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The upcoming documentary “American Dreaming” features the designers who worked for Detroit’s automakers from 1946 to 1973. Watch the trailer for the film, which does not have a release date, above. Video by Jim Toscano and Danny Gianino of Freeage Productions.
Norbert Ostrowski began designing cars during the golden age of the American automobile. For 30 years, he worked in the styling departments of Detroit’s iconic brands: Chrysler, General Motors, AMC. But his sketches no longer exist. Like most of the early-stage artwork created by America’s auto designers, they’ve been destroyed.
Enter art collector Robert Edwards. The lifelong car enthusiast has curated the most comprehensive showing of those designs, spanning from 1946 to 1973. The exhibit, “American Dreaming: Detroit’s Golden Age of Automotive Design,” opened last week at Lawrence Technological University in suburban Detroit.
Featured in the collection is one of Ostrowski’s early sketches of an AMC Matador that Edwards found for sale in Ann Arbor. Ostrowski, now 77, recognized it immediately, Edwards said.
“His exact words were, ‘how the heck did that get out?’”
Bill Robinson, Packard, proposed updates for trim 1951. Bill Robinson began his career as a car stylist at Kaiser-Frazer Corp. This artwork was done while he was at Briggs Design, later purchased by Chrysler in large part to capture the array of talented designers that Briggs had assembled.
The designs were never meant to leave the studios. Automakers routinely destroyed early sketches for fear they would fall into the wrong hands.
But some of them made their way out of Ford, GM and Chrysler, as well as now defunct Studebaker, Packard and AMC. According to one designer, they were smuggled out in boxes with false bottoms. One employee famously hid his sketches inside the liner of his trench coat. “As an artist, you would hate to see your artwork destroyed,” Edwards said.
Now they exist in attics and garages in the homes of the artists and their relatives. That’s where Edwards finds them. He’s been collecting these “bootleg” sketches for years, buying them from estate sales all over Michigan.
Rodell Smith, Ford 1963. Rodell Smith designed for the following companies in his long career; Ford, Chrysler, Packard, Hudson, AMC, Ford, International Harvester, and finally Chrysler again. Rodell Smith designed the front grille of the 1963 Ford Galaxie which has erroneously been credited to another designer.
He calls the artwork the story of mid-century modern design in America.
“The car is such a part of the American psyche,” Edwards said. “It’s possibly the most important industrial object ever created. It has touched everyone’s life.”
Exhibit co-producer Greg Salustro said the designs harken back to a time when America thought anything was possible.
“This is the age that America thought they could overcome racism, land a man on the moon, win the Cold War,” he said. “This exhibit reflects this unbridled exuberance that took place at the time.”
Aside from the exhibit, the two auto enthusiasts are also co-producing a documentary called “American Dreaming.” It features interviews with the men and women who influenced mid-century American design and shaped the way we remember the golden era of the automobile.
Charles Balogh, Ford Advanced Studio 1953. Emigrating from Hungary alone as a 15-year-old, Charles Balogh served in World War II and became a U.S. citizen. Fascinated by post-war designs in furniture and architecture he conceived of a car with semi-circular round seating that would stimulate conversation among passengers.
It’s also a love letter to Detroit.
“This is a Detroit story,” said Salustro. “It’s about how Detroit inspired a nation.”
Just as the automakers jumped back into production in 1946 after its years supporting the Allied forces, today Detroit is determined to rebound after decades of decline and an unprecedented municipal bankruptcy, he said. “We want Detroit to be proud of its artistic heritage.”
See more photos of the innovative artwork that escaped the shredder:
Del Coates, Studebaker Golden Hawk 1957. Coates proposed this update for the Golden Hawk 1959 model year. The 1957 Golden Hawk measured by performance was faster going from 0-60 mph and in the quarter mile than the Chrysler 300B, Chevrolet Corvette or Ford Thunderbird. Many consider the Golden Hawk a precursor to the muscle cars of the 1960s.
Ben Kroll or Richard Arbib, Packard proposed show car, Solar Sports (never realized) circa 1953. In the 1950s Packard did several very important show cars. The 1956 Packard Predictor was the most important and their last show car. Packard bought Studebaker in 1954 and struggled financially. By 1958 the heralded nameplate of Packard had disappeared.
Collector Robert Edwards: “I knew by the door handle that it was American Motors Corporation (AMC), and because the front fender had a side indicator light and not the back fender, I knew it was mid-1960s. After looking in my research materials and comparing photos of Norbert’s work, I thought it was most likely by Norbert Ostrowski; He had a very distinct method of shading in a quick crosshatch manner.”
Carl Renner, GM Special Body Development Studio, 1953. Renner worked as an animator for Walt Disney Studios during the mid 1940s but preferred being a car designer. At GM in the early 1950s, Renner was given his own studio that only he and Harley Earl, GM’s Vice President and head of design, had access to. In this studio many of GM’s Motorama 1950s show cars were developed.
George Krispinsky, AMC concept early 1970s. This drawing is based on AMC’s electric concept vehicle of 1969. In this version, the gas cap is visible indicating it would be a more conventional vehicle. With its hatch-back and gull-wing doors, Krispinsky envisioned a sporty small car for young consumers. Later in his career Krispinsky was head of exterior design for Jeep, then a division of AMC. He was instrumental in ushering in the era of the modern SUV with the Jeep Cherokee.
George Krispinsky, Plymouth Fury 1958. As were so many Americans in the 1950s, Krispinsky was enamored with the emerging “Space Age” and the promise that the future held. Drawn in 1958, the artist signed his initials GK-62 on the license plate; 62 represents the proposed model year.
John “Dick” Samsen, ‘Cuda 1969. Samsen graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering and started designing at Ford in 1952. He assisted in the design of the iconic 1955 Ford Thunderbird. By the later-fifties he was with Chrysler where he remained the rest of his career. Samsen contributed to the designs of Imperials, Furies, Road Runners and the Plymouth Barracuda. This artwork is a proposal for the ‘Cuda 1972/3 model year.
Roger Hughet, Oldsmobile Toronado 1968. Hughet grew up a “hot-rodder” in the small town of Burns, Oregon, populatin 3,000.
Captions by Robert Edwards. Learn more about the upcoming documentary “American Dreaming”: Americandreamingfilm.com. Here you can also find out how to support the film, which is not yet complete and does not have a release date.
Margaret Myers is the former Digital News Editor for PBS NewsHour. She is a former editor for ESPN.com. She also led the features department at the Amarillo Globe-News in west Texas.
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