Graham Blue Streak photographed in front of Amos Northup’s house. Photo courtesy Historic Vehicle Association.
“Too radical,” they said. Indeed, Amos Northup’s design for the 1933 Graham Eight departed significantly enough from the status quo to turn off some customers, but it also ended up widely influencing the rest of the auto industry, and that design leadership led the Historic Vehicle Association to add one of the last remaining and best restored examples to the National Historic Vehicle Register.
With the Depression slashing sales numbers — Graham’s total production dropped from 33,000 to 15,000 between 1930 and 1931 — leaders at Graham decided to try something radical to grab attention and so turned to coachbuilder Murray, which had recently hired back Northup and his assistant Jules Andrade after their successes designing the Willys-Overland 66B Plaidside and the Whippet line.
Northup, who Michael Lamm described as “a designer’s designer,” didn’t have the flamboyance or relentless self-promotional abilities of other designers. Instead, he exhibited a dogged intellectualism when it came to auto design. He wrote papers on the topic, he brought a sense of rigor to the field, and he advocated heavily for design among the largely engineering-focused auto industry of his time.
“At the time, stylists and designers were not looked on as a serious part of the industry,” said Mark Gessler, president of the HVA. “Northup began a real crusade for what needed to happen. He was a big proponent of creating unity and harmony through design, both aesthetically and through efficiency.”
He found that he could get engineers to listen to him by extolling the virtues of aerodynamics: Sleeker cars, after all, make the most of an engineer’s work under the hood.
While much of his research and experiments in aerodynamics led to his work on the 1931 Reo Royale, the 1932 Graham Eight — a.k.a. the Graham Blue Streak — became his masterpiece and most innovative design. Building atop the Royale’s integrated grille, hood, cowl, A-pillars, and roof, Northup laid the grille and windshield back, concealed the radiator cap and gas tank under the bodywork, and most importantly valenced the fenders — something we would consider a slight design change today, but which caused all sorts of commotion at the time.
“This was the tipping point that the rest of the industry followed,” Gessler said. “When it was launched at the 1932 New York Auto Show, it was called the most exciting car there.”
Certainly others advocated for aerodynamics in auto design at the time and even produced their own prototypes, but it took Northup to advance aerodynamics — and thus the role of stylists — in production cars. (Graham had notably hired futurist Norman Bel Geddes in 1928 to predict auto designs up to five years out, but didn’t take his projections seriously even though they closely mirrored cars like Northup’s Blue Streak.) And without Northup’s Royale and Blue Streak designs, it’s debatable whether cars like the Airflow and Zephyr would have soon followed.
Whether Northup’s design helped Graham all that much is also debatable. In 1932, production slipped to 8,000 cars, followed by 9,000 in 1933 — good for moving from 19th in 1931 to 17th and then 15th in the sales rankings.
Photos by Alessandro Di Fazio, courtesy Historic Vehicle Association.
One of those 9,000 cars — a Deluxe four-door sedan with sidemounts — sold new in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and, until 2010, made it as far as nearby Lebanon County, where it sat with about 26,000 miles on its odometer, and where Nicola Bulgari’s team found it and bought it out of the estate of its second owner.
“Growing up in Rome, Mr. Bulgari had a Dinky toy of the Blue Streak, and he never forgot about it,” said Keith Flickinger, Bulgari’s restorer and curator of the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage. “He’s since realized that what’s disappearing aren’t the big-dollar special cars but the everyman cars, so you’d be lucky to find 10 or 20 Blue Streaks like this one even though Graham made gobs of them.”
After purchasing the car, Bulgari’s restoration team did find a second Blue Streak in California, though one too far gone for use as anything but reference and a source of spare parts. By the fall of 2014, Bulgari presented the fully restored Blue Streak at Hershey, though it had previously gone on display on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as part of the HVA’s first Cars at the Capital event.
According to Gessler, that display — and the subsequent efforts to document the cars that too part in the display — led Bulgari to commission the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage. In recognition of that fact, as well as of the Blue Streak’s importance to the fields of design and automotive aerodynamics, the HVA will list Bulgari’s Blue Streak on the National Historic Vehicle Register.
Selection to the register involves a complete documentation of the vehicle, including a fully referenced narrative of the vehicle’s provenance and full photography, which will then be placed in the Library of Congress. No restrictions are placed on subsequent use or sale of the vehicle.
The formal induction ceremony will occur during the Concours of America in Plymouth, Michigan. “We figured Detroit was appropriate because that’s where Amos Northup practiced and it’s where Graham was based,” Gessler said.
The Concours of America will take place July 29-30. For more information on the concours, visit ConcoursUSA.org. And for more information on the National Historic Vehicle Register, visit HistoricVehicle.org.