Cars Streamlined To Perfection

The 1938 Dubonnet Xenia is a rocket ship on wheels. In its day, it was the cutting edge of design innovation.

"This is one of the first wrap-around wind screens ever used on an automobile," the car's owner, Peter Mullin, told CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan.

Mullin lent some of the most exquisite examples of streamlined automotive design ever brought together under one roof. The roof happens to be over the Phoenix Art Museum and the exhibit is called "Curves of Steel."

"So here you have a moment in the 1930s, where automotive design is expressed with Space Age materials," Museum director James Ballinger said. "Through advanced thinking, advanced mechanisms. It's kind of a 'hope for the future,' if you will."

A future that didn't remind people of the economic depression they were struggling through.

"What was the Depression but economic drag," said Phil Patton, an author who has written extensively about cars and helped organize this exhibit. "And therefore, this idea of streamlining as a kind of salesman, a physical way to cut through the drag — to get the country moving again."

To wipe away the tears of the Depression, designers looked to the teardrop — the shape thought to be the most aerodynamic. America's first major attempt at a streamlined car was the Chrysler Airflow.

"The front of it looked like an accountant with a big, bushy '20s mustache," Patton said. "It was not an effectual-looking creature"

Nor did it sell well. Then came the Lincoln Zephyr, the type of car architect Frank Lloyd Wright drove around Phoenix. It had a front grille that seemed to part the waves of whatever lay ahead.

"This was no longer the frumpy accountant," Patton said. "This was a bold captain arching forth onto the seas of life."

Classic Cars In The "Curves Of Steel" Exhibit
Streamlined design is when the world started to think out of the box, into a universe where speed and efficiency mattered.

"This was a way of saying, 'Things are gonna move faster. This device is designed better. So you'll finish that typing more quickly. You'll get that vacuuming done. You will even toast that toast faster.'"

"Streamlining evoked ideas of progress," said Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design at the Museum. "Streamlining as a concept spread to all areas of design, and it was used as a marketing tool."

Radios, shoes, gowns and even an ad for the powder for a woman's face claimed that it had been wind-tunnel tested and streamlined. Undergarments were also made to lay smoothly beneath a woman's clothes. From the underwear on up, sleek and sexy sold.

The same idea applied to cars. The 1939 Delahaye Type 165 was designed to have a sloped rear end. It represented France at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, but what a trip it has taken since.

"We found it actually in Fresno, Calif.," said Mullin, "behind a tow truck operator's building. His kids were using it as a kind of a fort to have, you know, mud fights in it."

It took seven years to bring the car back to life, complete with its recessed door handles and Lalique entry lights.

It's easy to see the art in the Talbot Lago design, and why some people call it the most beautiful convertible in the world — or why so many adore the 1937 Delage, which looks just as stunning from the side as it does from above.

Then there are the not-so-usual designs: the Tatra from Former Czechoslovakia, which has a fin like an airplane and the face that looks like that of the Volkswagen Beetle. Speaking of Beetles, how about a car named after a sacred beetle: The Stout Scarab, the great-grandfather of today's minivan.

Seeing these cars in a museum is beautiful, but to see them come at you through a mirage on a long, lonely highway is sublime. Sreenivasan caught this 1935 Auburn along with dozens of other beautiful cars on the Copperstate 1000, a road rally sponsored by the Phoenix Art Museum across some of the most beautiful sections of Arizona.

It took Dale Lillard's father 10 years of full-time work to restore his car, milling parts from scratch when none could be found. It is restored all the way down to the working radio.

"I think the '30s are clearly the best years," he said.

Actor and car enthusiast Edward Herrmann demonstrated a 1953 Hudson Hornet.

"This is a marvelous car," he said. "It's very simple; there are no electronics, no chips, no computers; it's all mechanical."

Simple and sublime — whether it be a car from the '30s, '50s or today, the line from a teardrop still streaks across time.

"At the very best of these vehicles, there is a music to the curves and the way they play with each other," Patton said. "And of course, to imagine ourselves driving in them in control of such a world where the thing that works well is the thing that is also beautiful, fast and efficient. It's a dream of how we want to live our lives."