Imagine a car shaped like a wedge of cheese and only 33 inches high.
Or think about driving around in a giant egg-shaped electric car made of clear plastic, as if riding in a bubble.
When the Firebird I XP-21 was built in 1953, the first gas turbine-powered automobile ever built and tested in the U.S. looked like a rocket on wheels.
All of them were intended to be working cars. But more than just modes of transportation, these were works of art.
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Most of the state of Indiana comes down with a case of automobile-mania during May. Even a museum is giving in to the love of the sleek, the fast and the daring.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art opens “Dream Cars: Innovative Designs, Visionary Ideas” on May 3, featuring some of the most stylish automobile designs ever created.
Just like an ancient urn or an intricate statue, these cars are examples of supreme artistic touch and ambitious style that are more at home on a pedestal instead of tearing up the asphalt.
“You can call it rolling sculpture, kinetic sculpture, 20th century industrial art; and depending on the types of cars, these really do represent craftsmanship, high points in design, ingenuity and clever use of materials,” said Ken Gross, automotive writer and guest curator for the exhibit. “For a lot of people, they’ll be looking at automobiles in a way they never have before, displayed like a piece of sculpture.”
“Dream Cars” will feature scale models, renderings and drawings to tell the story of automotive design.
The exhibition is a collaboration between the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which premiered “Dream Cars” in 2014.
The museums have worked with collectors around the world to bring unusual and unique designs to the public. Together, the institutions have carried on a tradition that started in the 1950s.
“The notion of automobiles in a fine art museum is not a new one,” Gross said. “The Museum of Modern Art did an exhibition called ‘Eight Automobiles’ in 1951, and another one called ‘Ten Automobiles’ in 1953. Arthur Drexler, the curator of architecture, referred to the cars as ‘hollow, rolling sculptures.’”
“Dream Cars” is the type of art exhibit that the museum has become known for, said Charles Venable, director and CEO at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
“The museum has built one of the most important industrial design collections in the country. We have 10,000 square feet of design objects, but because of their scale, categories of industrial design that’s impossible for us to collect, such as automobiles,” he said. “Because of that collection, and because cars are so beloved in our culture, and because of Indianapolis tradition in car design, it was a natural fit to bring a special exhibition here.”
Gross has been tapped to help meld the art world and the auto world. He has worked on automobile exhibitions in seven museums.
All of the cars featured in the exhibition were dreamed up to be prototypes for car companies such as General Motors, Chrysler and Cadillac.
The 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt was the first American car to feature an electrically operated retractable hardtop and disappearing headlamps. It was considered “The Car of the Future.”
The Scarab, designed in 1936, was the starting point of the contemporary minivan.
Other ideas were more lofty and specialized.
Take the L’Oeuf électrique, designed in 1942 by French designer Paul Arzens. This electric bubble car was created for Arzens’ personal use in Paris during the German occupation, when gasoline was scarce.
The Lancia (Bertone) Stratos HF Zero was imagined in 1970 as a wedge-shaped car only 33 inches tall.
Some of the designs featured in the show predicted everyday automobile features 50 or 60 years ahead of time.
The Buick Centurian, released in 1956, debuted with a completely clear roof and no rearview mirrors. Instead, a television camera showed the view behind the car.
“They told us that the car of the future would have backup cameras so you could see behind you,” Gross said. “We certainly have those in a lot of our automobiles today.”
Museum organizers have added multimedia and interactive tools to help people explore more about the automobiles. An iPad application will allow people to watch original footage and video interviews of the cars featured in the exhibition. People can use it on wall-mounted iPads in the gallery or download it onto their own device.
Near the exhibition entrance, visitors can attempt to build their own “dream car” in a special design studio.
“Our exhibit has more opportunity for people to interact with the designs and try their hand at it,” Venable said.
A quiz developed by the museum will let people figure out “Which dream car are you?” After taking the quiz, they can share it on social media.
Special events such as a family day, a public talk and discussion by Gross and a showing of the film “National Lampoon’s Vacation” will tie into the automobile theme.
“There will be an audience coming in here that’s interested in cars. But they might not be as exposed to some of the other art we have here at the museum,” said Scott Stulen, curator of audience experiences and performance. “This can be an access point to them, let them know about some other things we’re doing.”
The public will have the first opportunity to see the exhibition during a May 1 opening, which will include DJs, car-design activities and driving simulators.
Jason Torchinsky, an automobile-centric artist and writer, will host a workshop teaching people how to open locked car doors and trunks.
He will be back in August to showcase an installation commissioned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He has fitted a full-size car with video game controls, allowing people to sit in it and play the Atari game “Pole Position” on the museum’s 45-feet-tall screen.
“This show and cars in general will have a wide mass appeal to it,” Stulen said. “It gives us a unique opportunity to bring in some artists and some projects that we might not otherwise get to do.”
Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas
What: An exhibit featuring rare concept cars from the early 1930s to the 21st century
Where: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 N. Michigan Ave.
When: May 3 to Aug. 23
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Close Mondays.
Cost: $18 for adults, $10 for youth ages 6 to 17, free for kids 5 and under as well as museum members.
More information: imamuseum.org