Thursday, September 18, 2008

Career Spotlight: Harry Bentley Bradley

The name Harry Bradley may not be familiar to you, but there's almost no doubt you're familiar with his work. He grew up in the suburbs of Boston where his early artistic talent was nurtured through youth classes at the Museum of Fine Arts. During the summer of 1949, fourteen year old Harry contracted Polio - putting him in Boston's Children's Hospital for seven months. He passed the time with drawing. Nurses would place his wheel chair by a window overlooking the street so he could sketch automobiles. After learning to live with leg braces, Harry went on to finish grade school and became further entrenched into the car culture of the early 1950's.
He attended the College of Wooster for a liberal arts education at the urging of his parents but his real goal was a career in automobile design. He wrote to General Motors asking about job opportunities and their response suggested the industrial design program at Pratt Institute.

At Pratt Institute, one of Harry's student projects was this image of a mechanical man made from car parts. It was later published in Rodding and Re-Styling magazine. While still attending the design program, Harry launched his own business as a custom design consultant and began to contribute regularly to various automotive publications.
Kandy Klown is one example of Bradley's published hot rod designs.
Harry was recruited by General Motors during his last semester at Pratt and moved to Detroit in July, 1962. This yellow Cadillac Coupe DeVille proposal was created in 1966. Although it was against company policy, he continued to publish designs for hot rod and custom magazines under the name Mark Fadner.
Bradley worked in a number of studios during his four year tenure at GM. Above is a slick GT Coupe proposal from 1963.

The Turbo Titan III was Bradley's vision of a turbine powered show truck in 1965. Harry took advantage of GM's Fellowship study program for a Masters degree at Stanford University. While in California, he did some moonlighting on for custom car builders, the Alexander Brothers.

The Alexander Brothers had been hired by Chrysler to customize a Dodge A-100 pickup truck to display at car shows. Harry poured himself into the project that was to become a design sensation, the 1966 Deora. Click here to see many more photos of the finished vehicle.

In the spring of 1966 Harry was recruited away from GM by the Mattel corporation. Mattel wanted to hire a designer from one of Detroit's "Big 3" to create the look of their new Hot Wheels die-cast cars. Bradley's mix of hot rod and mainstream car design proved the perfect combination. The original line had 16 models in bright candy colors with carburetor stacks, mag wheels, chopped roofs and red line tires.
Although the Hot Wheels were an enormous success, the toy company was unwilling to commit to a second series. So after less than a year with Mattel, Harry resigned to start his own design firm and began work on a variety of projects - including the futuristic Tonka toy dump truck above.
Bradley's business continued to grow and you could guess if it had four wheels, Harry was asked to design it. Plastic model kits, full-size hot rods and customs, even Indy race cars wore Harry Bradley designs. Many images of Harry Bradley's custom designs can be found on custom car designer and consultant Rik Hoving's online photo archive.

Harry's 40 year career in the design business has far too many accomplishments for a single blog post. You can be assured I've barely skimmed the surface. Heck, I didn't even get into his 35 years teaching at Art Center in Pasadena, CA.

In one of those events where life comes full circle, many of Harry Bradley's designs are now displayed in the lobby of Boston's Children's Hospital - the same place where his car design career originally blossomed.
The exhibit was produced by Fred Sharf, a collector, scholar and author who specializes in buying, researching and organizing public exhibitions of design art.
Sharf has recently published a book detailing Harry Bradley's facinating life and multi-faceted career in the car design business. It's available from the MFA's Bookstore.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild Reunion

The Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild began in 1930 to encourage teenagers to build a Napoleonic coach model from a set of plans. The coach was Fisher Body's trademark and the contest concentrated on following precise instructions that tested the competitors' construction skills. The winners recieved college scholorships worth thousands of dollars.

In 1937 the contest began shifting from craftsmanship to styling with the addition of a design competition. Contestants created a 1/12 scale model dream car. The full force of General Motors' public relations and marketing departments promoted the contest nationwide. Enrollment approached 600,000 members during the 1950's, making the organization second in size only to the Boy Scouts of America.

Regional winners were treated with a trip to Detroit and a tour of the General Motors Tech Center. Design judges came straight from GM's styling staff and many of the winners went on to America's top design schools. FBCG alumni are also represented in the Adrew F. Johnson Gallery including Richard Arbib, Pete Wozena, Bob Cadaret, Bud Magaldi, Milt Antonick, George Anderson and John Perkins.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston recently hosted a FBCG reunion and model exhibition. About 60 past contestants brought their 40+ year old models for the event that also included a variety of lectures on car design, model building and automotive history.

The two-day event was well attended with design enthusiasts of all ages. The Guildmen were on hand to answer questions about the models and their careers in design and engineering. The MFA Bookstore published a calatog of the exhibition that includes 93 color photographs.

You can learn much more about Fisher Body Craftman's Guild history in John Jacobus' book and website listed in this blog's Car Design Links section. There's also more about this reunion on Virginia Tatseos' blog.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Retro - Before Retro was Cool

The word "retro" derives from the Latin prefix retro, meaning "backwards" or "in past times" - particularly as seen in the words retrograde, implying a movement toward the past instead of a progress toward the future, and retrospective, referring to a nostalgic (or critical) eye toward the past.

Chrysler has sold over 1,000,000 retro-styled PT Cruisers

Over the last several years, the automobile industry has found success looking to the past. The PT Cruiser, Prowler, Chevrolet SSR, Mustang, Camaro, Challenger, T-bird and Beetle all look to past design trends with mostly positive results.

It took three years to sell about 40,000 retro T-birds

The New Beetle was launched in 1998

But like many things in the car business, what some people think is a new idea has already been tried... even retro. Some of my favorite examples are found on the cars of the 1955-1961 Forward Look era at Chrysler Corporation. Imagine creating a state of the art design - styling that would win Motor Trend Car of the Year for the entire corporate line up - while still incorporating motifs from 25 years in the past. The designers in Highland Park pulled it off!

The Flite Sweep decklid was offered on many Chrysler products from 1957 - 1961

Retro free-standing headlamps were on 1961-63 Imperials

When Chrysler styling VP Virgil Exner started his own company with son Virgil Jr., one of their first projects was creating a modern look for the great classic marques of the 1930's. The results were published in the December 1963 Esquire magazine where readers were treated to contempary visions of a Stutz, Packard, Duesenberg and Mercer.

Original illustration of the Esquire Duesenberg

This "retro" exercise led to a number of projects for the Exners. The Mercer design was used to build the Mercer Cobra show car for the Copper Development Association. The Duesenberg illustration convinced investors that Exner was the right choice for designing their revival attempt of the classic luxury car. The Renwal model company made a very sucessful line of 1/25th scale model cars with the Exners. Virgil Sr. even had a retro Bugatti made for himself and later designed the 1970 Stutz Blackhawk.

Copper Development Association's Mercer Cobra

1966 Duesenberg

One of 7 Revival models made by Renwal

Virgil Exner's Bugatti 101C

1971 Stutz sales photo

Although retro styling can have mass market appeal or help a wealthy few stand out from the crowd, it can evetually lead to a dead end. How do you move forward while still looking back?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Trash & Treasure

Everyone's heard the expression one man's trash is another man's treasure. Well, whoever said that may have seen the garbage bins behind Detroit's styling studios and advertising agencies.

Carl Renner - Corvette Concept - May 5, 1955

In the course of its daily business, the automotive creative industry churned out thousands upon thousands of sketches, drawings and full color illustrations. Once the art had served it's purpose - as part of the design process, executive presentations or advertising - it was discarded or stuffed into a storage closet - only to be trashed at a later date. What survives today was either tucked away by an artist or literally pulled from a dumpster.

Carl Cameron - Dodge Hemi Charger - March 12, 1966

In my conversations with car designers, I learned it was common to have a box under your drafting table where you'd keep some of your favorite work and trade pieces with colleagues. By the time a box was full, the styling projects were done and many supervisors would let you take things home. Most of the art in my collection comes from designers' basements and attics.

Two of the most valuable pieces in the gallery were literally pulled from the trash. These illustrations by Syd Mead were created as part of his legendary work for US Steel.

Syd Mead - LeMans Street Coupe

Syd Mead - Fender Blended Sports Car

When the company was cleaning out storage rooms, an alert employee spotted the artwork in a dumpster and grabbed it. The art was kept in his family for a number of years before finding its way into collectors' hands. These images are published on pp. 84-86 in Mead's 1979 book Sentinal.

Friday, June 20, 2008

School Days

Bob Hubbach c. 1961

Sometimes the most innovative and futuristic ideas come from designers before they’re on a corporate payroll - having their ideas compromised and shaped by budgets and engineering practicalities.

Ben Delphia - 1964

Detroit looked to the handful of transportation design programs across the country to recruit the best and brightest available. Perhaps the most recognized of these specialized programs was at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, CA.

Art Center College c. 1958

Art Center alumni make up a lengthy who’s who of car design history including Gordon Buehrig, Dick Teague, Syd Mead, and Larry Shinoda.

Bob Adomeit c. 1958

Other notable design schools were the Pratt Institute in New York City, Cleveland Institute of Art, Notre Dame University and the Detroit Institute of Automobile Styling correspondence course developed by Harley Earl and Richard Arbib.

John Aiken - 1957

The first successful automobile styling program was adapted from carriage design by my art collection’s namesake, Andrew F. Johnson. Many of Johnson’s students were auto industry pioneers including three of the Fisher Brothers, William Durant, Charles Nash, George Mercer, Herman Brunn and Ray Dietrich.

Otto Wuerful - 1949

John R. Jungwirth - 1951

Here’s a look at more of the student projects in the Andrew F. Johnson Gallery.

Joe Sohn - 1957

Glen Winterscheidt - 1957

Art Gerstenberger - 1967

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Salute to Exner

Virgil Max Exner, Sr. 1909-1973
On September 29th, 2007 fans of design legend Virgil Exner gathered in South Bend, Indiana on the campus of Notre Dame University. Months of planning by Virgil Exner, Jr. resulted in this once in a lifetime opportunity to see show cars, rare production vehicles and original design drawings from Exner, Sr's historic career.

Peter Grist

The day began with a car exhibition and book signing by biographer Peter Grist. Having been published just weeks earlier, this was the first opportunity for many to get a copy of Virgil Exner: Visioneer. Grist spent years gathering the back story to Exner's life and has written an amazing, well rounded account of the designer and the man. As images of Exner's life were projected on a screen, cars representing Virgil Exner's design career took the spotlight.

1957 Chrysler 300C

1964 Mercer Cobra

1965 Bugatti 101 C

1971 Stutz Blackhawk

1954 Plymouth Belmont

1961 Dual Ghia

1955 Dodge LaFemme

1957 Plymouth Belvedere

More examples of Exner's original art and design drawings were on display at the Snite Art Museum where a lecture by Peter Grist and Virgil Exner, Jr capped off the day-long celebration.

While attending the Exner event, I had the opportunity to visit Charlie Hayes' jaw-dropping collection of Exner era studio drawings. Although I saw pieces of his collection on display earlier, some of the drawings were just too big to move.

To complement the art collection, Charlie has gone so far as to furnish his entire business with mid-century era office funishings.