Even in the auto-saturated 21st century, car design lacks an established language within visual culture. While Stephen Bayley may report approvingly on a description of the curves of the Audi A6 “in terms that Donatello would have understood – un piccolo ombra, luce, luce,” for Jeremy Clarkson, a gorgeous Ferrari “can snap knicker elastic at 20 feet.” Between such poles of high talk and utilitarianism lies a void. Car design still defies the kind of study that is commonplace for painting, sculpture or even pottery. That’s surprising, because the habit of putting cars, and even motorbikes, into “art spaces” has been growing over the years, starting with the acceptance by the Museum of Modern Art in New York of Pininfarina’s Cisitalia in 1972. The Guggenheim ventured into the area in 1998 with “The Art of the Motorcycle.” But though this gave technical history and cultural analysis, it shied away from an exploration of vehicle aesthetics. If vehicles really are art, perhaps it is an art that the galleries don’t “get.”
There are reasons for that. “Car art” is subconsciously intended, by the most passionate designers, for a special, self-selecting “tribe.” They may be pulled towards utility by industry norms and their studio experience but company design managers know that an anarchic, partly self-taught talent is the creative germ which can make customers – the ones that still like cars, that is – want their marque. The “art” is secret.
With the new Mini, for example, the BMW/Rover designer Frank Stephenson seemed to look into the soul of the old Issigonis design and came back with a far more aggressive visual signature – larger, bolder, flashier – which yet still clearly said “Mini.” Critics puzzled. Was it just a crude pastiche? Who cares? Punters of a wide range of types and age loved it and sales went through the roof.
But is car design now just a requoting of classic shapes? At the Design Museum, a new exhibition, “The E-Type – story of a British sports car,” still won’t quite manage to answer such a question. As RCA tutor Helen Evenden says, “the cars are the stars.” But the cars may answer it for us themselves. The E-type was fast, flash, remarkably cheap, but above all, it had a superbly sensuous shape. Forget the overused term “phallic.” The key to the car’s…