Time Travel

A road trip through form, function and the evolution of car design at the Murphy Auto Museum.

By Mark Storer

Photo by Mike Baker

The tail fin of a red 1959 Cadillac. Outlandishly tall for the time, it gave the car the appearance of being airborne, and became a hallmark of American auto design.


n the beginning, cars were void, without form. At least, that’s how David Neel sees it. The director of the Murphy Auto Museum in Oxnard talked through a history of the car as design prophecy — or not — from age to age. The museum houses about 90 cars from different eras, all privately owned, all with a story to tell that is both harbinger and, at times, “full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth.)

The way Neel tells it, artistic vision slipped in and out of auto making, only fully grasping a generation between the 1950s and 1960s. Until then and after then, it’s been a moving target.

We gaze at a replica of a 1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout. “It’s almost steampunkish,” said Neel. “It’s a mid-engine car that looks like a horse-carriage and runs on gasoline and kerosene. It went from San Francisco to New York in 1903 on unimproved roads and kerosene was available everywhere and gasoline wasn’t.”

Cars were practical vehicles, resembling closely the thing they were replacing, the horse-drawn carriage. But as the new century opened and the combustion engine began to displace livestock en masse, car designers reached for the very goal that eluded their predecessors: stability. And in the cars of the 1910-30s, which somehow began to look like a cross between the carriage and a steam train engine, they supplanted the horse. No frills were to be found; the first vehicles were starless and Bible black. Over time, they yielded but little, giving way to (still dark) browns, grays and blues. Their leather interiors — a keepsake of an earlier, necessary material luxury — were simply what everyone expected.

“Cars only slightly evolved in this time,” Neel said. “The Model T is really the one that started anything like a modern era.”

But Ford’s real contribution was the assembly line that built the car, rather than the car itself. The Model T, produced between 1908 and 1927, only changed slightly, to include a sort of pickup truck version. Later, Ford turned to the Model A. As the Great Depression began, automobile manufacturers designed and made cars for people with money, and there weren’t too many of those.

It’s not until after World War II that design becomes a key feature in auto-making. Like the rebirth of the country, having come out of the dark clouds of two world wars victorious, optimism took hold where before only fear, conservatism and a guarded sense of survival reigned. “Nobody made cars during the war,” Neel said. “The government wanted industrial manufacturing to turn to planes and bullets and the rest. There was nothing until about 1946 and it wasn’t until 1947 that it really picked up.”

In this era, Packard was the reigning king of autos.

“The Packard Clipper was the very first new design to come out,” said Neel. “There’s a little bit of Art Deco in these designs, so they’re still using cues from pre-war times, but they understand engines better and there were a lot of car makers around.”

Steel was plentiful, money was available and designers looked to the future. Looking at a 1949 Cadillac with its massive front-end, two-toned paint and sleek lines, it’s easy to see that optimism had taken the place of war-weary fear. Comfort and luxury were then primary considerations while utility went into the trunk, to make room for soft seating, legroom and ceiling clearance.

Neel lights up as we head into the 1950s. “The Cold War is now part of our thinking,” he said. “So the cues in the car are atomic and aircraft looking.”

Neel points to a Lincoln Capri from 1956. Turquoise with a white hardtop, he opens the driver’s door. “The switches in here, up on the ceiling and on the dash, are all of the atomic age. We’re building nuclear bombs and sending satellites into space and the cars reflected that,” he said.

It was a new time of fear but unlike WWII, with its shortages and doom around every corner, U.S. automakers acted with confidence, making long and large cars that were family friendly even as they resembled aircraft, missiles and rockets.

From 1950 through the Kennedy era, tail fins became the hallmark of American cars. Big windows, large fins, but an otherwise minimalist design.

“After 1959, tail fins were still around, but they were toning down,” said Neel.

Looking at a red Cadillac convertible from that year, the long, tall fins make the car appear airborne. According to Neel, the chief designer thought the fins were too tall, but the design team liked them and tricked the chief by raising the fin on one side, so that when he returned to see what they’d done, he chose the shorter of the two — the original tail fin. It stayed a part of this magnificence of splendid, stylish beauty.

Neel’s favorite era (and the one in which he has concentrated his own purchases) is the mid 1960s. It’s easy to see why: The atomic era and its sense of optimism was giving way to the car as art form, as a rallying point that proved freedom was the ultimate art, self-expression its master brush stroke. “My favorite car is the Studebaker and we have a few of them here.”

By the 1960s, after several brushes with industrial death and the first government bailout of a car company by Congress during the Eisenhower administration, Sherwood Egbert, the company’s president, hired Raymond Loewy, the famed industrial designer, to shake up the basics and put Studebaker in the lead. Loewy designed the Coke bottle and the Air Force One livery as well as locomotives for the Pennsylvania Railroad. For Studebaker, he designed the Avanti. Three of them, from 1963 and 1964, blue, gold and white, sit abreast each other at the museum.

“There’s a lot going on with this car based on where America was at the time,” Neel explained.

The space race was real; President Kennedy made the announcement that the U.S. would put a man on the moon within the decade. The Avanti memorialized that.

“The wheel wells are elliptical instead of round,” Neel pointed out. “Loewy wanted it to appear as a satellite would.” Loewy also didn’t want a grill on the front of the car. “He said that grills were for sewers, so he got rid of it.” The Avanti is all panel and headlights, like a flying saucer, and the air intake is underneath the car, not visible from the front. It sits low to the ground and the design is all fiberglass with features on the body leading directly to the inside of the car. “They’d intended to sell about 20,000 of these a year,” Neel noted. “But they ended up selling about 5,000. So each of these is practically hand-built.”

As the late 1960s dawn, size matters. Neel showed me a 1968 Chrysler Newport station wagon that he owns. “The cars started to take a modern look to them and of course, they’re enormous. They had factory-installed air conditioning and woodgrain side paneling and custom wheel rims.”

It sat nine people and had a luggage rack. It could hold what you needed it to hold and had enough room to be comfortable for the long haul over the country’s new interstate highway system. This was the way forward. The station wagon offered certainty after the turmoil of the 1960s. The road ahead was unclear, but it was a road after all — and it would need a car to take us there.

The tumultuous 1960s gave way to the uncertain 1970s and one could be forgiven for thinking American car makers went into idle. Muscle cars were popular, gas-guzzling and powerful vehicles that resembled what most viewed as American might. But the dark clouds of 40 years earlier were returning and while Detroit fiddled, the U.S. auto market burned. Gas prices went up and fuel was being rationed. Japan in its post-war attempt to reinvent itself was competing in the American car market with smaller, more reliable, more efficient cars. Datsun, Toyota and Honda were becoming household names. Their competition wasn’t tough, either. AMC’s Gremlin, Ford’s Pinto and Chevy’s Monza, among others, simply couldn’t keep up. By the 1980s, Detroit had gone from the richest city in America to one of its poorest as automakers shuttered their plants.

“The U.S. automakers are making trucks, now. Trucks and SUVs. There’s nothing new about design anymore,” said Neel.

It’s too early to know how cars like Tesla will be received into the mass market. For now, it’s a curiosity and a popular one, but still one that the market can’t quite afford without government subsidies.

What’s old appears to be new again as the auto world goes global. Aside from trucks, the Big Three are re-making the Ford Mustang, the Chevy Camaro and Corvette and the Dodge Charger and Challenger. They’re popular models, to be sure . . . but they’re not new. As the world struggles with whether or not “green energy” is ready for prime time, the future is uncertain again. It’s anybody’s guess where to go from here.

Murphy Auto Museum
2230 Statham Blvd., Oxnard

David Neel, car enthusiast and owner/director of the Murphy Auto Museum in Oxnard. 

A trio of Studebaker Avantis, from 1963 and 1964, in blue, gold and white. The famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy paid homage to the Space Age with elliptical wheel wells, no grill and a body low to the ground, evoking the feel of a flying saucer. 

1961 pink Cadillac, designed with comfort and luxury in mind . . . and so stylish that it inspired Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” more than two decades later. 

1968 Chrysler Newport Town & Country station wagon. Large enough to hold lots of people (and their luggage), it was the perfect vehicle for families making the long haul over the new interstate highway system.


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