Cars from art deco period exhibited in Nashville

They are long, low, sleek and sexy.

Many of the cars at a new exhibit called "Sensuous Steel" are one of a kind. Others are or were owned by famous people. What binds them together is their art deco design and the venue where they are showcased: the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, which was built in 1933-34 as the city's main post office.

Many of the cars were never production vehicles, but harken from a time when an automobile was a personal expression.

A 1929 Cord L-29 Cabriolet sports a tangerine hue called Taliesin. It was owned by architect Frank Lloyd Wright who said it was "becoming to his house" of that name — his summer home in Wisconsin.

A dark gray open cockpit speedster has no equal. It was built for Edsel Ford in 1934 when Ford was the president of the auto manufacturing company his father began. It's a model 40 but the coachwork is one of a kind. It is on loan for the exhibition from the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Point Shores, Mich.

The speedster, a 1934 Voison Type C-17 Aerosport Coupe and several other vehicles in the collection are what special curator of the exhibit Ken Gross calls "bespoke cars."

"If you like it, then we'll build it for you," Gross said of the way many of these cars came into being.

That meant there were no presses to form a long line of look-alike fenders and body panels. In a process that Gross likened to making medieval armor, wooden forms were built and sheet metal — usually aluminum — was meticulously hammered into the desired shape by craftsmen. The process could take more than 2,000 hours. The custom-made body was then mated to a suitable chassis and engine to fulfill the buyer's desires.

Make no mistake about these cars being all show. There is muscle underneath that elegant coachwork. Gross urged visitors to think of "a lady gymnast in a beautiful gown."

A burgundy and gray two-seater coupe mimics teardrops and looks as though it could reap a speeding ticket sitting still.

It's a 1938 Talbot-Lago Teardrop Coupe and its owner is hotelier Bill Marriott.

What is likely the first minivan is on display: a 1936 Stout Scarab. Its shape mimics a beetle, with a rear-mounted engine and a stamped metal beetle on its nose.

Other eye candy includes a 1934 Packard 12-cylinder beauty, a 1933 Pierce Arrow sedan and a 1937 Delahaye Roadster. There are 18 cars and two motorcycles in the show.

At a media preview before the show opened, the director of a Nashville car museum said he loved them all, but the Voisin Aerosport Coupe was his favorite.

Jeff Lane of the Lane Motor Museum said having all of the cars together was a feast for the eyes.

"All the cars are very, very interesting but the really great thing is they are together," Lane said. "You can turn around and go back and compare."

Sensuous Steel opened June 14 and runs through Sept. 15. It's a proprietary exhibit.

"Nashville will be its only venue," museum spokeswoman Maggie Carrigan said. "This has been in the works for about a year and a half."

Gross, who put together the exhibition, is a museum consultant who was previously the director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.