Detroit designers have always led the way in iconic car designs. The futuristic concept cars, roaring muscle cars, and sleek racers designed in and around the city shape our ideas of what a car can be. Working on paper, in clay, and in metal, their ideas drive American car culture and inform the way we get around every day. In celebration of Detroit’s history as the hub of American automotive design, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) presents the special exhibition Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020, from November 15, 2020, through June 27, 2021.

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Chrysler Corporation. Plymouth Barracuda, 1970. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
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Chrysler Corporation. Chronos, 1998. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The exhibition highlights the artistry and influence of Detroit car designers working between 1950 and the present day. The exhibition will feature 12 coupes and sedans inside the permanent collection galleries that feature significant achievements in style and technology. The exhibition includes unique examples of celebrated, experimental show cars created for display as well as iconic car models sold to the mass market. Design drawings, many of them rarely seen by the public, and archival photographs will help visitors experience the creative and innovative processes that bring a vehicle from the drawing board to the road.

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“1960 Chrysler,” 1956, Dave Cummins, American; prismacolor on vellum. Collection of Brett Snyder.
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“Ford Nucleon Atomic Powered Vehicle, Rear Side View,” 1956, Albert L. Mueller, American; gouache, pastel, prismacolor, brown-line print on vellum. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards.

The exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to learn how designers create the beautiful forms of the iconic cars that captivate our imaginations. The iconic cars and drawings on display are striking examples of their inventive skill. They also document the changing landscape of American culture from 1950–2020, using new technologies to appeal to the fantasies and ambitions of their day.

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“The Unfair Advantage,” 2003, Kristin Baker, American; acrylic on PVC on board. Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut, Gift of Pam and Jack Baker, 2017.

The iconic cars, four representing each of the Big Three American automakers, will share the galleries with a selection of modern and contemporary paintings and a sculpture that highlight the conversation between the American art world and car culture.

“The automotive industry and the city of Detroit are synonymous with one another, so it seems only fitting that the DIA be the museum to showcase the rich history of car design in the city. This exhibition will showcase the similarities between the art of car design and the creative process sculptors of the past used to create their masterpieces. Just like sculptors, they start with drawings and preliminary sketches, then produce clay models and from there, “manufacture” the final product.”

said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons.

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Detroit Style marks the first time iconic cars have been inside the museum since 1983. Some of the highlights include a 1958 General Motors Firebird III, an experiment in futuristic space-age design with towering fins and an early version of autonomous driving technology. The 1970 Plymouth Barracuda is a legendary Detroit pony car that captured the world’s imagination and still defines the attitude and prowess of American cars. The 2017 Ford GT supercar shows how designers reinterpret the past with new materials and technology to shape visions of the future.

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“Lincoln XL-500 Concept Car,” 1952, Charles E. Balogh, American; watercolor, gouache, airbrush, ink, graphite on illustration board. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards.
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“Rendering of Proposed 1967 Cadillac Eldorado Design,” 1964, Wayne Kady, American; watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper. From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan.

Other exhibition highlights include the emotionally resonant painting Rusting Red Car in Kuau (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) which explores the personal resonances of cars that mark both success and difficult journeys. Standard StationAmarillo, Texas (1963) by Edward Joseph Ruscha (born 1937) is an icon of Pop Art, capturing an American landscape of spaces and symbols shaped by and for the car.

This exhibit is a love letter to Detroit, and a celebration of an artform pioneered in our own backyard. It is a privilege to share some of the stories of the Detroit designers who transformed the modern world with their work.

said Ben Colman, curator of the Detroit Style exhibition.
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“’71 Barracuda Front End Facelift Concept,” 1968, Donald Hood, American; crayon, gouache, ink, felt marker, prismacolor, pastel on vellum. Collection of Robert L. Edwards and Julie Hyde-Edwards.
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“’61 Pontiac Catalina vs. Aerodynamic Streamlined Sedan,” 1959, William Porter, American; prismacolor on vellum. Collection of Bill and Patsy Porter.

Additional elements of the exhibition include a playlist of verbal descriptions, available on the museum’s YouTube page, designed to increase accessibility and to give visitors with vision loss access to select vehicles and artworks in the exhibition. 

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“Toronado Proposal,” 1968, Roger Hughet, American; gouache and prismacolor on illustration board. Collection of Roger Hughet.
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“Ford Mustang,” 1965, Howard Payne, American; prismacolor and gouache on red charcoal paper. Collection of Brett Snyder.
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General Motors. “Corvette Stingray Racer,” 1959. General Motors Heritage Collection.

Visitors and individuals at home will be invited to create their own drawing of an iconic car to submit. A selection of submitted drawings will be featured in the exhibition throughout its run. A worksheet has been created to help inspire people’s ideas. The worksheet will be available on the museum’s website once the exhibition opens, and can be submitted via social media platforms using the #CarsDIA hashtag.

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General Motors. “Firebird III,” 1958. General Motors Heritage Collection.
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“Elwood Engel Design for a Gyroscopically Stabilized Two Wheel Car,” about 1960, Sydney Jay Mead, American; gouache, liquid resist, graphite on illustration board. Collection of Brett Snyder.
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Ford Motor Company, GT, 2017. Collection of Jody and Tara Ingle.
Source: Detroit Institute of Arts

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