Cars: Accelerating the Modern World

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World

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V&A
Until 19 April 2020
Admission £18

This is a slightly odd show for the V&A to stage; one would have instinctively thought of the Design Museum or the Science Museum as better places to park this exhibition. It is also an enormous subject to cover. It is only about 130 years since the first motor car turned a wheel, but the distance the car has covered in the intervening years is truly staggering. Using graphics, photography, film, fashion, products and cars themselves, the exhibition attempts to tell the story of the car in three main chapters, starting with Going Fast, which explores our obsession with speed, the liberating effect of the motor car and as a symbol of technological progress and individual mobility. Making More looks at production, assembly lines and consumerism, while Shaping Space investigates the global influence of the car, how it has affected the landscape through road-building programmes to extraction of oil, as well as climate change. The first chamber has numerous clips from films, including Steve McQueen in a Ford Mustang GT 390 chasing two baddies in a Dodge Charger in Peter Yates’s Bullitt, an excerpt featuring the de Lorean in Back to the Future, Bruce Willis’s taxi in The Fifth Element, and another flying car sequence from Blade Runner. There are other films projected onto large screens, including speeded up traffic in a Koyaanisqatsi-style clip, 1905 speed trials held in the Isle of Man, an early Brooklands race featuring female drivers, known as the ‘Brooklands Speed Queens’, including Kay Petre and Jill Scott Thomas, and scenes from an attempt on the land-speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats in the streamlined Golden Arrow driven by Sir Henry Seagrave. One of the hero cars is a 1953 General Motors Firebird, which owes more to the aeronautical than the automobile industry, with a bubble cockpit, short wings and a tail plane. ‘Designed strictly as an engineering and styling exercise, ‘ Firebird I’ was intended to determine whether the gas turbine could be used as an efficient and economical power plant for future vehicles.’ It wasn’t. With speed, however, comes danger, and there is a counter recording the number of people killed on the road around the world, which, although dropping the the UK, because of safety measures in cars and roads, is still one of the leading causes of death across the world. It was clicking at a steady rate, registering well over a million in this year alone. Another counter registers the number of cars being produced globally, and that was about one a second.

The sponsors of this exhibition are Bosch, the engineering and technology company, operating in mobility, consumer goods, industrial technology and energy, and building technology. The V&A’s big, summer show back in 2018 was sponsored by Volkswagen, who, three years before that, were exposed in a breathtakingly arrogant global cheat, dubbed the ‘diesel dupe’. In September 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars being sold in America had a ‘defeat device’, or software, in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results. The German car giant has since admitted cheating emissions tests in the US. VW had had a major push to sell diesel cars in the US, backed by a huge marketing campaign extolling its cars’ low emissions. The EPA’s findings covered 482,000 cars in the US only, including the VW-manufactured Audi and Skoda. But VW has since admitted that about 11 million cars worldwide, including eight million in Europe, are fitted with this device. Now, the V&A are under attack for taking money from the opioid-selling Sackler family, so where are they to go looking for much-needed funds to mount these extravagant exhibitions?

There are some seriously beautiful cars on display, and, this being the V&A, some odd choices. One of the stars is a 1922 Hispano-Suiza Type HB6, with a copper-riveted mahogany ‘Skiff Torpedo’ body by Henri Labourdette. Another classic is the advanced Czech Tatra T77, with a rear-mounted V-8 air-cooled engine and pioneering streamlining, designed by Paul Jaray and engineer Hans Ledwinka. Another rear-engined air-cooled German saloon is the VW Beetle, designed by Ferry Porsche, which became one of the best-selling cars of all time, selling over 21million units in its 65 year life-span. Apart from these iconic motors, the V&A have avoided anything that might be seen as ‘predictable,’ like the Mini, celebrating its 60th birthday this year, the revolutionary Fiat 500 from the same era, and the Citroën 2CV, celebrating seventy. ‘We aren’t celebrating the car; we’re trying to understand it in a deeper, more nuanced way’, say the curators, in a deeper, nuanced way, and one can understand that there is more to the automobile than simply design and technology. Cars have had a colossal cultural impact on society, as well as art, fashion, marketing, manufacturing, travel and the enormous lasting effect they have had on the environment, and a large part of the third section is taken up with this topic. Looking into the rear-view mirror, we can see where it all went horribly wrong, with the insatiable use of steel, chromium, rubber and, above all, oil. As we turn more and more to electricity to power our cars, we shall be more reliant on lithium to manufacture the batteries we need. South America has vast reserves of lithium, known as the ‘lithium triangle’, thousands of square kilometres under the Uyuni salt flats, with Bolivia’s share put at 25% of the world’s resources, but with an unstable government and the threat to Bolivia’s already diminishing water supply, colossal amounts of which are needed to extract the metal, it does not look too bright. According to an essay written by Lawrence Blair in the exhibition catalogue*, currently Bolivia produces a mere 112 tonnes of lithium carbonate. Argentina produces 30,000 tonnes, while China digs out 70,000 tonnes, rising to 120,000 tonnes by 2021, nearly one-third of the global market. The smart money is following US tech, and Tesla, in particular. Naturally, there are speed-bumps on the road ahead for the lithium industry, which may be ‘sleepwalking into a ‘tsunami’ of oversupply’. A bit like a rabbit, or llama, caught in the headlights.

Don Grant

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World. 224 pp. £30. ISBN 978-1 85177-967-3

Image (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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