How cars changed the world

17th October 2019

From reshaping architecture to influencing fashion, music and movies, the invention of the motor car has had an all-pervasive impact on the way we live. Ahead of a major new exhibition at the V&A, Stephen Bayley considers the myriad effects of the automobile on the modern world.

Words by Stephen Bayley

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New York's Magnificent Guggenheim Museum was inspired by a parking garage. Can there be more revealing evidence of the car’s impact on culture? Its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, had trialled the bold helical ramp concept in a Park Avenue showroom he designed for Max Hoffman, the merchant who introduced America to Porsche.

Wright, nothing if not visionary, indulged in reveries about the various ways the car would transform America. To this end, petrol pumps were installed at his own house in Oak Park, Chicago, so he could conveniently fuel up his Model K Stoddard-Dayton roadster. He also coined the term “carport”. Wright’s Broadacre City of 1932 was a utopian fantasy that showed how cars would decentralise America and make congested cities redundant. It didn’t quite work out that way and we got strip malls, big box stores and suburbs instead.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

Still, travelling in cars was a new experience. In Maryland, Wright proposed a helical ramp wrapped around Sugarloaf Mountain – so that driving to the summit would become an experience akin to circling in an aircraft. Other great modernist architects shared this infatuation with the automobile: Le Corbusier’s 1925 Plan Voisin for Paris replaced Haussmann’s historic city with tower blocks connected by speeding motorways. At Lingotto in Turin, the Italian Futurist architect Giacomo Mattè-Trucco built a factory combined with a rooftop test-track for Fiat – a compelling demonstration of speed, as Aldous Huxley argued, being the single novel experience of the twentieth century.

And in cinema and pop music, the car became a human proxy. Racing a Mercury Coupe towards a cliff in a game of chicken in Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean expressed the glamour of delinquency. In 1955, Dean killed himself in a Porsche 550RSK and made the celebrity collision a modern cultural staple. Others followed his tragic arc, notably the goalkeeper-turned-existentialist Albert Camus, whose last journey was in a luxurious, over-powered and under-braked Facel Vega.

More innocently, The Beach Boys knew they would have “Fun, Fun, Fun” until “Daddy” repossessed his misappropriated Ford Thunderbird. And when, in 1967’s The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman fretfully drove an Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider across San Francisco’s Bay Bridge between the Embarcadero and Yerba Buena, the pretty car helped him create a universal symbol of erotic yearning. Back in London, Marc Bolan couldn’t drive, but was so infatuated by cars that his best-ever lyric, addressed to a woman, was: “You’ve got a hub-cap diamond star halo.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s1932 plan for Broadacre

Frank Lloyd Wright’s1932 plan for Broadacre

But there was a democratic influence too. Ford’s Model T made the ordinary American a “man enthroned”, according to EB White in his 1936 essay “Farewell My Lovely!” Twenty years later, Hertz was offering enthronement for $7.85 a day. The Hertz ads said: “Rent it here, leave it there” – the ultimate proposition of an American culture cheerfully based on mobility and ease. And the image of this culture was eternally caught by Californian Pop Artist Ed Ruscha, whose 1963 book Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a consummate masterpiece of deadpan photography, and elevates the garage to the status of a temple.

Some of London’s greatest 20th-century architecture was created for the car. Chelsea’s Michelin House building of 1911 pioneered Hennebique’s reinforced concrete, disguised by glorious ceramic tiles of early motor-races. The Wolseley Restaurant was originally a car showroom, designed by William Curtis Green, architect of The Dorchester Hotel. Covent Garden’s Long Acre was once lined with car showrooms. Sometimes, the English response to the car was twee: East Sheen’s 1926 service station had a thatched roof. By contrast, the country’s first drive-in was on a Kent dual-carriageway where passing “motorists” were served by cheerful girls in impressively mini miniskirts. Of course, it was Alec Issigonis’s car that gave Mary Quant’s immortal garment its name. And in literature, JG Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash captured the erotic tension between speed, sex and death. How he must have loved the Westway. What could be more poetic than people searching for their destinies along concrete strips arcing above the city?  

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City of 1932 was a utopian fantasy that showed how cars would decentralise America and make congested cities redundant.

Like car design itself, movies and rock music are the ultimate expressions of the last century’s industrial culture. And movies and rock music glorified some of the world’s great roads: the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, Route 66, the Grande Corniche with Grace Kelly and her shapely Sunbeam Alpine in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, Sunset Boulevard, the King’s Road and the Pacific Coast Highway have all become part of our collective dreamscape.

But the influence of the car on human behaviour is becoming a matter of history. If you want to evoke a lost era, the expression “going for a drive” works very well. Incredible to say now, but once people drove up the M1 for recreation, since it offered a delirious vision of Macmillanera futurism as exciting as Flash Gordon and not available at home. There is no better example of this view of the automobile as a vital accessory to modern life than Rodney Gordon’s 1966 Trinity Square Car Park in Gateshead. The other star in Michael Caine’s movie Get Carter, it was loutishly demolished in 2010 because the generally accepted opinion was that cars have ruined the environment.

A positive view of car culture has always had its enemies. John Betjeman used to revile the “dual-carriageway”. To Betjeman, “Cortina” was an eponym for the lower middle-class, which he so despised. “I am,” he wrote, “a young executive, no cuffs than mine are cleaner, I own a slimline briefcase and I drive the firm’s Cortina.” For this young executive in 1965 they built the Pennine Tower Restaurant on the M6 at Forton in Lancashire, whose recent listing by English Heritage confirms the motorway’s place in history.

Rebel without a cause James Dean at the wheel of his Mercury Coupe

Rebel without a cause James Dean at the wheel of his Mercury Coupe

We are nearing the end of The Age of Combustion and the automobile is entering its endgame paradox: as cars become less useful in congested cities and thwarted by eco-angst and legislation on the open road, their specification and performance are uselessly enhanced. Yet human imagination continuously demands vistas of escape.

Will the flying car ever take off? One of the first was envisaged by Henry Ford, who promised in 1940: “Mark my words, a combination of airplane and motor car is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” We’re still smiling. It didn’t take off. Yet the vision persists at Uber.

Meanwhile, the autonomous electric car will, they say, set us free.  But a driverless car will, in every sense, lack soul. The astonishing difference between a Ferrari V12 engine and a Citroën air-cooled flat twin resulted in beautifully different designs. But electric motors are all the same. And autonomy ignores the psychological reality of the automobile which is, if we are honest, based on concepts of pride and prowess and personality. Having Google drive you home after a party might be an advantage, but who would want Google to determine the vectors of a romantic road trip? An encounter with a driverless car will be no more involving or expressive than using an ATM.  

Mark my words, a combination of airplane and motor car is coming. You may smile, but it will come.

Combustion was an analogue experience – and driving was too.  But ours is a virtual age. Airbnb is a hotel business that does not own hotels. And the practical aspects of driving today are altogether less comforting. The urban under-30s today regard cars as unnecessary and expensive encumbrances leading to nowhere but social stigma and the criminalisation of movement, not the status symbol or romantic attribute they once were. Even roads themselves have lost their glamour.  

But while it’s very hard to imagine the Festival of Speed in 2050 with silent vintage Nissan Leafs and Teslas whistling up the hill, Goodwood’s FOS Future Lab is investigating the future of car culture. Just as combustion cars created the suburbs, so AI-powered electric cars will change cities in their own way. Smart cities will have no traffic lights. Parking spaces will not be necessary since sharing protocols mean cars will always be in use. Paper maps will disappear. The romance of the Michelin Guide, published as a stimulus to gastronomic travel and tyre consumption, will be replaced by the banality of TripAdvisor.

I asked the architect Norman Foster how designers might adapt to the challenge of the autonomous car. He told me they will have to find a focus of attention that is not the steering-wheel. Maybe, but we will never again see anything as wonderful as Gordon Buehrig’s Cord L-29, a car lionised by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A 1922 Peugeot brochure emphasises the link between motor cars and fashionability.

A 1922 Peugeot brochure emphasises the link between motor cars and fashionability.

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I asked the architect Norman Foster how designers might adapt to the challenge of the autonomous car. He told me they will have to find a focus of attention that is not the steering-wheel. Maybe, but we will never again see anything as wonderful as Gordon Buehrig’s Cord L-29, a car lionised by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Since the Guggenheim, cars have had an uneasy relationship with museums. True, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has a 1947 Cisitalia and a 1961 Jaguar E-Type in its permanent collection and The Louvre once exhibited David Bache’s 1970 Range Rover, but London’s V&A, the world’s outstanding design museum, was slow to recognise the significance of the car since its feudal departmental system could not decide whether a car was “metalwork” or “sculpture”. So they ignored the automobile. When I broke the taboo in 1982 and put an original Saab 92 on display, an old curator barged into my office, banged the table and told me I had “traduced” a great institution.

But a new exhibition called Cars: Accelerating the Modern World has the V&A tentatively entering the slip road of the fast road to the future. Except “modern” is itself now an historic style label like baroque or rococo. How quaint it seems. “A savage servility slides by on grease” was how Robert Lowell expressed the essence of the car. But that was 1960. The last great innovation on wheels was not a car, but Robert Plath’s 1991 patent for a carry-on wheeled suitcase.

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MOTOR MOMENTS: the V&A show includes exhibits that demonstrate the cultural impact of the car. From top: Miss Fox’s Cloche Hat, 1928–29; Michelin Guide, 1900, produced during the Exposition Universelle in Paris, gave essential information for making road trips across France and predicted the huge future growth in car ownership and motoring as a leisure activity; engineer Karl Benz’s Patent-Motorwagen No. 3, 1888, was the first production automobile ever made. When it debuted two years earlier, it could barely manage 16 km/hour. 

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World opens at the V&A on November 23.

This article was taken from the Autumn 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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