“Reflections on the Performing Art of the American Automobile”
By John Hendricks – Museum Founder
Cars reveal something very intriguing about the human spirit. I discovered this at an early age. Long before I succumbed to the sculptural beauty of the Duesenbergs, Packards, and Auburns of the 1930’s, I experienced cars as magic machines that provoked dreams of adventure on the open road.
When I was five years old in 1957, I had already become captivated by a world full of automobiles. I knew all the names and model years of the cars we passed on the highways and my father would delight in showing off my knowledge to his friends. To a child growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, cars represented adventure and exploration. My imagination was fueled by my father’s beautiful old road maps from the 1930’s that romanticized journeys on the American road. My dad had traveled extensively in the western United States as a young man and he regaled me with stories of his journeys. He still had his old road maps that helped me understand where his adventures took place. I fondly remember sitting behind the wheel of his parked 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook with the well-worn Sinclair Oil maps of Colorado and Utah by my side as I fancied myself driving across the country to the Wild West. For some reason, Provo, Utah was a favorite fantasy destination. I guess I just liked the sound of that place, Provo.
And so to me, from the very beginning, a car represented an adventure machine that could transport me to places unknown. All of the wonders of the United States seemed within reach if only I could drive the dowdy Plymouth that sat in the driveway.
Our family moved to Huntsville, Alabama when I was age six. It was 1958 and Huntsville was the center of the nation’s new space program. Werner Von Braun and his rocket team were hard at work on the Redstone Rocket that would carry a satellite to orbit. Little did I know, orbiting satellites would someday make my career in cable television possible.
It was the summer of 1959 when my big sister’s new boyfriend came over for a visit in a car I’ll never forget. In some way, my life changed that day as my sense of the aesthetic was abruptly awakened by the glistening curves of his 1958 Corvette that literally roared into my life. I simply could not stop touching every curve and every piece of chrome. After all the gawking neighbors had left, I was still there admiring the marvelous machine. The sculpted form of the Corvette that had emerged from Harley Earl’s design team at General Motors had successfully produced the first true experience of art for a 7-year old boy in Alabama. And it was art that rolled and growled. I was taken for a ride. To this day, I can still remember the warm wind in my face, the head-jerking acceleration, and being pushed tight against the door in left turns taken at speeds that would have sent the Plymouth tumbling off the road. I fell in love with speed and power and art all in one summer afternoon.
Like countless other little boys across America, I busied myself with model car building and relished the successful completion of every Chevy, Ford, and Chrysler. In school, I perked up when the teacher told us where rubber came from, how friction stopped a car, or how a battery stored energy. Science, nature, history, and geography just seemed to sink in more when there was a car involved.
On my 16th birthday in the spring of 1968, I took possession of my first car, a gift from my sister and her husband. The black 1959 Ford Galaxie 500 was such a beast with its 352 cubic-inch, 300-horsepower Thunderbird V-8 engine. What the massive Ford lacked in design art was more than made up in roaring performance under the hood. In irresponsible teenage style, I soon ruined the automatic transmission by burning rubber at 40 mph, revving the engine in neutral and shifting to 2nd gear much to the delight of my friends…at least until the day the transmission nearly twisted out from under the car. I was grounded for a few months until a new mistress of motion beckoned to me.
One simply cannot understand the allure of the Camaro unless you were a teenage male somewhere in America in 1967 and 1968. For over a year, I plotted with my father on how such a prize could be obtained. A key number is still etched in my mind: $82.17. According to my father, that was the monthly car payment required for the purchase of a new Camaro having a sticker price of $2,575. An after school job for me and generosity from my parents resulted in a 1968 white Camaro coupe that was the envy of my classmates.
To this day, the curves of the Camaro coupe, which were influenced by Harley Earl’s Corvette styling, seem to capture a design movement that transcends function and stimulates an unmistakable experience of sculptural art by the beholder. We are still drawn to the Camaros of the late 1960’s. Auto enthusiasts today, my son included, eagerly await the rebirth of the 1969 Camaro courtesy of modern design talents like Chip Foose and modern coachbuilders like Unique Performance. The 1969 Camaro coupe, like the 1958 Corvette, have etched a timeless expression of rolling art in the collective consciousness of those who can see beyond function in transportation.
In the decades since I was a teenager transfixed by the Camaro, I have had the pleasure of owning and experiencing automobiles, both foreign and domestic, which attempt to combine an experience of sculptural art with thundering engine performance. While I treasure my experiences on winding country roads in a Porsche, I continue to be fascinated most by the American spirit of automotive style and performance. From Augie and Fred Duesenberg’s Model J that set the world standard for performance and elegance in the 1930’s to Steve Saleen’s stunning S7 and its racing version that set a new track record for the famed 24 hours at Le Mans in 2002, American ingenuity for achieving performance in a vehicle clothed in sculptural art should, in my opinion, be recognized and celebrated. The 1939 Packard by Howard ‘Dutch’ Darrin and the 1954 Olds F-88 by Harley Earl offer ample proof that America’s reach through the years to achieve “performing art” in automotive design is second to none.
There is a story to be told about the pioneering spirit of America’s automotive entrepreneurs. There are tales of innovation, engineering, design, and business success and failure that offer lessons to all who desire to comprehend the workings of the free enterprise system in addressing our need to move as a society. Telling these stories is the mission of the Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum, an educational facility that our family created in Gateway, Colorado, adjacent to our Gateway Canyons Resort.
Yes, I made it to Colorado. It was inevitable. And when you visit our auto museum located in the spectacular red rock canyon country of western Mesa County, Colorado, you will know why. This is a place where remote journeys into the unspoiled American West by car, by foot, by horseback, and by raft are still possible. This is where the planet opens up in awe-inspiring canyons that reveal the ancient story of the earth’s formation. It is a place where the lush ponderosa pine forests of the Colorado plateau intersect with the desert under the watchful gaze of the snow-covered La Sal Mountains of Utah. This is the country where the car commercials are filmed, the place where SUVs are perched atop towering buttes and rock monuments. It is the place that symbolizes the American spirit of adventure and exploration. It is the place for me.
Working with The Nature Conservancy and the Mesa Land Trust, our family is conserving thousands of acres of pristine wilderness lands surrounding the old mining settlement of Gateway. In Gateway, we are participating in the re-establishment of the small community’s economic life through the development of a light tourism-based economy that can help replace local jobs that were lost during the collapse of the mining industry decades ago. The renewal effort is anchored by the Gateway Canyons Resort that serves as a base for unique eco-friendly adventures on our private conservation lands. All structures in the resort, including the auto museum, are constructed in adobe-style southwestern architecture utilizing earth-tone exteriors that enhance rather than detract from the surrounding high-desert landscape.
The Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum is home to the Hendricks Collection. These are the cars that for me represent America’s century-long quest for “performing art” in vehicles that allow us all to undertake our personal journeys of discovery. Through the years, I’ve developed an acquisition list of those cars that “speak” to me about American aspirations for art, performance, and adventure. If I had to pick one car that best illustrates the collection theme, it would be the 1937 Hudson Terraplane. The famed aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, endorsed the Terraplane and it was marketed through advertising campaigns that conveyed the key role of the car in exploring the wonders of the planet: “In the air it’s aeroplaning, on the sea it’s aquaplaning, but on the land it’s Terraplaning.” In addition to achieving a timeless work of art deco sculptural design in the Terraplane, the Hudson Motor Car Company aimed to break several land speed records with the Terraplane and did so. By 1934, the Terraplane held 50 hill-climb records, the flying mile record at 85.8 mph, and the standing mile at 68 mph. A six-cylinder Terraplane broke the Pikes Peak climb record in 1932, and in 1933 the new straight-eight Terraplane broke the record of the six. Many of the Terraplane’s records stood until 1951. For me, the fast and beautiful 1937 Terraplane clearly represents the achievement of performing art in the American automobile.
From Henry Leland’s elegant little 1906 closed Cadillac coupe that kept the driver protected from the elements to the large and powerful 1961 Chrysler 300G with its graceful swept-wing styling, American car builders have always had more in mind than utility. Through the years, our country’s car designers have given full expression to the American spirit of adventure and style. We have wrapped ourselves in their metallic visions of art and power and we have been forever changed as a society. Our changing moods and artistic tastes have been frozen in time and steel. Cars are objects worthy of study.
I hope you enjoy your visit to the Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum. The treasures and aspirations of a society on the move await your discovery.