Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cars That Tell a Story, by Design

Each one of Chip Foose's vehicles has a unique inspiration. An exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum puts it all in context

People tend to look back on their lives as if composed of periods: my college years, my 20s in San Francisco, my first marriage. Chip Foose is no different, though he defines those periods by cars. "All of the cars that I have worked on represent a block of time in my life," says the 41-year-old custom car designer, hot rod fabricator, and creative force behind Foose Design. "There is a story or memory behind each of them."

Foose's stable of award-winning creations include modern interpretations of timeless classics, many hand-built from the ground up, all of which will be brought together for the first time at Chip Foose: From Pen to Pavement, an exhibition that opened at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles on Mar. 25.

Visitors will be able to see cars such as the Impression, a coupe inspired by the styling of a '36 Ford, and 1930s European models that won the 2006 America's Most Beautiful Roadster Award. "Almost every piece is hand made, fabricated from scratch", says Foose of the Impression, which has one-of-a-kind wheels and a skin of formed sheet metal.

AUTO ART.  The fleet of cars will be displayed along with full-scale plywood frames, sketches, and clay models that break down Foose's creative process and fabrication methods. The effect is an exhibit that educates, entertains, and enlightens.

"I went digging through my archives and cleaned up the clay models and molds in order to show how a car is started and finished," says Foose. "I don't consider these relics of individual design steps to be art; they are tools that lead to the final product." It's the finished car, he says, that is the art.

Without a doubt, the vehicles that roll out of Foose's Huntington Beach, Calif., shop are a notch above most other customs. The Foose team -- which stars in the TLC reality television show Overhaulin' -- excels at illustration, graphics, ideation, modelmaking, surfacing, and the complete construction of automobiles and related products.

IN THE GENES.  Foose cars can be compared to the classic autos shown at events like the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and indeed, Foose would like to see his creations displayed there. "My cars consist of all original fabrication, just like the coveted antique models did back then," he says. "And since most of the pristine examples at Concours d'Elegance shows are completely restored, there is almost no difference between what I make now and what the antiques have turned into after the restoration process."

Foose started drawing when he was just three years old, and at seven started going to work with his father, Sam Foose, a hot-rod legend in his own right. "All of my interest is based on my childhood experiences in the shop with my dad," recalls Foose. Years later, Foose attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., studying alongside J Mays and Chris Bangle, now chief designers at Ford (F) and BMW, respectively.

At one time, Foose was almost lured to Ford himself. "It would have been a career, not a lifestyle," says the designer, who enjoys the personal side of creating cars for specific people and seeing those cars 5, 10, and even 20 years later at shows and industry events.

ACROSS ERAS.  Foose is better off on his own, and not just because he believes cars should be made to last instead of conforming to the industry-standard five-year product lifecycle. Within the corporate world of the Big Three, a designer's creativity must co-exist with red tape, cost-cutting, and marketing trends. "I never really look at trends," says Foose. "Our cars take years to build, and if I worry about trends, I am not being true to myself."

What is impressive about the body of work on show at the Petersen Museum is its originality and breadth. Foose claims not to have a favorite era of car design, saying that "different elements of each time period are integrated into my designs." It's worth noting, of course, that Foose enjoys a high level of design freedom because he doesn't have to move 50,000 units. "A car needs to fit the individual who owns it," he says. "If they like what I have created for them, then I have done my job."

The designer wouldn't mind working more closely with the big auto makers, though. "I would like to see a brand like Lincoln or Cadillac collaborate with well-know coach builders to create and sell unique, high-end rolling chassis that sell without a body, like the French brands [Bugatti, Talbot-Lago, etc.] used to do," he says. "Let's bring some classy brands back into prominence, like the good old days."


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