'Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020' at the DIA

A love letter to the American automobile
The Detroit Institute of Arts’ latest exhibition highlights Detroit’s 70-year history as the hub of American automotive design.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Jan 25, 2021

The idea of the “American” automobile is sure to whip up different images in different heads. However, one of the most common and quintessential ones among those would be the image of the muscle car, so effortlessly American in its entirety, its being and its style. Through numerous vehicle classes and ages, the Muscle’s roaring pistons have made the car a staple and synonymous with any academic foray into car culture in the States.

Detroit, in particular, aptly named “Motor City”, has now been home to some of the most influential auto innovations (and innovators) over the years, and its streets bona fide destinations for motor enthusiasts. An odyssey of roaring muscle cars, burning rubber, futuristic concept cars, and sleek, sporty racer cars have outlined the sizeable body of work and the immense contribution that Detroit designers have had in over seven decades spanning from 1950 till 2020, on American car culture. And that is what the latest exhibition hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts sets out to celebrate: the “Detroit Style”, through paper, in clay, and in metal.

‘Lincoln XL-500 Concept Car,’ 1952, Charles E. Balogh, American; watercolor, gouache, airbrush, ink, graphite on illustration board. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"Lincoln XL-500 Concept Car," 1952, Charles E. Balogh, American; watercolor, gouache, airbrush, ink, graphite on illustration board. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
'1960 Chrysler,’ 1956, Dave Cummins, American; prismacolor on vellum. Collection of Brett Snyder | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"1960 Chrysler," 1956, Dave Cummins, American; prismacolor on vellum. Collection of Brett Snyder Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

The exhibition brings together 12 coupes and sedans designed across the 70 year period between 1950 and the present day, highlighting the artistry and influence of Detroit’s immense automobile design talent, and their significant achievements in style and technology. The collection of 12 cars showcased spans not only across styles, but is also a unique combination of experimental show cars, conceptual creations for display as art, and iconic models produced and sold to the mass markets. Through hitherto unseen design drawings, archival photographs, and actual displays, the exhibition seeks to take patrons and their imaginations through “the creative and innovative processes that bring a vehicle from the drawing board to the street". Apart from these, the exhibition hosts a selection of paintings and a sculpture that evoke a conversation between American art and its auto-culture during the same seventy year span.

‘Ford Nucleon Atomic Powered Vehicle, Rear Side View,’ 1956, Albert L. Mueller, American; gouache, pastel, prismacolor, brown-line print on vellum. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"Ford Nucleon Atomic Powered Vehicle, Rear Side View," 1956, Albert L. Mueller, American; gouache, pastel, prismacolor, brown-line print on vellum. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
General Motors, ‘Firebird III,’ 1958. General Motors Heritage Collection | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
General Motors, "Firebird III," 1958. General Motors Heritage Collection Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

A special highlight of the exhibition is the 1958 General motors Firebird III, pictured above, and designed as an experiment in the futuristic space age design aesthetic that dominated American pop culture during the time. The design with towering fins also remarkably features one of the earliest versions of autonomous driving technology.

General Motors. ‘Corvette Stingray Racer,’ 1959. General Motors Heritage Collection | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
General Motors. "Corvette Stingray Racer," 1959. General Motors Heritage Collection Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
'61 Pontiac Catalina vs. Aerodynamic Streamlined Sedan,’ 1959, William Porter, American; prismacolor on vellum. Collection of Bill and Patsy Porter | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"'61 Pontiac Catalina vs. Aerodynamic Streamlined Sedan," 1959, William Porter, American; prismacolor on vellum. Collection of Bill and Patsy Porter Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
‘Elwood Engel Design for a Gyroscopically Stabilized Two Wheel Car,’ about 1960, Sydney Jay Mead, American; gouache, liquid resist, graphite on illustration board. Collection of Brett Snyder | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"Elwood Engel Design for a Gyroscopically Stabilized Two Wheel Car," about 1960, Sydney Jay Mead, American; gouache, liquid resist, graphite on illustration board. Collection of Brett Snyder Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
‘Rendering of Proposed 1967 Cadillac Eldorado Design,’ 1964, Wayne Kady, American; watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper. From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"Rendering of Proposed 1967 Cadillac Eldorado Design," 1964, Wayne Kady, American; watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper. From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

"The automotive industry and the city of Detroit are synonymous with one another, so it seems only fitting that the DIA be the museum to showcase the rich history of car design in the city,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons. “This exhibition will showcase the similarities between the art of car design and the creative process sculptors of the past used to create their masterpieces. Just like sculptors, they start with drawings and preliminary sketches, then produce clay models and from there, “manufacture” the final product".

‘Ford Mustang,’ 1965, Howard Payne, American; prismacolor and gouache on red charcoal paper. Collection of Brett Snyder | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"Ford Mustang," 1965, Howard Payne, American; prismacolor and gouache on red charcoal paper. Collection of Brett Snyder Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
‘Toronado Proposal,’ 1968, Roger Hughet, American; gouache and prismacolor on illustration board. Collection of Roger Hughet | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"Toronado Proposal," 1968, Roger Hughet, American; gouache and prismacolor on illustration board. Collection of Roger Hughet Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
‘'71 Barracuda Front End Facelift Concept,’ 1968, Donald Hood, American; crayon, gouache, ink, felt marker, prismacolor, pastel on vellum. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"'71 Barracuda Front End Facelift Concept," 1968, Donald Hood, American; crayon, gouache, ink, felt marker, prismacolor, pastel on vellum. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
‘Rendering of Proposed 1967 Cadillac Eldorado Design,’ 1964, Wayne Kady, American; watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper. From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
Chrysler Corporation, Plymouth Barracuda, 1970. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

Two iconic automobiles also find a special place in DIA’s exhibition, with Detroit Style marking the first time these vehicles have been inside the museum since 1983. The 1970 Plymouth Barracuda is a legendary Detroit pony car that captured the world’s imagination and still defines the “attitude and prowess” of the American automobile. In contrast, already a future classic, the 2017 Ford GT supercar puts on fine display how far automobile design has come, showing how designers have reinterpreted the past with new materials and technology to shape visions of the future.

Chrysler Corporation, Chronos, 1998. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
Chrysler Corporation, Chronos, 1998. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
Ford Motor Company, GT, 2017. Collection of Jody and Tara Ingle | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
Ford Motor Company, GT, 2017. Collection of Jody and Tara Ingle Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
‘The Unfair Advantage,’ 2003, Kristin Baker, American; acrylic on PVC on board. Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut, Gift of Pam and Jack Baker, 2017 | Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020| Detroit Institute of Arts | STIRworld
"The Unfair Advantage," 2003, Kristin Baker, American; acrylic on PVC on board. Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut, Gift of Pam and Jack Baker, 2017 Image: Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020, is currently on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts until June 27, 2021.

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