Historic Car Show in Montreal

There are other examples of that ideal currently on display at the Montreal museum, 49 of them to be exact. A collection of sometimes weird, often wonderful, machines, each one an experiment in automotive design, the show is scattered over two floors of the MMFA's south pavilion.

1936 Cord 810 Westchester
One of the antique cars on display at a special exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, June 1995 (courtesy Maclean's).

Historic Car Show in Montreal

The car is stunning, a gleaming jewel in black and chrome. It is a 1938 Bugatti 57 Atlantic, and Pierre Théberge, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, pauses to run a reflective eye over the French-made vehicle's fluid lines. "This is a masterpiece," he says, "created by Jean Bugatti at the company's factory in Alsace only a year before he died." His gaze lingers, following the smoothly flowing curve of fender and roof, the raised spine of rivetting that stitches together the entire, exotic creation and the curious passenger compartment, shaped like a skull with drooping eyes. "They threw out the rule book on this one," he says. "We're looking at pure form here, a sculpture as much as a car. Of all the pieces in our exhibit, the Atlantic is probably the one that most closely approaches the ideal of absolute perfection in automobile design."

There are other examples of that ideal currently on display at the Montreal museum, 49 of them to be exact. A collection of sometimes weird, often wonderful, machines, each one an experiment in automotive design, the show is scattered over two floors of the MMFA's south pavilion. Titled Moving Beauty, it looks at the evolution of the automobile from a fresh perspective, as a stylistic creation rather than a product of the technological revolution, from its inception in the late-19th century to the present preoccupation with the automobile's impact on the environment. And in the process, the show has angered Montreal's artistic community, while clearly delighting the city's public at large.

If attendance figures are any guide, Moving Beauty may well turn out to be one of the most successful exhibits mounted by the MMFA. More than 35,000 people have visited the show since its May 11 opening, and close to 300,000 are expected by the time it finishes on Oct. 15. Weekend lineups to glimpse the 50 cars on display have become routine. Even before the exhibit's launch, $1.2 million in sponsorships had been arranged, a record for the museum. Théberge, who conceived and designed Moving Beauty himself, makes no attempt to disguise his hopes that the show will turn a profit. "What's wrong with that?" he shrugs. "It's no secret that we could use the money."

Money, in fact, is at the heart of the entire debate about Moving Beauty. The show carries a $3-million price tag - for insurance, shipping, research and publicity. What is more, it opened a month before an equally expensive exhibit, a $3.2-million showing of European Symbolist art in the MMFA's north pavilion, across the street. While corporate sponsorships have helped to cover some of the costs, the museum was also hit this year by a $1.5-million cut to its $14.9-million grant from the province of Quebec. As a result, Théberge has eliminated 18 out of 230 full-time positions and closed the museum library to the public. And that prompted a demonstration by a milling crowd of angry Montreal artists, who picketed Moving Beauty's launch, accusing Théberge not only of mismanagement but also of debasing the museum's standards by attempting to portray cars as objects of fine art in a vulgar pursuit of profits. "The timing was unfortunate," Théberge sighs, "but we started to organize those two shows long before we knew the government was going to cut our funding."

The MMFA director offers no apologies, however, for clearing the museum's contemporary art pavilion to make way for the automobiles. "The car is so much a part of our lives that we really don't see it for what it is," he explains. "I wanted to get people to step back and look at the car as an object that has been conceived and designed - created, in short." Théberge says that the idea dawned during an exhibition the museum staged in 1991, The 1920s: Age of the Metropolis. "There was a Bugatti in that show," he says, "and I was suddenly struck by the astonishing number of connections that could be made between the car and Art Deco. It occurred to me then that the automobile would be an excellent subject for an exhibition that would treat it as an independent object, outside the history of mechanics and technology."

Moving Beauty is the result of that original inspiration. Théberge assembled the collection himself, after scouring public and private collections in Canada as well as in the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy. The Bugatti Atlantic is owned by designer Ralph Lauren, while a 1941 Chrysler Newport, part of the collection of the William F. Harrah Foundation, once belonged to actress Lana Turner.

The very first patented car propelled by an internal combustion engine is on display, an 1886 Benz. It is a delicate contraption, not much more than a motorized tricycle. At the other end of the scale in both time and vision is a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, the epitome of the North American consumer society's dream of abundance and prosperity. In between are all manner of creations, ranging from ill-fated classics such as the 1934 Chrysler Airflow, the 1936 Cord Westchester and the 1948 Tucker, to the elegance of today's still-popular, if outrageously expensive, Porsche and Ferrari roadsters, which range in price from $95,000 to $700,000.

Among the most bizarre in appearance are a trio of revolutionary vehicles from the early years of the century. The 1914 Alfa 40/60 Ricotti, commissioned by an Italian count, is a silver egg on wheels straight out of a Jules Verne novel. The 1916 Miller Golden Submarine, built for American racing legend Barney Oldfield, gets its name from its appearance. The 1921 Rumpler Tropfenwagen, a teardrop-shaped vehicle, recalls the gondolas that hung from the bellies of the dirigibles of the same period. These vehicles were early experiments in aerodynamics, placing them well ahead of their boxlike contemporaries, vehicles including the ubiquitous Ford Model T, which dominated automotive design in both Europe and the United States at the time.

Théberge argues that the automobile, throughout its history, has conformed to two basic morphological types. The first, which has given rise to the vast majority of cars on the road today, resulted from the natural evolution of replacing the horse on the buggy with an engine. But the second, which inspired the MMFA's exhibit, is entirely removed from the concept of the horseless carriage, and involves principles of aerodynamics or esthetics, or a combination of the two. "Most of the cars you see around here exemplify this truly revolutionary, experimental and prototypical automobile," he says. "In short, the ideal car."

That is precisely why Théberge chose to display the rare cars he has assembled in such a spare setting. The walls contain only brief descriptions of the cars themselves. There has been no attempt to link the individual vehicles to the artistic movements that influenced their designs. For those who have criticized the exhibit, that is a fatal flaw. But, argues Théberge, "Pure form is the key concept here. The whole point is that these cars are sculpture, objects of art to be gazed at in search of comprehension, not driven." On that count at least, Moving Beauty is as fascinating a concept as many of the creations in glass, steel and leather that it contains.

Maclean's June 12, 1995