Keller SSK Sculpture

by Lawrence Braun

From the large brick paved plaza of the Pyramids you look west down vineyard slopes toward the Petaluma River as it slowly winds south toward San Pablo Bay. There upon the hillside one stands among verdant gardens, a crescent of show rooms and winery facilities that comprise the Keller Estate Winery and the impressive Keller Automobile Collection. Arturo and Deborah Keller have been collecting my automotive sculptures for some time; using them as appointments in various locations throughout the showrooms, offices and library of the collection. Several of the artworks are unique commissioned works depicting significant personalities relating to the history of the cars in the museum.

Once a year the Kellers host an elaborate after party on the plaza following the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Jeanne and I have enjoyed invitations to that festive gathering for many years and we stay in the area for a couple additional days to meet with the Kellers about ongoing sculpture projects.

It had taken me several years to create a bronze portrait bust of Arturo that met with his satisfaction. When finally that sculpture was approved, completed and delivered, a new more ambitious project was proposed. For as many years as I can remember the centerpiece of the plaza was a stylized bronze sculpture representing Juan Manuel Fangio driving the Lancia Ferrari by French sculptor Emmanuel Zurini. Although the representation was life size, it portrayed only a limited portion of the car and was a bit overwhelmed by the expanse of the plaza. Mr. Keller suggested that for the centerpiece of the plaza I might create a life size sculpture of him driving his 1927 Mercedes Benz SSK Murphy bodied boat tail speedster. Where the Zurini was small for the space the Kellers were concerned that a life size sculpture of the whole car be too imposing. I took their thoughts to heart and after deliberation we agreed that I would use artistic license to make the body of the SSK less massive by leaving portions of the front end open while retaining the full effect of its unique boat tail body and driver’s compartment.

Returning to the approved portrait bust and using it as the face and head of Mr. Keller’s full figure in driving position, I created the figure, driver’s seat and interior panels for the car in clay. Those parts along with the tires, wheels and a variety of other parts were modeled, molded and cast in either bronze or stainless steel.

Once the cast bronze figure and car interior was assembled a ladder chassis was fabricated out of stainless and welded to that assembly. Bronze sheet was formed into panels contoured over stainless steel structural ribs to form the exterior bodywork. The flowing fenders were formed over wooden patterns, removed and then welded to the body.

Because the front wheels of the car are empty of spokes, brake drums, hubs and axle, the entire front of the car is supported by the front fender brace assembly discreetly pinned into the top of the front tires. This along with the open space through the engine compartment created the light and airy front section that we hoped for. A distinctive Mercedes Benz radiator was fabricated for the front of the car set between two large polished stainless headlamps. The last stage of the SSKs construction was to give it and the figure of Arturo Keller a chemical patina to color the bronze and preserve them.

With the sculpture loaded on our car trailer, Jeanne and I headed west from our home in Loveland, Colorado toward California. The weather was good and at the end of our second day of travel we arrived at the Pyramids late in the evening. Arturo, Deborah, Ana Keller and her family all driving separately escorted us along the winding winery road to the plaza where the SSK sculpture spent the night on its trailer. The following morning we moved the sculpture from the trailer into position at the center of the plaza. It now sits there a tribute to Arturo Keller the founder of the Keller Estate and the Keller Automobile Collection an expression of his enthusiastic love of maintaining, preserving, and driving the world’s most noteworthy cars.

Detours Sept issue »