Chasing One of a Kind Unicorns at the Art Center Car Classic

By: Kevin Ehrlich | Photos Courtesy of: Kevin Ehrlich

For several hours each October, the automotive design world pivots to focus on a small school nestled in the hills above the Rose Bowl in Pasadena California. The Art Center College of Design hosts its annual Car Classic as an open-house of sorts, showing off its campus incubator that grows and refines design student ambitions. The Car Classic mixes spectators, patrons, alumni, students, neighbors, collectors and anyone with a passing interest in transportation design.

Transportation Design Department Chair Stuart Reed and faculty colleagues curate the show by inviting unique and distinctive cars each year for display, spread across the lawn behind the main building. The 2019 theme was “One of a Kind” and the turnout didn’t disappoint.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

The cars weren’t the only featured guests that were bespoke in nature. Art Center alumni Jeff Zwart, Chip Foose, Tom Peters and Freeman Thomas attended as well, each certainly one of a kind. A fulsome biography of each would fill volumes, but each has materially impacted the world of automotive design in their own way and trace their history directly to Art Center.

The event offers an opportunity to wander the hallways and view student work of various flavors. Drawings of futuristic Mercedes Benz concepts from a Design Process class were taped to the walls. A senior design studio displayed polished drawings and work in process transforming them into three-dimensional clay models. Display niches and classroom shelves throughout the facility exhibited a variety of student efforts.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

The student gallery near the main entrance displayed a wide range of student work from across the various Art Center disciplines including graphic design, sculpture, architectural design, and product design. Of course, transportation design student work claimed much of the attention as guests inspected models and sketches envisioning potential Bentley, Porsche and Volkswagen future offerings. It’s no wonder that designers from manufacturers and studios around the world walk the same halls searching for talent who can help make indelible imprints on their respective projects.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

Honorary alumnus Jay Leno, also one of a kind in his own right, brought his home-built 1950 Mercedes transporter replica. Leno still maintains an impressive work ethic as a comedian, logging over 200 shows a year. Among the Art Center crowd, however, he’s better known as a car guy than a comedian. The transporter hearkens back to the days of Mercedes racing in the 1950s when the 300SL competed for checkered flags rather than concours awards.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

2019 Art Center Car Classic

Interestingly, the transporter was not merely designed to get cars to the race track and back to the shop. Mercedes preferred to do major repairs during race weekends at home rather than trackside. The solution was a transporter with enough muscle to quickly shuttle race cars back and forth across miles of European highways. Sadly, the original was discarded and destroyed, but due to strong fan nostalgia Mercedes later built an exact replica which is housed in the Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart. Leno’s example was hand built by a private individual in Sweden, evidenced by a full photo album documenting the incredible build process. The 300SL dashboard, cab-forward design, and beautiful curves make for an impressive combination and the subtle “Repl” text added to the door lettering respectfully disclaims pure originality.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

Across the display area, a pair of gullwing Mercedes juxtaposed the original icon and the modern reimagination. Whereas mass production of the 300SL gullwing coupe was not originally contemplated, the race car inspired a road car which was introduced to the world in 1954. And while other cars have featured their own versions of gullwing doors over the decades, the gullwing design is unmistakable, iconic and immediately identifiable even without the telltale three-pointed star badges.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

2019 Art Center Car Classic

A star of the show was the one-off concept car known as the 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero. Perhaps the ultimate expression of a pure wedge design, the car was built amidst an intense design rivalry between Bertone and Pininfarina. The car is impossibly low to the ground at only 33 inches high. There are no doors but rather a single flat glass windshield panel that pivots upward. The driver and one passenger then step over the front bodywork into the cockpit and assume almost a full reclining position. The rear engine cover is a large triangle that hinges on one side and opens to reveal a four-cylinder engine.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

2019 Art Center Car Classic

The original intent behind the concept car was a closer commercial connection between Lancia and Bertone. Nuccio Bertone is reported to have driven the car to meet Lancia management, guiding the Zero beneath the security arm at the front gate of the Lancia racing team, which must have made quite the impression. The Zero was displayed at the 1970 Turin Motor show and lived in the Bertone collection for decades before being sold at an RM Sotheby’s auction in 2011 at Villa d’Este alongside Lake Como.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

For those more interested in modern-day hardware, a pair of new 2020 Chevrolet Corvette C8 models were on hand, in coupe and convertible form. The C8 has only recently been shown in public and an appearance at Art Center was the first look that most people had of the new mid-engine Corvette.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

2019 Art Center Car Classic

While the display field featured a wide variety of road cars, race cars, prototypes, home-built projects, hotrods, concept cars, and even a few motorcycles, the magic of the day was with the people. Tom Peters, Art Center alumnus and the Director of Exterior Design for the General Motors Performance Car Studio, was on hand to provide his own commentary and war stories of the new C8 and its gestation. Chip Foose talked about his hot rod creations and the process of designing and building. Designers of concept cars showed off their glimpses of the future as curious spectators asked question and snapped photos.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

An absolute highlight took place not on the main stage or on the Art Center grounds or in the hallways, but rather in a small dark film screening studio in the basement. Childhood friends Jeff Zwart and Freeman Thomas shared stories about growing up together, experiences and impacts. Thomas’ design expertise is highlighted on models such the modern Volkswagen Beetle, Audi TT and a variety of Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep vehicles. Movie clips evidenced Zwart’s career as a maker of automotive commercials and films, and as an amateur racer.

Thomas recalled Zwart mounting a camera on his bicycle as a kid which was a precursor to Zwart’s burning desire to share with viewers the experience of being behind the wheel. Zwart also has a life-long affinity for race cars and the precision of racing, a pursuit that served his professional career well.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

He fondly recalled his time racing the mountain at Pikes Peak and the precision it requires – one take is all you get against the clock and the consequences for getting it wrong are significant with the drop-offs and canyons beyond the pavement. Zwart quipped, “if you make a mistake, you have a lot of time to think about what you did wrong before you hit.” He equated the precision of racing with the precision of filming when there may be very small windows of time to get the shot done, which puts a premium on planning and execution.

Zwart showed a clip filmed with the Red Bull Formula One team imagining an F1 car pounding around the streets of San Francisco, the wide-open spaces around Monument Valley, and the glitz of Las Vegas. The concept imagined the Red Bull Formula One making pit stops around the United States. Among other challenges, Zwart described the process of closing the Oakland Bay Bridge for just enough time to get a shot and then get reset for another attempt. They only had three attempts and nailed each of them with the benefit of good weather.

Part one is a five and a half minute mini-movie and is available on the Red Bull Formula One team’s website here. Part two took the team from Colorado to Miami. The five minute mini-movie is posted here.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

Another milestone work was a Porsche family tree commercial filmed in 2009 to assist in the launching of Porsche’s four-door Panamera sedan. Zwart described the process of gathering fifty valuable vintage Porsche road and race cars, and the subsequent three-day choreography of maneuvering those cars in front and behind each other at the former El Toro air station in Orange County, California. The effect, when viewed from above and fully assembled, was to show all of the Porsches together forming the trunk of a tree and then veering away to show the branches. The 60 second commercial is still considered an iconic commercial and viewed within Porsche as a hallmark test of brand continuity – definitely one of a kind. It is available here.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

Back on the display field, guests shuffled among creations that individually would highlight any other transportation event. Together, the gathering was truly impressive and continued the high standards set each year at the Car Classic by the Art Center.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

A Porsche reimagined by Singer is an exercise in design detail. Rob Dickinson and team take the best of Porsche design cues over the decades and mix them on a 964 platform. There are a few out there, but each is a lengthy build and highly customized for each customer – and named for the location of that Singer’s new home. The blue Carolina Commission example graced the Art Center grounds, with its shapely curves making for a very stark contrast with the extreme angles of the Lancia Stratos HF Zero wedge parked nearby.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

2019 Art Center Car Classic

Proving the capability of the Porsche 911 as a base for different design interpretations, a hand built white McCoppin Automotive Design RS 911 sat within sight under a nearby tree. The McCoppin approach features custom front and rear bumpers, shapely rear fenders hiding enormous deep-dish rear wheels, a 400-horsepower engine based on a 964 3.6-liter powerplant, and extensive suspension customization.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

Another novelty on hand was the Bugatti EB110 Super Sport built by Dauer. After Bugatti claimed bankruptcy and ceased operations in 1995, Dauer bought the parts and made five continuation cars. This V-12 beast is the only Dauer continuation car built in bare black carbon fiber bodywork. As if a Bugatti wasn’t rare enough, the carbon fiber unicorn clearly qualified as a one of a kind.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

2019 Art Center Car Classic

The only car behind any chains of any kind was the 2015 Bugatti Vision Grand Turismo concept car. The one-off concept car was displayed at the 2015 Frankfurt Auto Show to preview the Chiron and show a car that might be at home in the Grand Turismo video game. A W-16 engine lurked beneath exotic bodywork that was designed by Art Center alumnus Sasha Selipanov.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

2019 Art Center Car Classic

While its appearance is unmistakably reminiscent of the Veyron, Selipanov and his colleagues dialed up Bugatti design cues such as the prominent horseshoe grille on the nose, ducts around the car, and enormous rear wings. Only one was ever built and was positioned on the display grounds to face the Lancia Stratos HF Zero – making for the very rare pairing of two unicorns separated by 45 years of automotive history.

2019 Art Center Car Classic

The 2019 Art Center Car Classic continued an annual tradition by combining an homage to tradition, history and singular milestones, along with glimpses of what the future may hold. It was also a reminder that one of a kind automotive design typically requires one of a kind people with the vision and ability to make that vision a reality. Keep an eye out for the October 2020 date and make plans to spend the day in an incredibly unique environment.

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