In anticipation of the Orillia Car Show on August 16 I`ve been looking over one of my favourite books in my small library, Brightwork by Ken Steacy. In it, this passionate and very articulate Vancouver collector shows off his massive collection and gives a comprehensive history of American car design.
We old guys love classic cars, though how you define “classic” depends on just how old you are. We’d love to collect dozens of them if we could but that just isn’t practical unless your name is Jay Leno. However we can collect car stuff, or in my case, we can collect books about car stuff.
Some collect die-cast models, which began to appear in the collecting boom of the 1980s and remain very popular. Others, like Ken Steacy, collect brightwork; the beautiful and mostly functionless chrome and plastic ornamentation that adorned cars primarily from the mid 1930s to the late 1950s.
The most popular brightworks for collectors are hood ornaments. Also known as mascots, they did have a function at one time. Mascots started out as radiator caps; very early ones in the 1920s had thermometers built into them so the driver could see the temperature of the engine. They looked so distinctive that even when internal gauges made the thermometer unnecessary, stylized caps and ornaments became an essential design element on most cars. The mascots became bolder and brighter as car design trends changed.
The earliest cars were essentially horseless buggies, then carriages. It wasn’t until Henry Ford’s Model T (and in Europe the Austin 7) that cars started to take on a distinctive, car-like shape, though it was still boxy and functional. The first mass-produced aerodynamic car, with sleek lines and a rounded body, was not made in America but in Czechoslovakia. The Tatra 77 was introduced in 1934 and caused quite a sensation in Europe. It so impressed Adolph Hitler that he had German engineer Ferdinand Porsche use it as the basis for his “peoples’ car”, or Volkswagen. The Tatra’s innovative design however came from a desire to make it perform better, not just look better, though it did both.
American car design in the 1920s was driven by assembly line economics; keep the price down so you can sell as many as possible. In California though, where cost was not so much of a concern, Hollywood stars would buy the car chassis and get custom manufacturers to add stylish bodies for them to parade around in. Custom builder Harley Earl was so successful in Hollywood that Detroit started to notice and soon General Motors hired him to design their cars.
Earl started the Art and Colour Department (that’s how he spelled it) at GM and revolutionized the way all cars were designed from then on. He championed form over function, removed things like running boards and separate fenders; he was dedicated to making cars longer, lower and sexier. This was the start of the so-called Golden Era of hood ornaments and brightwork in general.
Collectors of brightwork basically fall into two categories; those who look for items to use in vehicle restoration and those who just collect the ornaments themselves for no particular reason other than to admire them. The very fact that mascots had no real function, they say, makes them works of art.
Some were actually designed by known artists. In 1925 French car maker Citroen commissioned legendary glass designer Rene Lalique to make what’s known as The Five Horses for its 5CV model. Lalique continued to design mascots for many different manufacturers including Rolls Royce but he also produced and sold them himself either as hood ornaments or paperweights, there were 27 different designs in his catalogue. The Lalique Company still makes some today but original, undamaged examples from the 1920s and 30s are extremely rare and sought-after by both car memorabilia and glass collectors. Common examples sell for a few hundred dollars; rare ones of course are much higher.
Esquire magazine pinup artist George Petty designed two mascots for the Nash Airflyte in 1950 and 1952. The highly stylized nude goddesses are very popular with collectors and are rare examples of American hood ornaments that were signed by the designer. Most were made by nameless workers, nobody even kept track of who designed what.
During the Second World War a GM plant was turned over the U.S. Government to produce fighter planes. Harley Earl and his design team were very impressed by the Lockheed Lightning with its twin tails and after the war they started to incorporate the concept in his cars. By the mid 1950s every car in America had fins. They also had tail lights that looked like rocket afterburners and lots of chrome – everywhere. Like the hood ornaments all this stuff had no practical function but they did make the car look like it went faster, much the same as the airfoils on the backs of front-wheel-drive cars do today.
Other kinds of brightwork include hubcaps, horn buttons, emblems and the chrome script that would be stuck just about anywhere there was room on a car. These are all popular because, unlike cars themselves, they are relatively cheap and easy to display. They can be gorgeous, especially the hood ornaments that light up and the intricate designs encased in the horn buttons.
The late 1950s saw another dramatic change in car design. The Volkswagen Beetle had outlived the Fuhrer and was becoming very popular in America. Unlike American cars that were completely different every year, the Volkswagen used the same basic frame with only minor cosmetic changes year after year so it was much cheaper to produce and people didn`t seem to care. The exuberance and extravagance of the 1950s was starting to look foolish.
The 1958 Chevy was the first American car without a hood ornament. Over the next few years concerns over safety and economy pretty well wiped out the hood ornament and all the other protruding, useless bits of chrome. Ornaments now only appear on high-end luxury cars and they are mostly pretty boring logos.
The collector market is still very strong and collectors insist that the hobby will never die, but that’s not a given. Young people today simply don’t care as much about cars as we did. Back in the day a car was your ticket to freedom, it meant you could visit your friends anywhere; even a beat up rust bucket was OK as long as it moved. Today’s youngsters don’t need a car; they can talk to anyone, anywhere, any time. Why go to a drive-in when you can watch movies on your phone?
This isn’t just a casual observation, car sales are dropping everywhere and research has shown that it’s not just because of the bad economy; kids increasingly don’t see car ownership as a rite of passage so they aren’t buying them.
Pretty soon car ownership will just be for old guys.
Maybe that’s a good thing; there are too many cars on the road anyway. They may work better and last longer but, except for size, you can’t tell one from the other.
In the meantime, if you see an old car rusting away in a field somewhere, and you think you’d love to be able to restore it, but can’t, just talk the owner into selling you the chrome decorations, they may be more valuable than the car.