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MANY ARTISTS have specialized in automobiles, but few with the enthusiasm of Peter Helck. How many other American artists traveled Europe to cover motor racing? How many were commissioned by Esquire magazine to depict early eras of the sport? How many owned one of the most revered of American race cars, Locomobile Old No. 16?
Though Helck is best known for his automobile subjects, his career included what he called his “fine arts.”
His 66th Street Elevated Station evokes the same sense of feeling as his racing subjects. I especially like the softness of his technique combined with its precision.
Helck had a pleasing facility with words as well. Check out a portion of his memoirs at www.peterhelck.com, a website maintained by his grandson Timothy.
Of his early art assignments, Peter wrote, “Two jobs were with movie producing companies, Lubin in Philadelphia and World Films in New York, where I produced posters which, it was hoped by my employers, ‘would elevate poster standards’ in that tumultuous entertainment field. That I was fired by World’s Louis Selznick after two weeks suggests that the standards had not been elevated.”
Helck’s commercial art sometimes had patriotic appeal. It could also be reflective in a personal way. A painting for Johnny Walker scotch whisky includes a view of Helck’s studio, a model of his Locomobile Old No. 16, an easel holding his Speed Demons of 1904 painting and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label.
In 1941 Helck acquired custodianship of a 1906 Locomobile known as Old No. 16 (and also the “Mona Lisa of American historic automobiles”). The car, already two years old, had won the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup, held in Nassau County, Long Island, New York, and attracting Europe’s (and thus the world’s) best drivers.
Not atypical of its era’s race cars, Old No. 16 had a huge four-cylinder engine displacing 17,657 cc and chain drive. Its top speed of 110 mph must have been harrowing indeed.
Peter savored his time with Old No. 16, and passed it on to his son Jerry. It now resides in The Henry Ford museum collection.
Helck’s bibliophilic masterpiece is Great Auto Races, an oversize (13 x 12 in., 6 lbs.) collection of his prose and paintings. There are thoughtful analyses of auto racing from 1894 through 1972 and a total of 217 illustrations, 90 in full color.
Peter’s knowledge, and appreciation, of racing is evident in recounting tales unfamiliar to many. A favorite is Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 1929 Verneuk Pan adventure.
The Verneuk Pan is a huge dry lake in Bushmanland, 400 miles north of Cape Town, South Africa. This remote site’s surface was allegedly beneficial for the Campbell Blue Bird’s competition against Sir Henry Segrave’s Golden Arrow (which was preparing to run at Daytona Beach at the time).
After trekking the Blue Bird through jungle, Campbell and his crew found the Verneuk Pan’s vast surface to be highly abrasive and destructive to tires. What’s more, Campbell survived a plane crash, the first Verneuk Pan rain in five years and a tornado, finally to achieve a two-way average of 219 mph.
Alas, word reached them that Segrave had run 231 mph at Daytona. Nonetheless, Campbell and crew persevered and beat Segrave in other than outright speed. Writes Helck of Campbell’s performance, “His five miles at 211 exceeded the old record by 70 mph. More gratifying was his 216 for five kilometers, besting Segrave’s mark by fifteen.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014