Car = Art?


Look at your car. Ignore the kerbed alloy and the parking dent and the fact that you didn’t get around to cleaning it last weekend. Look beyond all that. Look at its forms, its details, its edges and curves. How does it make you feel when you really look at it? If it leaves you cold, it’s a crime. There’s no excuse for lazy, passionless car design; you have been cheated. If – even when it’s parked – the looks suggest speed and freedom and all the other things you love about driving your car, the designer has done his job. The very best-looking cars are simply beautiful; if you own a DS or a Miura or an Alfa 8C, just looking at it might be enough.


But is it art? You might get the same instinctive, irrational, love it-loathe it reaction to a car as you do to a painting or a sculpture, but can it qualify as a work of art? I’m going to argue that it doesn’t, but it does get very close. Perhaps a car magazine shouldn’t be attempting to answer such big questions – but one definition of art is that it exists purely for its own sake. The shape of your car does not; the designer has had to package an engine in a given position and a given number of seats and doors, and wrap it all in a shape that slips efficiently through the air and won’t try to take off over 100mph.

This is design, not art, but the car industry has produced some of the most emotive design of the last century. The French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote when the Citroen DS was launched in 1955 that the car was now the “exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”

The comparison between architecture and car design is a good one. Buildings and cars each have a function beyond their physical appearance; we ought to care how they look, and too often are let down. The comparison of cars with cathedrals is even better. One is a place of worship, the other an object of worship. It’s hard to separate how they look from what they represent. Believers look at a great church and see divinity in its beauty and the fact that it was built at all. Our reaction to great cars is maybe a little more prosaic, but the same thing happens; we look at a Ferrari 250 and can’t dissociate its looks from the knowledge that it is fast and rare and expensive and sensationally exciting to drive.


So, some examples of the greatest car design/art. We’ve wanted our cars to look good since Edwardian times; as soon as we’d cracked getting them to drive at more than a few miles per hour and for more than a few miles without breaking down, we’ve wanted them to look more than purely functional. Those ungainly, upright things with bicycle mudguards and their guts on public display soon gave way to styled, streamlined sheet metal.


Despite a much shorter history, great car design, like great art, forms movements, grouped around a certain place or time. Europe in the mid-thirties gave us the first real rush of beauty with the 1935 Alfa Romeo 8C and the 1937 Bugatti Atlantic.  Fifties America was another locus; the cars weren’t always beautiful but, like pop art, they were an incredibly self-confident reflection of an incredibly self-confident society which the car itself had helped create. Back to Italy for the sixties, where designers with names like Old Masters created first bewitching, almost unobtainable coupes and roadsters for Ferrari and others, before producing the Miura: the first supercar, and arguably the most beautiful car ever drawn, though we won’t get bogged down in that row here.


And just like art, attribution is everything; despite being designed 43 years ago, a pedantic but amusing row still simmers between Gandini and Giugiaro – now old men – over who really created the Miura.


But how many truly beautiful cars have there been since then? Car designers have always had to work around the constraints imposed on them by the engineers and aerodynamicists. There’s an argument that the constraints are now too tight for designers to create anything beautiful. Add the legal requirements of all the countries where the car sells and, according to Jaguar design chief Ian Callum, skinning a car becomes a ‘join the dots exercise’. Callum knows good design; one critic wrote that his Aston Martin DB7 has ‘the sort of beauty the car world is lucky to see once in a generation”. His seductive XK coupe and XF saloon have re-established Jaguar’s reputation as a maker of the world’s best-looking cars, anchored by the ’49 XK120, the ’61 E-type and the ’68 XJ, but he isn’t sure he could do something as unfettered as the DB7 again.


It isn’t Callum’s work, but the Bugatti Veyron exemplifies his thinking. At €1.2m, handbuilt in tiny numbers and with no purpose other than to delight its owners it ought to be a visual masterpiece, as ‘30s Bugattis were. But the Veyron’s styling is its least-discussed attribute; the demands of packaging its monstrous mechanicals, cooling its 1001 horsepower engine and preventing it from taking flight at 253mph mean that when you first encounter it you’re surprised by its unthreatening, unremarkable egg-shape.


But we are still making great looking cars, if not cars that border on art. Look at the new Alfa 8C, or even the Fiat 500, cars whose visual appeal is so strong that discerning car people are prepared to ignore the fact that they’re not that great to drive. Patrick le Quement, about to retire after 43 years as a car designer and 22 as the head of Renault design is more sanguine than Callum. “Yes, we’re all suffering a little bit, and the European pedestrian protection rules mean the noses of our cars look a little bit like Le Mans-ready Porsche 911s, but ingenious engineers will find us a little more flexibility. I think we could be entering a new golden era.”

By Ben Oliver