Time travel from a London hotel room

Thanks to Andrew Hazlett, I paid a visit to Shorpy.com today, to do a little “armchair time travel,” as Andrew calls it.

Before long I was staring dumbing at this photo.

Of course, my first reaction is wonder at the sheer beauty of this automobile.  

It’s only when I page through the comments that I come across this detail. According to someone called Anonymous Tipster, this auto is a “nicely optioned 1940 Packard.”

It’s only several comments later that Tipster reveals the more telling detail:

“Those speedlines on the Packard look like someone’s attempt at customization.”

At first sight, I accepted the Packard whole.  Now I can see as additional those little horizontal lines that appear to issue from the front and back wheels.  

The Packard ceases to be “something from a mysterious past” and “a car the likes of which we will never see again.”  Now it’s someone’s possession, the bearer of their conceit, their play, their ambition.  

Who was this person who felt that his/her Packard just wasn’t fast enough?  Who felt it had to be made to look faster, actually moving even when standing still?

And where is this design convention from?  Those little lines, I mean.  I bet people from some cultures would be unable to read these as speedlines.  I bet these come from a graphic design and probably a cartoon tradition, which tradition probably comes from the furiously inventive popular culture of the first half of the 20th century.  In effect, our owner was making his or her car look faster by making it look like a cartoon.  (Who says this was a rational, technocratic culture?)

My armchair travel brings me first to the car, then to the invisible owner of the car, and then to the culture that helped provide the owner’s customization.  Quite a lot of movement for a man stuck in a London hotel room.  Thank you to Andrew and Shorpy for this opportunity to get out and about.  

To see the photo in context, go to shorpy.com by clicking here.  

6 thoughts on “Time travel from a London hotel room

    1. Grant Post author

      Yes, we like to think we are all about customization, but there it is, 70 years ago. Thanks for spotting the error. Grant

  1. Rick Liebling


    What a find, and on so many levels:

    The image
    The backstory (movie)
    The town
    The car
    The service station
    The car ornament (a Cormorant?)

    And on a meta-level, the commenters and their ability to identify all of the above. What an insanely dense experience to unpack. Brands seem rarely, if ever, capable of creating so many meanings. They just want you to click like on their Facebook page.

  2. alfredo troncoso

    “Actually moving even when standing still”. Funny, it’s what Ford’s “kinetic design” has been trying to do, often successfully with their newer European models: Fiesta, FOcus, KA.The question remains: why would anyone want a car not only to move, but to appear to move?

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