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Driving toward the future: Dream Cars at the IMA 

Dream Cars refers to experimental vehicles that drive excitement and innovation but aren’t intended for mass production. The term was coined by General Motors to refer to concept cars like the XP series that they highlighted in their Motorama shows at venues throughout the U.S. between 1949 and 1961.

The Dream Cars exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which runs through August 23, 2015, highlights the importance of the Motorama auto show (and its French counterpart, The Paris Salon de l’Automobile) as well as the innovators behind the 17 cars showcased in this exhibit created between 1934 and 2010 and the role of the concept car today.

But, as IMA Director and CEO Charles Venable alluded to in his opening remarks on April 30 at the press preview prior to the exhibit's ribbon cutting ceremony, there is more going on here than meets the eye:

“It's a pivotal time for the IMA,” Venable said. “Besides cars, we’ve been in the news for all kinds of things as of late… This major exhibition will also help us achieve the ability to be seen as a resource for this community and for this state that’s broader than only being an art museum which is wonderful in itself but we want to have a broader audience that will come here for all kinds of things.”

But that broader audience will have to pay up. That is to say, this is the first major exhibition at the IMA to open under the new general admission policy — as opposed to the previous policy which charged only for special exhibitions — charging $18 to nonmembers. Dream Cars may very well develop a broader audience, and this is all geared, as it were, towards driving membership (because becoming a member is the only cost-effective way to make multiple visits in a given year).

And if timing has anything to do with attracting a wider and more diverse membership, you can’t beat the timing of the opening, a couple of weeks before the 99th running of the Indy 500 on Sunday, May 24. And quite naturally, the exhibit acknowledges the race by including the General Motors Firebird I XP-21. (The test driver for this car was Mauri Rose who won the Indy 500 three times). For lovers of speedsters, there’s other vehicles to love in this exhibition as well, including the Ferrari Tre Posti and the 2001 BMW GINA Light Visionary Model, with its innovative skin made of fabric.

Venable acknowledged that some museum goers might find this exhibit a little odd. But he deferred to his guest curator (and renowned automobile writer) Ken Gross and curator Sarah Schleuning, (Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA) to answer this question that he put to them: “Why are you putting cars in an art museum?”

Schleuning, who curated the first iteration of this show at the High Museum in 2014, had this response: “The reason I’m so excited to be here is that you want the next generation to believe that anything is possible,” she said. “Ten years ago, nobody knew anything about an iPhone and now it’s ubiquitous. So what is the next best thing? You look at things like that and realize: if you can dream it you can make it. And that’s a really powerful idea. That’s the power of design and that’s why these objects are so potent.”

Here are five Dream Cars featured in the exhibition.

PHOTO BY MICHAEL FURMAN/COURTESY OF IMA
  • Photo by Michael Furman/Courtesy of IMA

1. The 1934 Voisin C-25 Aerondyne was created by French aeronautical engineer Gabriel Voisin whose cars were owned by Rudolph Valentino and Josephine Baker among others. “After the crash of 1929 he basically has to rebuild,” High Museum Curator Sarah Schleuning explained during a press tour. “What he does is he looks to the United States and what’s the popular style and it’s basically American streamlining which is influenced by the French 1945 [car] exhibition. So it’s this weird amalgamation of French design Americanized, and he basically reinterprets it back into the French automobile.” Check out the ornate Jazz age-themed fabric in the interior: it’s quite a contrast to the streamlined car body.

PHOTO BY MICHEL ZUMBRUNN AND URS SCHMID/COURTESY OF IMA
  • Photo by Michel Zumbrunn and Urs Schmid/Courtesy of IMA

2. L'Oeuf Électrique In 1942, Paris was under German occupation. Long lines for gas were common and there was gas rationing. What to do? Go electric! Industrial designer and artist Paul Arzens’ L'Oeuf Électrique (the Electric Egg), was the world’s first Bubble Car; it hinted at the coming dominance of French minicar production after WWII. It could go up to 60 miles on a single charge, but it couldn’t go more than 37 miles per hour. Not the safest vehicle in the world, needless to say. And with its unadorned aluminum frame, it wasn’t the sort of thing James Bond would drive. He might, however, have been able to fit a baguette or two in the seat beside him if he so chose. This car, unlike the others, is on display at the head of the Contemporary Design exhibition on the IMA’s second floor.

PHOTO BY PETER HARHOLDT/COURTESY OF IMA
  • Photo by Peter Harholdt/Courtesy of IMA

3. The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone XP-74, the 38th experimental car that General Motors created, might be described as a Wet Dream Car. It was designed by one Harley Earl who named the prominent bumpers after a big-breasted Hollywood starlet. The “Dagmars” were composed of dual chromed bullet-point protrusions. This is a car that James Bond would certainly drive, not only because of the bumpers, but because of the Plexiglas bubble-top that closed automatically when sensing rain. Also having proximity sensors, it was a vehicle way ahead of its time. But, of course, being way ahead of its time was not necessarily a selling point in its time, or feasible for mass production. “You can see why visual appeal is so important, right?” Schleuning says of this one. “If I were to talk to you about proximity sensors… in a car that was like hideously ugly, who would care?"

PHOTO BY MICHAEL FURMAN/COURTESY OF IMA
  • Photo by Michael Furman/Courtesy of IMA

4. The 1936 Stout Scarab designed by William B. Stout. Stout, who built this car by hand, was a start-up kinda guy, a Steve Jobs of his time. He was right about it being the car of the future because it was essentially the prototype for the Volkswagen Bus, but he wound up making only about nine of them. “He marketed it as a mobile living room,” Schleuning said. “It had movable furniture, you could wipe it down. And you could have your drink and it won’t spill even if you’re on gravel road going at high speed."

PHOTO BY DAN GROSSMAN
  • Photo by Dan Grossman

5. If you think the 1970 Lanica (Bertone) Stratos HF Zero looks like a Star Wars X-Wing fighter — with its pop-up windscreen for a door — then you would be down the right road to understanding its creator. Syd Mead worked for Ford in their planning division but grew up in Hollywood; He did the set design for Blade Runner, Alien and Tron. “His job is to conceive of what people can’t imagine to build,” Schleuning said. Maybe this car reflects the history of how we imagine the future which seemed like a much better place one time very long ago in a land far away.

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