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'French Curves': Va-va-vroom

A new exhibition at the Petersen showcases extravagant examples of sexy 1930s design.

June 23, 2004|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

A prediction: No matter what you drive to see the Petersen Automotive Museum's new exhibition "French Curves: The Automobile as Sculpture," you will exit the museum, find your car in the parking deck and think, "Ugh, I'm driving that?"

They just don't build them like they used to.

"French Curves" brings together some of the best preserved and most extravagantly styled examples of French coach-building from the 1930s, a period when wealthy connoisseurs would purchase a rolling chassis -- a frame with an engine and other mechanical systems -- and hire a carrosserie to design and build the body around it.

That's why the cars all have two names; for example, the nail-polish-red Delahaye Type 165 by Figoni & Falaschi. The Delahaye company built the chassis and Figoni & Falaschi the body, or "coachwork" (the term is an inheritance from a time when automobiles were literally horseless carriages).

Characteristic of the era is the "goutte d'eau," or "teardrop" shape, which was regarded as the most aerodynamically efficient form. Aviation science flourished between the world wars, and engineers such as Antony Lago and Jean Andreau brought the lessons learned in the air to earth. In collaboration with Lago's company Talbot-Lago, stylist Joseph Figoni created the iconic Talbot-Lago T150-C-SS coupe -- nicknamed Tear Drop by the automotive press.

Take a moment to study the raspberry coulis-colored Talbot-Lago in the exhibition. Note that the car's gorgeous, flowing shape is repeated in the rolled fenders. A smooth and curvaceous alloy skin envelops the car like a silk stocking, uninterrupted by hard edges, corners, exterior horns or bullet headlamps (the headlamps are flush-mounted behind small grilles; the car tapers to a fastback shape). While many of the cars in the exhibition may strike the modern eye as being merely voluptuous or ornate, they were in their day paragons of streamlined Modernity.

That said, streamlined styling as practiced by French coachbuilders was not rigorously scientific. It was often less about the dictates of aerodynamics than the optimism of the Machine Age, the rhapsody of speed that futurists like Norman Bel Geddes and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti extolled.

"These were cars that made a statement," says David Mulvaney, the museum's manager of private collections. "They were these glorious things to arrive in. They weren't terribly practical."

The exhibition includes the famous Hispano-Suiza Dubonnet "Xenia" (1938). Andre Dubonnet was the heir to the aperitif fortune and a former fighter pilot who had gone into the automotive business. Dubonnet commissioned aerodynamicist Jean Andreau to design a streamlined body for an enormous Hispano-Suiza chassis and ordered the car built by the Saoutchik carrosserie. The result is something like a wingless airplane. The car's bubble windshield, low greenhouse and flame-tip styling all reflect a deep understanding of fluid dynamics and pointed the direction that car design would take after World War II.

For no other reason, it's worth seeing these cars to admire the extravagant colors and materials. The 1938 Peugeot 402, designed by Georges Paulin, is a fantasia of chrome, machine-turned aluminum, ochre welting and chocolate crocodile upholstery complementing the car's canary- and banana-yellow lacquer paint. The effect is somewhere between a hothouse orchid and cat-house pillow. Clark Gable is reported to have said the red Delahaye Type 165 looked like "an elegant whore's dream of a car."

They don't build them like that anymore, and with good reason. Car-building technology -- particularly unitized steel construction -- made body-on-frame coach building obsolete. Modern cars are far faster, lighter, safer and more comfortable than the best car in any rajah's garage. All that has been gained, but much of the lyricism of car design has been lost. "It was sad that the age of these cars passed, but it had to pass," says Mulvaney.


'French Curves: The Automobile as Sculpture'

When: Through Jan. 23, 2005

Where: Grand Salon, Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Information: (323) 930-CARS

Admission: $10 for adults; $5, seniors and students; $3, children under 12; under 5 free

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