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August 21, 2007

Faster, hotter, more: Lusty and busty muscle cars sex up new LVAA exhibit

Dodge Charger: Photo courtesy of LVAA An early design of the Dodge Charger that will be on display at the Louisville Visual Arts Association’s ‘Designing An Icon: Creativity and the American Automobile.’The hot, sweet memories of your “first” just won’t quit. She had those unstoppable, circa-1968 lord-help-me curves poured into a perfectly proportioned back end, and it’s hard to forget how hot she could get in so little time, her unparalleled speed and power. Put her on a deserted stretch of highway and she could make a man believe in God — in eight seconds or less. Given enough time and blacktop, even Chris Hitchens would have considered the priesthood.For car aficionados, a teenager’s first American muscle car is a delicious metaphor to an initial sexual encounter, the car often inspiring even more bleary-eyed lust than its able-bodied female parallel. Few other icons have ever paralleled the muscle car’s ability to encompass all the roiling hot hormonal rage of America in the late ’60s and early ’70s. With its arrival, the muscle car was better than sex in a car; it was sex as a car. The Louisville Visual Arts Association’s newest exhibit will showcase the early designs of the American muscle car. “Designing an Icon: Creativity and the American Automobile” promises to be pornography of the automobile genre, appealing to car and art lovers alike. The sketches, paintings, concept drawings and clay renderings on display have never been seen publicly. All of the work was created in highly secure car studios in the early ’60s and ’70s, and has only now come out of storage, after 30 to 40 years vaulted away. More than 25 artists will be represented in the exhibit, which chronicles muscle-car design from 1962 through 1976.The creation of the first muscle cars began with three simple homegrown motivations: faster, hotter, more. Detroit auto manufacturers began dropping high-powered V8 engines into factory car bodies around 1962, providing young drivers on back-country roads a means to have a racecar experience in a street-legal car. The result was contagious, explosively popular and iconic in its design. The oversized engines featured super chargers and special exhaust systems, and created gas-guzzling hot-rodders with enviable power. The automakers’ collective high-water mark can be traced to the early Pontiac GTO, the Chevelle, certain Mustangs, Camaros and the Dodge Charger, among others. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo and (Ralph) Nader’s Raiders eventually marked the cars’ demise, as the automobile safety lobby pushed for stricter safety standards and the increased cost eventually moved the muscle car off the market by the mid-’70s. Because of the cars’ popularity and intense competition, the “Big Three” — Ford, Chrysler and General Motors — kept the designs and early concept architecture under strict secrecy. Manufacturers went to fantastic lengths to prevent corporate espionage of the artwork and designs soon to be displayed. Known among his muscle-car peers as the “Wizard of GM,” Louisville native Bill Porter knows firsthand what it felt like to be the James Bond of auto design in the ’60s. Porter, who got his start in design as a student at the LVAA’s Children’s Free Art Program, would go on to an illustrious 38-year career in auto design, designing many now-classic cars for GM, including the 1970-1973 edition Firebird. muscle cars: Designers for American automakers worked largely in secret designing what would become iconic muscle cars.“There was a tremendous amount of secrecy and paranoia involved in creating these designs,” Porter explains. “We worked in very high security, and even as chief of GM’s Advanced Design studio, I didn’t get to see many of these designs because we weren’t allowed to travel between the studios. The Pontiac designers were not allowed to go down the hall to Chevrolet and see what they were doing. Guards were positioned at all the doors, and every designer had passes that allowed you into certain parts of the building. The guards knew your name, and we went through extensive background checks. Intense isn’t even the word for it.” The paranoia wasn’t entirely unfounded. Porter cites instances of industrial espionage between auto manufacturers looking for the next “big thing” in muscle-car design. Competing manufacturers were engaged in a cutthroat competition to unearth each other’s secrets, and during the muscle-car’s reign, the mood between manufacturers might have been better suited for cage fighting. Manufacturers ruled with an iron fist on their own designers to prevent designs from being shared. Car designers had enviable jobs and chimerical design skills, but smuggling out a sketch of your own work was a promise of instant unemployment.LVAA exhibitions coordinator Kay Grubola grew up in Detroit in the late ’60s and affirms what the cars meant then as icons and mean today as artwork. “The muscle-car era is particularly interesting from an exhibitions standpoint because there was so much going on in America at the time. The Cold War was raging, Vietnam was raging, feminism was emerging, the sexual revolution was beginning — everything was interfused and going on at once. It represented just an incredible energy. So the designs from that era mean something from an artistic and cultural standpoint as well, not only if you enjoy the cars by themselves.” “This exhibit is part of LVAA transforming itself,” says Sarah Yates, LVAA’s executive director. “The shows we host here are often break-out and broadening people’s conception of art — not just looking at pretty pictures on a wall. We’re living in a fully designed world, and so whether our design decisions are beautiful and aesthetic, or tragic, will have a lot to do with a person’s familiarity with the design process. And understanding and appreciating car design is fundamentally a part of that.”  Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com‘Designing An Icon: Creativity and the American Automobile’ Aug. 24-Nov. 10 (reception with Bill Porter Sept. 16)Louisville Visual Arts Association Water Tower3500 River Road  896-2146

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