Tin, Chrome, & Steam

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff

Designer and automotive historian Strother MacMinn once told me, “if it moves, even if it’s a vacuum cleaner going back and forth at three miles per hour, it has to follow the rules of transportation design.”  For those enthusiasts who missed this year’s Concours d’Elegance in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Japan Society offers a chance to examine some of the greatest hits of America’s postwar love affair with the automobile—in miniature. Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile, the Yoku Tanaka Collection will be on display from July 9 to August 16. “Buriki” derives from the Dutch “blik” (tin) and these are truly exceptional survivors of items that once numbered in the thousands. Beginning extremely modestly with metal cans salvaged from U.S. military bases, by the early 1950s these now nameless designers had hit their groove and were lovingly ripping off Detroit practically as soon as the new models were announced. Even Harley Earl’s “LeSabre” custom made it into production through buriki.

  • General Motors LeSabre showcar, 1950. Yonezama Gangu.

    The successor to Harley Earl’s “Y-Job” of 1938, the LeSabre was a rolling showcase for his stylistic innovations, particularly those lifted from the first generation of combat jets, and was immediately co-opted as his personal ride.

  • General Motors Buick Roadmaster, two-door sedan, 1953. Marusan Shoten, c. 1954.

    One of Harley Earl’s masterpieces, this model accurately reflects the sculptural appeal of his styling ethic at its best.

  • Ford Thunderbird, two-door coupe, 1956. Nomura Toys.

    Frank Hershey’s masterpiece made its debut in 1955.

  • Ford Lincoln Futura show car, 1955. Alps Shoji.

    Ford’s showcars tended to be more extreme (and angular) than Earl’s Motorama concepts; the Futura would be co-opted as the Batmobile for the television series.

    All cars from the Yoku Tanaka Collection; photographs by Tadaaki Nakagawa.

  • Petipont, no. W410, 1941-1947.

    Styled by Milwaukee’s own Brooks Stevens, the Petipoint seems to embody his slightly over-the-top aesthetic; at one point he urged his fellow professionals to “get away from the jelly mold school of pseudo-streamlining” and the Petipoint, especially when viewed from above, did so with ebullience.

    Iron photographs by James B. Abbott and Jay Texter.

  • Chrysler New York, four-door sedan, 1957. Alps Shoji.

    Virgil Exner’s new look for Chrysler outdid even GM’s tailfins in ebullience.

  • Chrysler Imperial, four-door hardtop, 1962. Asahi Gangu.

    One of the very finest models in the collection in terms of its detailing, the Imperial was meant to compete head-to-head with GM’s Cadillac.

  • Knapp-Monarch “Steam King,” no. 475-R, 1940.

    Not all streamlined motifs were decorative; in the “Steam King,” the horizontal discs that isolate the handle from the body act as cooling
    fins as well.

  • Pierce-Arrow by Adolph Treidler, 1910.

    Treidler had a long and prodigious career as an illustrator and wrote in Automobile Quarterly   in 1976, “My days with Pierce-Arrow spoiled me. Never once during my long association with the company did Pierce-Arrow return one of my paintings for changes or corrections. They were always pleased—and I of course was delighted.”

    Advertisements from   20th Century Classic Cars: 100 Years of Automotive Ads; courtesy of Taschen, 2009.

  • Chevrolet Master Deluxe, 1937.

    The rise of commercial photography in advertising spelled the beginning of the end for the illustrators who dominated early automotive advertising.


  • Cadillac Sixty Special, 1938.

    One of Pan American Airway’s “Clipper” flying boats provides the backdrop for a totally new Cadillac styled by Bill Mitchell, who was just emerging from under the wing of his boss Harley Earl. Long “suitcase” fenders and crisply delineated details of the horizontal grille were part of Mitchell’s aesthetic before World War II.

  • General Motors “Dreams on Wheels,” 1953.

    The GM system under Harley Earl created a stunning array of “Dream Cars” displayed at the Motoramas that began around this time. Styling cues from these “one-offs” would show up in production cars, or in the case of the first Corvette, would be taken almost verbatim from the show car.

  • The appealing design of Jay Raymond’s book by Phillip Unetic, UneticDesign.com.

  • Wards, no. 2610, 1946-1953.

    While many of the designers of these irons labored in obscurity, William J. Russell had a wide-ranging career in designing electric home appliances (this example was produced by Landers, Frary &
    Clark). Edgar J. Kauffman, Jr. chose this iron both for one of the “Good Design” shows at The Museum of Modern Art and for its permanent collection.

Curator Joe Earle has written a beautifully illustrated catalogue to accompany the show. For those who can’t get enough automobile imagery, Taschen has once again provided the biggest bang for the buck with 20th Century Classic Cars: 100 Years of Automotive Ads. Chosen from the collection of Taschen editor Jim Heimann and with commentary from design journalist Phil Patton, this is easily the largest and most extensive examination of the subject in a single volume. The rise of the American automobile coincided with the golden age of American illustration, and it’s almost disappointing when the first photographic ad appears (for Chevrolet in 1937). I hope that the bevy of names now largely unknown found in these pages (Marmon, Pierce-Arrow, Packard, et al.) will inspire younger readers to investigate some of the most inspired designs ever to emerge from a workshop.

Finally, Jay Raymond’s Streamlined Irons (Streamline Press, 2008) offers an even more definitive treatment of its subject matter. Truly superb photography and an elegant layout will encourage readers to linger over the images and hopefully appreciate formalism in design and the richness of streamlining’s visual vocabulary. Factual information is concise and definitive and provides a backbone of information to this very appealing book.