‘Dream Cars’ takes us back to the future


1970 Lancia Stratos Zero

Designer: Marcello Gandini

Fabricator: Gruppo Bertone

Features: This wedge of Italian style was only 33 inches tall, and could drive right under semitrailers. It has no doors; the driver enters the car by raising the windscreen and stepping onto the hood. This stark, angular look would show up later in such high-performance cars as the Lamborghini Countach.

2001 BMW GINA Light Visionary Model

Designer: Christopher Bangle

Features: Distinguished by a body that is made of fabric instead of metal, this two-seater is covered with a virtually seamless skin of polyurethane-coated spandex, stretched over a frame made of aluminum wire. (The GINA stands for "Geometry and Functions in 'N' Adaptations," with N representing a variable from one to infinity.) The skin is waterproof and translucent, and the taillights shine directly through the fabric. (The headlights open like eyelids.)

1935 Bugatti Type 57S Compétition Coupé Aerolithe

Designer: Jean Bugatti and Joseph Waiter

Features: A sensation when it was introduced, the Aerolithe's sweeping lines and low stance suggested grace and speed. The body panels were constructed of Electron, a lightweight magnesium/aluminum alloy that was difficult to weld, so the major panels were riveted together. The concept cars were dismantled and some parts were used to make the follow-up Atlantic, and of the four Atlantics constructed, only three still exist. This Aerolithe was re-created using a surviving frame. The builder obtained sheets of Electron from the manufacturer, which surprisingly was still in business.

1953 Firebird 1, XP-21

Designer: Harley J. Earl, Robert F. "Bob" McLean and the GM styling section staff

Features: The gas-turbine-powered vehicle was a "jet plane for the road." The engine funneled exhaust gases through a power turbine to drive the rear wheels.

The vestigial wings had brake flaps, activated by switches mounted on the steering wheel. The wings were set at a negative angle of attack to ensure that the car didn’t actually lift off. The car was as loud as a jet and the gas temperature at the end of the tailpipe was 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or hot enough to melt the cars behind it.

1942 L’Oeuf Electrique

Designer: Paul Arzens

Features: The kookiest of the cars on display, this vehicle is essentially a Plexiglas sphere mounted on a lightweight three-wheeled aluminum chassis. In postwar Paris, gasoline was rationed, and an electric car was a useful alternative. Designer Paul Arzens was a successful painter who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and also designed locomotives. He designed his "electric egg" for his own personal use, and caused a sensation as he drove around Paris, but the car never went into production, and only one exists.


“Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas”

Opens May 21; runs through Sept. 7. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $19.50; $16.50, students and seniors; $12, ages 6-17; free, 5 and younger. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4400, www.high.org/.

When General Motors debuted its experimental Firebird 1 at the Waldorf-Astoria during the company’s legendary 1954 Motorama, the crowd went nuts.

The Motorama was a sort of a yearly car show-slash-extravaganza, hosted by General Motors from 1949 to 1961 to stoke interest in its new designs, but amid the dancing girls, fashion shows and musical performances at the 1954 event, the Firebird, with its stubby wings, tail fin and F-6 body, stole the show.

It looked like a fighter jet had landed in the Waldorf ballroom.

GM made it clear that the experimental 200 mph car would never go into production, but that didn’t stop customers from fantasizing about buying their own personal road rocket.

“Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas,” which opens May 21, brings 17 such vehicles from across Europe and the U.S. to the High Museum, and the power of fantasy still radiates from these fabulous creations.

The carefully curated show offers deep information on the technical advances epitomized by each model. Sarah Schleuning, the High’s curator of decorative arts and design, uses these concept cars to show the influential role that motor vehicles play in the history of design, and the way science interacts with the marketplace.

But neither science nor commerce can explain the visceral, physical reaction that these cars compel. They represent not just the striving of designers toward a technical vanguard, but toward artistic extremes of beauty and delight.

“I hope the audience will see these automobiles as art,” the High’s director, Michael E. Shapiro, said recently at a preview of the show.

Not a problem.

It is difficult, for example, to imagine a painting as beautiful as the “Gilda,” a Ghia-designed 1955 Chrysler that apparently beat Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder to the punch.

The same could be said of the two-seater 1959 Cadillac Cyclone, a long, low bolt of sex appeal, with twin black cones on the front (called “Dagmars,” after a starlet of the time) that concealed radar apparatus intended to sweep the road ahead for obstacles.

Radar detectors would actually become a consumer product only two years later, but the specs on the forward-looking Cyclone revealed that a beautiful design was frequently coupled with cutting-edge performance.

Or not. The Firebird, for example, had a few problems.

It was as loud as a jet (not popular in residential neighborhoods), and the 1,000-degree exhaust from the turbine engine was likely to melt the bumpers of the cars behind.

Yet consulting curator Ken Gross, who is also author of the luscious hardcover $40 catalog from the show, points out that the concept car designers were not hampered by contemporary concerns for safety, fuel efficiency or the ability to see out the back window. (The Stratos Zero, an absurdly brilliant wedge that is only 33 inches tall, has no back window. Or rearview mirrors.)

Some of the advancements sparked creative adaptation. The Cyclone had a retractable bubble top and an intercom system, so that the driver could communicate with what Schleuning jokingly calls “the hoi polloi” outside, without having to open the full canopy.

But other adaptations were strictly for sensual pleasure. The Timbs, perhaps the most beautiful car in the show, was a one-of-a-kind coupe built in 1947 by automotive designer Norman Timbs for his own personal use. The liquid, flowing body looks like it was sculpted from mercury, and the “Titian red” paint job included speckles of 14-karat gold flake.

This is the second show at the High featuring pimped-out rides. Four years ago, the museum staged “The Allure of the Automobile,” which focused on early examples of automotive elegance. It drew record audiences, including many newcomers, to the museum. The new show, which runs through September, stresses design, and includes a wealth of drawings, models and photos.

The show is about visions of things to come, and the optimistic midcentury view of the future, revealed in the American concept cars of the time, is a particularly charming vision.

As Gross says, “The future was cooler back then.”