Saturday morning dawned bright and cool in Salt Lake City. To the west, the Bonneville Salt Flats sat quiet and empty, waiting for the focus of Hoons to turn its way come September. But for now, car enthusiasts’ focus lay squarely on the Utah Museum of Fine Art on the campus of the University of Utah. Housed inside the modern brick building until just after the conclusion of the World of Speed are 19 of the most beautiful, interesting and historical vehicles to congregate in Utah in quite some time.
Speed: The Art of the Performance Automobile was organized by Ken Gross, the former Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and includes a variety of cars classed in four categories:
- Bonneville: The Crucible of Speed
- Speed and Performance for the Road
- Speeding into the Century
- The Golden Age of Racing: 1920s and 1930s
Meandering through the beautiful museum building revealed each of these categories one-by-one, with the first located in the spectacular Grand Hall. Likely the only room large enough to feature the deceptively large Speedomotive Special streamliner, a staffer noted that the engine sound of the truly awe-inspiring Mormon Meteor III echoing through the room was literally breathtaking.
Using the opposite of Frank Lloyd Wright’s compression and release technique, the viewer is guided toward a smaller, more intimate space where the more attainable and common of the exhibit’s cars were displayed. Common, if you consider a 1931 4 1/2 Liter “Blower” Bentley a frequent sighting. With a dashboard of no fewer than two dozen switches, levers and gauges, the Bentley does nothing if not highlight the manner to which modern drivers are spoiled by mechanical and electronic nanny systems. This was a car that must be driven, not just operated.
The fact that the most beautiful car I have ever seen in person takes a back seat to the magnificent Bentley is impressive. A 1954 Ferrari 375MM finished in silver over red leather proved to be an exercise in self control: how long could I snuggle into its sexy confines before I was removed from the premises with a stern warning to never come back?
When you consider that car would probably split a few votes with two others in the room, you get an idea of the quality of the examples shown. Did I mention that Steve McQueen’s Jaguar was in there too?
Located through a portal were the very earliest cars in the collection – ranging from a 1904 Peerless known as the Green Dragon to a 1916 Stutz Bearcat. The brass fittings gleamed in the light in stark contrast to the sexy lines displayed in the previous room. Aerodynamics be damned, these cars made do with brute force – force that propelled the Green Dragon to a record time at the Denver Mile of less than a minute.
In the final gallery were three fine examples from the Golden Age of Racing – defined by this exhibit as the 1920s and 30s. The progression from the very early cars is evident and dramatic. Low slung but still blocky, these racers defined an era where race car drivers were true heroes whose lives were in danger practically every second they sat in the poorly-cushioned seats. Interesting developments abound – a front-wheel-drive Miller racer being a particular highlight.
Salt Lake’s car scene, while small and oftentimes provincial, has long been defined by the Bonneville Salt Flats. As the only game in town, that can be a bad thing or a good thing. When events like this come to town, the tie-in between the two can only be considered an awesome thing.
While you may ask yourself if it is worth $18 to see 19 cars, I submit to you that yes, it most definitely is. There is more detail on one of these race cars than you will likely see in a lineup of mid 60s Mustangs at your local cars and coffee. And, you’ll get to browse the cool kids toys in the gallery gift shop at the end. Finally, keep in mind that the photos and descriptions above barely scratch the surface of this exhibition. There are more cars (like the briefly mentioned Steve McQueen ride) and more details than I could possibly show here. So, be sure to check back later and read Scott Ith’s post about the cars of the Museum parking lot and some of the cool details he saw while curled up inside Steve McQueen’s Jaguar.
Ray Lindenburg is an Associate Editor with Hooniverse.com, but he also contributes to his own site Hatchtopia.com. Head over there for all things hatchback. [Images: Copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Ray Lindenburg]
Special thanks to Shelbey Lang and the staff at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts for their hospitality and assistance.
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