Ever since the bicycle was invented, men and women alike have experienced the thrill of uninhibited freedom on the road. The dawn of the automobile age was no different—in fact, the possibilities were only multiplied. Take a step back in time to witness the awe and empowerment of these two- and four-wheeled vessels of freedom.
53 x 37 3/4 in./134.5 x 96 cm
A lithographic masterpiece. Acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest posters, this image of a flame-tressed sylph, propelled among the stars by the Gladiator and its winged pedals, has been appropriated throughout culture ever since its debut in 1895. Shockingly, it remains anonymous, despite the presence of the faint initials LW in the lower right corner. Even in the famed 1896 Reims exhibition, it was attributed to “Anonyme.”
12 x 15 3/4 in./30.3 x 40 cm
This Columbia high-wheeler was the vision and product of Colonel Albert A. Pope, whose first business endeavor was manufacturing shoe supplies in Boston; in 1877, he founded the Pope Manufacturing Company to fabricate air pistols. But he was still obsessed with bicycles, and specifically the high-wheeler. He began by importing English models to sell in Boston, then studied a British prototype before releasing his Columbia. A savvy business man, he secured American and foreign patents for every component of production. This poster announces seven feats of the sport achieved by riders of the Columbia—but the most entertaining tidbit might be this endorsement: “an ever-saddled horse that eats nothing and requires no care.” Pope was later heralded as the “founder of the American bicycle industry” and “the father of good roads” (Dodge, p. 62).
36 3/8 x 51 1/8 in./92.5 x 129.7 cm
“It was at the Velodrome de l’Est in Charenton that the first Grand Prix of Paris was contested, won by the American Geo-A. Banker. The following year, the ‘Municipal Track,’ built in the Bois de Vincennes, hosted the event: the ‘Cipale’ still exists today. Misti treated, with his usual talent, a fairly classic theme at the time: the eternal feminine encouraging the spectator to go to the velodrome” (Petite Reine, 94).
54 7/8 x 39 3/4 in./139.5 x 101 cm
This charming design has us imagine that we’re trailing this stylish family of four on their bicycles and tandem bike. Though Fernel includes the word “automobiles,” the design is devoid of them; Georges Richard was just gearing up automotive production at this point.
42 x 57 1/2 in./106.5 x 146.2 cm
Fortuna, Roman goddess of good and bad luck, embodies the capriciousness of destiny—but with a Michelin tire underfoot, she is bestowed with reliable security. The text at bottom announces that it is the only brand which adapts itself to the wheel of fortune, and Fortuna underscores this point with a palm leaf in her hand: a symbol of victory. And clearly, those without Michelin tires are destined to a much more dour fate, as exemplified in the forlorn and wistful look of the nymph with the non-Michelin tire. It’s a compelling use of allegory for advertising purposes. Zagrodzki attributes this unsigned poster to Édouard Michelin, an established painter of the period—and co-director of the Michelin company with his brother, André (Livre de l’Affiche, p. 30).
30 x 47 1/8 in./76.2 x 119.7 cm
If you’ve ever been to the mountainous regions of Bavaria, you’ve likely seen motorcyclists zooming around the ice-capped peaks on winding rural roads. This anonymous artist (whose initials are H. W.) presents us with a perfectly crisp outing to promote BMW’s newest model, which is likely an R42, produced between 1925-1928. If anyone happens to know the artist’s name, please do share. Rare!
31 x 46 1/2 in./78.8 x 118.2 cm
With the Nazi regime fully in control of Germany, the Mercedes-Benz team arrived with the most powerful cars ever used in Grand Prix history, easily winning first prize. With Italian driver Luigi Fazioli at the wheel, the 3.99-liter Mercedes W25 model led from start to finish, never seriously challenged by the three Alfa Romeos and the Maserati that took the next four spots. In the poster, Ham puts us right in the action, against the glittering background of sun-drenched Monte-Carlo.
35 3/4 x 46 1/2 in./90.8 x 118.2 cm
Compared to most Shell posters—which use a softer and more expressionistic aesthetic—this futuristic bit of Surrealist Chinoserie really stands on its own. The apple blossoms, at top, give a distinctly Chinese feel, yet are painted to simulate photographic depth of field. Below, the car is rendered with an unnatural realism; its driver is Shell’s mechano-man symbol, but he’s taken on a fully three-dimensional bionic form. Equally lovely and unsettling, this is one of the rarest of all Shell posters.
25 1/2 x 38 7/8 in./64.7 x 98.8 cm
In this rip-roaring design, the red race car seemingly rattles right out of the frame. “The number on the radiator betokens more than the order of starting positions. It is a symbol of the coming of age of the sport… a child of the technical-industrial age” (Plakat Schweiz, p. 140). Fontanet produced a number of Grand Prix posters (including one for the Grand Prix de Suisse motorcycle race the same year). This may be the most vivid of them all.
23 1/8 x 32 1/2 in./58.8 x 82.7 cm
Supportive of anything which showcased German excellence, the Nazi Party financed all Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union racing programs, including the annual Grosser Bergpreis von Deutschland. Here, a host of international flags—Germany’s obviously being the largest—flank a race car as it speeds up one of the course’s mountains.