From Race Cars to Radios: A Look at Streamlining, 1930s-1940s
By Sara Paulson, World of Speed Associate Archivist
As you look at this scene at Daytona Beach in 1929, can you spot which vehicle is not like the others? The low profile, pointed tail, and rounded front of Henry Segrave’s Golden Arrow stand out when compared to the boxier, more upright cars that brought the throngs of spectators to witness the latest shattering of the world’s land speed record.
In a word, it is the “streamlined” form of Segrave’s car that is so obvious in the photo. But what might this race car have to do with architectural style in the 1930s and early 1940s? That may be less obvious—but worth taking a second look.
This past summer, I attended a tour of industrial buildings in Portland’s inner eastside offered by the Architectural Heritage Center. I came away with an understanding of the Streamline Moderne style of architecture—and a fresh way to appreciate race cars on display at World of Speed.
A popular fascination with speed and the streamlined form, fueled by technological advancements of the Machine Age, influenced the design of all sorts of things in the 1930s and 1940s—from architecture to radios, private passenger cars, sculpture, and even motor oil advertisements. Art Historian and Industrial Designer Donald J. Bush even dubbed the 1930s “the Streamlined Decade.” With an in-depth look into the World of Speed Archive collection, it is easy to see why.
The Machine Age
The period between 1918 and 1941 is often referred to as America’s Machine Age. Among the technological advancements of the time were innovations in transportation and the efficiency of travel. Americans followed with great interest the race cars responsible for the near-constant breaking of land speed records, often multiple times a year. High speed trains, Zeppelin airships, ocean liners, and metal fuselage-airplanes were other vehicles that captured the public’s attention during this time.
Indy 500 programs from the 1930s and early 1940s are full of advertisements that show the extent to which such innovations intrigued the public during the Machine Age. As you scroll through some examples below, consider how advertisers chose to highlight the rounded, streamlined shapes of the vehicles. Also notice the celebration of the role of motorsports in progress of the Machine Age.
Tiolene Motor Oil Advertisement, Indianapolis 500 Program, 1941, page 33, WOS#2729
Lincoln-Zephyr Advertisement, Indianapolis 500 Program, 1937, page 53, WOS#2725
Eastern Air Lines Advertisement, Indianapolis 500 Program, 1938, page 37, WOS#2726
Robert Bosch Magneto Company Inc. Advertisement, Indianapolis 500 Program, 1930, page 53, WOS#2719
Streamlined Race Cars
A quick walk around the gallery at World of Speed is all you need to find evidence of streamlining in early record-breaking cars. Engineers and car designers experimented with the shape of car bodies to give drivers an advantage, creating vehicles that had a very different look from those on the roads.
Scroll through images of racing vehicles from the 1920s and 1930s. As you do, compare the vehicles you see to the 1928 Ford Model A below. Look for design elements of streamlining, such as teardrop shapes, fender skirts, long and low profiles, and sleek and rounded contours.
Examples of streamliner race cars and streamlined motorcycles:
J.G. Parry-Thomas 1927 Babs Model Car, WOS#1206
Frank Lockhart in the Stutz Black Hawk Special, 1928, and Speed Record Holders Collection, Frank Lockhart Folder, WOS#2616
Working Drawing for Stutz Black Hawk Model Car. WOS#1482
Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird, 1929, Land Speed Record Holders Collection, Malcom Campbell Folder, WOS#2616
Eric Fernihough on Motorcycle, 1936, Land Speed Record Holders Collection, Eric Fernihough folder, WOS#2616
John Cobb 1938 Railton Toy Car, WOS#903
The decade following the 1929 stock market crash was one of confusion and uncertainty for many. During the Great Depression, the streamlined form became a symbol of progress and efficiency. Graphic designers, architects, and industrial designers borrowed from the rounded shape of airships, high speed trains, and land speed streamliners of the Machine Age because they understood their power as symbols for optimism and modernity. They also incorporated elements that suggested speed—flat, clean, horizontal lines and zippy, zigzag shapes.
The result was an evolution within the Art Deco style to Streamline Moderne, or Art Moderne as it is sometimes called. The ornate and angular design elements common during the prosperous 1920s gave way to a more austere look involving sleeker forms in the 1930s.
Take, for instance, “Speed,” a sculpture that greeted visitors to the Court of Communications Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The Official Guide Book (WOS# 2955, p. 21) describes the artist’s intent to suggest “the rapidity with which Man’s thoughts may be carried around the world by modern means of communication.” The horse’s rounded chest, the pointed and zig-zagged wings, and the long horizontal lines of the rounded waves are all elements sculptor Joseph E. Renier chose to carry out this theme.
With its airship-shaped cup, the Borg-Warner Trophy is another example of a streamlined design from the 1930s. Automotive supplier Borg-Warner commissioned Robert J. Hill to design the trophy, which has been presented to every Indianapolis 500 winner since 1936.
Programs from the Indianapolis 500 of the 1930s are full of this design imagery. Below are other covers and advertisements that exhibit the streamlined aesthetic.
Indianapolis 500 Program Cover, 1931, WOS#3212
Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Corporation Advertisement, Indianapolis 500 Program, 1931, page 37, WOS#3212
Bendix Aviation Corporation Advertisement, Indianapolis 500 Program, 1932, page 7, WOS#2720
Packard Ignition Cable Set, Indianapolis 500 Program, 1930, page 47, WOS#2719
Architecture and Everyday Items
You might expect to see designs that suggest speed and a celebration of the technological advancements of the Machine Age when looking at Indy 500 covers and advertisements. But architecture?
In the 1930s and 1940s, Streamline Moderne architecture also borrowed influences from the aerodynamic and hydrodynamic engineering feats of the Machine Age to produce buildings with sleek, rounded forms and flat roofs. When there was ornamentation, it was often accomplished with horizontal lines, zigzag details, or other features that suggested motion and speed.
Likewise, industrial designers of everyday products like refrigerators, radios, and furniture also included elements that drew from streamlined forms and the suggestion of speed. Try to identify the characteristics of the Streamline Moderne style as you flip through images of inner Northeast Portland architecture and everyday items.
Portland Bottling Company, 1941, architect Arthur Cramer. (Photo: Sara Paulson, 2018)
Associated Oil Station (Goodwill Donation Center), 1940, builder Ray F. Becker.* (Photo: Sara Paulson, 2018)
Farmers Insurance Northwest Headquarters, 1947, architect Charles W. Ertz.* (Photo: Sara Paulson, 2018)
Sunshine Dairy, 1948, architect Claussen & Claussen*. (Photo: Sara Paulson, 2018)
* Preliminary research has suggested these to be the builders/architects.
Examples of everyday objects and appliances:
S. Karpen & Bros. Advertisement, Indianapolis 500 Program, 1938. WOS# 2726
Norge Refrigerator Advertisement, Indianapolis 500 Program, 1939, p. 87. WOS# 2722
Philco 48-460 Radio, 1940s. WOS# 610
The streamlined aesthetic found its way into everything from radios to gas stations during the 1930s. Does this mean America’s roads were full of cars that could be mistaken for Henry Segrave’s Golden Arrow by 1940? Not exactly.
Competing influences may have muted the impact of industrial designers like Norman Bel Geddes, who developed teardrop-shaped passenger cars and imagined them on city streets. The auto industry was careful not to stray too far too fast from the established styling of familiar production cars or traditional custom classics.
Nevertheless, by the early 1940s streamlining was evident in cars of all price ranges, in styling as well as function. Cars looked different by the end of the 1930s, and they were more fuel efficient and handled better, too. The World of Speed Archive includes materials that document the evolution.
For a glimpse, scroll through the following items. See if you can spot engineering features that might reduce air resistance on the road. Or look for purely aesthetic details that resemble the artwork, advertisements, architecture, or household items that we have seen.
The 20th annual Forest Grove Concours d’ Elegance held in 1992 at Pacific University featured streamliners in an event that celebrated “early aerodynamic cars that changed automotive history.” The event program includes a wealth of information about influential cars, with informative essays and a photograph for each car in the show.
In the 1930s and 1940s, car consumers with the means to commission coachbuilders could get design ideas about their purchase from promotional cards like this one by J.S. Inskip, Inc. Notice the sense of forward movement conveyed by the long graceful curves that rise and fall over the wheels. This card is a good example of how custom cars from this time tended to be lower, longer, and more expressive than their predecessors.
This full-page advertisement for Chrysler Motors features two notably streamlined cars, the Chrysler Airflow (bottom) and its more economical companion model, the DeSoto Airflow (second to bottom). Even compared to other cutting-edge streamlined production cars of the 1930s, the Airflow included significant engineering innovations, achieved with the help of repeated wind-tunnel tests. Some innovations are visible here, such as headlamps that are partially absorbed into the body, fender skirts over the rear wheels, and angled windshields that slope to meet at a point in the center. Despite the “sweeping interest” and an early spike in sales referred to in this ad, the Chrysler Airflow was not an economic success. Production ceased after only three years, in 1937.
General Motor’s Cadillac division introduced a streamlined La Salle in 1934. Different from the Chrysler Airflow, which prioritized engineering, the La Salle made its mark with styling, which included teardrop shapes in its fenders, headlights and taillights. This advertisement highlights the “exquisite artistry of its coachcraft” and the “lithe grace of its streamlined design.”
Introduced two years later than the Chrysler Airflow or the La Salle, the Lincoln Zephyr hit the scene in 1936. This advertisement highlights the fuel economy that was achieved through the car’s reduced air resistance. Ford stylists benefited from the few extra years as they learned how to incorporate aerodynamic engineering principals into graceful designs palatable to a public that was already growing increasingly accustomed to the streamlined aesthetic found around them.
I hope you enjoyed this look into streamlining and its influences by way of sources available at the World of Speed Archive. See below for places to go for more on the topic.
Many thanks to David Oleson, Robert Jordan, and Val Ballestrem at the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland for a great tour and for general guidance about Streamline Moderne architecture.
Bush, Donald. The Streamlined Decade. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1975.
Cobb, John. “The Romance of Record Breaking: The Fight for the Land Speed Record.” Power and Speed: The Story of the Internal Combustion Engine on Land, at Sea and in the Air, 75. Edited by Frederick E. Dean. (World of Speed Archive, Land Speed Record Holders Collection, John Cobb Folder, WOS#2616.)
McCourt, Mark J. “When Art Deco is Really Streamline Moderne, and What it Meant for 1930s Auto Design.” Hemmings Daily Website, May 29, 2014, accessed October 2018, https://www.hemmings.com/blog/2014/05/29/1930s-auto-design-art-deco-and-streamline-moderne.
Robley, Dale. “America’s Big Three Took Different Paths to Streamlining.” Rotary Club of Forest Grove Concours D’Elegance Program, 1992. (World of Speed Archive, WOS#3511.)