The Cars in Great Gatsby

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Chris Martin
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Joined: 2011-08-20

There was a fair review of this latest film version of F Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel on page 54 of the July C&SC.

One comment which Mick Walsh made was the reference to the scene where Jay tells Nick "don't forget we are going up in the hydroplane tomorrow" which does sound more like he is thinking aeroplane rather than boat, and such ambiguity in lines spoken by a leading man in such a big budget superstar movie does rather make one wonder if those involved were so engrossed in style over substance that they were not taking much notice of the actual story.

As for the soundtrack, I was prepared for the worst.  I remember not so long ago Mick made mention of Mark Knopfler's excellent Privateering, one of my favourites from the past year, so I knew we had something in common, but I have to say the soundtrack for the most part was ok, and fitted the scenes without being too intrusive.  As a fan of a lot of pre-WW2 jazz and dance band music as well, I did wonder about the wisdom of going too modern, but I think the compromise worked well enough for the most part.  It would have been too easy to just source a few twenties standards to fill out the soundtrack, but that has been done many times before.

Anyway, enough about the soundtrack, what about the cars?

Yes it is a crucial part of the story that it has to be set in the mid-twenties when the Wall Street Crash is still a few years in the future, but I have a theory about the cars used in the film.

An important part of the story is to show the glitz and glamour that went with that era of conspicuous consumption and I wonder if the point here is that film producers do not thank history (and Fitzgerald) for placing this monetary free-for-all in a period when car design was not yet a well thought out science.

As much as it may annoy those of us who know a ’25 from a ’31, the new look flowing lines from the end of the decade shout art deco and glamour much more than their ancestors, and for the purposes of this no expense spared party crowd the cars used in the film convey a style to the audience far more than any cars strictly from the correct period ever could.

So, we can’t blame Luhrmann for using the Auburn and Duesenberg as props to demonstrate a certain style, and as with the liberties taken with the soundtrack it is the whole product, the whole ‘look’ that he is selling and in that regard, it seems to work.

The point of all of this is to start a debate on when were cars first really ‘designed’ rather than created?  And who actually drew the shapes before General Motors poached Harley Earl from Don Lee’s Cadillac shop in ’27.

Until then, it seems mass produced cars just evolved as form followed function and for the most part the engineers in charge of the mechanical bits and the practicalities of production were also responsible for the style and shape of the bodies.  Similarly, production restraints and the chemical sciences limited the colours available, leading to the famous ‘any colour as long as it’s black’ T Fords.  More upmarket cars were mostly bodied by coachbuilders which at least allowed a bit more freedom of choice, but even these were, until the mid-twenties at least, constrained by shapes and ideas that were inherited from the horse-drawn carriages of the past, and the conservative tastes of their wealthy clientele.

All of this is primarily a background to the American motor industry, but there were similar influences at work elsewhere.  Examples from this period could include the racy shape of a Bugatti 35 as defining a certain sporty style, but even Bugatti looked to the past with the Fiacre bodies from the same period.

So we have Harley Earl to thank (or blame) for the changes in thinking.  General Motors soon found his understanding of colour and line made for a convenient way of constantly updating the product such that designed in obsolescence helped sales leading to the ridiculous pattern of redesigning the range every year.  Others followed of course, and for the student of late twenties through to fifties American cars can usually guess the exact year of any model, but back to the twenties for a minute and it is not so clear how the shapes and lines all managed to evolve from such disparate manufacturers into a range of similar looks in such a short span of a few years.  Of course Earl’s influence must have quickly got the attention of the competition, but then we had Gordon Buehrig emerge from a formative period working for Wills St Clair, Peerless and Packard before joining Earl’s team at the GM  Art and Colour Department before moving on shortly to Stutz and then Duesenberg Auburn and Cord.

Meanwhile, over at Dearborn, Edsel Ford was taking an interest and trying to persuade his father into putting a design team together to keep up with the General’s output, and by the thirties both Ford and Lincoln benefitted from the talents of E.T.’Bob’ Gregorie who also had served a short spell under Earl as well as at coachbuilder Brewster.

So now, by the start of the thirties we have an established design team leading the way with all the major American manufacturers, with of course an influence abroad – Gregorie for example designed the Y-type Ford when it was obvious Ford in Europe needed it’s own ‘small’ car to compete with the locals.  But it is maybe a shame that as the industry entered this era of rich design, it also faced a shrinking market during the depression years. 

So, if Mick Walsh and I were to join forces on a remake of the Great Gatsby, we could probably rustle up some old Bix Beiderbecke tunes for the soundtrack, but which 1925 cars could we use that would portray that glamourous look required of the story?  Yes Rolls-Royce, Packard and Cadillac etc would all appeal to that crowd, but to get the idea of ‘style’ across to today’s audience without it being just another ‘old car’ which would stand out?

Any ideas?

Chris M.