Friday, October 9, 2015

The Luckiest Generation: We got our flying cars

"Going Places" exhibit at Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla.
You might feign interest when your wife drags you to an art museum. But you might find it easier to show enthusiasm if it was the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. you were going to.

The special exhibit there is "Going Places, Transportation Designs from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection."

Here, amid soaring conceptions of transportation devices as depicted by automotive, airplane and even railroad designers, one thing becomes perfectly clear.

Mine was the Luckiest Generation.

We got the flying cars we'd been promised (not that we bought them).

Always longer, wider, and lower than the previous model year, and ever bulging with the promise of power, these were real cars that you could buy — if you had the money — and they looked fantastic.

The Mercury Carnival of 1952; Similarity to a jet is obvious.
(Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection Photography)
"Going Places" displays the artwork of designers and illustrators, showing cars exaggerated in width, length and lowness. No real automobiles ever looked like this, you think. And, yet, some did, as the exhibition makes clear by mixing in actual advertisements for the real things.

Sometimes the reality is more astounding than the dream, as in the case of the Plymouth Barracuda, with its aquarium sized glass "fastback."

More often, as in the case of the Nash Airflyte, the actual car looked more like a bathroom fixture than the streamlined spaceship designers visualized.

A Chevrolet from a vision of the future that never quite came true.
No matter. Here was the future, we were assured, and it would be wonderful. No one warned us that eventually we'd all be driving look-alike Toyota Camrys.

Few of the dream cars actually flew, of course, although some could. Despite their rocket ship looks, under the hood many made do with straight-six, flathead motors left over from the 1930s.

And, yet, they soared, on their looks alone.

The dream cars looked fantastic, even standing still in illustrations.
No more beautiful fighter plane was ever built than the Lockheed P-38 Lightning of World War II. No more beautiful passenger plane ever flew than the Lockheed Constellation of the 1950s.

Cadillac tried to capture the allure and promise of those airplanes by incorporating gentle bumps into the rear fenders. These would grow to become "fins" on Cadillacs and other cars.

On automobiles, fins didn't quite fly. But it was a remarkable effort.

Among the collection at the Norton are models created over the years in a longstanding General Motors scholarship contest for high school students. I was among the boys who sat in an auditorium and were encouraged to submit our wildest ideas for consideration.

Some of these youngsters came up with admirable models. I drew up a three-box design that looked like a 1965 American Motors Ambassador. This was hardly a vision of a future anyone would want to live in. It would have made a practical coffin, I suppose.

I showed the design to my father. He wasn't impressed, and why would he have been? He had driven a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air with fins that would have stabilized a jet.

I realized I needed to dream better dreams.

“Going Places” was curated by Matthew Bird, a professor of Industrial Design at the Rhode Island School of Design. It continues through Jan. 10, 2016 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, Fla.

No swoopy dream car, the 1957 BMW Isetta on display at the Norton
nevertheless captured a vision of promise. Did you ever notice that
the tail lights of an Isetta occupy bullet housings, just as do the headlights?


  1. Love this blog. You actually made a transportation exhibit sound interesting.

  2. Wow the yellow Mercury has a Studebaker front end!! I checked and no Raymond Loewy did not do the design work. The Chevorelt featured many design elements that ended up on various GM products. Too numerous to list! It did seem to make me thing of 1955-57 GMC/Chevy trucks though.


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