The Shape of Speed Tells a Story of Innovation and Beautiful Failure

Disclosure: I volunteer weekly at the Portland Art Museum, but this article is in no way associated with the museum.

The Portland Art Museum’s newest featured exhibit, the Shape of Speed is a great diversion this summer.  The exhibit consists of over a dozen classic cars from the years between 1930 and 1943 (and two motorcycles) all lovingly restored and put on display.  But what’s even more interesting than the cars themselves is the story.

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Chrysler Thunderbolt (1941) – Only five were ever built.

A running narrative isn’t the most important aspect of an art exhibit.  In some cases, the narrative builds itself naturally based on the theme, especially if it’s something direct like the life of a single artist or the growth of a movement.  But a good story will affect the visitors on a variety of levels.  In the case of The Shape of Speed, the narrative dwells on themes of risk, and the subsequent rewards or failures that come with it.  There’s a surprisingly melancholy tone to the whole thing, a tone that I feel is perfectly embodied by my favorite piece in the exhibit: The Stout Scarab.

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The Stout Scarab Front View – Photo is property of the Portland Art Museum.  Photo by Peter Harholdt.

The Scarab does not look like any car on the road today.  The closest parallel might be to an older Volkswagen bus, but even that comparison seems ill-fitting since the Scarab is wider and far bulkier than a Volkswagen Bus.  It’s a wide vehicle, and most notably, it possesses hardly any hood in the front.  It’s easy to see where the car’s creator, William Bushnell Stout got the name for his creation, even if his own surname ended up being surprisingly appropriate for the vehicle.  But beyond the basic shape of the car are the finer details.  The namesake Scarab is embossed on the hood of the car and the detailing throughout is sublime.  Even the interior is unique by modern standards, designed like an office or a living room with five seats situated around a table.  And in the case of the vehicle on display, the entire ensemble is appointed in sky blue with silver highlights.  The Scarab is a beautiful car, an Art Deco symbol appropriate for the time.  And it was a complete failure as a product.

There’s little doubt that the Scarab would’ve been seen as an innovation on its release in the 1930’s.  The initial design called for an aluminum frame, and skin making it exceptionally light for it’s size.  The design, which was meant to emulate an aircraft fuselage, completely eliminated the chassis of the vehicle, allowing for more passenger space and would go on to serve as a template for future minivans.  But the Scarab didn’t sell.  Stout, priced his creation at well over $5,000 at a time when the average price of a coup rolling off of Ford’s assembly lines was somewhere between $500 and $600.  In the end, only 9 of the vehicles were built and of those, 5 are still intact.

And maybe that’s why it’s position in the exhibit is so unique.  Instead of being featured alongside its contemporaries, the Scarab is off to the side, in a small room on it’s own.  You could go through the rest of the exhibit and never go inside.  The lights are turned down low and what lights are active are angled towards the car in the center.  The entire setup feels like a mausoleum.  Which is appropriate, since the Scarab serves as a sort of memorial for a certain period in automotive design that reached it’s height in the 1930’s and early 1940’s.

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1938 Delahaye 135M Roadster – A Symbol of French Art Deco elegance, these were commonly referred to as “Paris of Wheels.”

In the decades prior, The United States had played a part in the victory of the First World War and experienced an economic boom in the 1920’s.  Companies like the indomitable Ford Motor Company and its competitors Chrysler and General Motors were at the height of their own success.  And yet, nobody knew where to go from there.  The initial thrill of the automotive simply existing had given way to Ford’s own assembly line providing increased availability.  But now that the car had been proven as an economically viable product, it was up in the air as to where the next innovation would come.  And it left the major auto companies scrambling.  Aerodynamic and Streamlined designs proved to be attractive prospects as they could satisfy two challenges at once.  These schools of architecture gave the engineers a way to improve upon existing designs, creating cars that were faster and more efficient.  What’s more the designs were almost effortlessly eye-catching to customers which drove demand.  Every vehicle in The Shape of Speed was part of this pursuit.

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The Bendix SWC Coupe

What’s fascinating is that while that race for innovation was run by all of these corporate giants, they found competition and aid from individual engineers.  The 1930’s came at the tail end of a certain era in American engineering.  Before the age of the Assembly Line, such innovations had come from individual inventors toiling away in anonymity in workshops and garages across the United States.  William Stout had been part of this tradition, and he was joined by luminaries like Vincent Hugo Bendix.  Bendix was another inventor who designed brake systems and engine drives.  He sold these designs through his Chicago-based Bendix Corporation.  And while Bendix did most of his business by selling his designs to the larger corporations, it was only natural that he would build his own prototype.  In 1934, Bendix hired ex-Packard engineer Alfred M Ney to design the car and of course it would incorporate aerodynamic designs.  It was built for the cost of approximately $84,000 (about $2 million in today’s currency) and the entire project was top-secret, in order to avoid alienating the giants of Detroit.  The final product, the 1934 SWC Sedan is a thing of beauty.  Unlike the Scarab, it’s debatable whether or not the SWC was every meant for commercial success.  It was destined to be shipped overseas to Europe in an attempt to drum up interest in Bendix products.

Much like the SWC and the Scarab, every car in The Shape of Speed gives credit to the artists, engineers and designers involved in its creation.  It’s a celebration of the men who poured blood, sweat and tears into the  pursuit of beauty and grace.  It’s a celebration of their triumphs but also, their failures.  Like the Scarab and the SWC, many of the vehicles in the exhibit were not commercially successful.  Many of the companies that built them have been lost.  Bendix was bought out in 2002 by Knorr-Bremse but my then its identity as a torch-bearer of American automotive innovation had been eaten away through mergers and acquisitions.  William Stout pivoted his design work towards airplanes and eventually created a design that would become the Ford Trimotor.  He found more success in the sky than on the roads before passing away in 1956 at the age of 76.

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The BMW R7 Concept Bike – Lost in a crate until 2005 when it was rediscovered.

There’s so many more stories throughout The Shape of Speed.  Stories of things like the prototype BMW motorcycle lost in a crate until 2005.  Other tales include bold attempts at innovation like a three-wheeled car or the first brave stabs at a compact car.  All of these are displayed in a way that sparks the imagination and celebrates this unique period in automotive history.  There’s even a small section of the exhibit dedicated to Oregon’s contribution to the chase for aerodynamic design, which includes references to local speed tests and Nike’s work on its “Shark Teeth,” running gear.  In this way, the Shape of Speed reminds us that despite what may seem like failures in the moment, our creations will endure and may one day be celebrated for their intent.

The Shape of Speed is a great exhibit.  If you live in the Portland area, it’s aboslutely worth the $20 admission fee.  And if you’re visiting, you could do worse when looking for a spot on your itinerary.  What’s more, it’s the type of exhibit that drives new eyes towards the museum housing it.  Classic cars are an easy idea to wrap one’s head around.  They’re as sleek and eye-catching as they were back in the day and once a newcomer has spent their time wandering around the featured exhibit, there’s a greater chance they’ll spend more time wandering around the rest of the museum.  Which is always welcome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first writing piece.  Have a good day.

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