Chet Herbert's "Beast III" is one of the jewels in a new exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
"It looks like a ruby on display -- a big aerodynamic ruby," said guest curator Ken Gross.
Beast III isn't a gem, or even a painting, but a high-powered sculpture on wheels.
"That car, in 1952, was the fastest car on salt," said Gross.
Herbert's masterpiece is one of 19 cars on display in "Speed: The Art of the Performance Automobile," at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, opening Saturday, June 2.
"In this building, on a platform and properly lit, they take on a very different look than on the road or on the Bonneville Salt Flats," said Gross, an automotive writer and former director of the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles. "They really look like art -- like sculpture."
However, unlike a piece of Pueblo pottery or figures of Aphrodite and Eros on a dolphin, both part of the UMFA's collections, these pieces are historically significant because of their speed.
"Everything we have on display is a performance car of some kind," said Gross.
Cars on exhibit include the Mormon Meteor cars I and III, a 1954 Ferrari owned by Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, and Steve McQueen's1957 Jaguar.
This is the place
Utah is the right place to find amazing cars. One of the racers on display is a Cobra Daytona Coupe, on loan from the Larry H. Miller family.
"Larry described this car as his very favorite car in the world," said the late entrepreneur's son, Bryan Miller.
That's saying something, because Miller amassed a large collection of cars related to manufacturer Carroll Shelby, who died on May 10. Many of the cars are housed in the Larry H. Miller Total Performance Auto Museum, at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele.
"This car was the evolution of the Cobra roadster," said Miller, assistant general manager at Miller Motorsports Park.
The roadsters hit an aerodynamic wall at 150 miles per hour, he said, until Shelby asked one of his designers to do something about it.
"Pete Brock was like a young Einstein. He made the design without a computer, and without a wind tunnel," said Miller.
And he made the cars much faster.
"There were six built," Miller said of the Daytona Coupe. "This was the second one, but it has the best racing history of all of them."
It finished first in the GT class, and fourth overall, in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1964.
"It was the first car to beat Ferrari at Le Mans in the GT class," said Miller, adding that it continued to rack up wins in 1964 and 1965.
"It's most significant that this was, and is, the only American-manufactured car to ever win the FIA GT World Manufacturers Championship," he said. "Even today, Dodge hasn't done it with the Viper, Ford hasn't done it with the Mustang, Chevy hasn't done it. ... It holds a really special distinction with that race history that makes it the most valuable Cobra in existence."
Most cars in the exhibit are from the Price Museum of Speed in Salt Lake City, which will likely open to the public in the fall. One specimen is the 1907 Renault Vanderbilt Racer.
"William Vanderbilt lived in Long Island, and was an avid early racer," said Jim Williams, curator of the Price Museum of Speed, explaining that Vanderbilt liked the powerful Renault race cars, and asked the company to make 10 smaller versions for him and his rich buddies. They raced on a road Vanderbilt created for that purpose.
"It ended up being the Long Island Motor Parkway," said Williams.
The Price Museum of Speed is also loaning a Bugatti that won the Spanish and German Grand Prix in 1929, and Al Teague's streamliner, which went 432 miles per hour on the salt.
"I think the most exciting car is the Mormon Meteor III," said Williams, speaking of the car built by former Salt Lake City Mayor Ab Jenkins (1883-1956).
The 1938 Mormon Meteor has a 12-cylinder, 1570-cubic-inch aircraft engine that created 750 horsepower.
"Top speed was just over 200 miles per hour," said Williams, noting that the car still holds 12 international speed endurance records. "Look at the design of the fender, by the tail -- the Meteor is offset to the left six inches, because it was always turning left on the track."
Gross was able to borrow the Mormon Meteor I from a collector in Ohio.
"That was the car I had to have," he said, explaining that it's extremely rare for Mormon Meteors I and III to be shown together. There is no Mormon Meteor II.
"Mormon Meteor I was a great success, then it was converted and called Mormon Meteor II for a while," Gross said. "He built Mormon Meteor III, and Mormon Meteor II reverted to being I."
Actor Steve McQueen's Jaguar, from the Peterson Automotive Museum, is a fun addition to the show.
"He called it the 'Green Rat,' and he particularly liked terrorizing Mulholland Drive, looking for people to race," said Gross, who is in town from Virginia for this show.
The show also features a 1937 Delahaye Type 145, known as "The Million Franc Delahaye" for winning a prize offered by the French government to beat the 1934 speed record set by Alfa Romeo. Rene Dreyfus almost drove the wheels off the car.
"From a standing start, he had to build up quickly to much higher speed and maintain it for an hour," said Gross, adding that crew members could see the cords in the tires near the end of the race. "But he did an extra lap ... in case they had miscounted."
Stories like these help bring the cars to life, Gross said. "Many of these cars can tell several stories at the same time, because they were owned by celebrities, they're rare, and they've accomplished something in speed racing."
That's why he recorded an audio guide for the exhibit -- with some help.
"Jay Leno is a friend of mine, and I asked him to narrate the section on the Bugatti -- he loves Bugattis," Gross said.