Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a Member »

Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.

1934 LaSalle design model United States (Detroit), designed and made by Harley J. Earl (American, 1893–1969) for General Motors Corporation about 1933; mahogany, painted black, chrome-plated metal, glass (all works from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection; courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Transportation is one of the few industries in which design has so consistently been a driving force. Who hasn’t at some point been stopped in their tracks by the polished silhouette of a classic Corvette? The car’s controlled curves evoke speed, and that speed creates the illusion of power.

Nowhere is our fascination with the automobile’s beauty more apparent than in the miniature car. Made throughout the 20th century from tin, steel, iron, brass, and lead, these toys and models have been collected by everyone from children to die-hard enthusiasts. Foremost among them is Fred Sharf, a benefactor of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His charming treasury of car models — along with small-scale replicas of trains and planes, and transportation-related ephemera — is now on view at the museum in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Selections from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection.

At a glance, the show may seem like merely another institution’s attempt to win favor with a donor, but this one warrants a deeper look. No one can survey Sharf’s 80-item-strong collection without appreciating the admiration that fueled his acquisitions. They are a nostalgic portal into the golden era of transportation, harking back to a time when trains were still a crucial element of the American journey, planes still provoked wonder and enthusiasm, and cars still symbolized the American dream.

Willys Jeepster model, United States (Toledo, Ohio), made by Al-Toy, a division of Toledo Casting Corporation after original car manufactured by Willys-Overland Motors, Inc. (c. 1947); cast aluminum, paint, plastic (photo by Mark Wallison)

Airomobile prototype model, United States (Denver), designed by Paul M. Lewis (American, died in 1990) and John Tjaarda (American, born in the Netherlands, 1897–1962), manufactured by McPherson Foundry (1936); painted cast aluminum, polished aluminum

Burlington Zephyr electric train model, made by Western Coil and Electric Company after the original train manufactured by Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company, designed 1934, made 1934–40; cast aluminum, plastic, electrical components

Eastern Airlines Constellation, United States, after an original airplane manufactured by the Lockheed Corporation, late 1940s; painted metal, plastic (photo by Mark Wallison)

Carl Walter, “Over 200 miles per hour. International Air Races, St Louis, October 1-2-3” (1923), poster, color lithograph (photo by Mark Wallison)

William F. Timmins, cover illustration for ‘Airplanes, Boats, Trains, Trucks Coloring Book’ (1950), for The Merrill Company Publishers, graphite, ink, opaque watercolor (photo by Mark Wallison)

Deutsche Lufthansa Ju 52 Germany, after an original airplane built by Junkers Flugzeug- und Motorenwerke AG, (c. 1930s?); cast metal (photo by Mark Wallison)

Unidentified illustrator, Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 four-door sedan, model year 1958 (c. 1957); graphite, opaque watercolor

Greyhound Scenicruiser bus model, United States, made by General Motors Corporation after original bus designed by Raymond Loewy (c. mid-1950s); painted plaster, printed decals, wood

Raymond Loewy, “Vacationland via Pennsylvania R.R.” (c. 1939), graphite, opaque and transparent watercolor with metallic paint (photo by Mark Wallison)

Golden Arrow model car, United States (c. 1929), cast metal, paint, painted plaster (photo by Mark Wallison)

Mohawk Airlines DC-3, United States, after an original airplane manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company (c. 1950s), painted metal (photo by Mark Wallison)

Willys Jeep Station Wagon model, United States (Toledo, Ohio), made by Al-Toy, a division of Toledo Casting Corporation after original car designed by Brooks Stevens for Willys-Overland Motors, Inc. (c. 1948); cast aluminum, paint, plastic (photo by Mark Wallison)

F.C. Sanborn, “Automobile Show, Boston, Mar 5th–12th 1910” (1910), poster, color lithograph (photo by Mark Wallison)

Homer C. LaGassey, Concept for a two-door sedan, (c. 1946), colored crayon, opaque watercolor

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Selections from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (465 Huntington Avenue, Boston) through May 10, 2015.

The Latest

Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...