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 aesthetic power comes from the “haunches” – the point where the waistline rises up over the rear wheels. From the rear three-quarter view, the form recalls the dynamism of a racehorse – or a jaguar. The appeal of the E-type is much more zoomorphic than sexual.
Key design steps, like the E-type, establish a kind of gestalt image of “what it means to be a Jaguar” and when this popular sense is so strong, companies seldom dare challenge it with novelty. That is an inspiration and a burden for designers. Today’s Jaguars, developed under the late Geoff Lawson, and now Ian Callum, still have “haunches” and feline curves. But they now have a load of regulatory and functional criteria to satisfy. Headlamp heights, turn indicator visibility arcs, crash performance, hugely increased ventilation. Even aerodynamics, which E-Type designer Malcolm Sayer married to aesthetics by a mystical, semi-secret process, is used differently. The marvel is that today’s Jaguar designers can reconcile such imperatives with a shape that does still speak “Jaguar.”
That is certainly a creative activity, but is it not rather regressive? Isn’t it time for cars that are new, like the first Mini was new, or the Lamborghini Countach? These questions hint at why car design is not sculpture, though designers use sculptural technique. Still, it’s certainly time for a paradigm shift.
The E-Type show at the Design Museum runs from 1st August