American Dreaming: Detroit's Golden Age of Automotive Design

By: Steve Kealy

Presented by

Charles Balogh's 1953 study for Ford. A car with semi-circular round seating that would stimulate conversation Charles Balogh's 1953 study for Ford. A car with semi-circular round seating that would stimulate conversation Charles Balogh's 1953 study for Ford. A car with semi-circular round seating that would stimulate conversation
George Krispinsky Plymouth Fury 1958 George Krispinsky Plymouth Fury 1958 George Krispinsky Plymouth Fury 1958
Carl Renner 1953 Carl Renner 1953 Carl Renner 1953
Del Coates Studebaker 1957 Del Coates Studebaker 1957 Del Coates Studebaker 1957
Renner Corvair Renner Corvair Renner Corvair
Rodell Smith Ford 1963 Rodell Smith Ford 1963 Rodell Smith Ford 1963
Roger Hughet Oldsmobile Tornado 1968 (top), plus Packard 1953 Roger Hughet Oldsmobile Tornado 1968 (top), plus Packard 1953 Roger Hughet Oldsmobile Tornado 1968 (top), plus Packard 1953
John Samsen Cuda 1969 (top), plus Norbert Ostrowski AMC Matador mid 60s John Samsen Cuda 1969 (top), plus Norbert Ostrowski AMC Matador mid 60s John Samsen Cuda 1969 (top), plus Norbert Ostrowski AMC Matador mid 60s

'American Dreaming: Detroit's Golden Age of Automotive Design' is an exhibit opened recently in Detroit showing a valuable glimpse of automotive designs from 1946-1973.

American Dreaming: Detroit's Golden Age of Automotive Design
American Dreaming: Detroit's Golden Age of Automotive Design

 

American Dreaming: Detroit's Golden Age of Automotive Design

Designer Norbert Ostrowski began drawing cars during the golden age of the American automobile. For 30 years, he worked in the styling departments of Detroit’s biggest names: Chrysler, General Motors and AMC. But none of his drawings still exist. Like most of the initial-stage artwork created by America’s automotive designers, they were all destroyed to protect trade secrets.

Enter art collector Robert Edwards. The lifelong car enthusiast has curated the most comprehensive showing of those designs, spanning from 1946 to 1973. Some are recreations, some are originals, all of them are a valuable glimpse of Detroit’s view of their future – our past. The exhibit, American Dreaming: Detroit’s Golden Age of Automotive Design, opened recently 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?’"

The designs were never meant to leave the studios. Design studios routinely destroyed early sketches for fear they would fall into the hands of rivals. Almost all the factories made efforts at low-level industrial espionage and some even deliberately leaked mis-information; it was right in the middle of the Cold War era, after all.

But some of the designs 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 and beyond. As the people responsible retire and grow old, the companies for which the designs were made cease to exist and the relevance of the designs having long-since expired, these once top secret works are surfacing. As they do, they’re providing an intriguing insight into the dead-ends and still-births of the once-great American car industry.

Edwards 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 hark back to a time when America thought anything was possible.

"This is the age when America thought it could overcome racism, land a man on the moon, win the Cold War," he said. "This exhibit reflects this unbridled optimism and creative exuberance prevalent at the time."

Aside from the exhibit, the two car enthusiasts are also producing a documentary called American Dreaming featuring the designers who worked in the styling houses of Detroit’s factories from 1946 to 1973. It includes interviews with the surviving men and women who influenced mid-century American design and shaped the golden era of the American car. It’s also a love letter to Detroit.

"This is a Detroit story," said Salustro. "It’s about how Detroit inspired a nation." "We want Detroit to be proud of its artistic heritage."

The film doesn’t yet have a release date.

 

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