On Saturday night, The Frist threw an art deco affair to remember. A beautiful night featuring even more striking cars from a time where design reigned supreme and luxury was paramount for the elite few who could partake in the pleasures of having one these coveted automobiles. It seems strange even referring to them as cars because, yes, they get you to and from your destination, but it’s hard not to think of them as moving pieces of art.
Walking into The Frist on Saturday night felt like stepping back in time. The immaculately maintained museum was built between 1933 and 1934 and is a tribute to the art deco period if ever there was one. With its high ceilings, period light fixtures, silver color scheme, and attendees dressed in clothes reminiscent of the time, it seemed the perfect venue to host Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles, guest curated by the formidable authority on all things vintage cars: Ken Gross. According to the Frist’s Director of Communications, the knowledgeable Ellen Jones Pryor, the museum had been looking for an exhibition that would complement the construction of the building and be a beautiful expression of the architecture. Jones Pryor also pointed out that these cars have never been shown together before and will probably never be shown together again.
You don’t have to be a car aficionado to appreciate this exhibit. I remember being dragged to car shows with my dad during the summers of my childhood in the small town in Connecticut where I’m from, but let me tell you, they’ll be no kicking and screaming when visiting this “car show” unless you’re overcome with the desire to make one your own and start demanding you take one home.
Let it be known that all of the cars in the exhibit are breathtaking, but there were a few standouts. They might not have been the flashiest, but subjectively, they were some of the most interesting from a design perspective. The first, is a motorcycle. Unlike any I’ve ever laid eyes on before. Never being someone to shy away from impracticality, I loved the 1930 Henderson JK Streamline bike, courtesy of Frank Westfall of Syracuse, New York. Ridiculous in design due to its body being very, well, substantial, it was the first of its kind, with its enclosed bodywork being basically unknown until its construction. Designed by Orley Ray Courtney, he thought motorcycles lacked weather protection and luxury and made it his mission to bring those qualities to riders, as well as speed: the bike can exceed 100 mph.
Another beauty was the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt, from the Chrysler Group LLC collection out of Auburn Hills, Michigan. Its hidden headlights, metal hardtop, and removable fender skirts give it the illusion of looking as if it could float down any road it touched. It also features the first folding steel roof on an American car and at $8,250 you were definitely paying for it back then. However, with only five built, and four still in existence, you’d be reaping a pretty serious return on your investment if this car was still in your family today with its value being estimated between $900,000 and $1,200,000.
Probably one of the most congruous designs with the era was the 1939 Delage D8-120S Saotchik Cabriolet. It’s a mouth full, that’s for sure, but upon first sight you could easily envision a gangster or movie star driving around any metropolis in its heyday, the envy of everyone in town. Courtesy of the John W. Rich Jr. Collection out of Gilberton, PA, this car went for 105,000 Francs for the basic model back when it came out in the late 30’s, and if you wanted any additional custom work, well, that would run you another 45,000 Francs. This car was actually commissioned by the French government to promote French cars in the U.S. One of the more distinctive features on this beauty are its sliding doors which surely gave its riders an even more striking entrance when arriving at whatever function they might have been using the Saotchik to drive to.
Not to be gender role constrictive, but if you’re trying to score points with your man, this exhibit is the penultimate point tallier. I could go on and on about more vehicles from this uniquely rare exhibit that made a striking impression, but why not go and see for yourself?