Mar 13 2010

A Tribute to Peter Helck (1893-1988), the Great American Artist

Born in 1893, artist Peter Helck was just 13 years old in 1906 when he attended the Vanderbilt Cup Race as a spectator. Who could have known at the time his razor-sharp mind was absorbing memories that would transfer onto canvas decades later with amazing accuracy.

Helck’s formal training in art began in 1910 when at 17 he attended the Art Students League for about a year. However, his family’s tenuous grip on financial security forced him to pursue employment. Fortunately the job took advantage of his considerable artistic talent as he worked to produce advertisements and point of sale displays. Helck entrusted his $7 weekly salary to his mother, who saved it for him so he could start his own art business at age 22 in 1915.

Successful with these endeavors, Helck returned to school to study under artist Sir Frank Brangwyn. Here he developed techniques to create beautiful landscape and cityscape images. While his fine arts work received some good reviews, it rarely sold. Helck spent most of his career as a commercial artist, where he prospered.Helck moved from New York City – where he was born – to purchase a farm with art studios in upper New York State. He began to collect antique cars and eventually built a garage for them.


In 1942 he purchased his most prized possession, the “Old 16” Locomobile his boyhood idol Joe Tracy drove in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race and which later won the Vanderbilt Cup in the hands of George Robertson in 1908.


At age 51 Esquire Magazine contracted Helck to create a series of paintings for great moments in sports. Naturally, Helck pitched the idea of America’s first victory in international auto racing competition with the Locomobile Vanderbilt Cup triumph.


Soon, Helck had a steady stream of commissions for art depicting the pioneering days of auto racing. In his element, he found time to author two books, The Checkered Flag and Great Auto Races. In 1968 he was elected by the Society of Illustrators to its Hall of Fame artists for his "distinguished achievement in the art of illustration." A founding member of the Automotive Fine Arts Society, he was dubbed “the dean of American automotive illustrators of the 20th century.” The society’s Peter Helck Award is their highest honor, given annually at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance to the artist whose work represents the pinnacle of automotive fine art.


Helck passed away at age 94 in 1988 leaving behind a vast body of work. Old 16 continued to be maintained by his son Jerry. Based on his father's wishes to have the car available to the public, Old 16 eventually became part of the collection at the Henry Ford Museum in 1995. Until 2008, at least once a year, Old 16 was still running on the roads of Dearborn.

His grandson Timothy Helck keep his art alive with this impressive website- .


Mar 14 2010 Howard Kroplick 8:42 PM

From Tim Helck:

Nice article. I just added a link to it to my Grandfather’s Wikipedia article:

I really enjoyed looking at your site. Keep up the good work!

Jun 28 2011 BillCall 8:45 AM

I’ve long admired Mr Helck’s work, first shown to me by my grandfather in the 1940’s.  His painting of the old race cars especialy caught my eye, and I could pick them out in many areas.  One question has been on my mind for years—I grew up in Columbia county NY, and met a delightful kid at the Taconic state park swimming area.  Her name was Bernice and I was told by someone that she was Peter’s granddaughter.  We had fun in those short times and I’e thought of those days often.  Could I have been wrong or does such a person really exist?

Jun 08 2015 Ric Rylands 11:14 AM

I have visited your grandfathers house when I was about 8 years old. I remember going to his barn and seeing all the vintage cars. I often think about opening those doors and being so amazed at what I saw. What a collection! Tim , I have communicated with you before,
Wonder if you remember me? My dad was a commercial artist also in Rochester,N Y. (Same name as mine) I was wondering, what kind of value his paintings are now? It would be great to hear from you.  BE WELL, Ric

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