Cool But Impractical

America’s Dream Cars: One-of-a-Kind Models That Changed the Way We Drive (Photos)

In the 20th century, many of the biggest car companies refused to limit themselves to the practical models on the road. They also created futuristic and innovative dream cars.

Michael Furman

Michael Furman

The automobile has been one of the longest-lasting, most readily accessible and available forms of transporation in history. A new exhibit at the High Museum of Art pays homage to this innovation, featuring eighteen cars that have influenced the design of the vehicles we known today, alongside the sketches, patents, and models that went into their creation. "Originally viewed as a miraculous machine, the car became a projection of the style, values, and status of its owner," Sarah Schleuning writes in the introduction of Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas. Yet, in addition to the practical cars purchased by consumers, many of the largest companies' design masterminds also created futuristic dream cars. There was Harley J. Earl's Buick Y-Job, which was considered a "laboratory on wheels," the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbird, which was dubbed "The Car of the Future," and Gabriel Voison's C-25 Aerodyne. The concept cars traveled to international shows and fairs, showing off their innovative, albeit impractical, designs. "The essence and elements of these concept cars live on, even if the cars themselves do not," Schleuning continues. "The concept car represents a transition and arguable dominance of style over engineering. The aesthetics and stylistic 'magic' must capture the imagination as a furturist vision; otherwise, regardless of the technological advances, the concepts will fail to be perceived as innovative automotive visions. Today, these concept cars of yesterday continue to provide sparks of possibility and glimpses of a future tomorrow."

Left: The 1953 General Motors Firebird I XP-21 was a lavish endeavor for the automotive company, focused on the car's external design and style, rather than its internal engineering (Harley J. Earl, design chief at the time, drew inspiration from the Douglas F4D Skyray delta-winged interceptor). The turbine-powered car, however, was never produced as a result of its loud engine and high fuel intake.  

Joe Wiecha

1935 Bugatti Type 57S Competition Coupe Aerolithe

Attempting to stay relevant in an economically-difficult time period, Ettore Bugatti, and his son, Jean, decided to make a new luxury vehicle that they hoped would prosper. Introduced in 1934, the Aerolithe was sleek and sophisticated, yet unpopular with consumers as a result of its modern design and the expensive price of the metal, Electron, from which it was crafted. The cars were dismantled following their tour of the European show circuit.

Peter Harholdt

1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt

In October 1941, Chrysler introduced its idea of a futuristic car at the New York International Auto Show. The two-door roadster was marketed as "The Car of the Future" with its sleek shape and modern design features (including hidden headlights and hydraulic windows). Only five of the cars were produced, and only four still exist today.

1941 Paul Arzens L'Oeuf Electrique

It was clear that Paul Arzens had art in mind (he studied at Paris's Ecole des Beaux-Arts and was a successful painter) when he designed the L'Oeuf Electrique in 1942. He crafted the vehicle out of plexiglas and aluminum, and utilized three small wheels instead of the standard four. Although the car was never produced, the original, which Arzens drove around Paris himself, still exists today.

Peter Harholdt

1947 Norman Timbs Special

The Timbs "Special" took three years to create, with its aluminum body, fadeaway fenders, and two tailpipes. The expensive car (which reportedly cost $8,000 to build) was driven by Norman Timbs himself, who was said to be "very proud of it, and he compiled an elaborate scrapbook about the car." The car was sold in 1950 and has since been restored to its original prestige. 

Peter Harholdt

1948 Tasco

The American Sports Car (TASCO) was designed by car stylist Gordon Miller Buehrig, who was known for creating some of the most outstanding cars in the early half of the 20th century: the Cord 810/812 and the Auburn 851 Speedster. The vehicle's design, which was patented in 1946, featured two gas tanks, fiberglass fenders, and magnesium wheels. 

Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas by Sarah Schleuning and Ken Gross will be available March 27 from Rizzoli.