon fenders; a coffin-shaped hood; crank-out, hidden headlights; a Lycoming 125-bhp, 90-degree, 288-cid V-8 engine with aluminum heads and a four-speed pre-selector Bendix transmission with vacuum/electric shifting; and a quartet of easy chairs, each with its own armrest.

“Priced around $3,000, the new Cord equaled the cost of a Cadillac and was fast as well. Testers for The Autocar, a British auto magazine, reached 102.27 mph on a top-speed run. At the Bonneville Salt Flats in July 1937, an 810 completed nearly 2,500 miles in 24 hours, averaging more than 101 mph, including stops for fuel and tires.”

•1938 Hispano-Suiza H6-B “Xenia” Coupe (Peter Mullin Automotive Museum Foundation) — “A one-off car commissioned by fighter pilot, amateur racer and aperitif baron, Andre Dubonnet, and designed by avant-garde aircraft engineer, Jean Andreau, the four-passenger car features curved glass in all of its windows; a panoramic windscreen; Plexiglas side windows that open upward in gullwing fashion; a triangular rear window; and two side doors, which open rearward, in “suicide” fashion.

“Airplane design is evident throughout such as the pointed tail and the cockpit with a flat floor, multiple round, white-on-black gauges centered between two glove boxes and foldable bucket seats.

“The engine is a Hispano-Suiza H6B 6.5-liter, overhead-valve, inline six with 144 bhp in standard form and capable of 125 mph. Hood vents recall the 810/812 Cord, so some believe Dubonnet may have seen Cord designer Gordon Buehrig’s patents.

“‘Xenia’ was Dubonnet’s wife Xenia Johnson, who had died early in life a few years before. The name did not ride well, apparently, with his second wife.”

•1934 Bugatti Type 46 Superprofile (Collection of Merle and Peter Mullin, Los Angeles) — Beginning in 1911 through 1939, Automobiles Bugatti built technically advanced cars of great beauty and track and street finesse. For the T46, 45 coachbuilders offered their artistry to the chassis, with its 11-foot, 6-inch wheelbase.

“The Type 46 was discontinued in 1933 after a successful run of 450 cars. In his early 20s, working with Bugatti factory designer Joseph Walter, Jean Bugatti, Ettore’s son, designed an Art Deco Superprofile coupe for the Type 50 chassis. He followed this with a Ventoux four-passenger coupe for the Type 57 chassis, inspired by the design of the Superprofile coupe.

“Only a few Bugatti Superprofile coupes were built. The one original is in the Everett Louwman Collection in the Netherlands, and there is a replica on a Type 46 chassis in the French National Motor Museum, formerly the Schlumpf Collection in Mulhouse, France.

“This chassis, 46208, with coachwork called Conduite Interieure, was delivered in February 1930 to Parisian Bugatti dealer Dominique Lamberjack and was also in the collection of Baron John Raben-Levetzau, owner of the Aalholm Automobile Museum in Nysted, Denmark.

“A few years ago, the original chassis was reworked in the coachwork style of the Superprofile coupe, with an aluminum body, Scintilla headlamps, matching sidelights, a 5.4-liter engine, black exterior, tanned ostrich hide and wood-finished dash and wood-rimmed wheel.”

•1937 Delahaye 135MS Roadster (The Revs Institute for Automotive Research @ the Collier Collection, Naples, Florida) — “This one-off roadster, built by Figoni & Falaschi for the 1937 Paris Auto Salon, features their signature curved styling, with fully enclosed front and rear fenders for streamlining and aerodynamics.

“Called ‘a Paris gown on wheels,’the roadster features dark red leather interior by Hermès, a crank-down disappearing windshield, disappearing convertible top, a central light mounted in the front grille and door handles mounted flush.

“The car’s hood incorporates a scalloped chrome trim accentuating the curves of the fenders. The effect is that the car appears to be moving when it’s standing still: perfect Art Deco.

“Its all-aluminum body is built on a short 2.70-meter competition chassis, and the carburetion system was changed since its creation from three up-draft carburetors to three side-draft carburetors and the color to gray-silver.”

More information on Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles is available at 615.244.3340 or visit

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