[Editor’s Note: CBI apologizes in advance for publishing Wallace Wyss’s report on the 2015 Pasadena Art Center Concours so far behind schedule after he submitted it, but hope we can make it up to you by inundating you with an absolute plethora of fantastic photos by Richard Barthlolmew. Kick back, soak them up and enjoy!]
Even using the world “concours” is a bit off base because the Art Center Car Classic occupies its own space in the universe. It makes sense, in a way, that it should be different, in that most of the world’s car designers graduate from that college’s Trans Design program, so this show gives them a chance to see oddball directions taken in car design going back many decades before they were born.
You could argue that there is no consistency to the show, which is crammed in an area about the size of a 50 car parking lot, not like Pebble Beach where there’s acres of land and it is compartmentalized by marque, all the Ferraris are lined up at one end, the Packards at another and so forth. Not at the Art Center Classic, where…
…Jay Leno’s hot rodded 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado was parked cheek-by-jowl to a one off Porsche 911 custom, parked next to a suspiciously kit car looking thing called the Badsey Bullet parked next to some futuristic car proposal the owner claimed was street licensed.
I got there early with ace cinema-photographer Richard Bartholomew (hey, does it qualify as an “entourage” when you have your own cinema-photographer?) and we interviewed several car owners regarding their car’s mission in life.
There were a lot of cars whose type we know well (in fact I’ve owned examples of) like the Mercedes Gullwing and the Alfa Sprint Speciale, so we looked for the more oddball cars to find out why they were there.
The truly oddest was a 1948 Buick Super 8 ragtop (seen below) that looked very tacky on the outside, with paint that looked like it was the original faded paint, but one hint it was a supercar underneath was wheels that must have been 22” tall. Once he opened the hood, you saw a big block Chevy. The builder, who runs an outfit called Icon, said that he is building a number of what he calls “derelict” cars, and some will be painted anew, but the kicker is in driving a car that looks like a derelict that could give a Ferrari 330GT a run for the money. (Editor’s Note: Or any modern Ferrari for that matter, at least in a straight line)
Then there were three Frenchmen, who run a company in Culver City, showing a car that looked from a distance like a Porsche 550 Spyder made into a coupe. But it turns out it wasn’t a replica being sold but built (at a huge cost, way way over $350,000) to show their capabilities in building prototype cars for automakers. They said there are 14 automaker design studios in California and they are bidding to do some prototype construction. They just picked an old Porsche as a theme because if they had designed a totally modern car it could have dated immediately but by doing a retro design it has some “legs”m to use an American show biz phrase.
There was a prewar classic, the 1938 DuBonnet Xenia Hispano-Suiza Hispano Suiza that is remarkably streamlined for its era. One can hardly believe that car was being driven around over 75 years ago!
One almost classic, though, was a “double take” in that the chassis was prewar Lincoln but the boat-tail body (think boat-tail Auburn) was designed in more recent times by the late Dave Holls of GM.
There were also two or three tatty Tatras, those being the rear engine cars from the East Block that have been all the rage at Concours lately. They looked so bedraggled, I wouldn’t think of restoring them but then it’s fun to see how retrofuturistic Commie design was back then but I couldn’t stand to look at them when they still look like congealed rust.
There was also an Airstream motor home which typified the goal of the middle class vacationers back in the Fifties.
And several ‘50s cars that were huge, one owner admitting her 6600 lb. Lincoln convertible uses so much gas she can “see the gas gauge falling as I drive.”
As far as late models there was a Ferrari La Ferrari, right next to an early Countach, and I have to say the Countach didn’t look all that dated. And two or three DeLoreans, one in full “Back to the Future” trim from the movie.
Impresario Jay Leno rolled in fairly early in his Toronado, explaining that when he decided to build a ‘60s car into a hot rod, he didn’t want to go ’55 Chevy like most people but wanted to honor the Eldorado. I can’t remember if he has converted it to rear wheel drive, but the thing has a huge engine.
Leno also sat down in a canvas chair next to Ed Welburn, Design Director of GM , and they had a good discussion with lots of jokes that I am sure will pop up on “Jay’s Garage,” his new weekly show.
Leno presented with the latest Incredible Barn Finds book. But maybe he’s too busy finding cars to read them?
GM brought a couple of old dream cars, one the Y-job Buick that their first Director of Styling (as they called it back then) had created in the late ‘40s or early ‘40s. It looked quaint, not nearly as big as I thought it would be. Then they had the Olds Aerotech, a mid-engined car that presaged the look of some LeMans cars. I believe Ed Welburn, the VP in charge of design now, designed that.
But the highlight for me after the outdoor interviews was a panel discussion in the school’s theatre in which ex-BMW designer Chris Bangle , among others on the panel, made some sly jokes about autonomous cars. The other panelists also talked about them but it was clear that the consensus of the people on the stage was that autonomous cars were only going to be a small part of the market in the near future. As I left I realized it was like listening to a bunch of photographers using film talking about the appeal of Kodachrome film just as digital cameras were coming onto the market. If the next Art Center Classic doesn’t have some Google autonomous cars there and someone speaking about them, it will make the school look irrelevant, as it is The Coming Thing. It was the 800-lb. gorilla on stage but none of the designers were ready to embrace them, perhaps because they realize that they will be bought by “non car” people who don’t buy a car because of its looks or style but just because it will get them there and back.
Hendrik Fisker was there with the Mustang he redesigned for car dealer Galpin Ford.
I heard former Solstice designer Franz von Holzhausen ,who now designs Teslas was there, but didn’t see him. Of course one of the most famous deisgners there, showing a big old Chrylser, was Syd Mead, who is still a working designer in his ‘80s. I would say one of the biggest advantages of this show is that if you know who the famous people are, you can buttonhole them and have questions answered that may have been burning in your mind forever, or hell ,if you are a young student, work for an appointment to show your portfolio.
I was glad to see a lot of students in the crowd, I hope they get a special deal on the $40 entrance fee because when you consider many of them are from foreign countries (China is sending lot lately) this is their chance to see legendary cars and their chance to meet famous designers.
I should also mention there was the Hirohata Merc, a chop top Mercury, to me a significant car because it was a custom “lead sled” built after the war, when there was still some animosity toward Japanese Americans but the fact the hot rodders were willing to honor a Japanese American-made custom back then was heartening and I think it is a significant car now as well as then.
In sum, the Art Center Classic is not at all formalized like Pebble Beach, but remains a very esoteric show. And they encourage show goers to walk throught he school and talk to design students who are, as you talk to them, creating clay models and drawings. One Chinese young lady was just finishing her car design and said she was about to graduate and I thought “Oh, brave new world,” and am cheering her on….
THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is a fine artist whose fine art prints of classic cars will be on sale at the Desert Concorso in Palm Springs this Nov. 15th.