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Automobile Art

From Delahayes to Duesenbergs, These Classic Cars Are Stunning Tributes to the Coachbuilder's Art
| By Ken Vose | From 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.

The origins of custom coachbuilding can be traced back to about 1450 in Hungary, where the first reported carriage coach was built. Constructing horse-drawn coaches for the aristocracy and landed gentry, the "carriage trade" became an honored and profitable business, one often handed down from generation to generation. The profitable aspect of the trade eventually caught the eye of the powers that be, resulting in England's King Charles I introducing, in 1637, what was likely the first in a long line of taxes to be imposed on coachbuilding.

Most of the famous classic automotive coachbuilders can trace their roots to the horse-drawn era. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were approximately 400,000 carriages in England, and virtually every large town boasted at least one coachbuilder.

The advent of the automobile opened a new world to those coachbuilders savvy enough to realize that in the future, horsepower would have an entirely different meaning. One who lacked such foresight was Alexander Henderson, president of the Institute of British Carriage Manufacturers, who commented in 1897 that, despite the motorcar's popularity, "Most people would still prefer for private use the lifelike animated appearance of well-appointed horse-traction to any dead mechanism however smoothly it glided along."

As early as 1895, French poster artists were extolling the virtues of the horseless carriage for auto expositions. One year later, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became the first major artist to use the automobile as a subject in his lithograph, "L'Automobilist."

Those early automobiles looked so much like their immediate predecessors that they quickly became known as "horseless carriages." They would remain so until Henry Ford and his followers began to mass-produce cars that owed their designs more to mechanical and financial necessity than to any sense of aesthetics. This is not to say that Ford was unaware of the importance of the designer in the automotive equation: "Design will take more advantage of the power of the machine to go beyond what the hand can do and will give us a whole new art."

From the early 1920s to the beginning of the Second World War, the automobile began a transformation as dramatic as that of a caterpillar to a butterfly. Inexpensive cars like the Model T Ford, with its boxlike bodywork, were being turned out by the hundreds of thousands. In fact, it was mass production that helped pave the way for coachbuilding's golden age. People of wealth and position needed automobiles that complemented their lavish lifestyles. For them, the "T-square" and its automotive counterparts gave way to the type of flowing lines found on Ettore Bugatti's creations.

"The car was born with a faulty structure," observed Sergio Pininfarina, the renowned Italian coachbuilder. "In a certain sense, it was born old, let us say baroque or gothic. It was up to us to impose some kind of order."

Some say that coachbuilding, regardless of the artistry employed by the designer, is no more than a highly elevated form of craft. But few can argue that the influence of the fine arts, particularly the Futurist and Art Deco movements, is readily apparent in much of the best work, as noted by Swiss sculptor Max Bill:

"Whether they like it or not, those who create new forms succumb to the influence of modern art....Comparison between an automobile and the sculpture of its time will show how close the relationship is between works of art and the forms of useful objects."

This relationship had about it an element of "chicken and egg" when it came to who actually was influencing whom: Were the Futurists responsible for the changing aerodynamic shape of the automobile? Or had they fallen under the automobile's spell, as suggested by British artist Wyndham Lewis, who called their movement "Automobilism"?

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."

In 1935, Figoni went into partnership with fellow Italian Ovidio Falaschi, who had the capital Figoni needed to expand. Falaschi was also well versed in the automotive business and had his own strong ideas about styling. "We really were veritable couturiers of automotive coachwork," Falaschi recalled, "dressing and undressing a chassis one, two, three times and even more before arriving at the definitive line that we wanted to give to a specific chassis-coachwork ensemble."

One of the first designs to carry the Figoni et Falaschi name, a Delahaye Type 135, featured all enveloping fenders, or "enveloppantes" as Falaschi called them. These fenders, typical of many Figoni et Falaschi creations, were formed from as many as 48 hand-hammered pieces of steel that were butt-welded together, section by section, until they gave the appearance of having been sculpted. This design concept is said to have been inspired by famed automotive artist Geo Ham's modernist paintings in the French publication L'illustration.

During the occupation of France by the Germans in the Second World War, the Figoni et Falaschi works was requisitioned for the manufacture of aircraft parts. At war's end the company resumed coachbuilding, again using the Delahaye T135 chassis most frequently. In 1948 and '49 the firm produced its last great designs for Delahaye and the Talbot Lago Type 26.

A French Racing Blue Delahaye, a 1948 135MS, discovered languishing in a furniture storage warehouse, was purchased by its present owner, Dana Reed of Greentown, Pennsylvania, in 1956. Believed to have been Delahaye's display car at the '48 Paris show, it has been lovingly restored to its original condition. A 100-point car (the ultimate accolade in the rarefied world of classic car collecting), it has been seen at most of the major concours d'elegance in the United States, including the Pebble Beach and Burn Prevention Foundation invitational events. The mileage on this perfect example of the marque is 30,000.

With fewer customers able to afford their work and fewer automobile manufacturers willing to sell bare chassis, Ovidio Falaschi chose to retire in 1950. He recalled his decision in a letter published in Automobile Quarterly. "So all the customers who used to keep the coachbuilding industry alive slowly but surely turned away from custom-built bodies. They turned away in droves in the immediate postwar period, when mass-produced car bodies began to improve in line, comfort, luxury, and class. And thus French coachbuilding died and was buried, and with it all of the world's greatest coachbuilders, including Figoni et Falaschi."

Figoni, in partnership with his son, kept the business alive, working on Simca, Bentley and Citroen chassis, but the magic was gone, and in 1955 they ceased production.

Jacques Saoutchik was another equally flamboyant coachbuilder; his firm closed the year before. This Russian expatriate, who began as a cabinetmaker, founded his coachbuilding firm in 1906. By the 1920s, he was established in the top ranks of the profession, commanding as much as $40,000 for his convertible sedans and town cars. Over the years he made cars for the kings of Cambodia, Siam, Egypt and Norway, the emperor of Ethopia and the Shah of Iran.

Saoutchik survived the Depression but, like his Paris contemporaries Figoni et Falaschi, he suffered a decline during the postwar period. It was a decline in the number of commissions, not in inspiration, as Noel Thompson's 1948 Cadillac three-position, drophead coupe clearly shows.

Restored to the original purple and lilac color scheme ordered by New York furrier Louis Ritter, the car is as distinctive today as it was when new. In the words of another great designer-coachbuilder, Howard "Dutch" Darrin, Jacques Saoutchik was "definitely a man with his own ideas."

In nearly 30 years, Joseph Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi, together and separately, produced about 1,150 coachbuilt bodies. That's less than a day's output for a modern giant like General Motors, which turns out millions of cars a year. Proof, if needed, that the impact of Figoni et Falaschi, Saoutchik and other top coachbuilders on automotive design bears no relation to the number of bodies they made.

What had begun as an orderly retreat soon turned into a rout. Fifty-seven coachbuilders had displayed their wares at the 1929 London show. By 1959, that number had dropped to 13. The world's remaining coachbuilding firms could read the handwriting on the wall; it was handwriting that must have seemed more like rude graffiti.

"With steadily rising costs pushing the price of a special body ever higher," lamented Motor Magazine two years later, "with onerous taxation leaving the rich with ever less free income to spend, the traditional British coachbuilder has been crushed between the upper and nether millstone until at the 1961 show only James Young survives as an independent coachbuilder."

By 1967, James Young and Co. had disappeared as well.

Fortunately for those who love these wonderful automotive creations, many of the finest examples have survived into the 1990s; survived and prospered, judging by current restoration costs and auction prices. Some Figoni et Falaschi examples bring upwards of $650,000, while other marques, such as Duesenberg, fetch as much as $2 million.

Each spring, the Burn Prevention Foundation presents a concours d'elegance in Reading, Pennsylvania. The event, one of many of its type held each year, is typical of the worldwide interest in these beautiful machines. In honor of the 1951 MOMA exhibit, the 1994 show was called "Rolling Sculptures." It displayed many fine examples of coachbuilding from firms that are legendary to aficionados of the art form, including Rollston, Chapron, LeBaron, Darrin, Murphy, Deitrich, Brunn, Letourneur et Marchand, Van Vooren, Barker, Fleetwood, Gurney Nutting, Kirchhoff and Lavocat et Marsaud.

If there is any single characteristic common to these and other great coachbuilding firms, it's that their best work was the vision of one, or at most two, men. One of the best explanations for this comes from Frank Hershey, the man who designed the original 1955 Ford Thunderbird.

"You never heard of any of the great artists working in a committee," Hershey noted. "They were all single guys. All the great architects were single guys. And all of the great automobile designers were single persons. Sometimes people forget it. You know that old story that a camel was designed by a committee. You design a car with a committee, and you get what you get. You get a camel. I am not kidding you."

One example of a car that is definitely not a camel is the 1934 Packard 1108 Sport Phaeton by the Connecticut coachbuilding firm of LeBaron. This 12-cylinder Packard, one of the most beautiful ever produced by an American coachbuilder, is one of approximately 1,800 designs developed by LeBaron during its 20-plus years of operation. The Sport Phaeton design has been attributed to Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, onetime designer of Van den Plas of Brussels, Belgium, and Edward Macauley, then Packard's design chief. The example pictured on page 236, owned by Ray Bowersox, was de Sakhnoffsky's personal car and is one of only four in existence. LeBaron, founded in 1920, was best known for its work with automakers Packard, Chrysler, Lincoln and Stutz.

Although it ceased operation in 1941, LeBaron was purchased by Chrysler in 1948, thus keeping the LeBaron name alive. While a modern production-line car is not necessarily the reason that a legend survives, the original car is just that--a legend that lives.

Ken Vose is a novelist, screenwriter and television writer whose work often features automotive themes.

For those wanting to know more about these classic cars, Automobile Quarterly, Vintage Auto Almanac and Special Interest Autos are musts.