As car collections go, this one sneaks up on you fast as you’re driving down one of San Francisco’s most trafficked thoroughfares. Maybe you catch the glimmer of a massive Duesenberg grille out of the corner or your eye or the egg shape of a vintage BMW Isetta, then the light changes and you’re off. Few folks pull over on busy Van Ness, and fewer still walk it.
That’s a shame, because what lurks inside this stocky building on the corner of Van Ness and Washington streets is nothing short of an award-winning collection of vehicles from the golden age of motoring, from a 1927 Packard Model 343 Murphy Convertible that once belong to racing great Phil Hill to a 1947 Cisitalia 220 Cabriolet, a powder-blue sibling of the red Cisitalia coupe that’s part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
What’s more remarkable is the fact that the cars on display, some 50 out of a rotating group of 226 vehicles, were once part of a private collection that is now open to the public by appointment. They represent the automotive passions of Richard Stephens, the octogenarian former president of San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, who in bequeathing the cars to the school aimed to help students of industrial design — and specifically automotive design — find modernist ideas by spending hands-on time with antique cars.
“Take a look here,” says Tom Matano, executive director of the school’s Industrial Design department, walking over to the passenger side of a rakish 1937 Squire 1.5-Liter Drophead Coupe. He opens the door and smiles: the top hinge is one elongated chrome bar that blends perfectly into the vehicle when shut.
“I feel like I know most of these cars and their intricacies pretty well, but I’d never noticed this,” says Matano. “It shows you that there are many ways to be inspired.”
Matano knows a little bit about drawing from the past to create an icon for the present. He was the guiding light of a Mazda design team that deconstructed the inherent simplicity and beauty of cars like the original Lotus Elan in order to come up with the original Miata. That car’s 1989 debut single-handedly revived the small-convertible market in the U.S., and remains a touchstone for Mazda’s “Zoom Zoom” brand image.
The Academy’s students are putting this treasure trove to good use. Recently, they were challenged by the holders of the Duesenberg name to come up with drawings and physical mock-ups of what a new Duesy would look like if it were to hit the market now. Hallways in the school’s building, which fittingly was a Dodge/Plymouth dealership in the 1930s, are lined with student designs; in the case of the Duesy project, they show a streamlined but large car in both coupe and 2+2 form that would stop traffic if it were to materialize.
A few floors up from the sidewalk-level collection, a dozen students have broken into teams to come up with ideas for another car company-fueled project. Tesla, the electric car maker whose headquarters are an hour south in Palo Alto, has Academy design students dreaming up would-be interiors for the Model X mini-ute, the company’s lower-priced sequel to its current flagship, the Model S sedan.
Fellow design student Bolfin Lavarreda nods in agreement. “One car down there even has rugs made from mink,” says the 29-year-old Los Angeleno. “Heaven.”
Trips down to the lobby, once the former dealership’s vast showroom on San Francisco’s automotive row, are frequent for Academy students. Matano says it’s important that his charges understand the roots of automotive design.
“If we’re working on a small car project, I immediately bring them down here to see the (1957) Isetta 300 and the (1954) Messerschmitt (KR175),” he says. “From that, you can create what’s next.”
Matano laments the fact that automotive design of late has remained stagnant, “more tweaking little things as opposed to a change of proportion or architecture.” In fact, when the Miata bowed, it was just such a radical statement, a departure from the market’s larger convertibles which were coupes with their tops sheared off as compared to Matano’s purpose-built drop-top.
He says only regulatory changes spurred by radical shifts in manufacturing will lead to the next generation of car design. If, for example, carbon-fiber prices suddenly came way down then designers would have a vastly different set of tools and options.
If and when such a time comes, Matano hopes his students will be ready to pounce thanks in part to Stephens’ gift. “You can Google images of classic cars all you want,” he says, laughing. “But that’s nothing like standing right next to one and feeling the power of its shape.”
That point is hammered home as Matano ends the tour back in the lobby. On hand is Paul Borgwardt, who oversees the collection’s daily maintenance (all the cars are registered and operational) and occasionally restoration (the 1927 Packard was named Best in Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1977, while a Packard, Duesenberg and Cadillac have all taken Best in Class honors there over the years).
Borgwardt stands next to a positively massive 1928 Daimler Royal Limousine, the twelfth of 12 such cars ever built that features ingenious gravity-based power-windows and an interior recalls an English parlor. “There were no carpets for the car, so when we restored it we had a mill recreate the fabric,” he says matter-of-factly.
From there, he glides over to a literally glittering 1949 Delahaye Type 175 Saoutchik, whose dash fixtures are gold plated and whose gear-lever is a delicate toggle straight out of 2049. “It was made for the Paris Auto Show, and you can tell its purpose really was to dazzle,” says Borgwardt. “Like a few of our cars, this one was part of (Las Vegas casino magnate Bill) Harrah’s collection. Mrs. Stephens fell in love with it.”
With their exquisite detail and over-the-top proportions, it’s hard to see how elements of this collection wouldn’t fuel the auto designers of tomorrow. While today’s automotive industry may indeed be a far cry from the bustling and dynamic business it once was, there’s no reason why what is produced today can’t carry some of the whimsy and style of yesteryear, Matano says.
As if to prove the point, he walks over to one of the collection’s showpieces, a 1935 Duesenberg SJ Murphy Convertible Coupe.
At first glance, it is a giant piece of sculpted metal and glass - so it’s startling that Matano immediately compliments the car’s svelte sense of proportion. But he’s right. Stare a bit longer and you realize that its bulk aside, the car feels just right, at once grand but also sleek and almost menacing.
Matano giggles, then points to the headlights and the gleaming chrome links between them.
“Look, they move the headlights as the car turns, what you’d call active headlamps on a modern car,” he says with a pleased smile. “They had it all the way back then already. So, you see, we can learn a lot from the past.”
Photos: Bob Toy/Academy of Art University