Story and Photos Mike Spicer
An amazing exhibit called “The Shape of Speed” (Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930 – 1942) was assembled by Ken Gross for the Portland Oregon Art Museum in 2018. It captured the marriage between design and aerodynamic functionality during those years and displayed several ingenious approaches.
While Ken is no stranger to curating car exhibits all over the world, this one had an exceptionally interesting theme focusing on streamlined vehicles. The range from small people movers to custom bodied luxury cars was wide, but the goal was the same.
“I am particularly fond of streamlined, Art Deco automobiles.Those swoopy, fantastic shapes have never lost their appeal”
– Ken Gross
To fly, you first have to understand the flow of air over surfaces. The first enclosed wind tunnel invented in 1871 began educating engineers on these concepts. The Wright brother’s successful flying machine (1904-5) and the development of military aircraft during WWI (1914-18) saw great advancements using the wind tunnel.
The cars in this exhibit were heavily influenced by aviation of the time, many design elements were copied directly. Recessing door handles into the body was a great way to reduce drag and can be seen on a few examples.
As styles evolved designers and engineers were tasked with the balance of making cars aesthetically pleasing while incorporating technological theories of the day. Some of the designs lean toward favoring one over the other.
Society’s ability to adopt new concepts is a bit of a gamble. Making an automobile advanced enough to be the “next great thing” while keeping the general public engaged is always a balance.