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The beauty of… cars

Author, critic and automotive design enthusiast, Stephen Bayley muses on the beauty of cars

In our The Beauty Of… series we look at beauty outside of the world of makeup and hairspray, inviting individuals working across different fields to muse on what they find beautiful. From the exquisite symmetry of radiology imaging to gory tropes of horror.  Here, author, critic and automotive design enthusiast, Stephen Bayley muses on the beauty of cars.

In 1955 the philosopher Roland Barthes, who had no interest in cars, visited the Paris Salon de l’Automobile for the first time. Here he saw the new Citroen DS and was surprised into writing the finest prose ever written about a car.

Citroen knew they had created something astonishing: so as not to compromise the visitor’s perception of the car as a pure, uncontaminated form, it was displayed on a pylon, the wheels were removed and the arches filled-in.

The effect was purely sculptural and inspired Barthes to say that the new Citroen was, “the best messenger from a world superior to Nature”.  There is no better definition of ‘design’.

Cars are not art because, like movies and rock music, their creation is a collaborative one and we cling to the idea that art must have an individual auteur.  But cars have usurped the traditional role of art: they project collective yearnings and present an aesthetic proposition to the world.  Besides, artists, today may be interested in many things, but beauty is not necessarily one of them…..

Citroen DS

The Citroen DS was the most astonishing production car ever seen: un objet superlatif. It would astonish still if launched today. To Roland Barthes, it was “the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement”. He added that, “Smoothness is an attribute of perfection”.

The story began in 1938 when Citroen’s chief engineer, Pierre Boulanger, briefed his team: “Study all the possibilities, including the impossible,” he said. Boulanger was killed in 1950 while testing the car, but the objectives had been established. The voiture de grand diffusion was to be “the world’s most beautiful, most comfortable and most advanced car”. It was a project of national significance: “to show the world that….. France could develop the ultimate vehicle.”

The body was drawn by Flaminio Bertoni, an Italian sculptor who had exhibited with the Futurists and Surrealists. Technical innovations included a plastic roof, an automatic clutch, self-levelling suspension and power brakes running off a unique high-pressure hydraulic system. The ride and comfort were as unsurpassed as its beauty was unprecedented.

Jaguar E-Type

Here is industrial art of the highest standard. Probably the ultimate standard. Certainly, that’s what New York’s Museum of Modern Art thought when an E-Type was chosen as the first production car acquired for its permanent collection. In 1951 the architect Philip Johnson at MoMA had coined the term “rolling sculpture” in a pioneering car design exhibition. And 10 years later here it was.

Viewed as an artistic composition, the Jaguar combines lascivious expressiveness with disciplined purity. And it is both emphatically phallic while voluptuously feminine. But like a lot of great art, there is an element of creative theft. Look closely and you will see that designer Malcolm Sayer did not much disguise his admiration for the 1952 Alfa-Romeo Disco Volante.

The Jaguar is an astonishing composition of segments and sections of circles and, surprisingly, straight lines too. Look at it in plan form and a composition of apparently gorgeous curves is actually a flat rectangle. Scrutinise this car from front three-quarters and you see that the famously ‘curvaceous’ front wings are nearly pure cylinders. It is artifice as well as art.

Form following function never, in fact, mean very much and the E-Type is as much about theatricality as utility. The huge power bulge on the bonnet with its hints of potency and menace is a part of sportscar iconography, while also being an original sculptural device of genius adding visually engrossing complexity to the geometry of the bonnet.

Chevrolet Corvette

The greatest ever adventure in car styling was begun in 1927 when Harley Earl, a one-time Hollywood neighbour of Cecil B. De Mille, established General Motors’ Art and Color Division in Detroit. He knew nothing of vehicle dynamics but wrote all the rules about fantasy and desire.

The ultimate expression of Harley Earl’s design philosophy was the Corvette. He knew everything about how colour, shape and detail can animate customers. The original ’53 Corvette was launched at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, suggesting some of its designers’ expectations.

Space-rockets and USAF fighters were an inspiration for the details. So to were juke-boxes. Every fantastical detail that emerging pop culture, Madison Avenue and the semantics of racing could afford was included here. Fake ducts and louvres were never more lovingly crafted. There is something almost explicitly sexual about the voluptuously upholstered interior being inset into the smooth, plastic body.

Earl fully understood the mysteries of consumer behaviour, the vectors of desire. He said: “Every time you get in a car, it should feel like going on vacation for a while”. That’s realised here to the full.

Lamborghini Miura

It was the great Torinese carrozzeria Bertone which received the commission to clothe the transverse, rear-engine chassis which Ing.Dallara had created for the dauntingly ambitious Ferrucio Lamborghini who was determined to build a Ferrari rival. This became the Miura: the first supercar. There was ambitious specification, commanding performance and utterly astonishing appearance.

The Lamborghini Miura stands alone, the supreme creation from a moment of uncontaminated ambition for its manufacturer and its designer. This “super” prefix in “supercar” is interesting. It suggests both outstanding qualities and a degree of dissent. At about the same time as the Miura appeared in 1965, a group of Florentine architects created SuperStudio, dedicated to “anti-design”. Soon musical supergroup collectives disdaining the dim ordinariness of commercial rock would appear.

The Miura is many things but compromised and ordinary are not among them. Every sculptural device in the designer’s repertoire has been used to make metal sing. It is not, perhaps, a pretty car, but it is an eye-popping one. Certainly, no-one had ever explored further the aesthetic limits of metal.

People who drive fast say the Miura is heavy and slow, but that is like saying Michelangelo’s Pieta weights too much. The comparison with sculpture is not out-of-place: it is the ultimate exercise in automotive art.

Aston-Martin DB4

The abbreviation “GT” is doubly relevant for Aston-Martin. Italians learnt about stylish travel from us: the original Grand Tour was the eighteenth century gap year when periwigged milordi were sent to the Mediterranean to learn the art of life.

The 1958 Aston-Martin DB4’s body was designed by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan and built on its lightweight superleggera principles. To name an Italian coachbuilder “Touring” was to repay the compliment given to Italy by travelling aristocrats. We loved their country, they admired us for doing so.

Insofar as culture and history are concerned, the Aston-Martin DB4 was an Italian suit on a gentlemanly, but athletic, English frame. Despite its Italian origin, the DB4 says “English”, semiotically speaking. It is not a dramatically beautiful car in the way of an E-Type, nor an unambiguous demonstration of car pornography like a Corvette. Instead, it is gentlemanly, refined, and well-mannered. Rather as they say it should take you five minutes to realize someone is well-dressed, so it takes a moment to realize what a wonderful artistic composition a DB4 represents.