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Touring Two Antique Auto Exhibits


Published June 16, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

I spent last week navigating the dream life of the 20th century -- or at least that part of it represented by two unusual Vermont auto shows about 90 miles apart. One exhibition was devoted to the rise and fall of the pedal car, a staple of American childhood for three generations; the other was dedicated to a fabled European marque, available only to very rich adults. Despite differences between the two exhibits -- in subject matter, scope and presentation --both have a lot to say about how subtly and seductively the automobile plaited itself into the imaginative life of the last century.

"Pedal to the Metal," which fills both floors of the Round Barn at the Shelburne Museum, makes skillful use of 70 pedal cars, multimedia commentary and many interactive components to present a vivid history of children's pedal cars from 1905 to 1970. On loan from the Stamford Museum and Nature Center in Connecticut, the exhibition is packed with information, and is designed to appeal to a range of ages and interests.

The Montshire exhibition, by contrast, was considerably more circumscribed in its focus, aims and methods -- not to mention time frame. Accurately billed as a rare chance to view a perfectly restored 1936 Bugatti Atlantic Coupe, the event smacked more of royal audience than traveling educational exhibition. The featured Bugatti -- attended by a guy knowledgeable enough to answer questions and muscular enough to insure that no one got "interactive" -- received admirers for three days, then returned to wherever award-winning automobiles go when they are not arousing envy.

Toy cars have their own unique appeal. As the assemblers of "Pedal to the Metal" were clearly aware, the most interesting thing about pedal-car history is how closely it echoes the history of the auto industry. Like Peter Pan's shadow, it appears sewn on. A 1903 Playthings Magazine features an advertisement for "juvenile automobiles," and the first pedal car in the collection dates from 1905 --six years after Henry Ford built his first factory. A Gendron Champion from 1909 features the longer hood of the newer autos, and even includes a crank.

By 1920, the pedal-car makers had also copied the assembly-line methods of automobile production, and shared its benefits: greater popularity, quality and affordability. Like the big automakers they imitated, the pedal-car manufacturers suffered in the Depression, rebounded in the late 1930s, and retooled their factories for the war effort. They made Toledo their Detroit. After the war, they even shared the services of top Detroit designers like Brock Stevens and Harley Earl, father of the Corvette. Postwar prosperity, growth of the suburbs and a bumper crop of babies made the early 1950s the commercial heyday of the American pedal car: Annual production approached 500,000.

Consequently, there are many pedal cars from this period in the exhibit. Some of them are a lot of fun -- the Gorton Kidillac, for instance, always gets a mention because of its clever name. But for my money, pedal cars had reached their artistic zenith at least a decade earlier.

The finely detailed Gendron Packard from the 1930s is perhaps the most gorgeous pedal car in the exhibit. The sleek 1937 Steelcraft Auburn Supercharge, with its long hood and dramatic streamlining, not only represents the apogee of luxury craftsmanship for pedal cars, but also shows how they got ahead of their adult counterparts: Streamlining, a conspicuous aspect of 1930s industrial design, proved more popular in pedal cars than in full-size automobiles.

Not until the 1940s did fluid lines prevail in Detroit models. I like to think the style was waiting for its customers to mature -- customers who would look back with nostalgia upon a style they originally associated with the glamour of playing grownup.

The glamour of the 1936 Bugatti T57SC Atlantic Coupe was not something I had to hypothesize about. The car is legendary for its speed, raffish good looks and perfect union of avant-garde design and mechanical precision. Lent to the Montshire Museum by trustee and corporation president Dr. Peter D. Williamson, it announced itself immediately to the eye as a rare and exotic model --only three were made -- of a rare and exotic line. Of the 8000 Bugattis produced, around 1600 survive.

Founder Ettore Bugatti came from a family of artists and studied sculpture before he decided on engineering. The vehicles produced under his name were not only visually stunning --the Atlantic Coupe was actually designed by his son, Jean -- but so superbly machined that their engines don't need gaskets in order to make oil-tight seams.

The Bugatti T57SC had appeared, in its unrestored state, with 24 other classic automobiles at the Montshire Museum's "Art on Wheels" exhibit in 1993. More than 5000 hours of meticulous restoration later, the Atlantic Coupe, gleaming in its original grey-blue metallic paint, looked just like what it is: a product first of the imagination, then of aluminum and glass, chrome and leather. And French walnut for the garnish moldings, of course.

It's ironic that I saw more children in Norwich than in Shelburne, where there's a pedal-car riding area for tots, a miniature car racetrack for their older siblings --and even free-play driving video games for teens and uninhibited adults. For all its virtues and good intentions, the exhibit will probably have a hard time attracting a younger demographic. No one under 50 --my age -- is likely to remember the metal pedal cars the exhibit celebrates. Unlike the automobiles they mimic, the history of pedal cars is over. They represent a dead branch on the evolutionary tree.

I am under no illusion that parents' nostalgia has any hold on their offsprings' imaginations --a theory confirmed by my own 9-year-old son. Nor should it. His generation's imagination -- retrospective or visionary -- will drive the next chapter of automotive history.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Motor Heads"