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This Detroit exhibition puts American car culture on display


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: Get your motor running.

Seventy years of automotive design and innovation are on display in the city that made them, Detroit.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: From wispy swirls of pencil, a hint of what might one day hit the road, to more detailed, vibrant drawings. This is the art of the car and the people behind them.

For Detroit Institute of arts Curator Ben Colman, it offered a unique challenge.

Benjamin Colman, Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts: The biggest artworks I have ever worked with. And moving them around the museum was no small task.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, now, you just called them artworks.

Benjamin Colman: That's true.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Benjamin Colman: There's quite a bit of artistry in car design.

Jeffrey Brown: These are not the family minivan. The exhibition, Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City 1950 to 2020, features 12 American-designed autos, some that became icons of an era and sold in the many millions, others so-called concept cars, one-off ideas with plenty of wow factor, like this 1958 Firebird III from General Motors.

I mean, this one, of course, certainly looks like a jet or a rocket.

Benjamin Colman: Absolutely.

So, the prompt to the design studio for this car was to design the car an astronaut would drive to the launch pad before flying to the moon. It looks like, if you really gave it some gas, it would just take off.

Jeffrey Brown: That was really the idea?

Benjamin Colman: Absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: The astronaut would drive it to his rocket?

Benjamin Colman: You will notice there isn't a steering wheel and there's no brake pedal. There's no gas pedal. This is a car that you navigated entirely with a joystick.

So it truly was what they called at the time a laboratory on wheels. They were testing out really radical ideas to see what sticks, what was possible, what was feasible.

Narrator: This then is Firebird III, as expressed in the idea of the men who designed this experiment for tomorrow.

Jeffrey Brown: The design and testing of these cars was and still is a careful and coordinated dance.

Narrator: Firebird III in three dimensions.

Ed Welburn, Former Vice President of Global Design, General Motors: It's like these three legs of the stool, the engineer, the sculptor and the designer.

Jeffrey Brown: Designer Ed Welburn's passion began early, as a small child.

Ed Welburn: One day, there was no paper around, and I went to my mother's bookshelves. For some reason, I knew the front page was blank. And I went through all her books with purple crayon and drew cars in every one.

Jeffrey Brown: Welburn studied art in college before entering the auto industry and rising through the ranks at General Motors to become head of global design, the highest ranking African American in the history of the auto industry.

Ed Welburn: Designers are doing sketches. Sculptors are actually shaping the car in clay, the actual size of the car.

It's a large piece of sculpture. And there are other digital sculptors who are developing the design in the computer. I mean, they are shaping, they're developing this piece of sculpture that meets all the engineering criteria and. And that's where -- I mean, it's a challenge, but it's so much fun. I just absolutely love it.

Jeffrey Brown: Welburn served on an advisory board for the DIA exhibition pulled together by curator Colman.

Benjamin Colman: This is a mix of working and retired car designers and design educators and historians, knowing that we're here in Detroit, we're at the epicenter for all things automotive, and there's such incredible knowledge.

Jeffrey Brown: That local knowledge was on display around every corner in the exhibition when we visited. Many fondly remembered the Barracuda.

Actress: Why, Marvin? Why? Why couldn't you get a big car like your brother, the doctor, or even a funny little car like your sister, the soldier? No, you had to get a Bananacuda.

Actor: Barracuda, momma, Barracuda.

Actress: Barracuda, Carabuda.

Benjamin Colman: This is a very quick, informal sketch made by a Chrysler designer named Milton Antonick as the final form for what becomes the 1970 Plymouth Barracuda.

The designers are sketching in the studio.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Benjamin Colman: And you can see, when you then come over to look at that part of the car, that geometry, that angle, the crease on the rear end are so closely related to that, that really informal sketch on paper. And then we see it as sheet metal on the road.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, a very famous piece of sheet metal with the Cuda.

The Cuda sits alongside its major competitor of the day, the 1968 Ford Mustang GT, a juxtaposition by design. Another juxtaposition:, examples of a more literal art of the car and car culture, Jean-Michel Basquiat's painting Rusting Red Car, The Unfair Advantage about motor racing by Kristin Baker, and Ed Ruscha's Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, next to a 1959 Corvette Stingray Racer.

And it might have pulled up to this station.

Benjamin Colman: That's the idea, yes, that the energy, the attitude of freedom on the open road that this design conjures, it's just the kind of experience that Ruscha took as this point of inspiration for this painting that grew out of a road trip across the American West.

Jeffrey Brown: The exhibition flicks at some of the impact, good and bad, cars have had on American life. But the focus here remains on the artistry.

Ed Welburn: To see automobiles displayed the same way that other art treasures are displayed really felt good.

Jeffrey Brown: Autos as works of art in this case?

Ed Welburn: Well, I think they are. I think they are. They're rolling sculptures. They are rolling pieces of artwork that people connect with on a very emotional level.

Jeffrey Brown: These rolling sculptures are on display through January 2022.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Judy Woodruff: A piece of art in the family garage.

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