Cars accelerating the modern world at the V&A
The motor car is a peculiar object, capable equally of extreme seduction and destruction. It is one of the most significant creations of modern time, shaping our landscape, our cities, informing how we work, live and communicate. Yet, as we reach a critical junction in navigating its future, it makes sense to take a look back and to understand what made this complex engineered product so pivotal to industrial societies, and its enduring impact on our collective lives.
An exhibition has opened up at the V&A in London with a mission to explore the car as a design object. ‘Cars accelerating the modern world’ reveals the impact the automobile has had on our social, political, cultural and increasingly environmental life. This immersive show takes the viewer on a journey to sense the visceral impact the motor car has had on human life, feeding into the creative word – in arts, literature, architecture, design, fashion, and music.
‘Cars’ is curated thematically under three general headings: ‘going fast’, ‘making more’, and ‘shaping space’, with the exhibition design directing us through a curated route. ‘We want people to make connections between these areas,’ explains co-curator, Lizzie Bisley. There are only fifteen or so cars on display here, chosen for their individual impact on the world, from the first production car to a converted low-rider, a 1950s concept car, and a future autonomous flying car. They join 250 further objects to help link the car with the evolution of modern life from our relation to speed, to manufacturing and consumption, and how it has shaped our landscapes, our cities, and road networks.
The curators are conscious that an exhibition about the motor car cannot be filled with only static objects. A dizzying opening film, therefore, sets the scene by placing the visitor behind the wheel in today’s London, and in midday traffic. It is a reminder of the complexity of driving, the challenges, and responsibilities of navigating roads built once for the horse and carriage, now packed with various transport: personal cars, vans, taxis, Ubers, buses, motorbikes, electric scooters, cyclists. The driver is the observer here, watching the world pass from the cocooned comfort of the motor car. ‘We wanted to capture the command and control you get from being in the car. The car is incredibly personal; it is about the experience,’ explains Bisley.
We are reminded of the excitement and allure of the motor car through a giant-size projection of one of the most memorable car scenes in cinema history – Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt speeding through San Francisco in a Ford Mustang in the 1968 ‘Bullitt’. Elsewhere, a documentary reveals the car’s enduring quality as a vehicle for making personal statements. Five contemporary subcultures around the world – from the South African spinners, Los Angeles low-riders, Emirati dune racers, and Japan’s Decotora truckers – feature here. ‘We wanted to get across how incredibly personal the car is as an object,’ says Bisley. ‘They are reclaiming the car, seeing it as a way of personal expression.’
‘Cars’ ends on a more sober note as we witness the impact of this once progressive industrial product on our landscape, cities, nations, politics, and climate. It’s interesting to see all this in connection to the geography of petrol extraction, celebrated once as a miracle resource through products like Tupperware and nylon; and the evolution of fossil-fuel through the politics of the Middle East and the 1970s oil crisis and the rise of environmental concerns.
Bisley says the V&A show is ‘definitely not a celebration of the car. We are very aware of the issues we’re facing today; this is a historical show to look back at the original promises and the unintended consequences that come from when you scale up a piece of design when you start producing thousands and thousands of cars.’
As a departing note, ‘Cars’ leaves us with one example of the future, the clean, autonomous, shared, flying Pop.Up Next concept vehicle by Audi, Italdesign, and Airbus. The motor car revolution from the very start relied on cooperation and coordination with industrialists and designers and urban planners and governments. The future – be it autonomous, flying cars, private or shared transport, or a combination of them all – will also need to be a global effort, working interdependently – collectively navigating a progressive future. And it could be a very exciting future.
‘Cars: Accelerating the Modern World’ is on until April 2020, and the accompanying book, which explores the subject further is available through the V&A here. Images in order: General Motors Firebird I (XP-21), 1953 with its perfectly aero design © GM; Automotive design fed into products such as the A.C. Gilbert Co. ‘Airflow’ Table Fan, 1937 © Dallas Museum; Streamline design informing this Cloche Hat. Miss Fox, 1928-29 © V&A; French advertisement (1934) for the Tatra 77 © V&A; Poster art showing the impact of automation on car manufacturing and labour © Walter R Reuter Library; Car subcultures include the Lowriders in Los Angeles © Nathanael Turner.