This week marks the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary, if you're not fluent in Latin) of the birth of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. All over the United States, and beyond, celebrations and exhibitions are planned and the architect’s contributions to modern architecture and city planning are once again a lively subject of debate and critical essays.
Wright was not just a great architect and urban planner, he was also a gifted graphic designer, stained glass designer and collector of, and authority on, Japanese Ukiyo-e wood block prints. He fancied himself capable of designing anything, but his arrogance meant that he occasionally wandered far beyond his expertise, and some of his furniture, clothing, and yes, automotive designs, were awkward and showed the limits of his genius.
But Wright was one of the few architects and planners to realise very early on in the 20th century that the car, even in its crude, spidery, pre-1910 form, would transform life in the decades to come. Wright developed some of the first buildings that acknowledged the influence of the car. He realized that the humble petrol station could be a center of travel and community life, and designed a prototype in the late 1920s. His Broadacre City proposal of the 1930s predicted an urban type that spread across the landscape. Although critics have blamed Wright for suburban sprawl, a study of his urban planning ideas show an attempt to harness the energies of the automotive age and integrate them, along with architectural design, agriculture, and industry, and into the broader landscape.
Wright could not have developed these ideas without a love of cars, and he was indeed passionate about motoring – at great speed and recklessness in the flashiest cars available. Over his long life, he owned 85 cars and one motorcycle – a Harley-Davidson, naturally. Wright would buy cars constantly, even when he had no money (or even less). He frequently quoted himself when he explained his philosophy of living, “Take care of the luxuries in life and the necessities will take care of themselves.”
Just a sampling of Wright’s motoring choices showed his love of the expensive and sporty: Cadillacs, Packards, a Cord, several Lincoln Zephyrs, a couple of Jaguars, several Mercedes including a 300SL, an MG, an AC roadster, several Bantam cars, a Land Rover, a few Jeeps, a Hillman Minx, and many others. These were driven not only by Wright’s family but also by apprentices, who paid tuition to come to work at Wright’s estate in Wisconsin and desert camp in Scottsdale, Arizona. A surprising amount of these cars ended up being wrecked at the hands of family and employees, with many injuries and at least one death (Wright’s stepdaughter Svetlana).
The story of this week’s concept car began at an auto show in Chicago in 1939, when Wright happened upon the just-introduced Lincoln Continental convertible. He fell in love instantly and demanded to have one of the first on the road, apparently. But like many Wright stories, fiction and fact have been muddled here. Some say Wright took advantage of an introductory giveaway by Lincoln to prominent Americans to promote the car, others point to archival evidence that the car was actually purchased.
Whatever the truth, Wright loved it so much that he followed up with the purchase of a Continental Coupé in 1941 – a gift for Mrs. Wright. Both Continentals were painted in Mr. Wright’s signature Cherokee Red, and were just getting broken in when war was declared and fuel began to be rationed. The cars were garaged for much of the war years, and then joined the rest of Wright’s ever-changing fleet on the roads in 1946.
It was apparently at that time that the convertible was involved in a road accident as it was being driven by one of Wright’s apprentices (other accounts say a member of Wright’s family was at the wheel). Although the driver, whoever it was, survived relatively unscathed, the car was in need of serious bodywork and mechanical repairs.
Wright, who was never one to let tragedy get in the way of an opportunity, decided to ‘improve’ the design of the car, with the goal of showing the boys at Lincoln how to design a proper luxury vehicle. The car was shipped to Hollywood, along with Wright’s blueprints, and bids were taken from mechanics and coachworks. The mechanicals and some of the bodywork were repaired there, but the car was shipped back to Wisconsin to be modified at a local body shop, whose bids were presumably much cheaper than the well-known coachworks in Hollywood.
At last, Wright’s Lincoln was on the road – a custom design that he arrogantly believed to be the future in luxury motoring. The convertible top went away and a sedanca roof was installed to make it a town car. This half-roof was integrated into the lower body. The rear window was removed (Wright never looked back in life, even in a rear view mirror) and semicircular opera windows were installed at the sides. The line of the roof arched along the same radius as the window, rather than following the roof line set by Lincoln. A removable fabric roof stretched between the red sedanca and the windscreen. Much of the rest of the car was relatively stock Lincoln, with exception of a Wright-designed custom leather interior and a restored Cherokee Red colorway.
Wright proudly displayed the restored car to clients and the press, but they were interested in his architecture, not his cars. There was little interest in the master’s concept car. It was a postwar era, and new automotive design ideas were coming forward. The Wright Lincoln was a curious relic of prewar design.
Another twist to the story was that the famous industrial designer, Raymond Loewy, began driving a custom Lincoln at about the same time, and with a design that looked remarkably like Wright’s Continental. Like Wright, Loewy’s car started as a 1941 Continental convertible, but was customized by a Philadelphia coachbuilder. Like Wright, Loewy installed a sedanca roof integrated with the lower body. Two round opera windows were installed at the sides, with a small rear window. A removable Plexiglas roof was installed between the sedanca and the windscreen.
A more thorough custom bodywork job, including a Studebaker-like nose and sculpted fenders closely integrated with the body, gave the Loewy Lincoln a more integrated, of-a-piece look which Wright’s lacked. And the interior, a Loewy luxury tour de force including gold trim and control knobs, easily outclassed Wright’s efforts. Of course, Loewy had a dream team of designers working for him at the time – among them Virgil Exner, Gordon Buehrig, and Bob Bourke – so the talent lavished on the car was world-class. Wright was out of his league this time, although his car did manage to be more Lincoln-esque – or at least pre-war Lincoln-esque.
But which design was first? Did one copy the other? Was there blatant design plagiarism here? It’s difficult to tell now – both cars appeared within months of each other. It appears the Loewy Continental, which was planned from the day he bought the car in 1941, is the first design and involved more planning and construction. If Wright saw the Loewy design in a magazine or book, perhaps he copied it. But it is entirely possible that both designs emerged independently, as both men loved cars and knew many of the coachbuilding classics of the 1920s and ’30s. In today’s social media environment it could have been the set-up for a classic Twitter smackdown. But there were enormous business opportunities in the postwar USA, and both men were soon buried under a mountain of new work. There wasn’t time to waste on a design spat about personal cars.
Wright would go on to a fabulously productive seventh decade of architectural practice. Loewy had just inked an exclusive design contract with Studebaker and great cars lay ahead, as well as other exciting projects. Lincoln itself would also enter a new era. The marque’s champion Edsel Ford, would tragically die of cancer in 1943, and his father Henry Ford would die in 1947. Eugene “Bob” Gregorie, the design genius (and Edsel’s right hand man), behind the Lincoln Zephyr and Continental would retire in 1946, disenchanted with Ford management, and return to his first love, yacht design.
Interestingly enough, the Lincolns in this story survive. Wright held on to his Continentals until his death and then they changed hands a few times, finally landing in the possession of Hollywood producer Joel Silver. He restored them as closely as possible to the originals and they can be seen at the occasional concours. The Loewy Lincolns (Loewy had a second built, similar to the first) survive, in private collections in Europe. They too appear at the occasional concours. Both sets of cars remain as testaments of the genius of Ford, Gregorie, Loewy and Wright.
You cannot ask for much more than that.