The Day Mr. Streamline Died

HVA President Mark Gessler relates the story of Amos Northup, the Graham Blue Streak and the integral role both played in the next phase of the Historic Vehicle Association’s move to preserve automotive history and heritage.

It was Valentine’s Day – Sunday, February 14th, 1937.  The weather around Detroit was overcast with temperatures in the low 30s.  Amos Northup took a walk from his Tudor-style home in suburban Pleasant Ridge to a store near the corner of Woodward Avenue and 10 Mile Road.  Along the way he slipped on the ice and hit his head.  A day later he was dead.  He was 48 years old.

By Tuesday, newspapers around the country had reported Northup’s passing. The headlines read “Streamline Originator Dies” (Los Angeles Times); “Streamline Pioneer Dies” (Baltimore Sun); “Designer of Streamline Auto Dies” (Chicago Tribune); and “Auto Streamliner Killed” in the New York Times.

The Evolution of an Idea

The idea of streamlining airflow over the car to improve gas mileage and speed had been around since the early 1900s. But it wasn’t until the early 1930s that designers and engineers started to experiment and gradually embrace streamlining principals.

One of the first and most ardent champions of streamline styling was Amos Northup. As chief designer at the Murray (body) Corporation, Northup used a small wind tunnel at the University of Detroit to test designs for the new 1931 Reo Royale. In 1932, his streamlined design of the new Graham Blue Streak became a public sensation.  Other designers quickly followed in his tracks. One year later, other manufacturers started incorporating similar design cues, prompting Graham to advertise their Blue Streak as the “most imitated car on the road.”

Eight decades later, his streamlining contributions have nearly all been forgotten and his seminal design for the Graham Blue Streak has become a neglected footnote in automotive history.

Northup and the Graham Brothers

Brothers Robert, Joseph and Ray Graham began their automobile business with the acquisition of Paige-Detroit in 1927. The launch of the Graham-Paige automobile in 1928 was a huge success.  The company sold over 70,000 cars; the second highest figure for a new company to that point in time.

By 1930, the nation was in the depth of the Great Depression but the Graham brothers were optimistic that things would turn around.  They decided to invest heavily in a new car that would be so far ahead of others that it would sell when nothing else could.

That car would be the 1932 Graham Blue Streak 8 Sedan.  It was a new design from the ground up.  The chassis was engineered to have the axle pass though instead of under the rear chassis.  This made the car lower and wider which improved handling.  The eight-cylinder engine with a high compression aluminum head produced 95 horsepower made the car fast.

The body designed by Northup was more elegant and streamlined than anything else on the road.  For the first time, a production car had a grille slopped back, the fenders had sides (or valances) which were immediately imitated, and it was the first production car to use pearl-essence paint using fish-scales to create a metallic-like finish.  The frame was concealed on all sides.  The headlights were painted and not fully chromed to harmoniously blend with the overall design.

The car was an integrated whole not a mash-up of desperate elements, a design built for speed, handling, safety in an elegant streamlined modern package.  Ahead of its time, the Graham Blue Streak proved to be a tipping point from the old way cars were built to a new, modern streamlined design. More than eighty years later, Northup’s design of the Graham Blue Streak would again make history.

21st Century Recognition

In 2014, the HVA held its first Cars at the Capital exhibition on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The display consisted of 10 vehicles – one from each decade from the 1890s to the 1980s – eligible for the National Historic Vehicle Register. All were “orphans,” a term used for cars made by companies that no longer exist.  On display were a Hudson, a Studebaker, a Duesenberg, a De Lorean, President Wilson’s Pierce-Arrow and a Washington made by a company once based in D.C.

The car we selected for the 1930s was a beautiful, pearlescent gold 1933 Graham Blue Streak 8 Sedan that was painstakingly restored by the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage. The 1932 and 1933 models were virtually identical and this was perhaps the most well-restored example of just the few that survive.

During the exhibition we began our research and documentation on each of the cars, along with lectures by museum curators, experts, owners and authors.  Each of the 10 cars was also 3D-scanned while the public strolled through the exhibition.  It was a working history lab of sorts smack dab in the middle of the National Mall right in front of the Smithsonian American History Museum.

Enter the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage

Shortly thereafter, we travelled to The NB Center in Allentown, PA, to photograph the 1933 Graham Blue Streak as the next step in our documentation process.  The Graham was one of over 100 historic cars at The NB Center, most of which are from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s and housed in pristine epoxy-floored warehouses on 27 well-manicured acres.

The NB Center was established by Rome-based collector  Nicola Bulgari who has a keen eye for near forgotten American automotive designs and the heart and wherewithal to see they are properly preserved for posterity.

When we arrived, we worked with the staff to clear one of the collection buildings so we could photograph the Graham from a distance of more than 60 feet. We had agreed-upon distances and camera equipment approved by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior.  This would ensure the photos taken would be preserved in the Library of Congress for the next 500 years and would appear as accurate and distortion free as possible.

In most other situations, the final photographs are made perfect with software such as Photoshop. In our case, the photos are never altered. As paint and chrome surfaces on cars can act like mirrors reflecting everything, we covered the windows and did our best to eliminate reflections of other cars, the garage door hardware, etc.

A New Home for the HVA

A few months later we got a surprising call. Nicola Bulgari explained that The NB Center was expanding and, based on what they witnessed at both the Cars at the Capital exhibit and during the documentation process, thought that the HVA could use a proper studio, one equipped with an infinity cove about 40 feet wide and 80 feet deep with a turntable floor to rotate the car for photos.  This could then also serve as a place to store our expanding library, offices and an automotive scanning and display area.

Last July, we held a grand opening for the HVA National Lab in a building separate but adjacent to The NB Center. The design and construction of the HVA National Lab was a gift from The NB Center.

At the grand opening we commemorated Harley Earl’s Buick Y-Job as the 14th vehicle on the National Historic Vehicle Register.  The Y-Job is among the first concept cars produced and one of the most historically significant vehicles in the General Motors Heritage collection.

The Graham Joins the National Historic Vehicle Register

This July, almost exactly a year later, the HVA announced The NB Center’s 1933 Graham Blue Streak 8 Sedan as the 19th vehicle on the National Historic Vehicle Register. The announcement was fittingly made during the opening ceremony of the Concours d’Elegance of America near Detroit.

The great automotive historian Beverley Rae Kimes said, “Among the myriad of automobiles which have coursed our land and do no more, the Graham-Paige/Graham was arguably the most interesting.”  Something to be said for a brand that has been all but forgotten. Not only was the Graham Blue Streak added to the National Historic Vehicle Register, but it also proved to be a pivotal project that inspired others to build a National Lab for the HVA’s ongoing work.

At the HVA National Lab we are working to document our Nation’s automotive treasures. For that America thanks you Amos Northup – and so do we.  Rest in peace.

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