AN EXTRACURRICULAR LESSON IN ART
Jean Shepherd was a connoisseur of many arts, including the design and driving of cars, motorcycles and the like. His interest in them extended to his role as emcee of the Greenwich Village sports and antique car rallies from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, to the scores of columns he wrote for Car and Driver magazine in the 1970s and, not least, to his penchant for racing perilously through the streets of New York City and environs on his motorcycle or scooter, in his Morgan or Porsche, or in some other exotic species of automobile, such as a funky little Goggomobil, whenever he could. He was, indeed, a motor-cuckoo—a car-cuckoo.
And I quest tirelessly for every immortal relic of his artistry, whether for the holy grail of his lost broadcasts or for just some lines on a scrap of paper. Through that obsession, which includes a daily scanning of ebay, I encountered and bought one of his creations, done sometime in the early 1960s, a large pen-and-ink drawing of an antique car. Shepherd’s drawing is in a loose style, done quickly, maybe because the impressive vehicle was about to move, or because he didn’t want to attempt a too-smooth rendition that would fail utterly in comparison with the elegant object in front of him. In short, my treasure is a lowly paper towel with a rough sketch of a fine car on it.
I wanted to know all about that car. My quest led me through innumerable glossy tomes filled with glorious photos of old cars until I encountered a possible match—had Shepherd portrayed a stately Bugatti? With a query and a photo of the drawing from me, the folks at the American Bugatti Club checked their meticulously detailed files and narrowed it down, not just to the species–Bugatti Royale–but to the exact specimen of that grand limousine itself, the Park Ward. Ah, to encounter such admirably precise authorities as these—what comfort for a cuckoo on a quest! My pursuit has a glorious culmination. As Shepherd talked about virtually anything and everything that interested him over the years, it’s no surprise to me that, in hot pursuit through my own meticulously detailed files, I encountered a 1976 tape of him discussing his love of antique cars and his special admiration for those designed and built by Bugatti.
I discovered that, although Shepherd usually dealt with many subjects during a show, this entire broadcast was devoted to the virtues of Ettore Bugatti and his cars, concentrating not on the Royale limo in my ink drawing, but on a low-slung, sporty model. He began this particular show by commenting that the world had created a new artistic form in the first quarter of the twentieth century: “It existed briefly for ten or twelve years in its really flowering form and then began to decline as all art forms do—they ultimately decline.” After this general introduction, he began his story about a Bugatti.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2