What is an art deco car?

Image Gallery: Classic Cars The cars of the Art Deco era featured swooping fenders, long hoods, and highly streamlined shapes. See more pictures of classic cars.
©iStockphoto.com/Scott Hirko

Art Deco was an artistic movement that dominated nearly every form of creative expression in the period between World War I and World War II. From the Chrysler Building to furniture to paintings and advertisements, Art Deco brought about a new era of style that combined extravagance with simplicity and functionality.

That design language extended to automobiles as well, particularly the ultra-expensive cars from Europe in the 1930s. While much of the world suffered through the Great Depression, there remained a class of people untouched by a struggling economy and they demanded their automobiles -- still a relatively rare and expensive thing to own at the time -- have a level of opulence that reflected the spirit of the times.


Fortunately for them, that decade was one where car companies like Delahaye, Delage, Talbot-Lago, Voisin and Bugatti existed specifically to produce incredible machines that average people could only dream of owning. And coachbuilders like Chapron, Figoni et Falaschi, Gangloff, Vanvooren and others were there to produce stunning bodies for those cars that are considered inspiring even today [source: Garrett].

The cars of the Art Deco era featured swooping fenders, long hoods, and highly streamlined shapes. Unlike the cars of today, they weren't just about simple transportation -- they were about making bold statements and high style. These styling cues spilled over to more affordable American cars as well, like the now-famous Chrysler Airflow.

In this article we'll journey back to an extravagant and optimistic time when outrageous cars ruled the world. We'll learn about the Art Deco movement, the impact it had on automobiles, and where some of the most eye-catching cars of all time are today.


What is art deco?

This is the 1948 Tasco automobile prototype. Only one of these cars was ever built. The design borrowed many ideas from airplanes at the time.
©iStockphoto.com/Nancy Nehring

Before we learn about Art Deco cars, let's learn about the artistic movement itself. The term refers to the stylistic changes that occurred to nearly every visual medium -- paintings, architecture, and even appliances -- in the period between the two world wars and a number of years after.

The movement originated in Paris and was an outgrowth of the previous Art Nouveau style, which was popular around the turn of the 20th century and was characterized by excessive decorations, organic motifs of flowers and plants and highly stylized curved forms.


When it emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco represented a simplified version of Art Nouveau styling. These designs had distinct geometric shapes, clean lines, bright colors and were very streamlined. Art Deco designs are visually striking but simplistic. It tended to characterize luxury goods, a response to the austerity brought on by World War I and in-line with the excesses of the roaring '20s. They also incorporated motifs from ancient cultures like Egypt and the Aztec empire.

Since the interwar period was a time of tremendous urban growth, Art Deco designs characterize many famous buildings, including the Empire State Building, the Radio City Music Hall and the Chrysler Building in New York City. Los Angeles and Miami sport countless examples of Art Deco as well -- it was extremely popular during the era of "Old Hollywood."

Art Deco furniture was aimed at the high luxury market and was characterized by rounded shapes, simplistic designs, and high-quality woods, metals and leathers. They were designed to be both modern and functional.

The Art Deco style began its decline in the 1940s as the world once again went to war and the aesthetic changed, but its influences continued through the decade. In addition, there have been several attempts at its revival and it continues to capture imaginations today.

On the next page, we'll look at Art Deco's influence on automobiles and see some of the most famous Art Deco cars.


What were the art deco cars?

Many of the Art Deco era cars were like land-going yachts for the very rich, so they featured massive engines, swooping fenders, big round headlights and lots of chrome.
©iStockphoto.com/Anna Lisa Yoder

Art Deco became popular in the 1920s and 1930s because of its simple yet grand expressions of style. The automobiles of that era were no different -- they were exciting and sexy, not meant to be just ordinary transportation.

Vehicles today classified as Art Deco cars were often two-door coupes and roadsters with long hoods and small, rounded-off trunks. They featured long, swooping fenders over the wheels, round headlights and lots of chrome. Another important design characteristic was streamlining -- cars with smooth, sleek curves that appeared to be speeding, even when standing still.


They hail from the era of coach building -- a process where one company, like Bugatti, would make a naked chassis and engine and another company would custom-design and build the surrounding body and interior to the owner's exact specifications.

Some great examples of Art Deco cars were the high-end ones made in France, the home of the artistic movement. Many of these cars were like land-going yachts for the very rich, so they featured massive engines. They include the Hispano-Suiza J12 Cabriolet, which had a 9.0-liter 12-cylinder aircraft-based engine, the Delahaye 165 convertible -- which also packed a V-12 and the Delage D8-120 Cabriolet, which cost $200,000 at a time when an average American home cost about $3,800 [source: Garrett].

But Art Deco cars weren't limited to just hyper-luxury. Eventually, the movement began inspiring the bodywork on more affordable cars. The Chrysler Airflow was designed with this style in mind; it featured a flowing shape with rounded fenders and a curved "waterfall" grille. While sales of the car weren't very successful -- the exotic styling may have been a little to ostentatious for average buyers -- the car today is considered a design classic.

Up next, we'll look at modern Art Deco cars and see where many of the classics ended up.


Where are the art deco cars today?

Today, cars from the Art Deco era can command extremely high premiums at auctions if they're confirmed to be the real thing and are in excellent shape.
©iStockphoto.com/Jason Ganser

Art Deco was an influential style during the 1920s and 1930s, but styles change and evolve, so Art Deco cars didn't stick around forever. Styling moved away from the glamorous and gregarious and towards more conservative designs as the decades went on. As for the cars themselves, they have become incredibly rare today; after all, many of the Bugattis and Delahayes were made in limited numbers in their heyday. Also, many of the vehicles and their manufacturers did not survive World War II.

Today, cars from that era can command extremely high premiums at auctions if they're confirmed to be the real thing and are in excellent shape. In 2008, a 1937 Bugatti 57SC went for nearly $8 million at auction.


Many of the surviving cars from the Art Deco era now call museums home. One of the premier museums is the Mullin Automotive Museum, whose mission is to celebrate the French cars of the 1930s. The collection was assembled by Peter Mullin, a Los Angeles businessman, and features some of the cars and motorcycles owned by former Los Angeles Times publisher and auto enthusiast Otis Chandler.

Mullin's museum, located in Oxnard, Calif., includes a 1934 Voisin C27 Grand Sport Cabriolet once owned by the Shah of Persia, a restored 1938 Delahaye 165 convertible and a gorgeous burgundy 1938 Talbot-Lago T150C SS Speciale Teardrop Coupe.

In some ways, forms of Art Deco styling exist today. The Bugatti Veyron supercar has the curves and eye-catching design of its predecessors, but those details are mainly there to help the car achieve 200-mile per hour (321.9-kilometer per hour) speeds.

In addition, recent cars like the Chrysler PT Cruiser have styling cues that harken back to the Art Deco years. They aren't nearly extravagant as those cars, however. The era of opulence responsible for the vehicles that left the factories of Delahaye and Panhard is likely gone forever.

For more information about art deco cars and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


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More Great Links

  • Art Deco and Modernism Society. "What is Art Deco?" (March 10, 2011)http://www.artdeco.org.au/artdeco_pages/artdeco_whatis.html
  • Furniture Styles. "French Art Deco Furniture." (March 10, 2011)http://www.furniturestyles.net/european/french/art-deco.html
  • Garrett, Jerry. "A California Museum Celebrating French Art Deco Cars." The New York Times. April 21, 2010. (March 10, 2011)http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/21/in-california-a-new-museum-to-celebrate-french-cars-of-the-art-deco-era/
  • Louisville Art Deco. "Car designs shift to streamlining." (March 10, 2011)http://www.louisvilleartdeco.com/feature/Transportation/Cars/Cars-index.html
  • Luxury Insider. "From Supercar to Dream Car: The Fine Art of Coachbuilding." (March 11, 2011)http://www.luxury-insider.com/features/2007/the-fine-art-of-coachbuilding/
  • Mullin Automotive Museum. "The Collection." (March 11, 2011)http://www.mullinautomotivemuseum.com/the-collection.html
  • Oaktown Art. "What is Art Deco?" (March 10, 2011)http://oaktownart.com/2010/03/08/what-is-art-deco/