A very special collection of automotive design masterpieces, appropriately named “Dream Cars,” were on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in Indianapolis, Indiana through August 23, 2015. Conceived by legendary designers like Gordon Buehrig, Alex Tremulis, and Harley Earl, they were built without compromise to production costs, practicality, or even the technology limitations of the day. These concept cars, with their striking body shapes, were windows into the future of personal travel, and today, they still capture the imaginations of the public, not only as design marvels, but also as true works of art. Here’s a tour of the cars that challenged the status quo of the everyday driving machines in the last century.
Considered to be Jean Bugatti’s masterpiece, the Type 57 is a magnesium alloy body car with a low-slung, tear-drop shape. The use of riveted fins along the roof and fenders add a very distinctive look to the overall design. Actually, this feature was needed to add structural stiffness to the lightweight metal.
The Scarab was the creation of Bushnell Stout, an aviation pioneer whose fledging company only built a handful of this predecessor to the modern minivan. It was an aluminum-bodied vehicle on a tubular steel frame. The Scarab featured a front passenger seat that could rotate fully, a back seat that could be converted to a couch, and a fold-out table. Power was provided by a flathead Ford V8 mounted in the rear.
Chrysler called the Thunderbolt “The Car of the Future,” because it was a study of how "functional styling" can impact a car's performance. Wind tunnel tests demonstrated how the Thunderbolt's shape dealt with continuous airflow and minimized wind resistance, thereby supporting the advantages of aerodynamics and streamlining in design. The Thunderbolt also incorporated a feature decades ahead of its time, a power-operated hardtop. Alex Tremulis and Ralph Roberts designed this slippery creation.
Designed by racecar engineer Norman Timbs, this sexy creation was the 1949 Motor Trend cover car. It has a hand-built aluminum body shell over Ford and Packard components, and is powered by a rear-mounted Buick straight-8, with dual carburetors.
Tasco, which stands for The American Sports Car Company, is the work of Gordon Buehrig. Resembling the cockpit of a two seater airplane, from both the outside and the inside, the Tasco featured front fiberglass fenders that turned with the wheels. It was also the first car to have removable top panels, seen many years later in the 1968 Corvette and other sports cars, and known as T-Tops.
It could be argued that the Le Sabre XP-8 best exemplifies the Harley Earl look. The car which GM asked him to design in the postwar era was loaded with chrome and had flamboyant body contours, “Dagmar” bumper extensions, and his signature rear fins. Keep in mind how futuristic this car was in 1951, during the age of the very practical “shoebox” Fords. With a show car like this, GM added a long list of ideas for the future, including a tinted panoramic windshield, a rain sensor that activated the disappearing power top, electric jacks at all four corners, and electric-heated seats. And, if you're looking for the headlights, they're behind the jet intake-looking front grill.
The Firebird 1 was a no-holds-barred design study, utilizing a gas turbine engine. With a "needle" nose, swept back wings, vertical tailfin, and a single seat bubble roof cockpit, its style simulated the look of a Navy Douglas F-4D Skyray jet. Despite the impracticality of a too-loud engine, too-hot exhaust, low fuel economy, and space challenges (enough room for only one person), it was a GM Motorama sensation. With its likeness adorning the top of the Daytona 500 NASCAR trophy, Harley Earl’s team created a car that is recognized as one of the great auto designs of all time.
Chrysler and Ghia teamed up to work on their own version of a futuristic car for the “Jet Age," the Streamline X nicknamed the “Gilda” after a character in a Rita Hayworth film. The tapered rear fins are a result of wind tunnel testing, which showed their benefit of added stability at high speeds. Guided by Chrysler’s design chief, Virgil Exner, the car is a dramatic exercise in functional streamlining.
Yet another of creation from Harley Earl’s GM design studio, the Centurion featured a glass roof and a stunning interior. The steering wheel was mounted aircraft-style on an arm that cantilevered out of the dash. Even more impressive was a center (dash) mounted monitor connected to a rear camera, eliminating the need for rearview mirrors. Again, it is important to note this car was built in 1956.
The Cyclone XP-74 was Harley Earl’s last “Dream Car” for the GM Motorama. It had power sliding doors and a Plexiglas bubble-top that automatically closed when its sensor detected rain. Since there were no windows to roll down, the designers incorporated an intercommunication system for passengers to talk to people outside of the vehicle. However, its most innovative feature was forward-sensing radar, located in the twin nose cones, that was used to warn drivers of objects in the car’s path. This feature has only recently been incorporated into production vehicles that offer crash avoidance technology.
Check out the following video of these fabulous cars:
And for more photographs of these “Dream Cars,” see our Indy Museum Gallery.