This post was re-published with the kind permission of Peter Stevens, one of Britain's most well-known and sought-after automotive and industrial designers. For more of his insights head over to his Facebook page.
There was a great period in architecture and design when people like Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Gabrielle Voisin and Norman Bell Geddes produced both concepts and artifacts that demonstrated how the future would look. The exciting thing was that you could experience that future by embracing their ideas at that moment in time, not waiting 20 years.
‘Streamline Design' was a way of demonstrating how a building or new product was at the leading edge of technology, it signified ‘modern'. In this pre-Second World War period it was not just automobiles and aircraft that exuded modernity and the future, it was buses, railway locomotives, ships and trucks. These days I very seldom see design students' degree shows that feature new concepts for trucks; it is hard to understand why this should be so when there are great opportunities to be truly inventive in the field of commercial vehicles.
In the 1930s the advent of ‘Streamline Design' could be seen as a ‘movement'. That is an almost unspoken but generally agreed philosophical direction of travel for all of the arts from painting and sculpture to graphic and vehicle design. It would be great to imagine that there could be a 21st century movement in design; at one point I thought that the ‘Green' agenda might start a new ‘movement' but the world economic troubles have put profit ahead of new thinking.
It is the job of young designers to challenge current conservative thinking with interesting new machines both from a form and a function viewpoint. Something as large and impressive as a truck is a great place to start.
So what was it that made these now almost-80-year-old vehicles happen and what were their qualities that made them so appealing? Almost every designer looks at these trucks and says "cool"! This streamline movement was supported and advanced by the most prominent designers of the time and their clients were not afraid to take risks with challenging new forms; they saw modernity as a positive message and the streets of America in particular, as the perfect place to capture the public's imagination with their message, saying "The future is here". Google Glasses or an iPhone 7,8 or 9 hardly suggest an optimistic vision of the future now!
It is the clean lines and very different proportions that made these vehicles stand out and the ingenuity in manufacture that made them possible. Norm Holtkamp, a California race team owner had seen the spectacular Mercedes race team transporter that was produced in 1955 and fancied building something similar for himself. He bought an aircraft tow truck and a new Chevy pickup truck cab, found himself a great body fabricator and built the Cheetah transporter for the 1960 racing season.
Mercedes had always been forward thinking with transporting its race cars. Even in 1924, when all grand prix cars were driven to the races, Mercedes realized that it would be much better to have its cars carried on specially converted high-performance touring cars rather than subjecting them to the rough roads of the time.
In the 1930s it built specially designed truck bodies for transporting its racers so that the cars could be seen when being driven through the streets. For 1955 it built one of the most spectacular race-car transporters ever seen, the concept was based on the 300SL high performance ‘Gullwing' sports car and was capable of running at more than 100mph (160kmh).
Rust Heinz, who was heir to the very successful Heinz ‘57' food business, always had a great eye for outrageous design. His ‘Phantom Corsair' coupe, built in 1938, can still be considered one of the outstanding vehicle forms of the 20th century. For the Heinz company he commissioned an equally dynamic design for its delivery vehicles; a spaceship on wheels for transporting tomato ketchup!
Labatt's breweries had a long tradition of using streamline design for their articulated delivery trucks; the tractor and trailer units were integrated designs with red and gold color schemes. It is said that the beer was not so good but the trucks were great, and the vision of this Canadian company was clearly forward looking.
In the early 1930s, futurist Norman Bel Geddes, mentioned before in these pieces, was commissioned by the Texaco oil company to create a futuristic fuel delivery truck; the vehicle was nicknamed ‘The Doodlebug'. Bright red with bold white graphics, it looked fantastic, and was later copied by the ‘British Australian Petroleum' company as a promotional vehicle. The BAP truck lacked the modern proportions of the Bel Geddes original but looks to have caused great interest even in a Sydney side street in the mid 1930s.
In 1941 General Motors built a number of ‘Futurliner' trucks as part of their ‘Parade of Progress' trans-American events. The proportion was ‘strange' and they were apparently very difficult to drive but have now become collectors vehicles; one recently sold at auction for almost 1.5 million dollars.
Chocolate manufacturers, interior designer companies, banks, ice and egg delivery vans, even Coca Cola embraced the new design look, for all of these the future had indeed arrived.