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Automobile Art

From Delahayes to Duesenbergs, These Classic Cars Are Stunning Tributes to the Coachbuilder's Art
Ken Vose
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

On Sept. 15, 1951, New York's Museum of Modern Art presented a show that broke with tradition by recognizing the automobile as an art form. Called simply "Eight Automobiles," the exhibit proclaimed that these cars and others like them had ceased to be mere conveyances in which to drive to grandmother's house, take the family to the zoo or go to the store. They had become, in the words of then-MOMA curator of architecture Arthur Drexler, "rolling sculpture."

"Automobiles are hollow, rolling sculpture," Drexler declared. "They have interior spaces corresponding to an outer form, like buildings, but the designer's aesthetic purpose is to enclose the functioning parts of an automobile, as well as its passengers, in a package suggesting directed movement along the ground."

The basis for this judgment was not their mechanical excellence or innovative engineering, although the cars selected had those qualities in abundance. It was their look, or style; a look rarely determined by the automotive manufacturer, but rather, by the coachbuilder whose firm was selected by the car's purchaser to design and build the body. These wealthy buyers, such as those described by R.E. Davidson in The New Statesman in 1926, had a great deal to say about the way their cars would be constructed.

"I spent a most fascinating day at the works of one of the most famous coachbuilders, who constructed bodywork for the nobility and gentry," Davidson wrote. "It was quite exceptional for duplicates to be built, each model being as exclusive as Poiret frocks supplied to a comedy queen.

"The owner and his wife attended in state, inspected and criticized the various bodies under construction, and were followed around the works by a cortege of frock-coated executives. They finally sat down in a parlour full of brilliant leathers and painted panels to evolve a scheme. Some weeks later designs and drawings were submitted with a fat book of tapestry patterns and an estimate given in round figures, and guineas. The price accepted, the manager invited various shaggy aproned craftsmen to submit quotations in turn to him for the actual body building. Each craftsman had his own private gang, carpenters, polishers, trimmers, whom he personally engaged and paid."

Two prime examples of the customer's attention to detail are a Rollston-bodied 1931 Duesenberg J-385 Formal Town Car and a Figoni et Falaschi-bodied 1947 Delahaye 135MS.

The Duesenberg, restored by RM Auto Restoration, was first displayed at the 1931 Auto Salon in Chicago. Built for Grace Stone, the widow of a wealthy manufacturer, the engine, chassis and running gear cost $9,500. Add another $7,850 paid to Rollston and you have a total sticker price of $17,350. This in the depths of the Depression, when a new Chevy went for about $400.

Among the special features requested by Mrs. Stone was a clois-onné makeup set in the passenger compartment, color-coordinated to match the special-order, two-tone gray body. The interior mahogany woodwork was inlaid with sterling silver, and all hardware, such as door handles, was hand-engraved German silver, topped with bone. There was also an electronic intercom so that she could speak to the chauffeur, but since the intercom only transmitted, she could avoid hearing his thoughts about sitting out in the open during those long, cold Chicago winters.

The Duesenberg was sold last September for $720,000, close to the original 1931 price when you factor in 64 years of inflation.

The 1947 Delahaye 135MS, based on a 1939 design, was originally built to order for Aga Kahn III, a prominent Muslim leader. A sport specification model, it was capable of sustained cruising speeds of 80 to 90 miles per hour. The interior features hand-tooled leather crests and fleurs-de-lis inset into the seats and dashboard. The steering wheel has a different crest engraved at the end of each of its four spokes. The Aga Kahn ultimately gave the car to his son Aly, who in turn gave it to Rita Hayworth. It is valued today at $650,000.

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