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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

(continued from page 2)

By the 1920s, representations of automobiles in the arts were no longer cause for comment. In fact, the car had become both a symbol of modern industrialized society and a means of artistic and personal expression for designers and owners. Cars were not only legitimate subjects for artists, but had themselves become art through the work of the best coachbuilders, who had begun presenting their "collections" to an eager public at annual motoring salons. Fashionable women were now buying cars, and the last thing they wanted was to be seen in anything square. Automobile manufacturer Gabriel Voisin hired artist-designer Sonia Delaunay and famed architect Le Corbusier to help with his marque's designs for a client list that included flamboyant celebrities such as Rudolph Valentino and French singer-actress Mistinguett.

Looking at these cars today, one can easily imagine the excitement, and often shock, that accompanied their appearance at the major automobile salons of yesteryear. While some, particularly the British firms, were working with refinements of earlier, more conservative styling, the French were exploding with all the passion that accompanied the great movements in modern art.

"The nearer the automobile approaches its utilitarian ends, the more beautiful it becomes," said French Cubist painter Fernand Léger. "That is, when the vertical lines (which contrary to its purpose) dominated at its debut, it was ugly, and people kept buying horses....The necessity of speed lowered and elongated the car so that the horizontal lines, balanced by the curves, dominated: It became a perfect whole, logically organized for its purpose, and it was beautiful."

That beauty, epitomized by Jean Bugatti's masterpiece, the 1938 Type 57SC Atlantic, is still inspiring artists to this day, including painter Alain Levesque, who works with brush and canvas, and designer Bob Hubbach, who works with steel.

Inspired by themes that recall not only the Type 57SC, but Touring's Alfa Romeo 8C2900B and various Figoni et Falaschi creations, Hubbach and the rest of the Chrysler design team created the 1995 Chrysler Atlantic, beautifully executed by the (dare we say) coachbuilders at Metalcrafters. Tom Gale, Chrysler vice president of product design, acknowledges their debt to the past: "You probably can't find a period in history like the late '30s with a stronger statement of incredibly elegant, romantic, image-leading coupes."

If only the people who reintroduced the Bugatti marque with the EB110 several years ago had exhibited the sort of vision that produced the Chrysler Atlantic.

While beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, there is no doubt that the firm of Figoni et Falaschi created some of the most beautiful coachwork ever seen. But there are some dissenters: Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons categorized their work as "positively indecent;" another stiff upper lip referred to Figoni et Falaschi as "Phony and Flashy."

Born in Piacenza, Italy, in 1894, Giuseppe Figoni moved with his family to Paris when he was three. While still a boy he was apprenticed to a wagon builder named Vachet. By the time Figoni founded Carrosserie Automobile in Boulogne-sur-Seine near the Longchamp racecourse, he had adopted the name of Joseph. Although his early commissions included Bugattis, Ballots and even the odd Duesenberg, it was his rendering of designs utilizing the French Delage chassis for which he became famous.

Figoni's stylistic signature coupes and cabriolets had large, flowing, cycle-type fenders that seemed to grow out of the bodywork the way wings swept out of aircraft fuselages. It must have been a Figoni design that inspired Sir Peter Ustinov's sly remark: "One drives, of course, an Alfa Romeo; one is driven in a Rolls-Royce; but one gives only a Delage to one's favorite mistress."

Figoni's aerodynamic design of the 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 won the Le Mans 24-Hour Races in 1932 and '33. His next sporting body was on the new Delahaye 18CV. Introduced at the Salon de Paris in 1933, it was an immediate hit, making him the coachbuilder of choice for most Delahaye customers. Figoni was, according to fellow designer Philippe Charbonneaux, "very much an artist...a master of curves and elegant lines."

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