Auto Art

Tom Karen, the industrial designer behind the Bush Radio, Marble Run, Raleigh Chopper and the Bond Bug car discusses how vehicle design should be viewed as an art form.

Auto Art
Auto Art

It is curious, is it not, that the bodies of cars are not seen as pieces of sculpture by the art world. Architecture is ok, and features regularly in establishments like the Royal Academy, but for a car to find a place in a gallery it has to be squashed into a rectangular lump, flattened as if run over by a steamroller of form the framework of an installation.

Jeremy Deller, from It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq
Jeremy Deller, from It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq

Architects have empathy with cars, probably because, in addition to their aesthetic quality, they also have to meet functional requirements related to people. But for a wider public, cars are an art they understand better than any other. You can’t sell an ugly car these days – but an indifferent building is fine. If one wanted to instigate a discussion about the relative merits of Ghery v Hadid in the average pub, one will not get very far. But the mention of cars – Focus v Astra, or Ferrari v Porsche – is very likely to start a lively  exchange.

John Chamberlain, Schizoverbia
John Chamberlain, Schizoverbia

The creation of an elegant vehicle is a huge challenge. Unlike the freedom a sculptor enjoys, the car designer must work within severe constraints: there is the ‘package’, accommodating passengers and mechanical components; there is legislation dictating vision angles, the location of lights, bumper heights; the choice of materials is restricted; the body is made up of parts (doors, bonnets, boots and other bits), and the joint lines between them must be pleasing; the overall form must have good aerodynamics (low drag, low lift stability in cross wind) which needs to be manipulated to flatter the car.

All of this has to be capable of being manufactured efficiently in very large numbers at a very low price, and please millions of customers.

Why is the massive skill requited to put all this together, using techniques similar to a sculptor’s, not properly recognised? In the case of the art establishment it may be a form of snobbery –  cars have been around for little more than one hundred years, and lacking gravitas.

But the biggest culprits are the media dealing with motoring subjects: 0 to 60 mph is important to them and they love cars that exceed 200mph, but any well informed discussion of design and form is almost invariably absent.

Does this matter? Perhaps not. But it would be fun to test it: maybe we could see it discussed on BB4 as an arts subject, like a painting or sculpture, since it will never be discussed on Top Gear. Or we could get a panel of designers to select the most beautiful cars, display them in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and see what kind of crowd it would draw. My guess is huge.

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  • Julia Stafford November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Fantastic idea. If I could choose one car to include it would be the TVR Tuscan. Breathtaking. Bet you get loads of suggestions!

  • Brennan November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’m not sure which Top Gear you’re watching, but they regularly regard the things they drive as art. There was even an entire episode devoted to the topic (ending with it’s usual catastrophe).

    But yeah, I like the comparison to architecture re: everyday conversation. It’s a very approachable subject that most people (not to be sexist at all, but usually guys) could talk about for at least a short while. Maybe that’s why the uppity art galleries don’t like them. It would remove that “you don’t understand” attitude they thrive on.

  • Stephen Morrison November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This made me stop and think. By letting the gallery establishment select the gears for our advances in aesthetic appreciation, we give way on an important aspect of our visual daily experience. Cars are certainly massive indicators of our cultural lives but are they really our choices? Don’t all the factors noted above mean that put function in the driving seat over form? Could we put the breaks on ever more aerodynamic shapes if we wanted to? While I’d never want to put the breaks on developing new designs, there is a lot to be said for some of the early car looks that were as much about distinctive aesthetics as they were about power. Timely & thought provoking piece, thanks.

  • Graeme Wiggins November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Flaminio Bertone was Citroen’s first automotive stylist, creating such iconic designs as the Traction Avant, the 2CV and the ‘Goddess’. He was also a sculptor, architect and artist. He had such creative freedom at Citroen that his designs were reverse engineered from his clay models. Rarely are designers given this type of creative freedom. The results are automotive masterpieces such as the ID19 which at the time was the most technologically advanced car ever produced and still has one of the lowest drag coefficients of all time. In the contemporary era of CAD and generic design, we need more artists involved to push the automotive design envelope.

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