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July 14, 2013

Art Deco history, written in steel

If you’ve seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance in the 1936 film “Swing Time,” or spent the night at a hotel in Miami’s South Beach, or visited the Empire State Building, you’ve seen it:1

Art Deco design.

Its streamlining influenced every aspect of American life in the 1930s, from architecture and appliances to railroad cars and even automobiles. But while Art Deco successfully sold washing machines, radios and houses, it didn’t prove overly popular with auto buyers. Cars that radically embraced the new look failed to sell, even though they influenced car design for decades.

And it’s that legacy that’s examined in a new exhibit, “Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles” at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn. The exhibit opened last month and runs through Sept. 15.

Here are some highlights from the show. Even if you don’t check out the exhibit, these cars are an interesting chapter in automotive history.

1929 Cord L-29 Cabriolet: If you ever wondered what Frank Lloyd Wright drove, here’s your answer. This L-29, which he owned until he died, was the first front-wheel-drive car to reach mass production. The L-29’s unusually low stance was afforded by front-wheel drive and accentuated the car’s long hood. Wright’s admiration for the car was prophetic. “I believe the principle of the front drive to be logical and scientific, therefore inevitable for all cars,” he said.

1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow: Once among America’s most prestigious and highest-quality automakers, Pierce-Arrow pioneered the use of cast-aluminum bodies, four-wheel hydraulic brakes and column-mounted shifters. But overly cautious managers steered the company toward oblivion by 1938. The Silver Arrow was the automaker’s last gasp of brilliance, an Art Deco masterpiece in an era of boxy sedan design. Just five were hand-built.

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