American Car Culture

1934 Ford Model 40 Deluxe Roadster

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting automobile museums—of which there are five that I know of in Southern California—is that classic American cars represent a culture that is so uniquely different from that of our European cousins. That 1934 Ford Roadster from the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar is brash, yet built along classical lines. Compare it with a Rolls Royce, Voisin, Maybach, Talbot Lago, or Bugatti and you will see it different from American cars in pretty much the same way that American literature is different from European literature.

There are some classic American car designs that are characterized by some restraint, but for the most part Detroit says, “Here! This is what you want! It’s you!” One feels one has to grow into a Bentley or a Hispano-Suiza: It is something to which to attain. The American model is much closer to the Id, whereas the European model is closer to the Superego.

The Pep Boys: Manny, Moe, and Jack

I was enthralled yesterday by this Pep Boys plastic logo at Oxnard’s Murphy Automotive Museum. I compare Manny, Moe, and Jack to the automobile repairman in Patrick Modiano’s novel Villa Triste: cool, detached, intellectual.

It is possible, perhaps, to carry this McLuhanesque comparison too far, but it does seem to make sense. Look, for example at the logos.

Plymouth Barracuda Logo

Can you imagine Rolls Royce calling one of its Silver Phantoms a Phan’? Or Talbot Lago, a ’Bot? Even though Rolls Royces are affectionately referred to as Rolls, the company would never abbreviate the name on one of their automobiles. Yet, Plymouth gladly adopted an abbreviated name to put on the rear bumpers of their later model Barracudas.

Now then, is the American approach any worse? It appears to sit well with the American automobile-buying public. Of course, it would be far better if the American automobiles themselves have not declined so precipitately. I have owned nothing but Japanese cars since I began to drive. Yet, looking back at Detroit products of the Golden Age, I would have had no trouble with Packard or Pierce Arrow or Duesenberg. They were beautiful cars that compared favorably with the best that Europe could manufacture.

 

Valentino’s Voisin et al

1932 Pierce-Arrow V12 Model 52 Sedan

On this cool and cloudy Saturday, Martine and I paid another visit to the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar. We saw many of the same cars as on previous visits, but were newly impressed with the variety and beauty of automobiles manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1932 Pierce-Arrow practically called me by name as I walked by it. Like all the cars at the Nethercutt, it shone like a jewel. Even the tires look bran new. And yes, that is an old fire engine in the left background.

When I compare today’s cars with what was available a hundred years ago, we have lost individuality. (It looks like all the car bodies today were tested in the same wind tunnel, whether from Mercedes, Range Rover, or BMW.) Do you think the Toyota Prius is a new concept? Not so, there were hybrids a hundred years ago—and they looked better, too.

Rudolph Valentino’s 1923 Voisin

Many of the automobiles on display have fascinating histories. For instance, there were only eighteen Rolls-Royce Silver Phantom IVs manufactured, and they were all sold tom heads of state. The Nethercutt has one of the two that belonged to the Sheikh of Kuwait. At the time he owned them, there were only twenty miles of paved road in the whole country.

And then there is the gray 1923 Voisin that belonged to Rudolph Valentino. He purchased three of them, and brought one of them back with him to Hollywood. The hood ornament is a custom-made cobra head which was given him by fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

There is even a Duesenberg Twenty Grand that cost … twenty grand. It was the only one manufactured, a special order made for the 1933-34 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.

Will I ever get tired of seeing these beauties? Not bloody likely.

 

Art and Inequality

Glass Hood Ornament on 1930s Automobile

Glass Hood Ornament on 1930s Automobile

Why is it that the most beautifully designed automobiles ever made came from the 1930s, a decade that was very good for the very rich, but not so good for everyone else?

On Saturday, Martine and I decided to risk going to visit the Nethercutt Collection despite the threat of an approaching rainstorm. We had a great afternoon looking at classic automobiles and got onto the freeway for the homeward trip just when the raindrops started to fall.

This particular visit raised that question about 1930s auto design. It appears that, sometimes, the greatest art comes during bad times. Going back as far as Ancient Greece, the Age of Pericles with its great tragedians was also the time of the horrible Peloponnesian War. John Milton did his best work under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. Marcel Proust wrote just as France was sliding toward the Great War of 1914-1918.

Does this mean that America may produce great art during the dictatorship of Donald J. Trump? Maybe not: There was little of note produced during the Bubonic Plague.

Prize-Winning 1932 Bugatti

Prize-Winning 1932 Bugatti

I guess it takes more than widespread misery to create a period of great art. We’ll just have to see what emerges in the years to come.

A Jaw-Dropping Moment

The Grand Salon of the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar

The Grand Salon of the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar

One of the best places to visit in Southern California is the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar. a world-class museum of rare automobiles and mechanical musical instruments, including the private railroad car of Clara Baldwin Stocker, millionaire heiress of tycoon “Lucky” Baldwin. Martine and I met up there with my best friend and his sons. We took the tour in the larger of the two buildings, and then saw the additional cars and music machines in the museum building.

On one hand, the cars and other objects on display are easily worth an admission price of ten dollars or more. But both the tour and the museum are free of charge, thanks to a foundation set up by J. B. Nethercutt of Merle Norman Cosmetics. There is one jaw-dropping moment when, on the tour, one enters the Grand Salon (illustrated above), where the Collection’s rarest and most beautiful cars are located. Perhaps the single most distinguished rarity is a silver Duesenberg shown near the center of the photograph.

Among the music machines, I was most impressed by a superb player piano that played a recording of Rhapsody in Blue played by the composer himself, George Gershwin. Mr. Gershwin’s interpretation of his work was nothing less than superb, and was a great accompaniment to viewing the cars in the Grand Salon.

Some of the best places to see in Los Angeles were the result of bequests from millionaires, including Descanso Gardens (Manchester Boddy), the Huntington Gardens and Museum (Henry E. Huntington), and the Getty Museum and Villa (J. Paul Getty). It somehow smoothes the rough edges on these otherwise rapacious tycoons, to enjoy the bounty of their collections.

This is the third or fourth time that Martine and I have visited the Nethercutt, and hopefully far from the last.