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American Dreaming: Exhibit Looks Back at the Golden Age of the U.S. Auto Industry

Rare finds often were smuggled out of Detroit’s design studios.

by on Apr.24, 2015

Bill Blogh's 1953 Ford concept sketch captured the sci-fi mood of the era.

In the optimistic post-War era, few things better defined the American lifestyle than the cars we drove. The ’57 Chevy and the finned Cadillac Eldorado were far more than mere transportation.

Drawings and sketches by designers who created the cars of the 1950s and 1960s are being honored with a unique display at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan through May 2.

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The exhibit, “American Dreaming: Detroit ’s Golden Age of Automotive Design,” is the first comprehensive exhibition to offer a look at the art work produced inside the design studios of Detroit ’s automakers between 1946 to 1973.

The exhibition is sponsored by LTU’s College of Architecture and Design, but was organized and curated by Robert Edwards and Greg Salustro, who also hope to produce a film about Detroit designers of the post-war era.

For Edwards, the exhibit represents a labor of love, going back several years. A Royal Oak resident and artist in his own right, Edwards began picking up the drawings and sketches at flea markets and garage sales throughout the Detroit area. Initially he was impressed with the quality of the art work but he also become fascinated by the history behind the drawings.

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Aerospace themes were common in the automotive world of the post-War era, as George Kripinsky showed with this sketch of a 1958 Plymouth Fury.

In an effort to gain market share in the post-World War II era, Detroit-based automakers hired university-trained artists to produce the most visually appealing cars, Edwards said.

Styling and design were highly valued by automakers, and artists had the opportunity to shape the industry and, in turn, change the look of the entire country. For every vintage or classic car we admire, there was an artist who dreamed, designed and drew that car with pencil and paper. This exhibition is an opportunity to see the rare automotive artworks created in Detroit’s automotive studios.

What makes this exhibition particularly interesting is that car company policies mandated preliminary artwork be destroyed when the final designs were selected for production, so the vast majority of this artwork has disappeared.

Roughly 75% of the drawings and other art work produced inside the studios by the talented artists were shredded or destroyed because the companies employing the designers and draftsmen didn’t want the work to fall into the hands of competitors.

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But the drawings in the exhibit, which represents the work of 49 different artists, somehow survived, Edwards said, noting “Almost all of them were smuggled out.”

Few of the era's drawings -- such as Bill Robinson's rendering of a '51 Packard -- survive.

Among the pictures featured in the exhibit is a drawing by Bill Robinson, who began his career as a car stylist at Kaiser-Frazer  Corp. This artwork was done while he was at Briggs Design, which was later purchased by Chrysler Corporation in large part to capture the array of talented designers that Briggs had assembled.

Edwards said the designers interviewed for his film told him managed to save and protect some of the drawings and smuggle them out before they were lost for good.

Salutstro and Edwards, both native Detroiters, have been fascinated by these artists and their artwork and want to share what they’ve discovered. Their forthcoming film features interviews with the designers who helped launched a golden age of automotive design in Detroit that’s recognized around the world.

“We want to shine a bright light into the world of Detroit’s automotive design studios and recognize the artists of this golden age of car design,” Edwards said.

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If you‘re planning to go, “American Dreaming: “Detroit’s Golden Age of Automotive Design,” will be on display until May 2 at Lawrence Technological University. The exhibition will be open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays in the gallery of LTU’s University Technology and Learning Center, 21000 West Ten Mile Road, Southfield. Admission is free.

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3 Responses to “American Dreaming: Exhibit Looks Back at the Golden Age of the U.S. Auto Industry”

  1. Bob Austin says:

    This sounds like a wonderful exhibition on a topic that can pull an audience much wider than the city of Detroit and hard core gear heads. Someone should get this on video complete with as many interviews with any designers who can still talk. It is much tougher to get interviews after they have passed!

    A show interviewing the men who shaped our industry showing the designs that we grew up with would be a fitting subject for the Velocity Channel. Of course to earn a spot there, the director would have to encourage an unrealistic artificial deadline and precipitate a fist fight among the subjects.

    This subject is worthy of preserving for all times.

  2. Jorge says:

    FWIW – The Automotive Hall of Fame located in Dearborn,(next to The Henry Ford Museum), has quite an interesting display on the history of the automobile and the pioneers who made great contributions. Both museums offer a lot of automotive history and incredible displays.

    A smart TV producer could take portions of these displays and the Lawrence Tech’s display to create a lot of interest for the museums and auto industry history of the U.S. It’s extremely interesting IMO.

    BTW – The Velocity channel has a great opportunity if they don’t screw it up with nonsense like shows with fake animosity and crisis to create drama. That stuff appeals to the clueless but there are plenty of intelligent viewers for quality broadcasts.

    It may take someone like Public TV to do a good show/series on the auto industry’s growth. They did a mini series on the power barons of early America including Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie and others and it was riveting.

  3. Jim says:

    The American Dreaming exhibition at LTU is an off-shoot of a documentary film which is in mid-production – expected to be released in 2016. This film includes interviews with the men and women who designed the cars America fell in love with. The film’s website: