For Style and Taste, Buehrig’s Achievements Are Hard to Match
As much as any designer in American automotive history, Gordon Buehrig is everlastingly associated with good taste and elegant style. His achievements at Stutz, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg, and Ford are all the more remarkable considering his simple beginnings and the lack of resources he often faced.
Born in Mason City, Illinois, in 1904, Buehrig studied engineering basics at Bradley University after being tossed out of chemistry class for sketching cars.
He went to Michigan in 1924 and caught on at the Godfredson Body Plant, in Wayne, building wood-frame bodies for Wills Saint Claire, Peerless, and Jewett. His apprenticeship in body engineering continued in Detroit at Dietrich Body Company and Packard Motor Car Company. To refine his aesthetic sensibility, he read Le Corbusier’s Toward a New Architecture, which preached a strict minimalism in design.
Then he took a pay cut in order to move away from body engineering, joining General Motors’ new Art & Color Section just in time to soak up the influence of the 1927 LaSalle. “[It was] a very exciting car when it came out,” he said in an interview long after retiring from the industry. Another benefit of the GM experience was the expertise he gained in full-size clay modeling.
Acquiring a pedigree through these steps, he moved to Indianapolis in 1928, joining Stutz Motor Car Company as head of design. (Note his youth: no more than 24 years old.) “But Stutz was sort of on its way out,” he said. Nevertheless, his grasp of aerodynamics made itself apparent through his Blackhawk racers’ pinched tail sections. One of three entries survived the 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing behind the invincible Bentleys–a respectable showing for the small, soon-to-be-destitute company.
In the beginning, the American automobile industry had important centers in Hartford, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; and Cleveland, Ohio; but by the mid-1920s, Detroit and Indianapolis were the only two places to be. As things didn’t seem to be working out at Stutz, Buehrig moved over to Duesenberg in 1929. We recognize this company for being advanced, but it had problems of its own: any buyer of a Lincoln or Pierce-Arrow could have the same coachbuilt bodies as those available on Duesies.
The great Indianapolis company, which was part of E.L. Cord’s empire, sought to distinguish its products. Until now, it supplied rolling chassis for coachbuilders. With Buehrig on the drawing board, the preference was to sell complete, exclusive cars. The Model J chassis just dared innovation, and the young genius accepted the dare, creating a one-off coupe for one customer and the low-roofed Beverly sedan, which became a relatively popular offering. The subsequent Derham Tourster and Torpedo Phaeton exemplify the simplicity that Buehrig learned from Le Corbusier.
Hard times set in during the early 1930s, and Buehrig returned to GM for a short but productive interlude. He was soon lured back to Indianapolis by Harold Ames, Duesenberg’s president and sales manager. Hopes were shifting to less expensive cars made by Auburn and Duesenberg. Ames took over Auburn and assigned Buehrig to fix the poorly received 1934 model. Buehrig recalled that “the only input we got from Harold Ames was that he wanted it to have a big hood on it.” After sifting through the corporate parts bin, Buehrig came up with the sensational 1935 boattail speedster; it set stock car speed records but couldn’t rescue the brand, which was discontinued after 1936.
Meanwhile, in the attempt to save Cord, Buehrig re-purposed an idea he had developed during the fertile interlude at GM. The result was the 1936 Cord 810 (and the subsequent year’s 812). This was the provocative “coffin-nose” Cord. But quality problems doomed the effort. “They corrected some of their errors, and by the time they finished building the cars in ’37, they were pretty good automobiles,” Buehrig said. But Cord closed its doors as well.
Although he was still a young man, the majority of Buehrig’s greatest work was now behind him. There followed mostly desultory episodes until he was hired by Ford in 1949. He made important contributions in design and body engineering. After “very wild and very ugly suggestions on what a new Continental should look like,” he helped to bring forth the supremely tasteful 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II.
After retirement from Ford, he taught product design for five years at Art Center College of Design, emphasizing the use of plastics in automotive applications. He enjoyed two decades of retired life before passing away in 1990.
Buehrig’s work was honored by the Museum of Modern Art, which in 1951 included the Cord 810–calling it “a solemn expression of streamlining”–in the institution’s landmark “8 Automobiles” exhibition.
Those who would like to learn more about Buehrig, the exemplar of good taste, can go to Auburn, Indiana, to see his drafting set among other artifacts displayed at the Buehrig Gallery of Design in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum.