Radebaugh: Illustrator of Future Cars
It's hard enough to keep up with what's happening in the here and now; never mind spending time thinking about how things will be in the future. Still, there have always been futurists among us, those who like thinking about the unknown and unknowable future — Leonardo DaVinci, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Isaac Asimov among them. Their inventions, pictures, and stories may seem wildly outlandish in their time. Some of their fantasies become realities, some contain the germ of an idea that later develops, and some are totally off the mark. It is, nonetheless, their imaginative ideas that stir us to think about what might be behind the door to our futures.
One very talented man who thought about how cars of the future might look and encouraged us to look at them over his shoulder was Arthur C. Radebaugh (1906-1974). Some called him an art deco artist while others called him a kook. He said of his work, it is "halfway between science fiction and designs for modern living" — and, well before Disney, he coined the term "imagineer" as one who combines imagination and engineering. However you characterize his distinctive work, though, it has never received the recognition it deserves. Some enthusiasts are now trying to remedy that. Smithsonian magazine published a short piece — "Beyond the Jetsons" — in April 2012 and an extensive blog about him (Arthur-radebaugh.blogspot.com) provides invaluable information to those interested in learning more about the artist.
Finding His Way
Art Radebaugh was born in Coldwater, Michigan on May 14, 1906 to mother Mabel and father Cloyce Alvin, a cobbler. Art attended public schools, and in 1925 went to the Chicago Art Institute for a year and a half. While there, he experimented with using an airbrush, a still novel technique at the time which most artists used only for touch-ups. Radebaugh, on the other hand, began utilizing it as a primary tool. Like many of his time, he tried any number of jobs, even venturing as far as Florida for a short while. By 1930, though, the depression had hit and he was back with his folks in Sturgis, Michigan where he began to settle down.
Just when he grew into his artistic talent is unknown but he was learning that his art could pay the bills. He held a number of low-paying jobs as sign painter or illustrator. Not unlike many a young lad of his time and still today, his imagination was drawn to the automotive industry, the major employer in his area. His artistic renderings of cars weren't hobby-level doodles or rough cartoons, though; they were full-blown works of art.
In 1935, Radebaugh began a longtime working relationship with MoToR magazine, a Hearst publication geared to automobile jobbers (automotive dealers, gas stations, etc.). Utilizing an air brush, he first illustrated the cover of the Annual Show Number of that magazine in 1935 and continued doing so until 1957, producing boldly colored, futuristic, memorable designs. We do not know whether Radebaugh was familiar with the Norman Bel Geddes industrial car designs of the early thirties but many of those streamlined features take on new life in Radebaugh's imaginative drawings.
1935. A quarter-inch silver border surrounds a rich dark blue background with some gradation. In the upper right corner a small silver plane flies above the several skyscrapers, some detailed, some in silver shadow, that make up the city. An aerial roadway encircles several of the buildings, one of which has a remarkable similarity to the top of the Chrysler Building. The main feature, however, is a reddish, elongated tear-drop-shaped vehicle — car or bus it's not easy to tell — with running lights ending two side torpedo-shaped tubes above the windows and mid-placed portholes. There are two front wheels and one rear wheel. The black bumper extends outward and upward from the bottom of the vehicle's frame and has two tiny running lights. There also appear to be two door handles, one in the door just below the window as you'd expect, the other door handle on the lower side of the front wheel well. The vehicle rests atop a mirror-smooth surface, and its reflection is depicted below.
It's not as if you can go to any newsstand and pick up copies of MoToR magazine from all the years Radebaugh's covers graced their fronts. Examples of Radebaugh's work for Motor Magazine, though, may prompt some of you to start checking basements and attics for more examples of his work. (Hint: Look for his legible, though sometimes faint, signature in the lower left- or right-hand corner).