Classic Car Designers: 12 Grandmasters of Automotive Design
The mark of a great car designer is to visualize the future, and then model a vehicle that embodies that vision. Classic cars from the era of Delahaye, Cord, Mercedes-Benz (Gullwing), and Bugatti showcased the innovation of these talented automotive designers. Their work is particularly impressive compared to the first cars at the turn of the century.
Early car companies devoted very little time to a car’s outward appearance. They were primarily interested in creating reliable, easy-to-operate automobiles, at a price the public could afford. These automobiles, known as horseless carriages, consisted of only a four-wheel platform, a seat, and an onboard power source. The car’s body’s design was only an afterthought. Even in the Roaring ’20s, as cars became faster with more creature comforts, the car’s visual appeal continued to take a backseat to technical advancements and motoring safety. There were a few exceptions, such as the one-off 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I and the 1929 Duesenberg Model J Sedan, but these were specially built custom cars that only provided a glimpse of future designs.
However, the focus of automotive design changed dramatically in the ’30 s with an explosion of elegant body designs we now celebrate as the high-water mark of creative coachbuilding. The otherwise financially challenged ‘30s became the gilded age of streamlining and art-deco styles. These flamboyant-bodied cars were built in the years leading up to WWII when the conflict paused car manufacturing until the late ‘40s. Then when the automobile industry restarted, so did the evolution of vehicle styling – now influenced by the jet age.
Thanks to several innovative designers, in the span of a few decades, automobiles progressed from four-wheeled self-propelled carriages to eye-appealing sculptures. Even today, these early designers impress us with their imagination and creativity.
So, who were these car designers that elevated automobile styling into an art form? Here’s our selection of 12 grandmasters of automotive design through 1960.
Phillip O. Wright, American (1903-1967)
Jean Bugatti, French (1909 – 1939)
August Horch, German (1868 – 1951)
Giuseppe (Joseph) Figoni, Italian/French (1892 – 1978)
Gordon Buehrig, American (1904 – 1990)
Felice Bianchi Anderloni, Italian (1882 – 1949)
Friedrich Geiger, German (1907 – 1996)
Harley Earl, American (1893 – 1969)
Alexander Tremulis, American (1914 – 1991)
Nuccio Bertone, Italian (1914 – 1997)
Virgil Exner Sr., American (1909 – 1973)
Sergio Scaglietti, Italian (1920 – 2011)
Sergio Scaglietti’s automobile business started pre-WWII as a repair shop for gentlemen’s race cars damaged in the heat of competition. Then in the early ‘50s, when a new upstart, Enso Ferrari began fielding his winning race teams, he called on Scaglietti to “body” his state-of-the-art chassis. The partnership between Sergio and Enso continued through the ‘50s and into the ‘60s, beginning with classics like the 1957 Ferrari 335S, 1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, and 1958 Ferrari 250 GT LWB California. Their collaboration reached its pinnacle with the production of the almost mythical 1962 Ferrari GTO. Today these thoroughbreds are some of the most coveted classics in existence, both for their race-winning heritage and their sexy designs.
Of course, there were many other great automobile designs after 1960, such as the Jaguar E-Type and the Aston Martin DB5. However, the designers of these and the other iconic cars that followed are outside the timeframe of this article and are the next generation of master designers.
The above photos are by eClassicAutos, except as noted. Special thanks to RM Sotheby’s and others for the photo content included in this article.