ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — Italy has David, Paris has the Mona Lisa and now, Atlanta has the Firebird I XP-21.
Don’t laugh gallery snobs and car-haters: The automobile has vaulted from the streets to the lofty art world.
Even if automobiles aren’t your thing, the Firebird’s bizarre wings and bubble cockpit are worth a peek. It’s among 17 “concept cars” on exhibit at Atlanta, Georgia’s High Museum of Art. Many of these are one-of-a-kind.
When you first walk into the exhibit, it’s clear these cars aren’t designed for mere mortals. Every car has a price, and these are worth millions. But in reality, the unique nature of this collection makes them priceless in a growing market. Collectible car sales last year in the U.S. topped $1 billion.
Money aside, this exhibit really exemplifies America’s long and fiery hot love affair with cars.
These rolling masterpieces were never intended to be mass produced. They were meant to be romanced, idolized, even worshipped.
Concept cars are marketing tools designed to trigger buzz and spur sales. You can be sure the Da Vinci of General Motors — legendary designer Harley Earl — put just as much imagination into his jet-plane-looking Firebird as old Leonardo did with that smirking Mona.
“These have got to be some of the world’s craziest, beautiful cars,” a visitor says to me with a grin as big as the grill-work on a stunning ’51 GM LeSabre XP-8 sitting a few feet away.
Beautiful, yes. Crazy? VERY.
A few examples:
— Not a clown car: The 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero measures only 33 inches from its rooftop to the floor.
— Electric Egg: A tiny electric-powered, plastic, bubble-on-wheels was created in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942.
— Fabric exterior: A 2001 BMW Gina wrinkles when you open its doors.
Parked against a wall in another exhibit room sits a green replica 1935 Bugatti Type 57S. Steampunk fans will dig this elegant machine. It looks like something out of Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
“You can fetishize just about any detail on the Bugatti you like, from the grill to every bolt,” a man standing nearby says to me.
This guy gets it! We’re like kids in a candy store — but nobody’s letting us have any candy.
Instead we’re hypnotized by the cars and their dramatic, sweeping lines and their chrome-spangled cockpits.
Days of future past
These vehicles were designed to look like the future. Take for example the ’59 Cadillac Cyclone XP-74. It stops you cold.
The thing looks like a silver rocket from a 1950s B movie.
And it has futuristic safety features too. A radar-based anti-collision system is tucked inside the Caddy’s cone-shaped so-called “dagmar” headlights.
Two of the exhibit’s creators — Ken Gross and Sarah Schleuning — showed me around a little. “In the past, the future was really cool,” joked Gross, who’s also been Playboy Magazine’s car writer for more than 25 years.
Gross, the exhibit’s guest curator, says these vehicles were imagined and built by designers with one goal: to get attention. Harley Earl’s been dead for 45 years and and he’s still turning heads. That’s called being way ahead of your time. As Gross puts it: “Car designers are the rock stars of the automobile industry and they always have been.”
When it came to car design, Earl pushed the industry to put style as a top priority, says Schleuning, the museum’s curator of decorative arts and design. “It wasn’t just about the cars’ technological marvels, but also about their aesthetic appeal.”
The rolling rocket
The rule breaker — the bad boy of this bunch — Gross says, is the Firebird. This rolling rocket gets its own chamber in the exhibit.
And it’s no wonder.
— It’s the first two-section gas turbine powered car to be built and tested in the U.S.
— It’s one of the first cars with four-wheel disc brakes.
— Its body is made mostly of expensive and super strong titanium.
In 1954 GM toted the Firebird around the country as part of a traveling car show called the Motorama.
The car “was so fast they only had one or two engineers who drove it at the proving grounds,” Gross says. “They used Mauri Rose, who was an Indy 500 winner, to test it — and even he never took it to its full potential.”
It’s been suggested that America’s century-long obsession with driving may die with the aging Baby Boomer generation. Some experts say that Millennials now in their 20s and 30s have little interest in owning cars, although sales among that group shot up in 2012.
The Atlanta museum is by no means the first to celebrate automobile design. Back in 1951, New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibit featuring eight cars described as elegant and exotic. More recently, Gross says, the idea has become a national trend, taking hold in places like Nashville, Tennessee, and Raleigh, North Carolina.
Maybe increased interest within America’s art community will stoke the fire, and keep the romance burning a little longer.