SHAPE OF SPEED
People passing by the Portland Art Museum last week were treated to the sight of vintage automobiles being unloaded from huge moving vans and pushed or driven through the portals of the museum.
One especially heart-stopping moment came when a sleek, black 1942 Alpha Romeo Bertone Berlina came down the ramp, all sensuous curves and gleaming metal.
Ken Gross took the driver's seat, and the car started with a throaty growl that echoed up and down the street. He drove the sporty vehicle to the door of the museum, where a crew pushed it inside to its display area.
Gross is the guest curator of the Portland Art Museum's "The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930-1942," featuring rare vehicles, an exhibit that opens June 16 and stays through Sept. 16.
The 17 cars and two motorcycles are on loan from private collectors or car museums all over the United States and Canada, Germany and Italy.
Function becomes beautiful
Gross has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years and has curated museum exhibitions across the United States, including "The Allure of the Automobile" at the Portland Art Museum in 2011.
For those who wonder why cars are on display at an art museum, Gross says that cars have been described as "hollow, rolling sculptures."
He notes that throughout history, items that may have begun their lives as functional have become celebrated for their beauty.
The vehicles at PAM also represent a watershed moment in history, when the entire automotive industry switched to making military trucks, tanks and airplanes.
Gross adds, "I wonder what cars would have been like if World War II hadn't intervened."
After the success of the museum's 2011 automobile exhibit, Brian Ferriso, the Marilyn H. and Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. director and chief curator, began to explore ways to bring that excitement back to Portland.
He ultimately decided that "industrial design is an incredibly profound entry point" to an art exhibit since it breaks down the intimidation factor inherent to a museum.
That these cars are beautiful is undeniable, he says, and the type of "elevated aesthetic" plays in to the desire for a "civilized, humane world."
In his forward to "The Shape of Speed" book, Ferriso talks about "connecting people with their passions and helping people connect to art in a different way," says Ian Gillingham, the museum's press and publications manager.
People who have never thought of themselves as car lovers are going to appreciate this exhibit, Gillingham adds.
Cars in the spotlight
One vehicle that Gillingham particularly likes is the 1936 sky blue Scout Scarab, which he describes as the prototype for the first minivan.
"It was designed for the family on the road, with configurable furniture and a table," he says.
Sadly, the Scout Scarab proved too expensive to produce, and it is believed only six were ever made; this one is owned by a car collector in Wisconsin.
One of Gross's favorites is the 1935 metallic green Bugatti type 57 Aerolithe, which has a futuristic sleekness.
"It was the hit of the 1935 Paris and London salons," he says, noting that the car never went into production and all examples were lost around the time of World War II.
A restorer from Canada acquired the oldest chassis of the prototype and re-created the car using digitized images as a guide, Gross says.
The body was made using an aluminum-magnesium alloy, which is flammable and impossible to weld, and so the car's body was riveted together. This vehicle is owned by a car collector in Virginia.
There is one locally owned vehicle in the exhibit: Portland-metro area resident Alan Johnson's dark green 1937 Lincoln Zephyr coupe.
He found the car in a barn in Southern Oregon, did all the mechanical restoration on the car, and then had it repainted to its original color of evergreen poly-flake.
Last year, the Lincoln Zephyr coupe was on display at the Greater Portland Concours d'Elegance Car Show in Forest Grove when someone with connections to the Portland Art Museum saw it. That led to an invitation to be part of the upcoming exhibit.
"I knew I had a rare car, but I'm not a guy who travels in art museum circles. I grew up with a wrench in my hand; I'm a car mechanic," Johnson says.
'The real deal'
Gross thinks "the automobile is the most important invention of the 20th century; it linked the world and it represents individual freedom."
He describes the vehicles in the Portland Art Museum exhibit as "celebrating the most beautiful examples of cars from 1930 to 1942."
Also, he notes, every car has a story, which is why his lecture at 2 p.m. June 17 is titled "Behind the Headlights."
Johnson adds that people should visit the exhibit because "you may have seen photos of these cars, but these are the real deal."