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Loewy's designs were for the ages

December 10, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

The next time you stop at a Shell or Exxon gas station, buy a bottle of Coca-Cola, board a Greyhound bus, mail a letter, brush your teeth or fire up a Lucky Strike cigarette, remember Raymond Loewy.

This French-born American citizen was responsible for the look of those products and/or logos, plus many more. Loewy's design studio could take full credit for the shape of many consumer items developed during the 20th century, including locomotives, ocean liners, sewing machines, copiers, cameras, vacuum cleaners, fountain drink dispensers, dishes and pencil sharpeners.

Loewy's design work also extended to aircraft, where he worked on the interiors of the Air Force One Boeing 707 for former President Kennedy as well as the supersonic Concorde passenger plane.

Along the way, he also found the time to design automobiles.

The flamboyant Loewy was actually more than just a designer. He was also a marketing-savvy self-promoter who made millions from his appreciative employers. He kept country homes and villas, along with luxury apartments all over the world, and was chauffeured in his own custom-built limos that were altered to suit his taste.

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Loewy was born in Paris in 1893, but emigrated to the United States as a young man at the end of World War I. By 1927, he had founded his own design company. Loewy's first taste of notoriety came not from cars, but for an award-winning refrigerator commissioned by Sears Roebuck in 1935.

A couple of years later, the Loewy studio began a long association with Studebaker, a company that began in 1852 as a horse-drawn wagon maker and had converted to automobile production in the early 1900s. Loewy's successful streamlining of the 1938 Studebaker President led to more commissions from the company. Eventually, Loewy was contracted as Studebaker's in-house design studio and employed a number of artisans who eventually moved on to influence the look of many other auto manufacturer's products.

By the late 1940s, Loewy-designed post-war Studebakers were considered radical and ground-breaking with a notable absence of chrome trim, which he considered to be "cheesy." The bullet-nosed 1950 Champions and Land Cruisers were particularly radical, with an obvious jet-aircraft-influenced front end.

Three years later, the Loewy studio again broke new ground with the Studebaker Starlight and Starliner, low-slung European-looking coupes that are now considered among the most attractive American-produced cars ever made. Both were such an immediate hit with buyers that they caught Studebaker completely off guard. The company was anticipating the frumpier-looking four-door models to be more popular, and it had a difficult time satisfying the demand for Loewy's creations. Today, these cars are referred to as the Loewy Coupes.

Along with an abhorrence of chrome, Loewy decried the popular 1950s trend towards tail fins, calling these cars "jukeboxes on wheels." His guiding principle was summed up in the acronym, MAYA, which stood for Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. Loewy practised pushing the design envelope to the limit, but knew where to literally draw the line between an exciting new concept and one that was too far ahead of its time for public acceptance. The soul of this artist was tempered with the practical mind of a businessman.

In 1955, Loewy parted ways with Studebaker and the company's products began to grow tail fins and sprout considerably more chrome garnish. This was, not surprisingly, a time of poor sales for the company as it struggled with the new realities of power and performance-oriented Fords, Chevys and Dodges for which buyers were clamoring.

As Studebaker's fortunes continued to decline, Sherwood Egbert, newly-installed company president, called on Raymond Loewy in early 1961 to help turn the company around. What Egbert had in mind was an exciting personal-luxury car that would fire up sales and save the company from oblivion. Loewy and three of his associates immediately began working around the clock to breathe life into Egbert's idea. A brief 40 days later, Loewy and his team had produced a full-size mock-up of the Avanti. The car was startling with its ultra-clean lines, Coke-bottle-shaped waistline and grille-less nose. A year after the Avanti design was approved, the car was ready for the public.

Unfortunately, serious quality problems with the Avanti's fiberglass body created numerous delays and sales fell well short of expectations. Studebaker's South Bend, Ind., factory closed for good in late 1963 and the Avanti was gone with it.

However, a couple of entrepreneurs purchased the aging Studebaker plant shortly after and began assembling limited quantities of the Avanti II. For the next 20 years, various entrepreneurs attempted to keep the vehicle alive in one way, shape, or form.

Loewy carried on with his various design contracts, including design work for the former Soviet Union in the 1970s.

Raymond Loewy, the Master of MAYA, died at age 92 in 1986. But many of his timeless logos and product stylings live on in tribute to one of the greatest commercial artisans of the 20th century.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer. You can drop him a line on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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