During the so-called “golden age” of the auto industry in Detroit, designers were encouraged to dream big. A 1946 advertisement beckoned: “Become A Highly Paid Auto Stylist” with “an open door to a bright future as a designer,” a job that required no special qualifications, “just your interest in the era of new postwar cars.” This lofty thinking yielded gorgeous works of automotive styling. Car enthusiast Robert Edwards has spent years tracking down pieces of this concept art all over Michigan.

Edwards’s collection is now part of an exhibit called American Dreaming: Detroit’s Golden Age of Automotive Design, which opened last week at Lawrence Technological University near Detroit. The collection contains works from 1946 to 1973 and is also the subject of a yet-to-be-released documentary of the same name. The film included interviews with the artists who worked in the styling houses of automakers such as Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Studebaker, and Packard and AMC.

Surviving sketches are highly coveted, as many have been lost forever. The designs belonged to the automakers, who routinely emptied out the drawers to protect ideas. Even so, proud artists did what they could to sneak their work out of the studio. In the trailer for the documentary, Elia “Russ” Russinoff, who worked at GM for 40 years, says that some designers snuck sketches out in boxes with false bottoms. 

The surviving drawings occupy an important place in art and history. They somehow manage to look retro and futuristic all at once.

Rodell Smith, a designer for Ford, Hudson and American Motors, and Chrysler from 1950 to 1989 describes their aim like this: “I always wanted to make it just one little step further. Reach a little bit further, and make it a little bit better. It does pay to dream.”

Plymouth-Fury 1958 by George Krispinsky

‘Cuda1972/3 by John Samsen 

Cadillac El Dorado 1964 by Wayne Kady

Packard 1953 by Ben Kroll or Richard Arbib

Studebaker Golden Hawk 1957 by Del Coates

Rodell Smith Ford 1963 by Rodell Smith

Ford Advanced Studio 1953 by Charles Balogh

GM Special Body Development Studio, 1953 by Carl Renner

Oldsmobile Toronado 1968 by Roger Hughet

Proposed updates for trim work 1951 by Bill Robinson

AMC concept early 1970s by George Krispinsky