New York, April, 1952. Grand Central Palace.
The old building is a creaking Beaux-Arts dowager, showing its age – but for today, at least, looking resplendent in the bunting, greenery, decorations, and of course, glistening cars, that all come with the annual International Motor Show.
Heads turn as a glamorous couple enters. He is, in Hollywood terms, tall dark and handsome, and she is stunning with her raven hair and statuesque figure.
The crowd parts for the handsome couple as they are escorted to the Packard stand, where the new Packard concept car, the Pan-American has just won the Best-in-Show trophy. Packard executives are all smiles as they accept the trophy form the Chairman of the event, and also, the Queen of the Show, Miss Shirley Talbott.
Handshakes all around, waves to the crowd. Miss Talbott and the glamorous raven-haired beauty exchange smiles – they know each other from the modelling circuit in the city.
The crowd is introduced to the glamorous couple. Some already know them from the society or gossip ages: Mr. Richard Arbib, Designer and Man about Town, and Miss Bettie Page, ‘Fashion Model’, though she is better known for what she doesn’t wear, rather than what she does.
The Packard was the automotive statement from Richard Arbib, a signal that he had arrived in New York and beyond. Even GM would take notice and offer him a senior position. But Arbib, his muse Bettie Page, and even Miss Talbott had dreams of their own…
The Pan-American Mad Man
Richard Arbib was a designer and illustrator educated at Pratt Institute, who broke into automotive design by securing a position at GM’s styling studios under the direction of Harley Earl. There he excelled at executing Earl’s distinctive design and presentation style. He was almost certainly on that fateful trip to the airport to see the P-38 prototype (he would later design his own variant of the plane).
After World War II began, he accepted a position at Republic Aircraft designing military hardware and planes through the war. Then Earl hired him back, not at GM, but a leader of his own design studio, which GM had allowed him to establish to work on non-automotive projects.
Arbib took the lead design role in one of Earl’s most ambitious projects of the time, the Detroit Jetway, a futuristic racetrack with jet-powered cars.
As before the war, Arbib seemed destined for leadership, but in 1949 he abruptly left and returned to New York. There was whispered talk of broken marriages (two) and secret girlfriends, and a restlessness for something beyond the Midwestern world of Detroit.
New York seemed to provide what Arbib wanted, and the mid-century Mad Men life seemed more suited to his restless temperament. Soon he would be working with Madison Avenue types, and dating glamorous young ladies. Bettie Page would be one of these lovelies, herself a recent transplant from the West Coast, fleeing an abusive marriage and determined to create a name for herself in the Big Apple.
Arbib would open his own office and secure advertising and illustration work, as well as design work with Packard and their coach builder, Henney Corporation. He would spend the next few years designing ambulances, limousines and various coaches, all the while contributing ideas to Packard production vehicles.
So when Packard needed a concept car to generate renewed interest in the brand, they did not have to go far to find a designer.
The Pan-American was based on a 1952 Packard 250 Convertible, but altered almost beyond recognition. It had been chopped at windscreen, sectioned and channelled at the body and lowered on the chassis. The chrome was stripped off and a continental kit was added.
Henney and Packard described the car as “a sports car”, but show attendees and the press knew better. This was a personal luxury car in the Harley Earl style; big, long, open to the elements, a car built to be seen in. The car was painted in a new DuPont metallic green-gold colour and certainly made quite an impact on the revolving stage at the Packard stand.
The ‘Metro’ – Astra-Gnome
The success of the Pan-American brought a flood of work into Arbib’s office. He could be seen at trendy spots all over town, with girls (mostly Bettie Page) on his arm, and clients buying him dinner. It was his dream come true and a rebuke to all those hayseeds out in Detroit.
He would work in advertising, product design, illustration, and automotive design.
He designed boats for Century, a luxury boats maker. He created illustrations for science fiction magazines. Hudson Motors came calling, seeking to renew its luxury nameplates with a new aesthetic. Arbib designed the V-line Hudsons which were well-received by the press and the public.
While working for Hudson, the storied marque merged with Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, and Arbib was retained as consultant, reviewing designs for future models and contributing ideas – much to the chagrin of in-house designers, who did not appreciate some dandy from New York looking over their shoulders.
The new collaboration, now called American Motors, commissioned Arbib to design a concept car to draw attention to the new company.
As a foundation for his design, Arbib was shipped a 1955 Nash Metropolitan as a base. The Metropolitan was a sub-compact car that Nash had designed in America, but was built by Austin at its Longbridge factory in the UK.
The Metropolitan was a car of firsts – the first sub-compact car in the American market (by a major manufacturer), the first car to be marketed as a ‘second car’, the first ‘captive import’, and the first to be extensively marketed to women. It was sold by a number of brands, including Nash, Hudson, American Motors and, in the UK, Austin.
The Metropolitan was one of those cars that, even in the 1950s, was so ugly it was cute. It was the punchline of a many a joke at automotive industry gatherings and cocktail parties. Still, it had a cult following. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, owned a couple of them, and recommended them to clients wishing to move out of the city, and still have an affordable way to commute.
In an era of big cars, the Metropolitan was tiny, with a wheelbase smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle.
Arbib had originally planned to call the concept the ‘Metro-Gnome’, but International Harvester owned the trademark on the name ‘Metro-’ and would not relinquish it for Nash to use, even for a concept. So Arbib came back with the ‘Astra-Gnome’ name, referencing its space-age design cues, and declared the car a preview of the automobile in the year 2000.
The Astra-Gnome was a rush project and built by the Andrew Mazzara Company in just four months. The Plexiglas canopy was anchored by a single steel rib which rotated up and out of the car body (taking up the area formerly occupied by the back seat). The whole assembly was engineered and built by the Steiner Plastics Company.
Alcoa Aluminum supplied and helped fabricate the aluminium body and the fluted side panels. The fender skirts extended over the front wheels just like the standard Metropolitan, only the coverage was more extensive – the wheels seem to disappear altogether, as if the Gnome were a hovercraft.
These skirts, of anodized aluminium, were meant to be removable, so that different coloured panels could be inserted. One could have a gold Gnome one day, a silver one the next, a bronze one the next, and so on. The chassis was extended a little in the length, but was widened significantly – by 11 inches – out to six feet. Despite the extra length and width, the total weight of the car remained under 2000lbs.
Adding the extra width enlarged the tiny cockpit. All that extra space allowed for a bespoke set of luggage to be the fitted into the car at the occupants’ feet (Arbib had an obsession with luggage design, and wrote a prescient little manifesto about it for a trade magazine). It also allowed for a centre console with a radio and instrumentation.
The most distinctive feature in the bubble-covered cockpit was the “celestial time-zone clock permitting actual flight-type navigation.”
No one knew exactly what this meant, but Hamilton, the watch company, built the clock with a jewelled face and tiny diamonds embedded in constellation patterns. The face rotated counter-clockwise even as the hands rotated clockwise. Backlit, the clock made for a spectacular night-time show as light glittered through the diamonds.
Once the canopy was raised, the sill was low enough to step over and sit in the swivelling leather bucket seats. The floor was almost level with the seat, making the placement of one’s legs a challenge.
The Astra-Gnome was one of the hits of the 1956 New York Auto Show. Sequestered inside a geodesic tent, show attendees entered through a door with a sign that read “Martian Car Inside.” Crowds gathered around the little car with the bubbletop with its alien antenna. Representatives from American Motors handed out questionnaires to the passers by asking them to comment on the Gnome (and discretely pointing them to AMC’s more earthbound 1956 models). Over 80% of those polled liked the car.
AMC and Richard Arbib were delighted.
To Ventura and Beyond…
While the Astra-Gnome was enjoying its moment in the sun, Arbib was working on plenty of other projects, including boats for Century, and watch designs for Hamilton. It was his sketch for the Hamilton ‘Ventura’ model that would be his ultimate design legacy. When introduced it was an instant classic of mid-century modern design.
Arbib would follow with other models including the ‘Enchantress” (designed for Bettie Page) that were considered equals of the Ventura. But none would equal its popularity and staying power. You can still buy the Ventura today.
Although Arbib could not see it, he had reached the peak of his career. His relationship with Century boats ended in 1959. Other contracts ended as well. The door to GM’s design department, which had been open for so long, was now closed with the retirement of Harley Earl. He would subsequently be invited to make proposals in the 1960s and 1970s, but none were accepted for development.
Smaller contracts kept him in business, but the glory days were gone. His aesthetic never really evolved beyond the 1950s, and he had trouble staying even on the trailing edge of design trends. His financial situation became increasingly desperate through the years and he declared bankruptcy in 1994… and died in 1995.
The Packard Pan American toured the auto show circuit, winning the grand prize in Los Angeles to match its New York triumph. The car even entered limited production. Arbib himself owned one. It is not known how many were produced – most estimates say six. Three or four are known to have survived and are in private collections in the US, with one believed to be in Europe.
Bettie Page and Richard Arbib parted ways around 1954, just as she was reaching the height of her fame – or infamy. Her pin-up photo sessions grew increasingly revealing and fetishistic, and more popular; she ultimately appeared on more magazine covers (and centrefolds) than Marilyn Monroe.
But by 1958, Ms. Page would suddenly turn away from the modelling world, undergo a religious awakening, get a Bible college degree, endure a second abusive marriage, suffer a psychotic breakdown, and spend nearly decade in an asylum – diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. It was a life that would have killed a weaker person, but Bettie Page ultimately lived long enough to see herself championed as a queen of burlesque and a pop culture icon.
Shirley Talbott, the beauty queen who rotated so majestically with the Packard Pan-American, also became a pin-up queen. But Ms. Talbott had mainstream commercial and print advertisement contracts, so her work remained extremely modest by comparison to Bettie Page.
Ms. Talbott eventually moved to Hollywood, following the growth of television. There she met and married character actor Paul Brenigar, a fixture in Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, and they enjoyed a long and happy life together.
As for the Astra-Gnome, it saw use in advertisements and got a great deal of press. It was soon retired, and disappeared for a couple of decades until it was tracked down by Metropolitan enthusiast Jimmy Valentine, who restored the car and now has it placed in his private museum at the Metropolitan Pit Stop, a one-stop shop for all things Metropolitan, located in Valley Village (Los Angeles) California.
Looking back at the Astra-Gnome, it is difficult to take the design seriously. It looks like a cartoon car or a prop from an ad for a sugary children’s cereal. While there were certainly some humorous touches to the design, there were explorations of materials and construction that were taken seriously by AMC, Alcoa and others.
Its design also previewed a few elements that would find their way into late 1950s automotive design. Among these were quad headlights, aluminium (or chrome) rocker panels, and dramatic pointy fins.
But the one signature element that made an unlikely appearance on another car is the front fascia design. Compare the Astra-Gnome’s front to that of the classic 1963 Buick Riviera. They are eerily similar; a case of some quietly copying?
Or perhaps something more sinister…an Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
We’ll never know….
(Cue spooky Theremin music….)