The name Viktor Schreckengost doesn't carry the broad, easy recognition of Raymond Loewy, Harley Earl, or other more well-known designers. Many designers know very well who he is, and for good reason. His body of work and his reach to things we know and love is unparalleled.
One of six children, Schreckengost was born in 1906 in Sebring, Ohio. He graduated from the Cleveland School of the Arts (now the Cleveland Institute of Art) in 1929.
Schreckengost is often referred to as the 'American DaVinci' -- a reference to the caliber, breadth and depth of his talents and contributions. His body of work includes noted pottery designs, well-known sculptures, industrial design on numerous objects, bicycle designs, pedal car designs, chairs, elegant watercolors, the innovation of the modern cab over engine truck design, critical research on radar feedback, and over 50 years of teaching industrial design. The words of his Foundation may be the best summary of the the scale of his work:
Every adult in America has ridden in, ridden on, drunk out of, stored their things in, eaten off of, been costumed in, mowed their lawn with, played on, lit the night with, viewed in a museum, cooled their room with, read about, printed with, sat on, placed a call with, enjoyed in a theater, hid their hooch in, collected, been awarded with, seen at a zoo, put their flowers in, hung on their wall, served punch from, delivered milk in, read something printed on, seen at the World's Fair, detected enemy combatants with, written about, had an arm or leg replaced with, graduated from, protected by, or seen at the White House something created by Viktor Schreckengost.
This being a place dedicated to motor culture, one might wonder where Viktor Schreckengost, who didn't work much in automotive, fits into our picture.
To answer that, lets look at a quick snapshot of the careers of a few other designers.
- Joe Oros was head of the studio that designed the original Ford Mustang.
- Giuseppe Delena was chief of Ford truck studios, and a chief designer for Ford of Europe for years.
- Jerry Hirschberg headed design at Pontiac and Buick from 1964 to 1980, designed the 1971 Buick Riviera, and went on to become the President of Nissan Design International, which developed the first Nissan Pathfinder, Altima, Maxima, Pulsar NX, and others.
- Sid Ramnarace designed the Ford Edge and the fifth generation 2005 Ford Mustang.
All these designers - and many hundreds of others - have one thing in common: They all studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art under Schreckengost.
His reach in the automotive realm goes beyond education. In 1932 Schreckengost teamed up with engineer Ray Spiller to design the first cab-over-engine truck for White Truck.
The laws of the time limited truck length to 42 feet on the highways. By locating the cab over the engine, they could shave several feet of cab length, adding it back to the trailer length, increasing capacity. According to Schreckengost, “The man who bought one of those could pay for it in one year with the additional hauling load.” The American standards have long since relaxed, but this design principal is still used throughout much of the rest of the world where such standards still apply.
Perhaps one of the most lasting impressions Schreckengost left on motor culture was his work in pedal cars and bicycles. Schreckengost didn't invent the child's pedal car, but before he designed them, they were prohibitively expensive for most families to buy. He made them attainable.
As Murray-Ohio's chief bicycle designer in the late 1930s, Schreckengost used scrap sheet metal and a simplified design to make yet another high-end toy accessible to children.
If you had a sit-in toy car or a cool bike as a kid, chances are Viktor's fingerprints are somewhere on them.
For many of us, that was where we got our first taste. Where it began. Sitting in those toy cars, or riding our bikes imagining what could be...
He was responsible for nothing less than providing fuel to the gear-headed imaginations of generations of children.
Beyond his impact on motor culture, Viktor is best known to the rest of the world as the designer of the Jazz Bowl - a ceramic piece created for Eleanor Roosevelt during her husband's Presidency. It sold at auction in 2004 for over $250,000
HIS LIFE BEYOND PRODUCT DESIGN
When World War II began, Viktor was 37 years old, so not eligible for the draft. He was also working for several defense contractors in the Cleveland, Ohio area. By 1943, however, he decided that he wanted active duty, so he joined the US Navy.
The Navy quickly recognized Viktor's skills, so he was assigned to a top-secret project: radar object recognition, which entailed producing accurate terrain models for infantry movements. As a Navy expert, he was secretly flown to Europe to trouble-shoot problems the Allies were having with their radar during the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war ended, Viktor was made the Commanding Officer at the Naval Research Center in New York. There he worked on projects ranging from voice recognition through radio static to improving the design of artificial limbs. He left active duty in 1946 after being awarded a special commendation by the Secretary of the Navy.
He continued to hold an adjunct role with the CIA until his passing in 2008 at the age of 101.
His body of work is, for lack of a better word, is incredible. Even among other members of what is now rightfully called 'the Greatest Generation', he was prolific.
In 2006, Schreckengost was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor the federal government can bestow on an American artist.