The automobile was one of the most transformative technologies of the 20th century. Cars radically changed nearly everything about how we work and play.
But cars are also simply beautiful objects. The eighth annual Art of the Car Concours, a benefit for the Kansas City Art Institute scholarship fund, exists to celebrate that beauty.
The show features more than 200 exquisitely preserved and meticulously restored vintage, classic and special-interest vehicles arrayed on the KCAI grounds.
Marshall Miller, founder and chairman of the Art of the Car Concours, described the event as a labor of Midwestern love.
“We had nothing like it in our part of the country. So, over the last nine years we have built it from 70 vehicles, all from the local community, to a show that now has about 210 vehicles from 15 states.”
It’s a remarkable display of vehicles, with cars built as far back as the 1890s all the way up to a 2016 Buick Cascada.
There will be vintage motorcycles and a collection of kids’ toy pedal cars, too.
One showpiece oddity, shipped in from Michigan, is a painstakingly rebuilt GM Futurliner. The bright red, art deco-styled custom bus with a midsection that opens for display was styled by legendary GM designer Harley Earl.
Typically, a concours will reward restoration and preservation skills. Not so with Art of the Car. Unlike the usual concours, there will be no judges wandering around.
“We don’t have people dressed up in coats and ties with straw hats and sometimes white gloves going around to see if the third screw on the right next to the radiator is the correct one,” Miller said.
The best of show award-winners are chosen democratically by attendees, he said.
“Everybody that comes in the door gets a ballot.”
That makes this event significantly less snooty than the well-known concours in, say, Paris or Pebble Beach, Calif. Which is fitting. As the name suggests, the idea behind Art of the Car isn’t handing out awards to successful hobbyists and collectors. The point is sheer, simple appreciation of the automobile.
“The term ‘Art of the Car’ was first developed by a woman named Kathleen Collins, who was then president of the Kansas City Art Institute,” Miller said. “Her concept, and mine, was that automobiles are just another form of art, no different than painting or ceramics or woodwork.
“Our show appeals not just to people who are interested in automobiles. We get a very significant percentage of people who come from the arts community.”
The show, in other words, is not a celebration of the car as a world-shaping transit technology. Art of the Car, as indicated by its setting on the KCAI campus, is meant to be an aesthetic experience. The cars are presented as objects for appreciation and interpretation. We are invited to regard them sensually, as mixed-media sculptures, admirable for lusciously curved fenders, gleaming chrome-covered bumpers or the sultry rumble of a well-tuned engine.
Or we are to consider, for example, how the massive fins of cars in the 1950s were manifestations of America’s newly gaudy sense of self.
One could argue that cars are not art. Because art, strictly speaking, has no purpose beyond aesthetic contemplation, and that’s not true for most of the cars that will be on display this weekend. Like the 1937 Delahaye 145 V12. It may be beautiful, but the vehicle was built for speed and proved it by beating teams from Mercedes-Benz and Audi in the inaugural French Grand Prix.
The “cars aren’t real art” argument, however, holds less sway in light of the show’s special focus.
“This year we are focusing on dream cars,” Miller said.
Also called concept cars, dream cars are the wildly experimental, often futuristic prototypes most commonly seen at auto shows. They weren’t designed to be driven but rather as inspiration, and Art of the Car will offer some gems. Like a Mercury XM-800, introduced at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show. Though it never left the concept stage, many of the XM-800’s design elements were later incorporated into cars that did hit showroom floors.
The same goes for the 1977 Aerovette, with its distinctive, DeLorean-like gull-wing doors.
In an age when fossil fuels are increasingly cause for concern, there’s a special poignancy to all these classic vehicles on display. It’s easy to imagine a time when gas-powered internal combustion engines are no longer the way we move ourselves.
In that future, traditional cars will be relegated to museums, appreciated only for their beauty and the cultural values they represent.
Hampton Stevens writes about entertainment and the arts for regional and national publications. He lives in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter @HamptonStevens.
The Art of the Car Concours is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday on the campus of the Kansas City Art Institute, 4415 Warwick Blvd. Tickets are $20. Admission is free for kids. The concours is a fundraiser for the KCAI scholarship fund. More at ArtOfTheCarConcours.com.
Meet the Legends panel discussion: On Saturday, visiting experts will discuss the 19 concept/dream cars that are part of Sunday’s show. The experts include Wayne Carini, host of the TV show “Chasing Classic Cars,” and collector Ralph Marano. The discussion will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at Epperson Auditorium at the Kansas City Art Institute. Tickets are $25.