They’re now so ever-present in our lives that, unless you happen to encounter a Lamborghini or a Rolls-Royce on your way to work, it’s likely you hardly even notice the cars all around you. But, with climate change and the environment climbing ever higher on the political agenda, the future for the petrol guzzling machines we’ve come to rely on looks to be rather, well, electrifying.
Cars: Accelerating the Modern World, a new exhibition opening at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum this week, uses this pivotal moment in car design as a way to explore the history of the automobile – and the way it has changed almost everything about he world around us. Gear heads beware, however, this is not a show about cam belts and V12 engines but an insightful and thought provoking exploration of the interaction between nature, humans and the machines we create.
Although Karl Benz’s 1888 Patent-Motorwagen No.3, ostensibly the first car to ever be built, does feature, the show opens not with the beginning of car production but by exploring our hopes and dreams for where cars could take us. A scale model of General Motors’ Firebird 1 concept, a Space Age-influenced super sleek design more than slightly reminiscent of a rocket, sits alongside sketches of flying cars, amphibious vehicles and the kind of futuristic machines that have, so far, only come to life in films like Blade Runner 2049.
This sense of endless possibility is the ideal canvas on which to frame the astounding progress the car industry has made over the last 130 years that is explored in the remainder of the exhibition. Tracing a line from the earliest mechanical cars through the Ford Model T, the popularity of motor car racing, the booming demand for customisation and luxury to the integral part cars played in mapping the Earth and our growing awareness of a car’s impact on the environment, the exhibition offers a 360-degree view on the social and physical effect of cars.
From the integration of cars into popular culture – be that through films such as Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, the creation of the Michelin guide, the practical effect of driving on fashion or the rise of low rider subculture – to the shockwaves sent through manufacturing with the advent of the production line at the hands of Henry Ford, Cars elegantly pulls unexpected stories and narratives from the seemingly straightforward history of the automobile.
Of course, there are also some standout models on display as well. Muscle car fans will be pleased to see a Ford Mustang Fastback take pole position while those with a taste for the quirky will marvel at Messerschmitt’s 1959 KR200 Bubble Top. And, while no exhibition on the history of the car would be complete without a Model T, the show also includes some more unusual exhibits including ‘Graham’, a model created by the Transport Accident Commission of Australia to show how humans would look if we naturally evolved to survive car crashes.
Cars ends as it began: by looking to the future. In this case, however, it is the very real possibility of the Pop.Up Next the show examines. Created by Italdesign, this prototype combines the four major emerging automotive trends: it is electric, it can fly, it is self-driving and it would be available on demand rather than being owned outright. If it were to become a reality, the exhibition posits, it could mean an end to traffic, harmful carbon emissions and the inequality caused by the prohibitive expense of car ownership. Surely even the biggest petrolhead couldn’t say no to that?
Cars: Accelerating the Modern World runs from 25 November 2019 – 19 April 2020 at the Victoria & Albert Museum.