Old Dreams, New Art Form

Phil Patton
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#GM, #Ford

Fantastically long and low, with sheer fins and swooping bodies, they are dream cars on paper. But many of the drawings turned out in Detroit's studios, such as those of early Motorama and other concept cars, were destroyed.

Saving those that remain, as well as drawings for production cars and early advertising, is the self-appointed task of collector Frederic Sharf, who has almost single-handedly established car-design drawings as a subject worthy of art museums and scholars.

These were the sketches and paintings created in the studios of General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and other makers that dreamed up themes for future cars. Rendered in pastel or charcoal or Prismacolor, they reflect not only car history but alternative history. They show models that never were, like Carl Renner's Chevrolet Vera Cruz and Peter Wozena's Cadillac Coupe de Sabre, both drawn in 1950. Homer LaGassey's 1960s Thunderbirds bound across asphalt as exotic jet airplanes -- equally fictional -- soar through the sky behind them. Other drawings represent the early stages of now-classic cars, such as Wayne Kady's Cadillacs. (Kady designed the 1967 Eldorado.) Often the drawings were hyped up, as tools to sell a concept to the bosses.

Sharf came indirectly to his fascination with the drawings. A successful sports-marketing entrepreneur, he has long been a collector with eclectic interests, from Japanese woodblock prints to British imperial documents. He began buying architectural drawings, the fancy presentations of planned buildings used to woo clients. The illustrations, by such stately firms as McKim, Mead & White, indirectly got him interested in automotive drawings a decade ago.

"The architects would draw cars beside the buildings," Sharf says. "I started to wonder about those cars."

"There's a curved-dash Olds," says Sharf, pointing at a watercolor of a stately, ornate, early-twentieth-century office building hanging in his Park Avenue apartment. The cars help date the buildings, of course, but they also made Sharf realize that if buildings required drawings, so did cars.

"I became curious about the car drawings," he said. "They also turned out to be evocative of their eras."

Sharf had to go underground to retrieve the illustrations. He hooked up with researchers like Hampton Wayt, a young car buff who sought out the families of designers in Detroit and elsewhere. Through Wayt, Sharf found out about designers or their heirs who were happy to convey materials to him, knowing he would preserve them.

Security was tight in the design studios. For decades, designers lived in fear of the companies that employed them. Automobile Magazine's Robert Cumberford, a designer at GM in the mid-1950s, recalls, "You could not leave the building with anything in your hands without a 'package pass,' and those were hard to come by. There were guys with pistols inside studios, keeping styling secrets in." Those who succumbed to the temptation to take work home kept it quiet. There were exceptions, however, like legendary GM designer Bill Porter, who also values the pieces and has organized shows in Louisville and Houston to display car-design illustrations. Another was Renner, who drew up ideas for Motorama cars and later production models for GM design chief Harley Earl in the 1950s. "Renner told me that Earl gave him permission to take drawings home," Sharf says. By the time Sharf came along, many of the veterans had been long retired, and the companies seemed to have forgotten about security.

Sharf now has thousands of car drawings, mostly from the 1930s through the 1960s. He also collects advertising art for cars, which is a more established field.

Not willing to wait for museums to catch up with his interest, Sharf installed some of his drawings at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. He and his wife, Jean, had donated money to create a patient-admitting area there. Believing that art can humanize hospitals, he lent them some car drawings to display. The show drew visitors from outside the hospital -- even outside Boston.

One of those visitors was a curator with the Toyota museum in Japan, Koji Yamada, who asked to borrow some of the illustrations. Eventually, a show of some 150 of Sharf's images went to Japan. It has been on the road ever since, traveling to museums in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Nova Scotia, along with the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana, and the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.

When the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston displayed some of Ralph Lauren's collection of cars, a selection of Sharf's drawings was also exhibited. Sharf has donated many drawings to the MFA in Boston, of which he is a major supporter. Now, thanks to a bequest from Sharf, a new curator is dedicated to them.

In other shows, Sharf has focused attention on Hot Wheels designer Harry Bentley Bradley and the Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild competition, which fostered the skills of young designers. For each show, he puts together a catalog with essays and images.

He has also lent and donated drawings to the Wolfsonian-FIU museum in Miami Beach, devoted to design, art, advertising, and propaganda. "Fred has been at the forefront of collecting widely overlooked works of designers who created American automobile culture. He's led the appreciation of these beautiful hand-rendered drawings, especially at a time when digital imagery is dominating our visual culture," says Cathy Leff, director of the Wolfsonian.

Other images have been shown at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, Massachusetts, where Sharf has a library and mini gallery of his own. "It's a kind of laboratory," he says. There, curator Sheldon Steele matches the drawings with cars from the area, where there are many collectors. Currently, Sharf and Steele are preparing a show on the British industry after World War II called "Britain Can Make It."

Sharf is not interested in owning the cars in the drawings. "I drive a ten-year-old Mercedes that embarrasses my housekeeper," he says. "I'm interested in the people -- and the stories."

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