Somewhere between the minimalist horseless carriage and the modern technology-laden, mass produced sedan, there was a time when building cars was more artistry and craft than an exercise in efficient production.
There are certain American cars from that era that have transcended time with their appearance, performance, luxury, and innovations. Stunning cars like the Duesenberg J, The Auburn 851 Boat Tail Speedster, and the classic Cord 810/812. The common element behind those cars was they were all penned by Gordon Buehrig.
Gordon Buehrig was born in Mason City, Illinois in 1904. He and his brother bought their first car together, a 1904 Orient Buckboard, at age 14. When he went off to college in Peoria, he was expelled for drawing car designs on his notebook during a chemistry class. After he ended up driving a cab in Chicago for 6 months following his expulsion, he returned to study drafting, art, and wood and metal working. He left for Detroit before he ever graduated at age 20.
Over the course of only a few years, he worked for Packard, General Motors, and Stutz. In the first few years of his career, Buehrig read 'Towards a New Architecture' by Le Corbusier, the French modernist. "That helped me formulate my theory of design," says Buehrig. "Never do anything without a good reason to do it. A beautiful automobile gets its form from its function.”
Following that mantra, Buehrig quickly became Chief Designer for Stutz. In 1929, he designed the bodies of the Stutz Black Hawks that entered Le Mans. He then quickly transitioned to Chief Designer at Duesenberg, which by that point had already been acquired by E.L. Cord, and folded into the Auburn Company, in Auburn, Indiana. His first project at Duesenberg was to design the Model J, and a series of successive Duesenberg models.
By 1934, he was asked to focus on the Auburn side of the business, to work on their next car, which became the Auburn 851 Boattail Speedster. After this series of quick successes, Buehrig was asked to design the next upcoming Cord model, the 810. When asked to recall his design work for the Cord 810, Buehrig shared, 'The opportunity to work out the design of the new Cord and have it a front-wheel-drive vehicle gave me an assignment as ideal as an automotive designer could imagine.’
In addition to the now-classic aesthetic that was far ahead of it’s time, the 810 was incredibly innovative. Some of the elements Buehrig ensured were incorporated in the new Cord were retractable headlights, a rear hinged hood, an absence of running boards, and no visible radiator. Ultimately these details would all be adopted more broadly by the rest of the industry, but they were introduced on the Cord 810. in 1951, The Museum of Modern Art awarded the Cord 810 as one of the most beautiful cars ever created.
By 1940, due to financial difficulty, the Auburn Cord Duesenberg company closed. Buehrig spent World War II as a drafting engineer and tool designer at aircraft firms. Following the War, he moved through a series of design jobs, including the Raymond Loewy studios.
Several times in his career, Buehrig tried his own efforts at making cars. In 1948, he joined a group of investors who wanted to build a suitable American sports car for a European-type racing event to be held at Watkins Glen, New York. Buehrig was part of the group of investors, and also performed the design work. He oversaw the production of this single prototype vehicle named the TASCA, for The American Sports Car Company. Only one prototype was built. It was the first car in the world with a T-top roof, an idea that Gordon Buehrig patented. He later sued General Motors for infringement when the 1968 Corvette came out with the T-top roof. The front fenders of the TASCA are made of fiberglass and the roof panels are plexiglas.
Buehrig ultimately landed at Ford in 1949. While at Ford, his projects included the 1951 Victoria Coupe and the 1956 Continental Mark II. Later in his career, Buehrig was still innovating. Concepts that he developed during his later years included a two-engine vehicle, similar to today's hybrid vehicles, and a patent for a front-end airbag.
Buehrig retired from Ford in 1965, and went on to teach the next generation of car designers for five years at the Art Center College of Design in California. In an interview held in 1982, a darker time for the American car industry, Buehrig was asked what he thought ailed Detroit. Today's slab-sided cars reflect the "Chiclet school of design," he responded. "They all look too much alike" and are overloaded with "expensive electronic gadgetry." Buehrig argues that in styling, as in sculpture, beauty is a logical result of good design. "Like a woman with a beautiful face and figure," he says, "you don't need to add anything else.” Still holding true to his original beliefs that guided him to design some of the most beautiful American cars ever created.