A Guide to Driving Deco in India

Explore the most significant and decadent examples of cars from 1930's

By Art Deco Mumbai

Karl Bhote

Advertisement of Jaguar cars on sale in BombayOriginal Source: Karl Bhote Archive

Art Deco and the Automobile

Throughout the last century, automobile design has borrowed from contemporary developments in art, science and industry, naval and aeronautical construction, and, of course, architecture. In the 1930s, widely considered a golden age for the automotive industry, technological and design developments first announced the arrival of the car as a luxurious, ultra comfortable, means of private transportation. Pioneered by the French, Art Deco themes and features began to dominate automotive styling, a trend really taken to the world by the Americans who mastered the art of volume production. In India, automobile enthusiasts amongst the royalty and landed gentry were also swept up by these latest global trends.

1936 Chrysler AirflowArt Deco Mumbai

The 1936 Chrysler Airflow

In the 1930's, an increased focus on streamlining, with extensive wind tunnel testing and use of aerodynamics was reflected in the design of the appropriately named Chrysler Airflow. Distinctive of Art Deco design, 'streamlining' was visibly reflected in clean, straight lines and curves, which indicated speed, power and movement. Today considered to be a pioneer given its many technological advances, the Airflow was unfortunately ahead of its time and proved a commercial failure. The example pictured here dates to 1936, and has recently been restored in Mumbai. 

1936 Chrysler AirflowArt Deco Mumbai

Introduced by the Chrysler Corporation in 1934, the Chrysler Airflow holds the distinction of being the first mass-produced, streamlined car - technologically advanced, avant-garde, modern.

1936 Chrysler AirflowArt Deco Mumbai

Notice the car's sleek, sloping front radiator grille and 'swept back' bonnet with inbuilt headlights, a first of their kind. Speed lines, prominent on its body, give the impression of speed and movement.

1936 Chrysler AirflowArt Deco Mumbai

Other Deco features include the wooden inlay on the dash with bold patterns and box geometry on the gauges, and streamlined door handles.

1936 Chrysler AirflowArt Deco Mumbai

Also, the stark, stylish typeface for the Chrysler lettering on the car's boot. Look closer at the wings and thunderbolt imagery - motifs that accentuated the impression of speed and movement.

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Interestingly, the Chrysler Corporation was headquartered in New York's Chrysler Building – the world's most iconic Deco building.

1936 Cord 810Art Deco Mumbai

1936 Cord 810

Known for its revolutionary technological advances and cutting edge design, the 1936 Cord 810 was styled by visionary designer Gordon Miller Buehrig, who was responsible for many innovations in automobile design that we take for granted today. For instance, the Cord 810 was the first American designed and built car to offer front wheel drive via a semi-automatic transmission and independent front suspension. This layout gave the car a low slung, sportier stance. By 1937 a supercharging option was added, though production ceased soon after. The meticulously restored 1936 Cord 810 featured here is in Mumbai.

1936 Cord 810Art Deco Mumbai

Without an independent front radiator grille, the clean, encompassing bonnet gave the car the nickname ‘coffin nose’. Concealed retractable headlights were also introduced for the first time.

1936 Cord 810Art Deco Mumbai

The bonnet also shows the earliest manifestation of 'fins' as a design element, intended to indicate speed and movement.

1936 Cord 810Art Deco Mumbai

Inside, you were welcomed by an ornate engine-turned or jeweled dashboard, a complete selection of instrumentation and the use of bright colours that complimented the car's radical styling.

1941 Lincoln ZephyrArt Deco Mumbai

1941 Lincoln Zephyr

Designed by Dutch-born American stylist Jon Tjaarda, the 1936 Zephyr was Lincoln’s successful response to a growing market for streamlined automobiles. In fact, the Zephyr succeeded where the Chrysler Airflow had failed. Named for the Greek god of Wind, the car’s sleek, futuristic streamlining and low coefficient of drag reflects Tjaarda’s formative training in aeronautical design. Prior to the Zephyr, Tjaarda had conceptualized other futuristic designs for a streamlined automobile, but the Zephyr was the only one to make it to production. Sealing its market popularity was a powerful, refined V12 engine, when most of the competition offered an eight-cylinder motor.

1941 Lincoln ZephyrArt Deco Mumbai

With its strong design value and wind-swept form, the Zephyr is popular within the hot-rodding and custom car scene in the USA, making restored models, like this featured 1941 Coupe from Bangalore, particularly scarce.

1941 Lincoln ZephyrArt Deco Mumbai

Variations on the heavily chromed, split ‘waterfall’ radiator grille became a strong feature in each generation, as did ‘teardrop’ headlights in early models.

1939 Delahaye 135MSArt Deco Mumbai

1939 Delahaye 135MS

French marques like Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza, Delahaye, Delage and Avions Voisin supplied bespoke, hand-built, luxury cars, featuring avant garde Art Deco design elements, to Europe’s discerning elite. Working with a bare chassis, specialist coachbuilders would design and construct the body tailored to the customer’s exact specifications. At the top of the French trade were names like Saoutchik, Kellner, Chapron, Carrosserie Pourtout and Figoni et Falaschi, master craftsmen known for their graceful, flowing designs. Falaschi cars command millions of dollars today – amongst the most prized catches for the discerning collector. They were presented which much fanfare at international concours, often paired with a model draped in the latest high fashion. A handful of cars even made it to India, the most stunning being a 1939 135MS model, which has been with the Jodhpur royal family for decades – blood red and in fine running condition. 

1939 Delahaye 135MSArt Deco Mumbai

Low rooflines and windscreens gave the car a modern, sleek form. Chrome flashes and curved bumpers perfectly complemented the design.

1939 Delahaye 135MSArt Deco Mumbai

Striking teardrop shaped pontoon fenders drew inspiration from French airplanes. The fenders usually enclosed the wheels, which was a novelty at the time.

1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II ContinentalArt Deco Mumbai

1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Continental

The 1930s Rolls-Royce had a reputation of high quality engineering, refinement and reliability. Only the best coachbuilders were commissioned to build bodies to match the car – Hooper & Co., Barker & Co., H.J. Mulliner & Co., Park Ward & Co. and Freestone & Webb were some popular names, along with J Gurney Nutting & Co Limited. Known for their understated and elegant designs, J Gurney Nutting was patronized by many of India's Maharajas and landed gentry for their purchases - the car featured here was one of them, ordered for the Maharaja of Jodhpur. The car is in now in long term ownership in Mumbai and has undergone a complete purist’s restoration.

1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II ContinentalArt Deco Mumbai

A full-sized car measuring approx. 18 ft, the mastery of the coachbuilder's craft is evident in the car's elegant look and feel, which gives no impression of being heavy or ungainly.

1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II ContinentalArt Deco Mumbai

Chassis number 62UK was the very last Phantom II Continental built. It has a striking sporty coupe body style, a prominent dual colour scheme which highlights its streamlined features, and other Deco details like tear drop spats enclosing the rear wheels.

Marine Drive: View of promenade (2019/2019)Art Deco Mumbai

In India, the outstanding universal value of homegrown Art Deco design and architecture was recognised on June 30, 2018, when the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles, Mumbai, was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The inscription serves to protect, enhance and showcase a spectacular massing of 92 historic buildings in 4 significant architectural styles - Victorian Gothic, Indo-Saracenic, Neo-Classical and Art Deco - within a vibrant and living historic city centre.

A particular focus of the inscription is the spectacular massing of 35 buildings in Art Deco along Marine Drive. The buildings, fronted by the city's most popular public promenade also face a six lane highway on which vintage Deco cars can still be seen on weekends!

Credits: Story

Art Deco Mumbai showcases Mumbai’s Art Deco, advocates its conservation, chronicles its history, documents neighbourhoods and has created the only online repository dedicated to Mumbai’s Deco buildings. Photo Credits: Karl Bhote for photographs of all the cars and the advertisement. All the remaining images are from Art Deco Mumbai’s archive.

Visit Automobile section to know more.

Explore the Art Deco Mumbai Gallery

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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