If you haven't seen the cars in The Frist's new exhibit, the name Sensuous Steel might make you want to give the venerable art institution a side-eye. For a lot of us, it's really hard to say "sensuous" without a mock French accent or an oily eyebrow-wiggle. But these cars — pristine luxury models from the 1930s and '40s Art Deco era — will turn the most straitlaced of us into wolf-whistling, Pepé Le Pew-aping idiots. They're that pretty.
Guest curator Ken Gross, former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, in Los Angeles, has organized 18 automobiles and two motorcycles into a sumptuous display that's the first-ever exhibition of exclusively Art Deco cars. There's no better place to house the exhibit than inside The Frist, a building with all the geometric designs, futuristic grandeur and sleek, sexy curves of the Art Deco movement.
The charm of these machines — aside from the obvious aesthetic appeal and technological innovation — lies largely in their capacity to transport an audience to an alternate reality of the history of the Great Depression we're taught as school children. Compare the fantasy these cars stir up to the last Frist exhibit from the same time period: quilts from Gee's Bend and drawings by Bill Traylor, both of which reflected a significantly less-affluent America. These cars were being driven during that same time and in the same world as Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Dorothea Lange's Dust Bowl portraits.
Each of the automobiles is priceless, so it's difficult to pick a standout. It might be easier, however, to pick a favorite. Below is a list of details to help guide your visit through the exhibit.
• The French 1938 Hispano-Suiza H6B Dubonnet "Xenia" Coupe is an impossibly modern, teardrop-shaped shark of a car with curves so streamlined it seems odd to watch it standing still.
• The red 1938 Tatra T97 is worth seeing if only because it made Hitler so angry: Owner Jeff Lane of Lane Motor Museum tells the story of Hitler's 1939 invasion of Czechoslovakia, wherein he discovered the Tatra, decided it was too similar to Germany's Volkswagen and outlawed its production.
• The American-made 1929 Cord L-29 Cabriolet is the oldest car in the exhibition, and was owned by Frank Lloyd Wright, who chose its bright-orange paint color.
• The 1930 Bugatti Type 46 Semi-profile Coupe has an interior made from elephant-hide leather.
• The 1936 Stout Scarab is a chrome minivan that's like a Bizarro World version of a hippie's VW bus, but with a mother-of-pearl push-button on the side door and a green leather interior that looks more like a private jet than anything you'd expect to see driving down a road.
• The Detroit-made 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt features a retractable one-piece metal hardtop. Only five of the cars were built, and only four survive.