Friday, May 17, 2013

The 1949 Mercury Dash Gauge Set. Be like James Dean.

One of the all-time top custom cars from a builder's view-point is the 1949 to 1951 Mercury. In any top ten list of famous hot rod creations you'll find a representative, usually the Sam and George Barris collaboration on the Bob Hirohata -owned 51 Merc...

 There was also the cachet of coolness given to it by dint of a 49 being the ride of James Dean in "Rebel Without A Cause".

 And of course,  it was the club car of the Pharoahs in the classic "American Graffiti" film...

A 1950 version was even featured as the "badass" ride of Cobra, in the Sylvester Stallone flick of 1986.

Why was this such an influential car?
For one, this was a three-year only body style, with cosmetic variations. It was a radical shift from the 1948 model...

And it's smooth body lines made it a perfect canvas for different body trim and grilles.

Since it's introduction,  a popular choice for hot-rodders has been the one-year only 1949 Mercury dash gauges. 

They are easy to remove from a dead car, they are dependable (made by Stewart Warner) and they are clean and sharp-looking...

They have a beautiful silver swirl pattern to them, a heavy-chrome finish, and the only major update is upgrading from the original six-volt to twelve-volt flow. I see these in older customs, like this set-up in the Bob Longie of Hawaii 1932 Ford roadster, from 1953...

Here's the Tom Wilson 1928 Ford roadster pickup, with the set mounted and framed by some cool pinstriping, including one sketch of the "L'il Devil"...

You can still pick these up relatively cheap, and I say they're a great acquisition because they're simple, the silver color scheme is easy to plug into most painted dashes, and well, they're from the 49 Merc, still one of the coolest cars ever built!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby: How Baz Luhrman Ruined The Great Book's Car Metaphors

"When I was a boy, I dreamed that I always sat at the wheel of a magnificent Stutz, a Stutz as low as a snake and as red as an Indiana barn."
  -from The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald

1918 Stutz Bearcat

The significance of cars in the Fitzgerald oeuvre is rarely examined, yet they pervade his writings. Nearly every desired female is mentioned at the wheel of a car, with an evocative description that makes you wonder if it was the car or the girl the author was really lusting after. 
In the halcyon days of Fitzgerald's youth, the car was the wonder of the ages. Men were unyoked from animals, and  horsepower now represented flight, and speed, and a chariot to sweep up your new love with.
It was symbolic of both freedom and danger.

Cover Art, Motor Magazine, March 5th, 1914

And in The Great Gatsby, the theme continues, from the mention of Daisy's white roadster (white; purity, innocence) to Gatsby's gold Rolls Royce (gold is an obvious symbol, combined with the money-green colored interior) and Tom's simple "blue coupe". These are easy gimmes for a film director. Fitzgerald has lain out for the reader exactly what cars, with what colors, equated to what symbolism. The other female lead is even named Jordan Baker, for Pete's sake, her name an obvious combination of two of the most popular car brands of the time.

But Baz Luhrman knows better than the guy who wrote the story. And he spies with his little directorial eyes, cars that are flashier, newer, and "cooler" (to him, at least).

In the previous 1974 Gatsby film they tried, in this regard, to be true to the book. Redford drove a canary-color 1928 Rolls Royce Phaeton, a car with a build-provenance of a few years later, but still it's the right model. 

The blue coupe in the film is a coupe convertible, I believe, nice, but staid, with the "risky" choice of blue instead of the standard black giving off just the right amount of Brooks Brothers-inspired sheen.

Baz Luhrman is a director known for his cross-pollination of genres. He bounces Jay-Z and Jack White off the soundtrack of his 1920's movie, and integrates 2013 manners with the Jazz age. But in The Great Gatsby, the strains of the dominant art-deco stye of the time run visually throughout the film, and the costumes are stunning and period evocative. In a general sense, he respects the time-frame. He doesn't show Nick Carraway popping a Hot-Pockets into a microwave, or Gatsby swimming in clam-diggers. 
But he does take some of the most potent symbols of the book, the automobiles, and update them with cars from a different era and different body, simply because they are more awesome.

Gatsby roars by Tom's rented house in a canary-yellow car, but it's not an opulent Rolls Royce; it's a supercharged Duesenberg, an automobile not available in 1922 when the novel takes place, or 1925 when the book was published, but years later in 1929.

 And because Baz wanted Duesies, but couldn't afford them (they run in the millions) he had two replicars shipped from Chicago and re-painted. But he still left in the tacky interiors with the cheap 1980's gauges in the dashboard. When Tom looks at the gas gauge of Gatsby's car, we're "treated" to the sight of a $25, off-the-shelf aftermarket instrument. It's as if Daisy slips into her beaded flapper outfit, and then pulls on a pair of Sketchers sneakers. 

This is a real Duesenberg dashboard, with real Duesenberg instruments...

And here's one from the type of company that made the movie car...

Complete with Stereo Shack AM Radio tuner!

Beautiful and elegant, versus The Autozone down on the corner.

Mr. Luhrman plans on keeping one of the Duesenbergs from the film. Imagine that. 

And Tom rips around in a blue car, alright. A blue 1933 Auburn Speedster. 

Not the moneyed, stately 1922 coupe of the book, but a racing machine with the top down. It should have been a top-quality Packard, like this...

1921 -1922 Packard
Can you see what contrast that would have provided contextually, with Daisy being driven in the upper-class Packard, while Jay wheels around in his bright-yellow Rolls Royce convertible?
Sure, in this movie Gatsby has a bright-yellow convertible, but Tom has a 1933 Speedster (which he maddeningly refers to as a coupe throughout the film), so he has a roadster, too, and it's from even farther in the future!

Had the director went whole hog, and brought in iPhones and dashboard GPS screens, I could have understood. Not enjoyed, but understood. 

But by dropping in two (and more in the crowd scenes) future cars, Baz Luhrman made it very clear that the 1920's were cool. But not as cool as he would have made it. All it took was cherry-picking the sweet parts of other eras and shoehorning them in to this one. The seepage of attitude over substance is why Baz will always be a journeyman, because his personal taste overrides the truth of the story.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

1952 Monte Carlo Race Art, Redux: The Art Of Reynold Brown

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the cover art from the March, 1952 issue of Auto Speed & Sport. It portrayed a check-in from a mid-race moment, rendered against the evening-shadowed hills of the Monte Carlo race course. It's a beautifully-rendered piece, evoking the romance and excitement of mid-Century auto-racing.

Cover Art by Reynold Brown, Auto Speed & Sport Magazine, March, 1952

Imagine how happy I was, then,  to be contacted by the owner of the original artwork that was the basis for the cover. His name is Patrick Kelley, and he took the time to fill me in on some of the details of the picture's story.

He included a snapshot of the framed piece, and even though it's behind glass, the scope of the colors, and the spectrum of rich blues from top to bottom still read magnificently.

The artist was Reynold Brown, a prolific and in-demand artist of the 50's, not just for the occasional car or hunting magazine cover, but also for some of the most memorable movie posters of the era, like the stunning "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman"...

And the first movie I saw in 3-D, at a revival film festival, "The Creature From The Black Lagoon"

But for me, personally, his astounding ability to combine the active and the emotional was a huge plus for the car and pulp magazine cover industry. It really set the standard for others to strive for. Because of Patrick's heads-up, I discovered that another of Reynold's works was already on my blog, this one from the cover of Popular Science, March of 1948

Just that little detail of the dog leaping to safety sells it for me. "Man's Best Friend...Up To A Point." would have been a great alternate title for this painting.

Contrast this with the fine artist, Lester Fagans. Lester was a very good draftsman, whose attention to detail made him a popular choice for cruiseship and boat-maker advertising. He painstakingly choreographed and painted this cover for Popular Science, April 1946.

It's a neat cover, but because there is no humanity, there is no emotion. They might as well be toy cars in a diorama. Reynold would have stuck a hand through the car door window, at least.
Google Reynold Brown sometime, and you'll be amazed at the vast output of an artist whose name nowadays is greeted with a shrug. But show those same shoulder-shruggers some of his unforgettable creations, and you'll see a wonderful grin creep across their faces.

Again, thanks to Patrick for sharing part of his private collection, and thanks to Reynold Brown!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

One-Offs #5: The Reverse-Read Stewart Warner Tachometer

Another in my continuing series on unusual rarities in the gauge and cockpit arenas...

This is a tach that I had not seen before or since I acquired it. It's a reverse-read (counter-clockwise) RPM gauge made by Stewart Warner, in the bigger 5" size.

1950 Stewart Warner Tachometer , Reverse-Read

At first glance, this looks nautical. That gold and black color scheme was similar to popular vintage combinations for boat parts makers like Chris Craft and Century.

Vintage Chris Craft Temperature Gauge

1955 Century Boat Oil Pressure Gauge

Plus, the reverse-read was a much more common calibration for boats, given their preponderance of twin engines...

 However, on closer inspection of the SW tach, we notice a couple of things. The RPM range refers to the INSIDE track graphics, meaning that the revolutions per minute were on on the low end of the scale, signifying big engine, slow revs.

 And naturally, that means that the 70 is the top speed indicator, which doesn't rule out boats, but the lower RPM's make it unlikely.

The back doesn't offer much help...

It has a brass light-hole plug, and brass was the standard case material for boat gauges but the case itself is steel. So no clue there, but it leans towards non-marine use, especially from this time-period.

I didn't dwell on it, and because it had such striking graphics, I just cleaned it up and had it recalibrated so that the outside track now is the RPM range. 7-grand is a decent range to have for any car up into the 1970's. 

This guy would look great paired with a speedo that read clockwise. Imagine stepping on the gas, and watching the speedometer and tachometer needles swing towards each other like High-school lovers running to kiss after returning from a three-month Summer break...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

One-Offs #4: The 1948 Roof-Mounted Red Trippe Spotlight

If you were 19 in 1952, the thing to add to your 1940's custom was a spotlight (or dummy spots, if you were a poseur). They mounted in front of the car door window, and came in handy if you were "spotting" deer out of season, finding your wallet after a make-out session at Perspiration Point, or "spotting" lovely ladies on the sidewalk while cruising the gut.

Here's a great example; a Gil Ayala custom doing the dirty work of push-starting a bellytank racer back in the 1950's...

But one style of spot was less "accessory" oriented, and gave off more of a "We are looking for the one-armed fugitive" vibe, and that was the Trippe Roof-Mount Spotlight.

These were definitely more industrial in design, but still had a nice art deco swag to them. The mid to late-1940's, when these came out, were a time of returning servicemen, and something with a pseudo-military feel would not have given pause to these buyers. Indeed, one of the early ads shows a casually sharp-dressed man operating the light in what hints at an everyday occurence, looking for a house number or sign...

These were almost always in the chrome with clear plexiglass lens, with a ball-handle for multi-directional use. They came unassembled, in a box, with simple directions.

The picture directions that were included also emphasized the domestic use of these lights. I think this may have been a poor judgement call. I can't imagine that there was a pent-up demand for folks wanting mega-spots on top of their brand-new Fords, but hey, I don't run a major parts business.

So here's the "One-Off" aspect of this post. I have had a couple of these lights above, and there's an NOS one on Ebay right now for $600 (ridiculous), but the real rarity is the RED one.
I've never seen one, had one, tasted one. I didn't know they were a thing, but it turns out that they did address that obvious commercial potential that I mentioned earlier. 

Yeah, the coolest job with the coolest swervy hood-light thing. They came out with this variation, same magnificent size (14" long, 5" tall at highest point, and 6" wide at widest point) but with a Judge Dredd Red Visor and top look that yells, "GET OUT OF THE WAY BEFORE THE RED LASER LIGHT DESTROYS YOUR COUPE!"

This is the light I'd love to pick up for my Green Hornet tribute coupe. Of course, I will probably never actually put together that car, except in my head, so I gather all the bits mentally, and this is one. I can see it now...

Tearing around the midnight city blocks, whipping through the slow-rising steam from the manholes, The Red Beam of Justice is piercing the cold blackness of evil.

Alright, that did it, the hunt is on. I can't fight crime without it, so this is officially now on my shopping list. How many more days until Hershey?