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Bendix, Hoffman, Stout prototypes lead Portland museum’s streamliners exhibit

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Stout Scarab. Photos courtesy Portland Art Museum, except where noted.

The advent of streamlining not only enabled car designers to radically experiment with both the style and substance of the automobile, it practically encouraged them to go nuts. Fitting, then, that three of the most experimental takes on the automobile’s form from that period will highlight an upcoming exhibition of the streamlining era’s most provocative cars.

While the format and the location of the Portland Art Museum’s “The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930-1942” resembles prior autos-in-art-museum exhibits curated by renowned automotive journalist Ken Gross, Gross said the streamlining theme is brand new. “This is a substantially different show in terms of cars,” he said. “It’s fun to change ‘em up.”

As David Rand wrote in the exhibition catalogue, streamlined and aerodynamic cars aren’t necessarily one and the same: “While (streamlined) cars embraced the appearance of aerodynamics, in most cases there was little reality behind this effort, despite there having been attempts to optimize vehicle aerodynamics going back to the beginning of the century.” Among those earliest attempts to cheat the wind were racing machines designed to break the land-speed record, Barney Oldfield’s Golden Submarine, Edmund Rumpler’s Tropfenwagen, and Paul Jaray’s patented designs.

Streamlining as a matter of aesthetics, however, came on strong by the early 1930s as industrial designers rose to prominence and as automakers began to pay more attention to the automobile’s form rather than just its function. GM’s recently established Art and Colour design department showcased the Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe at the 1933 Century of Progress in Chicago, Pierce-Arrow debuted the Silver Arrow at the same time, Chrysler introduced the Airflow a year later, and Ford’s consideration of John Tjaarda’s rear-engine Briggs prototype from the first part of the decade later led to the sleek Lincoln Zephyr. Over in Europe, Hans Ledwinka adopted Jaray’s patents when designing the 1934 Tatra T77.

Against that background and unbound by traditional notions of automobile construction, three independent designers – Alfred Ney, Rod Hoffman, and William Bushnell Stout – set out to essentially reinvent the automobile.

Ney, an engineer who had worked at Packard in the Twenties, found himself tasked by his employers at Bendix with designing a car that Bendix could license to other manufacturers and for which in turn Bendix could serve as primary parts supplier. Ney’s brief: Make it radical and incorporate all the latest automotive technology from front-wheel drive to unitized construction.

While he and his team ran out of time to implement the latter, he designed the car around the former using a modified longitudinal Continental straight-six engine, front-mounted three-speed transaxle, and conventional U-joints. Bendix set Ney up in a dummy company, the Steel Wheel Corporation, for secrecy, and Ney in turn had former Fleetwood designer William Ortwig style the slopeback suicide-door sedan. After Ney’s team finished the car in 1934, Bendix sent it on a European carmaker tour, cut short by mechanical problems. As David LaChance wrote in the October 2008 issue of Hemmings Classic Car, the SWC prototype also cut short company founder Vincent Bendix’s career after GM, one of the company’s major stockholders, discovered the secret project. The SWC today resides in the collection of the Studebaker National Museum.

Hoffman was just as secretive about his automobile project of the mid-Thirties. He set up shop in 1934 in Detroit to build a streamlined and unitized car. Well known among the leading car designers and executives of the day, Hoffman already built a pair of front-wheel-drive cars with more or less conventional styling in the late 1920s but by 1931 became convinced that a car should have its engine in the rear, driving the rear wheels.

Thus he secured backing – he never disclosed who exactly funded the project – and set about building a rear-mid-engine four-door sedan using a water-cooled overhead-valve X-8 engine of his own design and construction. And that’s apparently where the story ends. Hoffman later gave the completed and running car to Brooks Stevens for his museum, and the Stevens family later sold it to collector Myron Stevens Vernis, who has said the most likely explanation for the car’s existence is that the Fisher brothers, eyeing a purchase of Hudson, had Hoffman design what would become Hudson’s signature car, should the purchase go through; Hoffman in turn contracted with Budd to build the only prototype.

While Ney and Hoffman might have been captivated by the possibilities of streamlining, Stout actually had bona fides in aerodynamics as an aircraft engineer and constructor. In about 1932, he turned his eye to automobiles and designed what would become the limited-production Stout Scarab, a vehicle often referred to as the first real minivan.

More for packaging than any other reason, Stout chose a rear-engine rear-wheel drive configuration that allowed maximum interior room and thus an endless number of interior layouts using repositionable seating. The Ford flathead V-8 engine was conventional, though its steel space-frame construction was not. Stout began to produce the Scarabs in 1934 and sold as many as nine of the vehicles, all slightly different from one another, over the next five years. The exhibit’s example, a 1936 model, belongs to Ron Schneider of Milwaukee.

In addition to the above prototypes,the streamlining exhibit will include the 1937 Airomobile, a Tatra T77a, a Cord 812SC sedan, a Zephyr, an Imperial Airflow, a Mercedes-Benz 540K Stromlinienwagen, a sharknose Graham-Paige, a Chrysler Thunderbolt, a number of coachbuilt European cars, and a pair of motorcycles. Gross wrote that the selection “demonstrates how auto designers worldwide translated the concept of increased aerodynamic efficiency into exciting machines that, in many cases, looked as though they were moving while at rest.”

Gross has previously curated “The Allure of the Automobile,” “Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles,” “Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas,” and “Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance, 1945-1975” exhibits at a number of art museums across the country.

“The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930-1942” will open June 16 and run through September 16. For more information on the exhibit, visit