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Arts feature

Cars are our cathedrals

Stephen Bayley hails the automobile - a miracle of technical and artistic collaboration - and mourns its demise

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

Imagine for a moment Harley Earl, head of design at General Motors, Detroit’s wizard of kitsch. Standing before him, in his studio, is the cetacean bulk, nipple-coloured pink paint, churrigueresque chrome ornaments and rocket-ship details of his 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Seville Convertible. He is talking to his acolytes, as attentive as Rubens’ studio assistants in Antwerp 300 years earlier. Earl is describing his stylist’s art, the astonishing formal achievement of the pink Caddy. He says, pointing perhaps to a tail fin: ‘I want that line to have a duflunky, to come across, have a little hook in it, and then do a rashoom or a zong.’ Our language lacks a vocabulary to describe what cars do to us. So Harley Earl had to invent his own. It’s poetry of a sort.

Poets themselves have not much sung ‘The Age of Combustion’. The A23 has not found its Homer. And maybe now it never will.

There are some solitary wonders. E.E. Cummings’s 1926 poem ‘She Being Brand New’ treats clutch slip, piston slap, burning smells, shuddering motions and grinding gears exactly as if they are metaphors of sex. Which, of course, in a way, they are.

Forty years after Cummings, Tom Wolfe essayed his trademark sesquipedalian style when, on his first assignment as a journalist, he described what cars meant to street-racing Californian kids: ‘Freedom style sex power motion colour everything.’

But more often literature has been disdainful of the car. ‘Dark was the day when Diesel/ conceived his grim engine that/ begot you, vile invention…/ metallic monstrosity,/ bale and bane of our culture,/ chief woe of our commonweal’, wrote Auden. Maybe this is exactly what Auden thought on his frequent and convenient tipsy trips home in a taxi powered by Dr Rudolf Diesel’s Rational Heat Engine.

John Betjeman also thought the car was risible. Driving a ‘firm’s Cortina’ was the very mark of lower middle-class wretchedness. The poet laureate also wondered why steam power had generated such architectural wonders while petrol none. Alas, Betjeman, our apostle of tea and crumpets, had not met the painter Ed Ruscha, who saw monumental beauty in the banality of gas stations.


More positive, or at least engaged voices have included Heathcote Williams, who said that an alien observing traffic from space would assume that intelligent life on earth was the automobile, which picked up and spat out its human fuel. These same traffic patterns would also seem, from a distance, to be miracles of intelligent cooperation and decorum.

This year is the 60th anniversary of literature’s most remarkable encounter with the automobile. At the 1955 Paris Salon de l’Automobile, Citroën revealed its Voiture de Grande Diffusion, roughly ‘mass-market car’, although it was anything but. Citroën had been bankrupted by the genius of its founder, who believed that ‘from the moment an idea is worth having, no one cares what it costs’. The ‘DS’, as it became known, was a deliberate attempt to restore the company’s fortunes. It was also conceived as a morale-booster for the French nation, just emerging from postwar austerity.

Thus there was much self-consciousness in the presentation of the new car. Although Citroën’s chief engineer had said ‘nous ne soucions pas de l’esthetique’, they had employed a sculptor to shape the body. This was Flaminio Bertoni, an Italian with direct connections to the futurists and the surrealists. Bertoni’s design was so sensational that Citroën presented the car on a pylon, without wheels, so that Michelin rubber would not compromise the aesthetic effect.

The Citroën DS
The Citroën DS

Gina Lollobrigida was hired as an ambassador and wooed Paris-Match journalists, who raved that it appeared to have come out of an atomic research lab. ‘Voici la Bombe Citroën!’ the headlines shrieked at a time when atmospheric nuclear tests were commonplace. More poetically, if you say ‘DS’ the French way, it sounds like ‘Goddess’, a name that immediately evoked the spiritual instead of hot oil. And this turned out to be exactly how the car would be understood.

One of the keenest visitors to the 1955 Salon was a young academic grammarian from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. His name was Roland Barthes and he had no particular interest in cars, although he was beginning to turn his attention to the semiotic analysis of subjects ‘most unlike literature’. Barthes was taken with the spirituality of the DS, which inspired him to the sovereign observation that cars today are ‘our cathedrals’ in that they are everyday objects, made by anonymous artisans, but retain a level of magical appeal for the population as a whole.

Barthes wrote beautifully about the ‘objet superlatif’ and its ‘wondrous shape’. He was amazed at the way the cutlines worked and how metal panels merged into windows. It was, he said, ‘the beginning of a new phenomenology of assembly’. It was the ‘exaltation of glass’. And the Citroën was, in Barthes’ fine words, a perfect definition of what design could be: ‘the best messenger of a world above that of nature’. Or pure artifice, if you prefer. Or perhaps even art.

If the 1955 Citroën DS were introduced tomorrow, it would still astonish. But nobody is planning anything quite so audacious. The Goddess speaks of a different world, where cars were used not as journeys from A to B, but as places to lounge, at speed, between lunch and dinner. Look at the early advertising literature and you see cross-sections of the car full of well-dressed people en route to cheerful destinations.

So, 60 years on, it is melancholy to think of a culture with no space for pleasure. It is even more melancholy, as we imagine our Goddess rolling along the sunny RN7 in the shadow dapple of plane trees, to think of the approaching Autonomous Car: the robot automobile. Apple will not let its designer Jonathan Ive discuss cars in public, confirming a suspicion that a driverless iCar is coming soon.

The Autonomous Car will bring many benefits. Driven by data, journeys can be aggregated and intelligently planned with less waste. Traffic lights and other encumbering street furniture will disappear from the landscape. You may never again have to think about parking because the car will not rest. Additionally, like W.H. Auden, you may return to your vehicle blind drunk and avoid the wrath of the law.

But something, possibly even something spiritual, will have been lost. Future apex-predator braggarts may claim ‘My car is more autonomous than yours!’ but, essentially, all ideas of pride in ownership, status, prestige, discreet sexual display and, indeed, spirituality will have been removed from the formula of the motorist’s life. That might be wholesome, but it is not very poetic.

I was talking to Stefano Pasani, a leading ophthalmological surgeon in Bologna and, incidentally, an authority on Lamborghinis. Through an elegant pince-nez Dr Pasani told me we are too hard on the car. ‘Why do you think life expectancy is longer now than a century ago?’ he asked. And his answer was the accessibility provided by motorised ambulances.

This genie of mobility, and its cousins freedom and pleasure, was released by Henry Ford, who created his first gasoline buggy to escape from the crushing boredom of life on the farm. André Citroën added European values to Ford’s workaday contraption. True, modern roads are a travesty of liberty and motorised mobility is fiction, but in dreams begin responsibilities. When you look at a 60-year-old Citroën DS, only the dullest person could not see great beauty, magic and charm. The Age of Combustion left behind some magnificent cathedrals.


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