Back to the Future

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is currently serving as a very large, upscale parking garage to some of the greatest cars ever manufactured in the United States, and to even a lot that weren’t. Future Retro: The Age of the Great American Automobile will be on display until September 8th. Its theme is the era of engineering and imagination that directly followed World War II. This spirited time inspired a unified country that was aiming to ride forward together into the future in their pimped up vehicles.
Adorning the Cummer walls are drawings from the collection of Frederick A. Sharf, illustrations and preliminary sketches of automobiles that, while they may not have all seen the assembly line, offer a look into the mindset of postwar America. If you are looking for testaments to political correctness, you probably won’t find many at this exhibit–the experience is more Mad Men than passionate feminists–the artistic rendition of the 1951 Ford features a woman sitting in it and applying makeup while leering fuel attendants service the car. The environmental concerns of today were also yet to be realized, as these car creators were obviously more interested in rocket-inspired models of protection, size and speed.
“The illustrations themselves provide us with a glimpse into the actual process of automotive design,” explains guest curator Staci Bushea, “especially in a period of time when there was a lot of free-form, there weren’t a lot of regulations. In postwar America, optimism was in the air after a devastating bombing and such, so, naturally, humans want to move on from that, cover it, start dreaming. So, thinking about the future, things like the Firebird II were a way to get there fast. A lot of these were presented to manufacturers in hopes of going to production with some of these concept drawings.”
In addition to the illustrations, the Cummer will also feature six classic cars chosen by Bill Warner, Founder and Chairman of Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, to further reflect this period. Cars like the Chrysler Turbine and Firebird III are definitely old school, but one can certainly detect the modernism that the creators were attempting to conceptualize in their design. For instance, the 1956 GM Motorola (which never actually hit the streets) looks like it is straight out of Woody Allen’s 1973 movie Sleeper. Alongside the vehicle, a TV presentation of the Motorola loops continuously, and it is interesting to note that they were already envisioning GPS directional devices back then. The humorously outdated commercials alone will be worth the price of admission for nostalgic elders and irony-loving youth.
Some of the artwork depicts vehicles that, in hindsight, seem like silly ideas. A 1947 designed helicopter bus illustrated by Jean Weaver and a livable car with a coffee range in the back by Frederick J. “Bud” Magaldi are a few salient examples. However, apparently nothing was too bizarre for this exhibit until car design entered the 1970s. “Bill (Warner) was focusing more on the fifties and early sixties,” says Bushea. “We weeded out a lot of the things that get into the seventies because it got…a little strange.”