Cars: Accelerating the Modern World


One of my very earliest memories of my Grandpa, is bringing me a matchbox car  when he came to visit. I amassed a formidable collection of these little metal treats, which would be worth a fortune today, had they not all flown off the top of the stairs (driven by the Dukes of Hazard or sometimes by Charlie’s Angels). No surprise, I went on to study Car Design at Coventry University and have read the same car magazine every month since April 1983! I guess they were a touch influential.

The new show at the V&A, ‘Cars: Accelerating the Modern World’ is the museum’s first exhibition to examine the car’s all pervasive influence on society and the world around us. According to the Senior Curator, Brendan Cormier, we are at

‘…a turning point, an important moment to look back. The car is arguably the most important designed object of the 20th century.”

This is not an exhibition about car design, though obviously that is part of it. The show examines the influence of the Car on our lives and breaks that down into three sections – Going Fast, Making More and Shaping Space. Within these sections the curators examine subjects as diverse as industrialisation, gender stereotypes and urban planning, including the future of the car itself.

Brendan Cormier has secured an astounding range of vehicles, favourites of mine in the show are the gorgeous Delahaye 145 racing car from 1937, the Tatra T37A limo for around the same time, the simply beautiful Hispano Suisa from 1922 and the Jaguar E-Type Concept Zero that greets visitors in the entrance hall. There are also wonderful juxtapositions in the show such as the Mustang Fastback sitting below a screen showing the iconic car chase from Bullitt. I loved the model of the Le Corbusier villa, which is positioned so the streamlined Tatra is visible behind. The group of Lalique bonnet mascots are breathtaking and it is a surprise that any of these beautiful fragile sculptures survived life on the road at all! One particularly thought provoking piece was the footage of Jimmy Carter in 1976 warning us of the dangers of pollution and the environmental impact of fossil fuels. If only someone had listened sooner, but I fear that the major multinationals were very much in charge of the agenda.

There are few places where the the influence of the Car can be seen more clearly than the ‘Motown’ of Detroit. Home of the big three (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) all three companies had their headquarters in Detroit, and the city has been shaped by their rise and recent fall. The city grew up around the new car industry, with the city population swelling from 285000 at the turn of the 20th century to a peak of nearly 2million. This explosion resulted in a planning revolution, all focused on car ownership with the birth of suburban sprawl, ring roads and freeways. When the period of prosperity ended and the sales collapsed, the city that had given birth to the automobile industry was left with one of the US’s poorest and least accessible public transit systems. A perfect storm of complacency, decentralisation and affordable and reliable imported cars led an industry depression – the heard was torn out of Detroit. You can learn more about how Detroit went from one of America’s most prosperous cities to one of its most distressed here and about Brendan Cormier and Olly Wainwright’s tour of Detroit here.

With a brief as open as it is wide, it is not surprising that there are omissions. Alternative solutions to our addiction to fossil fuels are examined but only electric power is explored. Hydrogen fuel cells merit inclusion since the emissions are simply water vapour. I do know that the practicalities and challenges of arranging the loans of these magnificent vehicles has meant that this selection may not have been the original choice. I also feel that there was a slight bias towards the american design. With Europe being the birth place of the car, it is surprising that there is scant reference to the peerless Italian design houses. There was more to concept design than GM’s jetfighter obsession. Look at Bertone’s work in the fifties on the B.A.T. (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica) series of design studies for Alfa Romeo examining airflow and aerodynamics compared to the fins, jets and nose cones of the Firebird series. Admittedly the Firebirds did explore the idea of self driving cars more than 60 years before the current push towards automation. Finally, where is the Mini?!? This egalitarian masterpiece is one of the most influential cars ever produced, the fact that baby Fiats and the Beetle made the cut makes this omission even more puzzling.

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World is a truly fascinating exhibition. So much more than an examination of the car, it shows us how technology can shape and alter society and world around us. It also offers pertinent and salient warnings about our addiction to fossil fuels, and a way forward for the future. As a committed car lover, I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough. Cars runs at the V&A until Sunday, 19 April 2020.

Text and images © Jonathan Dredge

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