MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images by Ron Konopka-Automotive Sculpture/Detroit Institute of Arts
Published 12.9.2020

The Detroit Institute of Arts in Midtown 1The Detroit Institute of Arts in Midtown 

I recently had the opportunity (wearing my mask, of course!) to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has opened a great automotive exhibit called “Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950-2020.” The show features both actual cars and renderings or illustrations from some of the best automotive designers Detroit has ever seen.

Ford GT on display in the Detroit Style exhibit DIA CROPPED 2A Ford GT on display in the Detroit Style exhibit (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Most of the designers from the past and present featured in the exhibit are people I have known personality or have recognized their work over the course of my career. I was extremely impressed with the layout of the displays, which feature many of the best designs Detroit automakers have manufactured.

Rendering by the late Sydney Mead Brett Snyder RESIZED 3A rendering by the late Sydney Mead (Brett Snyder)

An amazing array of cars, from the 1957 Chrysler 300 to the design of the General Motors concept model Firebird III, are featured. I was also impressed with the great talking points about automotive designs in a video narrated by former GM Global Design vice president Ed Welburn, who recently retired. I also thought that Ralph Gilles, the talented head of design for Fiat Chrysler, added great insight about automotive styling.

1966 Oldsmobile Toronado on display at the DIA Ron Konopka RESIZED1966 Oldsmobile Toronado on display at the DIA (Ron Konopka)

I thoroughly enjoyed the inclusion of the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. This model represented a great time in our automotive design history. American automakers over the years have provided excellent leadership when it comes to great styling and design, which is in my opinion the best in the world.

1971 Barracuda front end by Donald Hood Ron Konopka RESIZED1971 Barracuda front end by Donald Hood (Ron Konopka)

As Americans, we cannot forget the design creativity and innovations from American designers like Bill Mitchell, Virgil Exner, McKinley Thompson Jr. and Elia Russinoff (featured in my story a couple weeks back). All of these designers have left their creative mark on the design world and are now part of the DIA exhibit.

Image of McKinley Thompson Jr the first African American car designer Ford Archives RESIZEDImage of McKinley Thompson Jr., the first African American car designer (Ford Archives)

The exhibit features 12 great looking vehicles, including the 1970 Plymouth Barracuda muscle car. I also enjoyed seeing the 1959 Corvette Sting Ray Racer, which was one of Bill Mitchell’s favorite designs. The 1983 Ford Probe IV concept model, designed by African American designer Sam Mayer, created a lot of positive buzz and conversation in the exhibit.

Rendering of proposed Pontiac GTO by John Perkins Ron Konopka RESIZEDA rendering of the proposed Pontiac GTO by John Perkins (Ron Konopka) 

On a sad note, GM designer Elia Russinoff recently passed away before the DIA automotive exhibit opened, however, some of his great design artwork was on display. In addition, the design photography, featuring many talented designers from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, was a great highlight of the show.

The DIA is the perfect place to honor the men and women who for many years have created and designed many of the automobiles that have shaped our culture and left a legacy for generations to come. The exhibit is on display until Sunday, June 27, 2021.

Ford interior proposal 1965 by James Sherburne Ron Konopka RESIZEDA 1965 Ford interior proposal by James Sherburne (Ron Konopka)

In conclusion, if you are an automotive history fan, I recommend that you see this exhibit. However, please be advised to reserve your tickets in advance and wear your mask to be safe as we continue to deal with this pandemic. I would also like to give a special thank you to the late Robert L. Edwards and his wife Julie Hyde Edwards for the hard work and dedication they put into this exhibit beginning in 2016, along with Ben Colman.

You can get more information on the DIA's exhibit by clicking here.

 

Bibliography

Devito, Lee. “DIA exhibition is a love letter to the automobile and the Motor City.” Detroit Metro Times. Friday, November 13, 2020.