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  • Words by Mr Tom M Ford, Features Writer, MR PORTER

This summer, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville presents Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles. It is the first major exhibition of its kind, for which 18 unique cars have been painstakingly sourced by Virginia-based curator Mr Ken Gross for their history, style and sheer Art-Deco audacity.

An auto writer for more than 40 years and former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA, we spoke to Mr Gross about this priceless "kinetic art", how these beautiful cars came to be, and what they mean in contemporary culture. "The classic cars of the Art-Deco age remain today as among the most visually exciting, iconic and refined designs of the 20th century," he says.

There are 18 cars in Sensuous Steel - which is your favourite?
That's tough! The car that epitomises everything about Art Deco is the 1937 Delahaye 135 MS Roadster by Figoni & Falaschi. I call it a "Paris gown on wheels". It's a feminine car, but underneath it has muscles. It's curvaceous, impossibly impractical, stunning from any angle. You arrive in that car.
What's the story behind it?
It was built as a one-off roadster for the 1937 Paris Auto Salon. It was stunning but also novel in terms of engineering - the aerodynamics, special lightweight seats and the convertible top. It was purchased after the salon by the Ambassador of Brazil, but by 1939 a Frenchman bought it and stored it away on the Côte d'Azur until an Italian army officer took it. He fled the war and the owner found it in Milan in 1947. He restored it at the Figoni workshop and the finishing trim touches were applied by Hermès. [US car connoisseur] Mr Miles Collier bought it in 2001 and restored it. The Collier Collection is one of the most important collections in the US - it houses everything from Porsches to Gary Cooper's Duesenberg.

People would obtain a chassis from the factory and it was then taken to a coachbuilder; they looked at sketches and picked fabrics and leathers - the cars were bespoke

What do you admire about Art-Deco design?
I love the simplicity of it. My friend Gary Vasilash [the editor of Automotive Design & Production] talks about the combination of fine lines and curves - which are both simple and complex. It's immediately recognisable. It's like the judge that was asked to define pornography. I can't define it, but I know it when I see it! These cars are kinetic art. Ralph Lauren's cars have been in the Louvre in Paris - people accept them as modern sculpture.
How do cars fit in among the general Art-Deco explosion during the 1920s and 1930s?
From 1930 to the outbreak of war in 1939, the Great Depression impacted. There were, however, people who could afford a special automobile. By 1937 and 1938, people felt the threat of war. It was a case of "let's enjoy this while we can". People would obtain a chassis from the factory and it was then taken to a coachbuilder; they looked at sketches and picked fabrics and leathers - the cars were bespoke.
Were these cars prime examples of their day?
Yes. They were expensive and exclusive, with technical innovations. The Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow sedan won the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress exposition. The fenders are completely enveloped. Instead of the spares being out on the running board, they are hidden under the fenders. It amazed people. The Chrysler Airflow - that was almost too advanced. People didn't want their cars to look like a teardrop.
The 1934 Edsel Ford Model 40 Speedster is the only one of its kind. Who owns it and how much would it fetch?
When Edsel Ford [the son of Mr Henry Ford] died in 1943 it was sold as part of his estate to owners in California. Edsel & Eleanor Ford House purchased the car for more than $1.3m two years ago and spent a lot of money restoring it. It'd be north of $5m at auction.

It's wonderful to be in an old car. Your mind goes back in time - the smells, air changes and mechanicalness of the shifting gears

Do you have any other interesting stories?
The Bugatti type 57C was a wedding gift from the government of France to the Prince of Persia - to keep that oil flowing! In 1930, people were interested in the Jordan Model Z Speedway Ace roadster, but the Depression had hit. I wrote an article in the 1970s saying that it had gone forever, but a man called Jim Stecker who lived in Cleveland read that article, found the car and restored it. I've never been so glad to be wrong. The 1929 Cord L-29 Cabriolet was owned by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He thought the architecture of the Cord - a front-wheel drive with a low silhouette - complemented his buildings.
What attracts you to automobiles?
I bought my first issue of Road & Track when I was 12 years old. My neighbour had a sporty MG TC, which I loved - it wasn't a "turgid, jelly-bodied clunker" like writer Ken Purdy's description of US cars. Last summer I drove a Cord 812 Convertible coupé from Virginia to Auburn, Indiana, where they were made. It's wonderful to be in an old car. Your mind goes back in time - the smells, air changes and mechanicalness of the shifting gears.
What cars do you own?
I had two Ferraris and a Lamborghini, but now I have a garage full of vintage Fords, including a 1939 convertible coupé and a 1940 coupé. I used to work on them when I was in high school. I have a 1932 Ford Roadster, which is quite a hot rod. I love the opportunity to drive old cars - it's like a pilot with his logbook. The leather, wood construction and ambience is totally different from a modern car. You have to get into a mind-set too - these cars won't stop in time!
How does the construction of cars then compare to now?
It's almost totally different. There were no safety regulations - nothing about emissions in the 1930s. A designer was free to do as he pleased. A lot of these cars are svelte; the tyres are thin. Modern cars have wider wheels to accommodate the likes of disc brakes.
Do you think we'll feel any of the same nostalgia about contemporary cars?
We'll never see cars like these again, but there are certain cars today that are exciting - Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins. They really perform. You couldn't have imagined more than 500bhp back then. But the utilitarian cars, I don't think so. It won't be the same.
Do Art-Deco cars influence modern ones?
Designers today love to look to the past for styling cues - the roof lines, for example. The 1934 Type 46 Bugatti has a radical windshield and a perfect curve that runs over the top. You'll find that line on some modern cars of the past 10 or 15 years. People love that purity of form.

Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles runs from 14 June to 15 September at Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, US. For ticket information click here.