Award-winning 1932 Auburn 8-100A Speedster(Detail). Lent from the Jack B. Smith Jr. Automobile Collection. Image courtesy Snite Museum of Art
NOTRE DAME, INDIANA – For many Americans, the Great Depression era is represented by Dorothea Lange’s photograph titled Migrant Mother. The photograph depicts a destitute pea picker in California. At the center of the picture is 32 year old Florence Owens Thompson, a mother of seven children living in Nipomo, California. While this image which was taken in March 1936 is well-engrained in the minds of many Americans, what is often not so obvious is that even in the midst of all the poverty, starvation, long job lines and unprecedented unemployment, there was wealth and opulence.
Presently at the Snite Museum of Art, the opulence often overlooked in the discussions about the Great Depression era that was signified by abject poverty, is on display in an exhibition titled Roaring Twenties Exuberance and Depression Era Extravagance. The exhibition features four classic automobiles that are extravagant in the true sense of the word. Manufactured in Detroit, South Bend, and Auburn, Indiana, these classic automobiles reveal amazing car designs and technological prowess that defined that era. A great example of that remarkable design can be seen in the 1932 Auburn 8-100a Speedster. Nickname boattail because of its speed and streamline shape, the award winning car was a Speedster and darling of depression era. The glowing red and black car is sight to behold under the lights. But for this car, beauty can be deceptive. 1932 Auburn 8-100a Speedster is a fast car with 100-horse-power, 269-cubic-inch, inline-eight engine. This is the first American stock automobile to exceed 100 miles per hour. It cost only $845 in 1932.
Proudly situated alongside the 1932 Auburn 8-100a Speedster is the 1932 Packard Light Eight, an extremely elegant automobile. Manufactures by Packard Motor Car Company, the automobile designer put their best in this car. The stunning green classic car is smaller, lighter, and more affordable for those who had the money to afford it during the Great Depression. It was designed to satisfy the rich: It has a rumble seat, a special compartment for golf clubs, and the signature Packard “shovel-nose” grill. Sadly, design alone could not save this beautifully designed car. It was manufactured for just one year. At $2,000, it proved too expensive for the Depression era for many who though love the design could not afford it.
The 1931 Cadillac cannot be over looked. It is a lovely and well-designed car that will stand out against the best even in modern times. The Cadillac has a dual cowl phaeton and a separate passenger seat from the driver’s cockpit. It also has a second windshield. The 1923 Studebaker Big Six Speedster visually complements the 1931 Cadillac. The gorgeous flawless black paint, folding black top, whitewall tires, long body and disc wheels, makes this car absolutely impressive. To add to the beauty are six-cylinders that make this car practical and robust. Likely manufactured in Detroit, Big Six Speedster made Studebaker famous, making the automobile manufacturer America’s fourth largest by 1921. One of the four known remaining from 1923, this Big Six is luxurious in look and style. Although it has undergone some professional restoration, its winning design continues to win accolades and numerous awards across the globe. It was best of show at the Geneva Concours d’Elegance. No doubt the jurors were struck by its
Describing the elegance of the car, Studebaker National Museum Archivist Andrew Beckman explains, “The Big Six was Studebaker’s flagship model during its nine-year run and drew its name from its 353 cubic inch inline six-cylinder power plant that produced 65 horsepower in 1923.” Despite the bewitching beauty and design of the car, it was overtaken in by the Great Depression in 1933 when Studebaker was placed in receivership.
Roaring Twenties Exuberance and Depression Era Extravagance is a thought-provoking exhibition that shows that even in the midst of abject poverty like the Great Depression, there could be beauty and extravagance. Placing Dorothea Lange’s photograph titled Migrant Mother alongside these beautiful well-designed classic car will no doubt shock all those who believed that the twenties and indeed the depression era was characterized by absolute poverty. Clearly, within all the depression, poverty and massive unemployment, there was opulence and extravagance.