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).
1937 found Radebacher with his own studio at the Crescent Engraving Company of Kalamazoo, where he inked illustrations for several magazines. By 1938, he had attracted the notice of several ad agencies as well. He utilized airbrushing techniques in his magazine drawings and in ones he did in 1938 and years following for Dodge on their Luxury Liner. His Luxury Liner brochure featured airbrushed, sepia-toned cars against a green sky — and he made it clear that this was THE car of the future.
1939 Dodge Luxury Liner Ad
In 1940, he hit the big time with his illustrations when he drew the cover for the March issue of The Saturday Evening Post, a challenging assignment but one he gladly accepted over the next few years.
In 1942, he put his work as commercial artist aside and joined the U.S. Army. The Department of Defense recognized his talents (and, perhaps, his eccentric inclinations) and assigned him to the Design and Visualization Branch of the Pentagon's Research and Development Department where he worked on designs for armored cars, bazookas and artillery. He also came up with a way to illuminate the instrument panels of military vehicles with black light, a technique that helped conceal vehicles from the enemy. When Radebaugh returned to civilian life at the end of 1945, he retained his fascination with fluorescent paints and black light.
Despite his attention to America's military effort, it seems Radebaugh also continued his commercial art during the War years. From 1942 to 1947 he designed a dynamic, futuristic, full-color ad campaign for Bohn Aluminum and Brass Co. known as "Imaging the Future". Bohn produced aluminum, magnesium, and brass alloys and set about leading consumers into a future world where the reduced weight of these alloys led to lower-cost and futuristically-designed industrial products. The notion was that technology would lead us into the future, a place with ample leisure time. Among the products Radebaugh conceived for the long-lasting ad campaign were planes, ships, tractors, cars, milk carrier, tugboat, lawnmower, motorcycle, earth-moving machine, drawbridge, merry-go-round, modern engine, even see-through refrigerators.
[If you're interested in further exploring the Bohn Aluminum and Brass Company ads by Arthur Radebaugh, you can go to the following websites:
www.flickr.com (a flickr page dedicated to Radebaugh).]
Since Art Greenwald, an intense artist turned businessman who was also good friends with Radebaugh, had opened his New Center Studios in 1943, Radebaugh may have had his separate studio there during the War years. It is certain that he worked there following the war. New Center Studios, at its peak, had four Detroit locations, kept about a hundred and fifty artists working full-time, and worked primarily for the auto industry. Typically, an ad agency would make a pitch to automakers, and, once they'd landed the account, would job out illustrations to a studio with a team of artists. New Center Studios handled ad campaigns for the Big Three and other car manufacturers, ensuring that Radebaugh always knew "what was in the wind", whether or not he worked on a particular campaign.
Work After the War
The war was over, and Detroit's automotive industry decided to celebrate its Golden Jubilee in high style, with a 12-day event in June, 1946. The celebration marked Detroit's 150th year and the American car's 50th anniversary. Radebaugh was commissioned to produce the symbol for the celebration, one featured on all Jubilee-related materials — from letterheads to ties and dresses. It also was built as a 65-foot sculpture. The emblem Radebaugh produced showed the past, present, and future of the car — a golden 1896 Ford in the foreground, a medium-sized contemporary blue car in the center, and behind it a simple, large-spoked wheel set at an angle with the pink and yellow rings of an atomic nucleus overlapping it. A night scene of downtown Detroit served as background. As the automotive industry, which had propelled America's war victory, entered the atomic age, it was hoping to use its industrial know-how to fuel long-lasting peace. A press release of the day explained that the Queen of the Golden Jubilee would be the first woman to use atomic power for peacetime purposes when she illuminated and set in motion Radebaugh's emblem by waving a "wand of neutron-splitting beryllium over a tube of boron, smashing a boron atom." As she waved her wand, energy was transmitted to the symbol, illuminating "its spiralling neon conception of an atom in fission, its antique car and its modern car."
June 1946 Golden Jubilee 65-foot Sculpture
That wasn't Radebaugh's only big splash right after the War, either. He continued experimentation with fluorescent paints and produced drawings for billboards in and around Detroit. He also began attracting notice for his avant garde black light work. And he first dipped his toe into syndication waters with a black-and-white illustrated panel syndicated through General Features, "Can You Imagine?", which ran for about four years and was dedicated to views of the future. Among the topics it covered were war machines like armored helicopters that shells could not penetrate or monsters from Planet X that could "make our wars seem like kissing games."
In January 1947, his work was featured in a national exhibit of automotive art held at the Detroit Institute of Arts. By 1948, he was gaining notoriety in the Detroit area and was featured in several Detroit Free Press articles. And by 1949, he, along with what seemed like half of America, had moved to the suburbs — in his case, Beverly Hills, outside of Detroit. He continued his newspaper work and his magazine ads, adding Coca-Cola to his client list.
During the early fifties he was doing ad work for Nash and Chrysler (designing the Chrysler Imperial brochure). The Nash Airflyte ad depicted two cars — golden and blue — in rugged mountain country mounting a steep hill with a sharp drop off. The message was that the Nash could mount any terrain, face any danger, and still be a joy to drive.
Artwork for Nash Airflyte ad
The Chrysler illustrations must have taken a great deal of time to produce because they are scene sketches rather than simple car ads. The Chrysler Six-Passenger Sedan sketch features a dark blue sedan with white highlights parked on a brick-colored, curving driveway edged by a low brick wall. In the background is an architectural wonder — a modernistic house with pergola, an anchor on the eaves, port-hole windows, an oval platform with skylights at the level of the second story, a patio with sunbrella, and an open roof framework. Set against a golden sky and accented with stylized trees, the elongated red sedan at its front door seems to be another part of the landscape. A wooden railing and the overhang of open wooden rafters in the foreground set off the entire scene. The Chrysler Eight-passenger Imperial is clearly a companion piece and features a black car on tan roadway parked at rounded stairs leading to a multi-colored stone patio. There is a low, open, balustrade cement wall, a gazebo on the manicured mid-ground, and a classically-inspired, columned building in the background.
Artwork for 1951 Chrysler Imperial ad
About this time Radebaugh also added National Motor Bearing Co. to his client list. An extensive series of black-and-white ads touted the importance of oil seals and bearings to future modes of transportation. Atomic cars and robotic vehicles zoomed through the aerial roadways of the future. One ad showed a finned road ship (car) speeding along multi-layered aerial roadways around and through skyscrapers with this caption: "When the legal speed limit is 200 m. p. h.. . . National Oil seals will protect the bearings."
National Motor Bearing ad depicting a 200 mph car.
In the mid-fifties, Radebaugh did significant design work for successive years of the Detroit Free Press Auto show. By the late fifties, he had taken to the road — literally — in a 1959 British Ford Thames van converted to mobile art studio. McElroy's Garage & Collision in Berkley, Michigan did the lavish conversion. And he got into syndication once again with a futuristic comic strip, whose name graced the van.
See 'Ya in the Funny Papers
Radebaugh's Sunday comic strip — "Closer Than We Think" — was syndicated in the United States and Canada and ran for five years, 1958-1963, reaching nearly nineteen million viewers at its peak. There was only a single panel accompanied by explanatory text and, at times, arrows pointing to areas of special interest. Comic strips, however, rely on clear line work rather than airbrush technique, so Radebaugh used shading and stippling — but the comic panels lacked the depth and intensity of his signature airbrushing. And rather than simplify an idea, he continued to add detail after detail to his drawings, leading to muddled drawings rather than the clarity we appreciate in comics.
Among the vehicle-related strips, however, were some of these sure-to-happen ideas:
Flying Carpet Car. Your car floats just above the ground on a layer of compressed air. (April 6, 1958)
Atomic Automobile. A car powered by atomic energy (Nov. 22, 1958)
Sunray Sedan. A solar-powered car with energy stored in "accumulators". (Feb. 9, 1958)
Quick-Change Car Colors. A photo-sensitive, self-cleaning car body finish allows for car color to be changed at will via an electromagnetic gun that emits rays to "repaint" the car. (Sept. 21, 1958)
Monoline Express. Your car would be guided along an elevated track. (May 21, 1961)
Magic Beam Highway. Electronic controls pilot the car; there's no need of a driver. Guidance strips in the road send impulses to the car and regulate direction, speed, braking, and obstacle detection. (Oct. 15, 1961)
The Later Years
Radebaugh continued touring in his mobile art studio and producing creative automotive illustration into the sixties. In 1963, for example, he produced drawings for the Mercury catalogue — but not just any drawings. In what may have been a first, he used car paints to illustrate the cars, an early instance of self-referential art. In 1964, his ad for RCA extolled transistors and semiconductor rectifiers that would run the "electronic" cars of the future. The driver faced a cockpit with joystick and illuminated instruments. Sensors in the illuminated road guided the car, set its direction and speed, and moved it past imposing, illuminated skyscrapers.
1964 RCA ad promoting electronics for use in cars of the future.
Still, work for illustrators was slowing down, supplanted by the new wonders of photography. Families were snapping shots with Kodak Instamatics and flash cubes but those weren't the only advances. Commercial photography had better definition and more vibrant color than ever before. Television was ubiquitous, and more and more companies put their advertising dollars to work in that medium.
By 1967, Radebaugh had moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. It seemed his up-and-down luck had hit a rough patch. He was in poor health. There were claims that an agent cheated him out of some money while poor investments robbed him of the rest. He sold his vacation home, his cars, and most anything else he could find — and settled in Grand Rapids, hoping to find a way back to the big time.
While waiting for good fortune to return to him, Radebaugh collected a small military pension and made a living painting signs and decorating furniture. He worked at Kozak Studios, Milling Road Furniture, and GR Chair, all affiliated with Baker Furniture. A young artist who worked with Radebaugh at that time recalled that some of his decorated furniture was not in keeping with expectations. While working on oriental designs, for instance, it wasn't uncommon for him to make slender, graceful Asian ladies a little too buxom, or to add a female nude among the pagodas and dragons. Customers — and managers — were not amused by such antics.
In 1971, Radebaugh was contemplating a comeback with another futuristic comic strip, "Plowshares and Pruning Hooks" to highlight new manufacturing ideas. Isaiah 2:4, taken as the unofficial credo of the United Nations, talks about an end to war, with nations repurposing their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. The strip, however, never made it into syndication.
Radebaugh never regained his health. In January 1974, he entered the Veterans Administration Hospital in Grand Rapids for treatment of heart disease but did not survive.
At his death he was penniless, estranged from family, and little-known. It would be good to think, though, that he retained something of his earlier imagination, humor, and zest for life. Because the eccentric artist wearing a monocle, smock, or beret, dangling a cigarette in one hand, is no more, we must depend upon the work he left behind to reflect a time when an immensely talented artist who loved cars helped us imagine the future to which they might transport us.