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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
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
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. (All images courtesy the collection of Brett
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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