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Vintage Automotive Design

Those high-end design history books won’t tell you, but a great deal of brilliant and fascinating automotive design graphics were produced during the decades prior to Koenig and Krone’s “Think small.” Indeed, contrary to the Henry Ford “…as long as it’s black” myth, American cars as well as their promotion material have had a colorful history from their very beginnings. And this month, Taschen Books has helped repair this oversight by publishing a vividly illustrated—hey, it’s Taschen— and informatively written—hey, it’s Heller!—Automobile Design Graphics.

The enormous bulk of this hefty hardcover belies the relatively modest scale of its subject: the marketing brochure. Typically, they were designed to toss aside once they served their sole product-pushing purpose, so as to make room for next year’s models. Despite their ephemeral nature, Taschen’s indomitable editor Jim Heimann has done due diligence in accumulating a massive number of top-notch examples, often breathtaking in their stylish sophistication.

The introductory texts are surrounded by a spectrum of advertisements and photos such as a Ford assembly line in 1936, a 1947 Oldsmobile showroom, and a vintage portrait of industrial design giant Raymond Loewy. Cultural and car historian Jim Donnelly provides social commentary, from when the working class first “saw the automobile as nothing less than a tool of personal liberation” to a time in which advertising was “tasked with pulling car buyers back to reason when the great wallow in extravagance that reached its zenith in the late 1950s became unseemly.” And of course Steve Heller takes us for a design spin; here’s his startup paragraph: “Lavishly produced, luxuriously designed with stunning full-color gatefolds, tipped-in colored paint chips, and plush upholstery swatches, automotive sales brochures were the V-8s of printing. Designed to spark primal urges, they combined movie-star magazine fantasy with business prospectus functionality. They sold unbridled ingenuity, innovative engineering, and the American dream.”

The book’s subtitled A Visual History from the Golden Age to the Gas Crisis. And each chapter becomes a catalog of classic design forms, from ornate turn-of-the-century Nouveau to stark and simple Sachplakat, from sleek and sumptuous Deco to rugged New Deal realism, and then rocketing into midcentury space age shine.

But in the mid-sixties America was hit with all sorts of rude awakenings. Hey, guess what? Detroit’s dream cars are unsafe-at-any-speed deathtraps! And you know what else? Unregulated, Capitalism-fueled corporations care a helluva lot more about their bottom line than about our safety lane. And with cultural changes, the graceful backdrops and refined fashions we see through most of the book mutated into obtrusive plaid, Pop, and paisley patterning. Plus, teevee commercials had already started driving the brochure toward unplanned obsolescence. But fortunately, we now have Automobile Design Graphics to transport us back to that idyllic, uplifting Shangri-la of four-wheeled fantasies.