Richard Arbib looked to the future from the very start of his career, when he was hired to design displays for General Motors’ World of Tomorrow exhibit at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair. He followed that assignment by working for visionary design director Harley Earl at General Motors. Later, Arbib established his own design business in Manhattan, where he produced a widely distributed series of dream car illustrations for Tidewater Oil’s Veedol Brand ads. According to the New York Times, Arbib’s designs “reflected a sense of change and drama that were increasingly important in the consumer boom that emerged after World War II.” Arbib took his boldest step in 1956 when he designed and funded construction of the radical, space-age Astra Gnome, perhaps the world’s first compact concept car.
Basing the Astra Gnome on Nash’s tiny sub compact Metropolitan, Arbib said he fully skirted its wheels to give it a “floating quality” suggesting a futuristic spacecraft. After being featured on a 1956 Newsweek cover, the space coupe debuted at that year’s New York Auto Show where it was viewed favorably by awed spectators.
Super wide at a full six feet, the Astra Gnome Time and Space Coupe provided room for side compartments fitted with custom luggage. Arbib’s brochure explained the dash was dominated by a “celestial time clock permitting actual flight-type navigation.” In a way, he was groping toward a GPS navigation system. The car’s bubble canopy and retractable running boards were said to permit easy “walk-in entry.” That same bubble also was said to allow, “full hemispherical vision and view of the curb while parking.” And no worries about overheating, as air conditioning was available to keep things cool.
After its time in the spotlight, the Astra Gnome fell from grace, was forgotten and disappeared without a trace until it was tracked down and fully restored by Nash Metropolitan specialists, the Metropolitan Pit Stop of Valley Village, California where it can be seen on permanent display.