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.