Stephen Bayley

A museum-quality car-boot sale: V&A’s Cars reviewed

The story of car design, one of the defining activities of the modern age, remains to be told

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Cars: Accelerating the Modern World

V&A, until 19 April 2020

We were looking at a 1956 Fiat Multipla, a charming ergonomic marvel that predicted today’s popular MPVs. Rather grandly, I said to my guide: ‘I think you’ll find the source of the Multipla in an unrealised 1930s design of Mario Revelli di Beaumont.’ He looked a bit blank.

This exhibition is a rare attempt to explain the car, perhaps the most dramatic since the Museum of Modern Art’s 1951 New York show where Philip Johnson coined the term ‘rolling sculpture’. It is both occasionally brilliant and continuously exasperating. Rather as if in a crowded restaurant you are overhearing snatches of fascinating conversation coming from different tables.

The context is significant. The V&A and the Science Museum were only separated in 1909. Into one went mechanisms that worked, into the other objets de vertu which sat still. Thus, the V&A was reluctant ever to add a car to its collections. This reluctance was magnified by Victorian taxonomy, so no one could decide if a car was ‘metalwork’ or ‘sculpture’. A measure of intellectual snobbery was also involved, so when in 1982 a car went on show for the first time, it caused a ripple of outrage in the unventilated pool where old curators paddled. I know this because I put it there.

Since then, the V&A has energetically, some say too energetically, embraced pop culture. So it was obvious when, several years ago, the architect Norman Foster devised an exhibition about car design that he should approach South Ken. But Foster’s ambition exceeded either the resources or the will of the V&A and the proposal died, only to be revived after a fashion this week.

The curators, Brendan Cormier and Lizzie Bisley, are interested not so much in the car itself as in the car as a symbol of contemporary desire. And they have assembled an astonishing collection of car-related imagery: Soviet futurism, science fiction, pulp magazines, Albert Kahn’s designs for factories and scratchy newsreels of women racing drivers at Brooklands. There are asides about the birth of the Italian autostrade and the Michelin Rouge, each a cause and effect of car use. If Cars sometimes feels like a sprawling anthology, light on the editing, then good anthologies can be very popular.

An outstanding exhibit is Firebird XP-21 of 1954, rarely seen outside the General Motors Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. This mad, jet-powered single-seater was the ultimate expression of Harley Earl’s ambition. Earl, a one-time neighbour of Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood, realised that when consumers were sated by Henry Ford’s monochrome utilitarianism and his simple dream of democratic mobility, they might be freshly seduced by style and more fanciful vistas of escape.

In 1927 Earl created the Art and Color Section of General Motors. A bizarre 30-year aesthetic adventure followed. The famous Cadillac tail fins were inspired by the rudders of the Lockheed P-38, known to the RAF as the ‘Lightning’. Soon Earl’s restless attention shifted to rockets and spaceships.

At GM, he established influential studio techniques and disciplines, comparable to an artist’s atelier and still practised today. But not much is done in Cars to explain them. Nor to account for the work of the little-known European designers — Paul Bracq, Aldo Brovarone, Paolo Martin, Wolfgang Möbius, for example — whose work rivals architecture in its influence on our sense of contemporary aesthetic possibilities.

Besides Firebird, the choice of interesting cars on display is arbitrary and the manner of their presentation lacklustre. You find the No. 1 Benz, whose farting and popping journey in 1886 frightened the horses in Mannheim. There is a splendid aerodynamic Tatra and a not very original ’65 Mustang. They are just parked and difficult to see with fresh eyes.

Of course, there is an ur-Volkswagen, but it is typical of Cars that the original Kraft durch Freude-Wagen is explained in the context of the Volksempfänger, Hitler’s radio intended to get the Volk wired 1930s-style. Technology harnessed as Nazi propaganda is a good point, but little is said of the methods of Ferdinand Porsche, the Volkswagen designer. How did his assumptions influence the ineffable shape drawn by Erwin Komenda? What metal-pressing processes were used? What about the early Zündapp projects and Mercedes-Benz’s involvement in Hitler’s mobility plan? Or was, perhaps, Josef Ganz’s Maikäfer (Mayfly) really the source of the Volkswagen, a notion suppressed because he was Jewish?

Cars concludes with a shiny ‘concept’ by Audi and Airbus for a flying car, a fancy that also beguiled Henry Ford whose seductive dreams have got us into a fine mess. Burning oil will soon seem as deranged as burning food. Instead, we will take to the skies in electric-powered carbon-reinforced fibre pods, carrying expensive, heavy and toxic lithium batteries sourced in rapacious depletion of South American mineral deposits. In dreams begin responsibilities.

This exhibition contains marvels of supportive material, as if a Mastermind on the automobile were illustrated by a picture researcher on speed. But ultimately Cars lacks logic and coherence. It is a museum-quality car-boot sale. The story of car design, one of the defining activities of the modern age, remains to be told.