“Sensuous Steel” showcases cars as art

By J. Neiland Pennington

Display explores Art Deco’s influence on automotive design

January 2014 - Exhibit 20 automobiles and two motorcycles, primarily from the 1930s, in a building of the same vintage, and the result was a celebration of Art Deco industrial design and architecture that garnered national attention. The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tenn., mounted the exposition in its gallery space that was the former main post office, a building now included on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Frist building was built in 1934 in the depths of the Great Depression but at the height of the Art Deco movement. The combination of vehicles and venue represented an artistic pinnacle of the period.

The Frist is not a museum; it owns no permanent collections. Rather, it houses traveling exhibitions and also mounts its own shows, and Sensuous Steel was one of the latter.

To explain the essence of Art Deco, we asked Ken Gross, the automotive historian and former director of the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, who was the guest curator of Sensuous Steel.

“Sweeping curves, wonderful attention to detail; the cars in this exhibition do that,” he says. “I quoted a friend of mine named Gary Vasilash. He’s the editor-in-chief of Automotive Design and Production magazine. He said, ‘The Art Deco style can be characterized as a combination of broad gesture and fine detail.’”

Streamlining spelled modernity

Streamlining is the predominant motif in transportation design of the period. As Ken Gross wrote in Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles, the exposition catalog, “Streamlining was equated with modernity as well as with efficient aerodynamics. [The automobile] became the perfect metal canvas upon which to express the popular Art Deco style.”

Art Deco, Gross noted, made “. . . excellent use of beautifully rounded forms, often intermixing Baroque elements like stylized rays of the sun, and artfully melding gentle curves with razor-sharp edges.”

It was for carriage trade autos in which Art Deco was most prevalent. The cars in the Frist exhibit, many of which would fetch multi-millions of dollars today, were at the top of the automotive food chain when they were built. And buying one of these prestigious vehicles involved more than a trip to a local dealer.

It was more commissioning than purchasing, according to Gross. “Most of the coachbuilders of the day bought a chassis from a car manufacturer, but you could conceivably go to Delahaye or Dusenberg and order a chassis, then decide on a coachbuilder. You would view sketches and drawings, look at samples and photos of other cars they built--they always photographed their cars in great detail--and plan the vehicle you wanted.

“It was a time-consuming process,” he added. “It took Figoni & Falaschi over 2,000 hours to build a car, to convert a bare chassis into a finished vehicle.”

These bespoke automobiles represent not only the pinnacle of a design era but also a high water mark in metal craftsmanship to produce the flowing lines and swooping curves that are characteristic of Art Deco. Building a vehicle faithful to a designer’s drawings required a combination of specialized machines and human skill, neither of which are commonplace today. Only a few restoration shops have the original equipment and the personnel to operate it.


The crown former

The crown forming machine (pictured above) is a prime example. Invented by E. Pfister, a Swiss firm, the crown former was beloved of French coachbuilders for its ability to form curves that stretched the length of a car. David Cooper, a classic car restorer who has had class winners in the iconic Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Monterey, Calif., has a crown former in each of his two Cooper Technica shops--in Chicago and France. The Chicago forming machine was built in 1920.

Cooper’s crown formers are called Three Olive machines because of the shape of their forming rolls. Don’t visualize a modern multiple roll forming line as a comparison. The Three Olive machine has three pairs of large asymmetric steel rolls with bronze entry and exit ways that allow the operators--one feeding and the other receiving--to manipulate the metal as it passes through the rolls. Unlike the multiple roll forming line, which has guides to keep a metal strip passing uniformly through a series of paired rolls, the Three Olive crown former permits moving the metal to whichever contour will best form a shape. The panel is totally under the control of the operators, who work as a team to produce sweeps and compound curves.

The title Sensuous Steel is memorably alliterative, but it is also a bit of misnomer, since many of the vehicles at the Frist have aluminum coachwork. There were two schools of thought in selecting materials, according to Cooper.

“Back then, steel was considered more prestigious than aluminum for a luxury automobile,” he says. “It was stronger and heavier; the doors closed with a more solid feel, and felt more like a vault. They weren’t looking for weight saving.”

One defining capability of luxury cars in the ‘30s was the ability to run 100 mph. And there were two ways to achieve that: either a lightweight structure with a relatively small engine to beat the European tax on high displacement powerplants, or a steel body and chassis with large-bore engines. (Europe’s wealthy paid no more attention to displacement taxes in the ‘30s than high-dollar U.S. drivers do to gas-guzzler taxes today.)

Aluminum was expensive between the World Wars, and it was brittle compared to today’s alloys. Also, there was no GMAW welding; it was all gas welding with aluminum rods and borax flux. One has to marvel at the collective skill of the automotive artisans.


The English wheel

If the crown forming machine was favored by the French, the English wheel (pictured above) saw nearly universal use in the U.K. It too is a roll process, but done with a single pair of small, nonpowered rolls through which the artisan passes a workpiece back and forth. There are no precise dates for the machine’s development, but according to Ron Covell, an English wheel authority, they were in use both in England and Poland at the turn of the 20th century.

Covell is an automotive craftsman who first built dragster bodies, then street rods. He has retired from working for other car owners, and now builds only his own projects in his Freedom, Calif., shop. But his company, Covell Creative Metalworking, continues as a source for seminars and tutorials that keep alive English wheel techniques, and he also produces and markets instructional DVDs.

With the English wheel, the operator manually pushes the metal between the wheels, which are flat on top and contoured on the bottom. “Many machines have a micrometer adjustment that controls the pressure between the wheels,” Covell explains. “Some machines have a coarse adjustment so that with one movement you can pop the wheels an inch apart. It makes it easy to get a flanged panel into place.

“There are a variety of techniques for getting a panel into the machine,” he continues. “The most common one is to spin the top wheel by hand--and they tend to be quite heavy, 10 to 20 lbs. The flywheel inertia of the top wheel will actually draw the metal between the wheels.”

Power hammers had considerable use, especially in U.S. body shops, and manual hammers were used throughout the industry globally. Hammering techniques, however, varied widely. Ron Covell recounted some of these methods:

“There were a lot of shops in Italy that built complete bodies from both aluminum and steel using a mallet and a tree stump to rough the panels out, then smooth them by hand. Each craftsman would have his own stump, and the top was generally flat, with different shaped cavities on the top surface. They would choose the cavity that most closely matched the shape, and hammer the metal into the cavity. In the United States, craftsmen tended to use sand bags rather than stumps (pictured below).


“When that work was finished, the piece of metal looked like a sack of potatoes with huge lumps in it. The next step, to smooth the metal, would be done with a hammer and dolly block.”

That the Sensuous Steel vehicles deserved display space in a fine-art gallery is self-evident. In his exhibition catalog essay, “The Shape of Speed,” Ken Gross reminds us that “no matter how functional they may be, they are also rolling sculptures, a type of kinetic art that offers an iconography of movement to convey the ideals and aspirations of a highly dynamic moment in time.” FFJ


1936 Delahaye 135M
Loaned by James Patterson, The Patterson Collection, Louisville, Ky.


This stunning French car has an extended name: Figoni & Falaschi Competition Coupe. Joseph Figoni designed the sweeping aerodynamic body for a vehicle that could be driven either sedately for elegant transportation or aggressively in rallies and races. Its 4-l. Delahaye engine has three downdraft carburetors, and the drivetrain includes a 4-speed manual transmission.


The 135M was a concours d’elegance competitor from the beginning, earning first place in the Grand Prix event at a Cannes concours. In the United States, the car was First in Class in 1981 for European Sports and Racing 1925-1935 at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.


1934 Edsel Ford’s Model 40 Special Speedster
Loaned from the collection of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.


Looking like the Miller Indianapolis race cars (which it predated by one year), the Edsel Ford Speedster was designed by Eugene T. “Bob” Gregoire, styling chief at Ford Motor Co., on a 1932 chassis. There was nothing subtle about the motorcycle fenders or the open cockpit; this car was designed for speed. And for its day, it delivered, with a 75-hp V8 flat-head engine propelling a vehicle weighing 2,100 lbs.


Although never destined for production, the one-off Speedster incorporated design elements that later appeared in series-produced cars, notably the absence of running boards. The Speedster remained in the possession of Edsel Ford until his death in 1943, after which it passed through several ownerships. It has two notable concours appearances, at Amelia Island (Fla.) in 1999, and at Pebble Beach in 2011, following a frame-off restoration.


1930 Henderson KJ Streamline
Loaned from the collection of Frank Westfall, Syracuse, N.Y.


This fanciful motorcycle, produced by Henderson in Chicago, carried streamlining to the extreme. The result, according to experienced riders, was a bike more easily admired than ridden, due to its wide fairings. But designer O. Ray Courtney incorporated every Art Deco nuance into his fully enclosed body shape.


The Henderson combines luxury with power. It is a true 100-mph machine, carrying a 1,200-cc, 40-hp 4-cylinder inline engine driving almost invisible 10-in. diameter wheels. The KJ Streamline was never intended for production; it was conceived as a pure styling exercise. The compound-curved steel panels formed with power hammers would be too costly for mass production. According to Ken Gross, who wrote the Henderson article for the show catalog, Ray William Courtney, O. Ray’s son, attempted to market copies of a two-seat version of the Streamline--called the Enterprise--in 1950 for $2,500 less engine. The offer produced no customers, but fortunately show contributor Frank Westfall has preserved the prototypes of both the Streamline and the Enterprise.


1934 Voisin Type C27 Aerosport Coupe
Loaned from the collection of Merle and Peter Mullin, Los Angeles


Aircraft were the inspiration for Gabriel Voisin’s 1934 Aerosport, a car based on his experience during World War I as a designer and builder of military airplanes. French auto expert Richard Adatto notes in the Sensuous Steel catalog that “the Aerosport’s profile seemed to outline the cross-section of an imaginary wing, the semicircular roofline traced the contours of a cockpit, and the larger surfaces simulated a fuselage.”


The Aerosport’s construction also follows aircraft practice, with an aluminum structure that holds the gross weight of the vehicle to just 2,976 lbs. Its power seems low by today’s standards--only 105 hp at 4,000 rpm. But the 3-l., 6-cylinder sleeve-valve engine is adequate to propel the lightweight Aerosport to 90 mph.

The Aerosport on display at the Frist was built on an original chassis, engine and drivetrain, with coachwork reconstructed in France from period photographs.


1938 Talbot-Lago T-150C-SS Teardrop Coupe
Loaned from the collection of J. Willard Marriott, Jr., Bethesda, Md.


As with many custom cars of the 1920s and 1930s, the Teardrop Coupe was the product of two companies. The French company Talbot-Lago built the chassis, engine and drivetrain; the spectacular coachwork was the product of another French firm, Figoni & Falaschi. Joseph Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi carried the art of streamlining to dazzling heights in the T-150C-SS, following the 1930s theory that the teardrop was the ideal wind-cheating shape. According to the Frist catalog, 2,100-plus hours of labor were required to produce the aluminum coachwork.


The SS, or Super Sport, version of the Talbot-Lago platform, was sold as the top of the line, and it was not just a high-end boulevard cruiser. With a 4-l. hemi-head 6-cylinder engine cranking 170 hp, and a rigid ladder frame, the car has more than just sporting pretensions. A racing-tuned Teardrop finished third in 1938 at the classic 24-Hours of LeMans. The show car’s racing career continued all the way to 2000, when it was entered in the Monterey (Calif.) Historic Races. Bill Marriott is said to have bought the car on the spot, and has owned it ever since.


1934 Packard Twelve Model 1106 Sport Coupe
Loaned from the collection of Robert and Sandra Bahre, Alton, N. H.


Like so many European cars of the Art Deco era, the Sport Coupe was a collaboration of two United States firms, Packard and LeBaron. But the results of this venture were like nothing Packard had done before. With the exception of its vertical radiator, the Sport Coupe was a streamliner more in the French mold, with teardrop fenders all around and a boat-tail rear. It was a major departure for conservative Packard, which had since 1899 built a reputation on cars of impeccable quality and reliability, but with predictably stolid lines. The Sport Coupe broke the mold.

Although the Sport Coupe was built on what was then considered a short wheelbase, it measures 134-7/8-in., colossally long by today’s standards. And such a large car requires considerable power and torque, supplied in this case by a flat-head V-12 engine. The January 1934 New York Auto Show was the unveiling of the Sport Coupe, and five months later it was delivered to its first owner. The Sport Coupe was a one-owner car until 1965, when it was sold to a collector who kept it until the current owners purchased it in 1980.


1938 Hispano-Suiza H6B Dubonnet “Xenia” Coupe
Loaned by the Peter Mullin Automotive Museum Foundation, Oxnard, Calif.


The Dubonnet name for this car comes from Andre Dubonnet, World War I flying ace, maker of the eponymous Dubonnet aperitif, race car driver, auto engineer and all-around bon vivant. He commissioned Parisian coachbuilder Jacques Saoutchik to build a streamlined coupe, and the result was the Xenia. Jean Andreau produced the design for the bespoke vehicle, which was named Xenia for Dubonnet’s recently deceased wife. The Xenia is a glorious tribute.

Sitting atop a ladder frame, the car is no lightweight, but its 6.5-l. overhead valve inline 6-cylinder engine produces 144 bhp, enough to propel the car to a reported 125 mph. It has fully-independent suspension all around, and the front suspension is of Dubonnet’s own patented design.


Dubonnet squirreled away his coupe during World War II, and following the war it changed hands twice in France. A third owner, in the U.S., completed a restoration begun in Europe, and the car was shown at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2000.


1936 Stout Scarab
Loaned from the collection of Larry Smith, Pontiac, Mich.


Not to be confused with the Scarab sports racing cars of the 1960s, William Bushnell Stout’s Scarab can be considered the progenitor of the minivan. It has all the earmarks: center seats that can be repositioned for side-by-side or conference table configuration; a full-width rear bench seat; and entry via a middle door on the right side.

The shape was based on Stout’s experience with designing aircraft. His Stout Engineering had produced the Air Sedan, one of the first all-metal airplanes. When Henry Ford purchased Stout Engineering in 1924, the Air Sedan morphed into the corrugated aluminum fuselage Ford Tri-Motor, a plane that pioneered passenger service.


The Scarab also has an aluminum skin, attached to a tubular frame. Power is supplied by a Ford flathead V-8, mounted in the rear like a Volkswagen Microbus. According to Sensuous Steel guest curator Ken Gross, the Scarab emphasizes the vehicle’s beetle-shaped design, and it was a favorite of toymakers.

The Scarab at the Frist had been exported to France for review by the Paris press just before World War II, and the vehicle miraculously survived the carnage. It was returned to the U.S. in the mid-1990s and was fully restored in 2003.


1939 Bugatti Type 57C by Vanvooren
Loaned by Margie and Robert E. Petersen, courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles.



Fitted with a Paris-built body by Carrosserie Vanvooren, the Type 57C explored the outer limits of streamlining. It is literally a car of royalty, presented by the French government as a wedding present to Mohammed Reza Palavi, the future Shah of Iran.


Ettore Bugatti was Italian by birth, but his brilliant career in automobile design and manufacturing--and that of his equally talented son, Jean--was spent entirely in France. Their Type 57C is powered by a 170-bhp dual overhead cam straight-8 engine of 3.3 l., with a Roots supercharger supplying 3 to 4 lbs of boost. The suspension includes Alliquant telescopic shock absorbers, and brakes are of Lockheed hydraulic design.


A car of such elevated pedigree would be expected to command a king’s ransom, but the Type 57C is said to have been sold from the Shah’s Imperial Garage in 1959 for a paltry $275. It disappeared from public view until the car was given a full restoration in 1983.


1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt
Loaned from the collection of the Chrysler Group LLC, Auburn Hills, Mich.


This is the car that dazzled visitors to the 1940 New York National Auto Show, a shape that further developed the 1934 Chrysler Airflow design.

Built by custom coachbuilder LeBaron, the Thunderbolt body was a wood frame wrapped with sheet aluminum. The massive hood and rear deck lid were steel, along with the one-piece retractable hardtop. Concealed headlights and skirted wheels accentuated the extreme effort at streamlining.


Power is supplied by a 140-bhp, 323.5 cu.-in. straight 8 with a semi-automatic overdrive transmission that was experimental rather than a production unit. Experimental or not, the Thunderbolt was slated for limited production, priced at a stratospheric $8,250. A run of eight was planned; five were built, and all but one survive. Following World War II, the Thunderbolt was abandoned in favor of more affordably priced autos.


1939 Delage D8-120S Saoutchik Cabriolet
Loaned from the collection of John W. Rich, Jr., Gilberton, Pa.


With a price of 105,000 francs for the Delage rolling chassis, and an additional 45,000 francs for the custom Jacques Saoutchik coachwork, the D8-120S was one of the most expensive French cars of the period. Commissioned by the French government to promote the country’s automotive industry, the Cabriolet was shown at both the Paris Auto Show and the World’s Fair in New York City. In his article about the vehicle for the show catalog, Richard Adatto said that Saoutchik completed the bodywork in 2,200 hours of labor over four months. Motive power is supplied by a 4.75-l. straight 8 with an output of 120 bhp at 4,000 rpm.


After undergoing a sequence of modifications and upgrades, the car was returned to its original condition--except for added headlight fairings--from 2005 to 2011. It was exhibited at the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, winning awards for both Elegance in Motion and Most Elegant Convertible.

All photos by J. Neiland Pennington unless otherwise noted.




Company Profiles





Camfil APC - Equipment Trilogy Machinery Inc. Metamation Inc. Admiral Steel
Camfil APC - Replacement Filters



Alliance Steel
Donaldson Company Inc. AMADA AMERICA, INC. Messer Cutting Systems Inc.



Mazak Optonics Corp.


Enmark Systems Inc.
MetalForming Inc. MC Machinery Systems Inc. Peddinghaus Lantek Systems Inc.
RAS Systems LLC Murata Machinery, USA, Inc.




TRUMPF Inc. Davi Inc. SigmaTEK Systems LLC
Steelmax Tools LLC


Trilogy Machinery Inc. Striker Systems


MTS Sensors



Bradbury Group


Mate Precision Tooling AIDA-America Corp.
Burghardt + Schmidt Group EMH Crane Rolleri USA Nidec Press & Automation
Butech Bliss Fehr Warehouse Solutions Inc.



Red Bud Industries UFP Industrial AMADA AMERICA, INC. Alliance Steel


Automec Inc.



Advanced Gauging Technologies MC Machinery Systems Inc. BLM Group
Mayfran International


SafanDarley HGG Profiling Equipment Inc.


Cincinnati Inc.


Prudential Stainless & Alloys
ATI Industrial Automation LVD Strippit Hougen Manufacturing


Lissmac Corp. Scotchman Industries Inc.


Barton International
Osborn Trilogy Machinery Inc. Behringer Saws Inc. Jet Edge Waterjet Systems
SuperMax Tools


Cosen Saws Omax Corp.
Timesavers FAGOR Arrasate USA Inc. DoALL Sawing



MetalForming Inc. HE&M Saw American Weldquip
Beckwood Press Co.


Savage Saws Strong Hand Tools
Triform Titan Tool Supply Inc.


T. J. Snow Company

TPMG2022 Brands