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Sunday, December 7, 2008

My newest contender for coolest car ever.

I was watching an old movie this week-end - “The Young In Heart” from 1938. It is a rarely seen movie even for those who seek out of movies. Even with three Oscar nominations, I think you’d have to really like old movies to find any fun in it. It does have a excellent cast, in particular Roland Young who the year prior had played the title role in “Topper.” (There was a point in my life when even those who didn’t like old movies might know “Topper” since it starred Cary Grant and, I believe, was the first movie Ted Turner had colorized. The color version played on cable television constantly.)

The opening credits consisted of silhouetted images that show the passage of time: waltzing couples, ladies with parasols, gentlemen with those old fashioned bicycles with the big wheel, and eventually people standing beside a remarkable sleek car. It was just a silhouette but it looked like something that you’d see in those old rotoscoped Superman cartoons. (If you’ve never seen one of these cartoons, they are public domain and easy to find online. This is one was nominated for an Oscar but lost to a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Rotoscoping involves tracing live-action footage frame-by-frame which results in amazingly life-like character motion. You can sort of see this fluidity on You-Tube but you should see a DVD version if you think you’d like these cartoons.)

So, anyway, where was I . . . a silhouette of a really cool car. I thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool if they really made cars like that and not just as part of an art deco set design.’ About 30 minutes into this movie Roland Young gets a job selling cars for the Flying Wombat auto company – so that’s why they used that silhouette. It was a very cool-looking prop and something that I could imagine being created by William Cameron Menzies, the production designer, but as the movie progressed they drove the prop car. David O. Selznick may have hired 800 extras for one crane shot in “Gone with the Wind” but I can’t imagine anyone wasting money in 1938 to develop an operational prop car.

It turns out that the Flying Wombat is actually the coolest car ever designed – the Phantom Corsair. The Corsair was the dream of Rust Heinz, grandson of the ketchup mogul. (Rust was his mother’s maiden name and not an awkward nickname for a car designer.) It was pretty innovative for its time and doesn’t look like any of the other really cool cars from the 30s. It had no running boards and the wheels were brought into the design of the body rather than being concealed in fenders, where they would remain far into the 50s. There were electric buttons rather than door handles. The interior was padded with cork and rubber as a safety feature. There was air conditioning and a radio with concealed antennae – I didn’t have a car with concealed antennae until 2000. The instrument cluster included an altimeter, presumably to reinforce its aircraft-like design, as well as indicator lights for the headlights, radio or if the door was ajar.

The body was designed in a wind tunnel which was not the norm for cars and which resulted in an incredible 19 foot wedge shape which seated 4 in the front and 2 in the back. The front seat was so wide, 5 feet, that passengers sat on either side of the driver and the back seat was even more cramped by the inclusion of liquor cabinets.

The Corsair was set to sell for $12,500 – that would be around $184,000 in today’s dollars based upon the Consumer Price Index. Unfortunately, only the prototype seen in the movie was ever produced. Rust Heinz died in a car crash in 1939 at the age of 25.

The Corsair is on display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. Here are all of the Phantom Corsair scenes "Young in the Heart." And yes, the Wombat's horn is "The Ride of the Valkyries" which Coppola used during the helicopter attack in "Apocalypse Now" and which Jones used in "What's Opera Doc"

An article from Popular Mechanics, November 1940

The Phantom Corsair of the future?