CC Art Museum Tour: Detroit Institute of Arts, “Car Design In The Motor City, 1950-2020” – Paying Reverence Where It’s Due

One could be forgiven if one didn’t know that Detroit was home to one of America’s greatest art museums.  Yes: Detroit, Michigan.  Where there is money, there are art collectors, and one of the most famous art collectors in Michigan’s storied history was Edsel Ford, who was, to understate an obvious fact, somewhat different from his famous father.  Needless to say, many of the works in the museum were donated by Edsel; therefore, it is only appropriate that the DIA would host a temporary exhibit honoring the design of the American automobile.  Michigan is proud of its automotive heritage, and the Big Three pitched in some of their most valuable examples of the car as art.

Just about a decade ago, many of the valuable works owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts were in peril of being sold as Detroit entered bankruptcy; however, finance people did finance things and philanthropists did philanthropic things and the collection was saved for the future of the city.  I have visited the DIA almost yearly for the past 25 years; in doing so, art history and appreciation has become one of my favorite hobbies, and the DIA is home to paintings and sculptures that anyone would be proud of, including Diego Rivera’s gigantic mural, Detroit Industry, which Edsel Ford himself commissioned.

The Motor City exhibit at the DIA has been running for over a year now, so I’ve now visited twice and enjoyed it both times.  Because I’m such a car geek and have visited the company collections of both General Motors and Chrysler (Ford doesn’t really have one), few of the cars in the exhibit are new to me, but they are automotive royalty nonetheless.  This is GM’s standout Motorama car from 1951, the LeSabre: Harley Earl used it as a personal car for years.  Obviously inspired by the aviation industry, the LeSabre’s headlights were mounted in that ovoid “air” intake.

The “jet exhaust” housed the taillight.  The LeSabre was powered by an aluminum 215 cubic-inch V8 (not THAT one) that ran on either gasoline or methanol.  The same engine powered the Buick XP-300, which usually lives at Flint’s Sloan Museum.

The LeSabre is still a beauty after 70 years.

Here’s another graphic example of Harley Earl’s fascination with airplanes.

There has been a lineup change over the last year.  GM’s dramatic Firebird III was replaced by the Cadillac Cyclone, both show cars from the late 1950s.

As wild as the Cyclone is, the turbine-powered Firebird is from another planet.

Museum patrons could be excused for thinking that Harley Earl and William Mitchell were the only designers of note in Detroit, at least for the first half of the exhibit.  In life and in art museums, however, Virgil Exner played the spoiler to the long narrative that was General Motors design.  This 1957 300C, now owned by Stellantis (insert medical joke here), was a fine example of the Forward Look, a look that famously caught an aging Harley Earl off guard, leading to a revolt among the underlings in Warren, MI.

Bold Italianesque grilles aside (at least in the case of the 300), the most dramatic facets of the Forward Look cars were the fins and the thin C-pillars.  Each Chrysler brand wore a unique interpretation of Exner’s vision, and many GM designers preferred the price-leading Plymouth hardtops.  The 300 was the stock-car powerhouse of the bunch, however, and it’s hard to fault anything about its execution, especially in the context of the jet age.

Here is a car that is more influential on future designs than most, the 1959 Stingray Racer.  This wasn’t really an official GM concept car at all; it was a project of Bill Mitchell and his desire to build a race car.  It was unsuccessful in that regard, but it influenced (obviously) the 1963 Corvette, the 1963 Riviera, and the 1965 Corvair, to name just a few.  Mitchell’s love of English design is well documented, and it’s hard not to see a little Jaguar D-Type in the proportions of this beautiful car.

I’ve seen this car numerous times, but I’ve surprisingly only begun to really appreciate it in the static setting of this art museum.

The ’63 Stingray even used a version of the hood vents found on the Stingray Racer.

My favorite car of the exhibit is GM’s 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado.  The original Toronado has long been one of my favorite cars, and my appreciation for it has culminated in an existential crisis of my own making: I no longer know if I want to buy a first-generation Riviera (long a favorite) or a ’66 Toronado.  First-world problems, I know, but I may not end up with either considering the current superheated collector car market.

The fuselage-shaped quarters of the Toronado are arguably its most dramatic stylistic elements.  Those exaggerated wheel flares don’t hurt either, or the Cord 810-like wheel covers, or the dramatic angle of the sheetmetal below the bodyline.

How about the pop-up headlights, the way the grille wraps back into the engine compartment, the sharp edges of the bumper, the powerful front-drive proportions on a scale that almost seems ridiculous but isn’t?  Sigh, swoon, write sonnets.  What a beauty.

After geeking out over the Toronado for long enough that museum security must have wondered what I was up to, the ’67 Mustang Fastback and ’70 Hemi ‘Cuda seemed like both a room of icons and a letdown, which is absurd.  The ‘Cuda belongs to Stellantis, and I question its inclusion over their 1968 Dodge Charger, but that’s only one man’s opinion, and he’s too Toronado-smitten to be relied upon.  Regarding the Mustang: Any design exhibit in Detroit that didn’t include a Mustang would be flawed, so I have no qualms about their using one of the most revered versions of that heralded breed.

These are a couple more modern cars on display that don’t quite overlap with my Venn diagram: The Chrysler/Lamborghini Portofino, which previewed the “cab-forward” ethos of the 1990s, and the 1983 Ford Probe IV concept car, which bragged of its low coefficient of drag right on its front bumper.

The 1998 Chrysler Chronos concept car obviously foretold the Chrysler 300 of 2005, but with an exaggerated hood and cabin that was the antithesis of Chrysler’s production cars of the 1990s.  As a sign of the times, however, the Chronos was unveiled during “peak retro,” a time of Prowlers, PT Cruisers, Vipers, New Beetles, Mustangs, and two-seat T-Birds.  Its haunched rear quarters and bold grille certainly harken back to an earlier time in Detroit.

The 2002 Ford GT concept car is on display, as well.  Painted to mimic the 1967 Ford Mark IV LeMans winner (owned by The Henry Ford Museum), this car was a stunner when shown 20 years ago, and it still is.  With a heavy retro resemblance to the original GT40, the concept and eventual production car were larger in every way.  Currently, low mileage examples of the 2005 and 2006 GT are selling for around a half-million dollars.

The 2017 GT was equally unexpected upon its debut.  Aside from a GT40 inspired nose, the modern GT was totally new, and I think the design has aged well; I like it more now than I did when it was introduced, and that (to me) is an indicator of good design.

I wasn’t so sure about the “flying buttresses” initially, but being that the GT was designed as a race car first, road car second, they make sense, and they were well executed into the design.  This GT ends the design exhibit; trucks and SUVs are conspicuous by their absence, but whether or not the curators are commenting on the current state of design in the industry through their omission is open to conjecture.

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The DIA is not the first art museum to display automobiles as art: The Museum of Modern Art in New York famously displayed “8 Automobiles” in 1951, and still owns a range of beautiful classics today.  Even the DIA had a retrospective of earlier design back in the 1980s, over a decade before I first visited.

Even without the automobile exhibit, I recommend visiting the DIA if you’re in the area.  They own one of the only Bruegels in America, along with several paintings by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Rubens, Degas, Monet, Caravaggio, and countless others.  In the center of a city of which many are afraid, there is a wonderful compilation of humanity’s love of beauty.  Who’d have thought?