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  • When the Future Was Young, and Cars Could Fly: An Interview with Brett Snyder

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    Early concept cars were drawn by designers and illustrators who entered the industry as youthful pioneers. Optimistic and in their 20s, they started work in Detroit beginning in the Depression, with a resurgence of activity just after World War II. Think of the guys from Mad Men, but younger and with cars on their minds, drafting in their shirtsleeves in America's very first styling studios.

    Brett Snyder of Delray Beach, Florida, collects vintage auto art from this heyday of American auto styling, including illustrations from designers who went on to create other iconic industrial designs, such as Raymond Loewy, Jon W. Hauser, Richard Arbib, George Walker and Virgil Exner. Many of the designers who produced these early concept sketches became legends in the car industry, but their names remain, to this day, relatively unknown, in part because the auto companies did not archive their work. Instead, they threw it away.

    Salvaging this art today is a labor of love for collectors like Hampton Wayt, Frederic Scharf and now Brett Snyder, who maintains a blog at cardesignart.blogspot.com and a gallery of some of his 300 works at www.andrewfjohnsongallery.com. The recent bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler prompted this timely discussion with Snyder about automotive styling, the lost art of drawing outrageously fanciful concept cars, and the importance of automotive design history.

     

    The Art Center, pictured here in the late 1950s, was one of only three or four schools in the country that first taught transportation design.

    The Art Center, pictured here in the late 1950s, was one of only three or four schools in the country that first taught transportation design. (All images courtesy the collection of Brett Snyder.)

    Barringer: General Motors declared bankruptcy on June 1, 2009. How do you fit this news into the larger century-long story of General Motors, which incorporated in 1908? 

    Snyder: The failure of GM is rather sad. In the news, there has been talk about where things went wrong and what needs to happen in the future, but there's very little talk of styling. Styling put GM out front with Harley Earl's creation of the Art & Colour Section [design studio, in 1927], and I guarantee you styling will make [the company's] future. The market already has plenty of brands. Somebody will buy a GM car in the future—or a Chrysler, for that matter—because it will connect on an emotional level.

    The bankruptcies have the potential to bring customers back into American dealerships. It's like a clean slate, and the styling will need to reflect this. Customers will show up wanting to support the industry. But if the showrooms and products look and feel the same, the effort will be wasted and they'll never come back. The designers as well as the marketing people have a tall order to fill.

    Artwork by Jim Quinlan during his first months at Ford Styling in October 1954. Quinlan spent his entire thirty-five-year career at Ford.

    Top: Artwork by Jim Quinlan during his first months at Ford Styling in October 1954. Quinlan spent his entire 35-year career at Ford. He worked on the 1956, 1958, 1961 and 1964 Thunderbird interiors, and helped design the interior of the first Mustang. Bottom: Ford Styling studio at Ford Motor Company.

    Barringer: How did you become interested in car design? 

    Snyder: I grew up around machines with big dials, meters and glowing lights. My dad was a mechanical engineer, a pilot, and the owner of an instrument-calibration business. I chose a career in television broadcasting and am still around machines with dials, meters and flashing lights. I used to collect cars and car literature, like brochures and advertisements, but even the rarest brochure would have been printed in the hundreds. With original art, however, you literally have a one-of-a-kind item. I cannot describe the satisfaction of owning a genuine piece of automotive history, an original artifact that was part of the creative process used to seduce the car-buying public.

    Barringer: Early car designers aren't nearly as well known as other industrial designers of that period, and today you are one of several collectors bringing these unique artworks to public view. What do these works mean to you personally, and what do you hope people will come to appreciate about these works? 

    Snyder: Automobile design art allows me to hold history in my hands and travel back in time. A particular drawing was there at the moment when the car was taking shape. What if they had chosen the design in my hands instead? I also enjoy seeing the process unfold and gaining a greater appreciation of the creativity that went into designing every facet of the automobile. I hope design scholars will take a fresh look at the automobile's design influence on our culture and recognize the enormous talents that shaped America's image to the world.

    Barringer: Have the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler had an impact on the value and meaning of vintage auto art? 

    Snyder: The collectible market for automotive design art is in its infancy. It's not quite accepted in the art and design worlds, and it can be too abstract for mainstream car enthusiasts. In addition, most people have never seen original design art, since it was kept locked in studios and was supposed to be destroyed.

    The bankruptcies show how times have changed. Design drawings offer a fascinating look behind the scenes of the American automobile business. You can see streamlining's influence, the excitement and optimism of the jet age, and shifting trends toward cleaner, simpler lines. You can also see styling's influence on the car business diminish as drawings become less detailed and are produced with cheaper materials.

    I think the mission of my collection is to help elevate the status of automobile design in the art and design world. There are numerous books and exhibitions related to mid-century design but precious little about automobile stylists.

    General Motors styling studio and artwork.

    Top: General Motors styling studio. Middle: Artwork by Pete Wozena, 1957. Bottom: Artwork by Carl H. Renner, 1946. Renner's first dream was to be an animator at Walt Disney Studios, but after a year he moved to Detroit and was hired by GM Styling. Renner was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame in 2007.

    Barringer: How were the first styling studios established? 

    Snyder: With CEO Alfred Sloan's approval, Harley Earl formed General Motors's Art & Colour Section in June 1927. A&C was changed to General Motors Styling in 1937. Eventually, GM, Ford and Chrysler all had a variety of advanced studios. Some came and went. Ford had a special studio to develop levitating vehicles in the late 1950s. GM's Styling VP Bill Mitchell had his own Studio X in the basement. Common practice was to have a pre-production or advanced studio for each make of vehicle. Here the designers could flex their creativity. Managers would move people around to keep ideas fresh. So you might be working on production exteriors for a while, then taillight lenses, and then you might work in an advanced studio to clear the cobwebs from your thinking. As budgets tightened and government regulations increased, this kind of blue-sky design faded away.

    Barringer: Why were they given such free reign to pursue their visions? 

    Snyder: Truth is, most designers were not given free reign. The majority of stylists worked within defined boundaries determined by management and the previous year's models. Still others had to work on less enviable tasks like door handles, window cranks and hood ornaments. However, Harley Earl, who created the automobile styling profession, recognized the need for “blue sky” ideas. He understood that a breakthrough design was unlikely to occur if everyone only focused on the minor year-over-year changes.

    The advanced styling studio was usually the first stop for a newly hired designer. A new hire doesn't know much about current projects, and the freedom of advanced styling allowed managers to evaluate a designer's strengths and weaknesses. After a few weeks or months, a new recruit may show a talent for interiors, detail work, or make eye-popping presentation drawings. They would be transferred to the appropriate studio. Only a lucky few continued with advanced projects.

    Barringer: What materials did these early stylists use? 

    Snyder: The most popular materials were chalk on dark canson paper, gouache and airbrush on artboard. You start to see Prismacolor markers and colored pencils take hold in the middle of the 1950s.

    Barringer: These sketches weren't valued during their time, were often destroyed, and weren't archived in any serious way. So how do you find them? 

    Snyder: What happened in the design studio stayed in the design studio. Detroit's styling departments were operated under tight security. You weren't allowed to take stuff home to work on over the weekend. Consequently, the long hours took tolls on many marriages. It was common for each designer to have a box under their drafting table. There they might keep favorite illustrations or ideas for future reference. When the box was full, most of the material would be obsolete, and a manager might look the other way if you took some home. Most didn't care as long as it was gone. A story I've heard from Chrysler was that space was at such a premium, they'd periodically clean out all the drawers onto a table and say, “It's in the trash at five o'clock.” Some designers would pull out their work as mementos. A manager would sign a pass in order for the designers to take their work past the guards. If you wanted someone else's work, you'd get their permission before taking it home. I was told two of my most valuable pieces were taken from the trash.

    Keep in mind, the styling studios churned out these pieces at a relentless pace. Only a small percentage of designers bothered to take anything home, and fewer yet managed to keep the work clean and dry for decades after. Most of my acquisitions come from direct contact with former designers or their heirs. So that means late nights on Google, lots of phone calls, and periodic trips to Michigan. A number of pieces I have were uncovered by Hampton Wayt. Hampton had the vision and foresight 10 years ago to seek out materials that had been stored away in attics and basements for years.

     

    Car designers were inspired by airplanes, science fiction, and magazines like Popular Science (July 1959), Modern Mechanix (May 1935) and Popular Mechanics (February 1951).

    Car designers were inspired by airplanes, science fiction, and magazines like Popular Science (July 1959), Modern Mechanix (May 1935) and Popular Mechanics (February 1951).

    Barringer: What inspired the early stylists? 

    Snyder: I think the air and space influence can find root in a few places. Airplanes and speed were very much in vogue after the war. Many exciting newspaper headlines were about test pilots and those breaking the sound barrier. Who wouldn't want to imagine themselves behind the controls of a powerful, sleek machine? So they looked to a variety of sources: science and technology magazines like Popular Science and Mechanix Illustrated, as well as science-fiction illustrations in pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Super Science. Many designers were also auto-racing fans and were influenced by European road-racing cars. The hottest and most exotic cars in the parking lot usually belonged to the staff of the design department. These guys were living a dream they'd had since they were kids.

    Perhaps one of the most significant events where aircraft design influenced the automobile industry took place in October 1941. Harley Earl had been given a sneak peek at Lockheed's P-38 Lightning high-altitude interceptor. The 94th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field north of Detroit had received the first models, and Earl arranged a special visit for GM stylists. Although security rules kept the group at least thirty feet away, they spent two hours absorbing the details from the bubble canopy and its twin-boom tail rudders.

    Members of that young group went on to have tremendous influence on post-war American car design. Elwood Engel later became head of Chrysler in 1961. Homer LaGassey designed a number of GM Motorama cars. Joe Oros influenced Ford design for decades. And Richard Arbib influenced boats and concept cars and designed the iconic Hamilton Ventura watch.

    Barringer: Can you suggest where American car designers today should be looking for inspiration as they attempt to design cars for tomorrow's consumers? 

    Snyder: If I knew the answer, Fritz [GM CEO Fritz Henderson] and Nardelli [Chrysler CEO Robert Louis Nardelli] would have me on payroll in a heartbeat. I think the retro stuff has run its course. I'd be surprised if the Challenger and Camaro last more than a few years. I think looking to today's science and technology blogs and magazines—like the magazines that inspired advanced designers decades ago—could spark some fresh ideas. We may not get flying cars or levitating buses, but new lightweight materials, alternative fuels, and wireless and satellite technologies might inspire the next hot car. Interestingly, one retired designer I talked with said, “With new materials technology, many ideas I never bothered to put on paper 30 years ago would be possible today.” So maybe there's hope that designers will be allowed to dream big once again and shake things up.

     

    Photo of retired GM design pioneer Harley Earl in 1959, standing with Firebird III, concept car. At right, the Lockheed p-38 Lightening.

    Left: Pioneer GM designer Harley Earl retired in 1959. Here, near the end of his career, he stands with the Firebird III, an experimental turbine-powered concept car. Right: The Lockheed P-38 Lightning inspired Harley Earl and his stylists in 1941.

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