Conran Octopus £75 (384pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Cars, By Stephen Bayley
Dream machines of an auto-erotic age
Friday 31 October 2008
Stephen Bayley's Cars borrows its subtitle from a line in Tom Wolfe's 1964 book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby: "Cars mean more to these kids than architecture did in Europe's great formal century, say, 1750 to 1850. They are freedom, style, sex, power, motion, colour."
Wolfe has described Bayley as the second most intelligent man in Britain, no doubt because Wolfe himself was here at the time. Cars, however, is not just a demonstration of conceptual and factual acuity; it is an engrossing braid of cross-cultural vignettes, as obsessively polished as the flowing coachwork of a 1941 Talbot-Lago T150SS.
When it is hard to point out significant formal differences between a mid-range BMW, Toyota or a dastardly sub-primeist's Bentley, this lusciously produced book reminds us of a time when automotive design had less to do with the techno-optimisations that have made the shape of car bodies as generic as their performances. We are far from the puerility of Top Gear's Sultan of Synchromesh, Jeremy Clarkson. Instead, the exquisitely lubricious half-tones of Tif Hunter's portrait of a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz seems to trigger the rising bass-line from Donald Fagen's Nightfly album, and the line: "She's got the right dynamic for the new frontier."
Bayley's commentaries on 86 cars are models of vividly compressed research, but his preface is crucial in setting the scene. It embeds us in a world of breezily academic cross-reference, seamed with solid-gold quotes. "I want that [car's] line to have a duflunky, to come across, have a little hook in it, and then do a rashoom or zong," declared Harley Earl, the most famous car designer in mid-century America. In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck wrote that "two generations of Americans know more about the Ford coil than the clitoris". Bayley certainly mines the sexual connotations of cars, but more interesting is the idea of personal movement as part of our Triplex-screened moviolas, in which fact and possibility have fugitive, fictional qualities.
Where does car design stop, and art begin? The photography heightens this oscillation: almost all the portraits have a KY Jelly sheen that might simultaneously invoke Jeff Koons's glass sculpture, "Position Three (Kama Sutra)", with what Bayley describes as "the miscegenated bloodlines and complex lineaments that comprised the mid-century motor industry".
Those bloodlines and lineaments strike home, even to a reviewer whose interest in cars died as he stood at Goodwood in 1962, watching Stirling Moss pass through its double-apex again and again with an unearthly insouciance. Moss, one of a handful of true Grand Prix greats, crashed on the track that day, and never raced again.
In Cars, one re-encounters this sense of experiment, sublimity and the existential strangeness of cars. The book's gems transcend obvious iconography, or what Lewis Mumford described as the car industry's "secret collaboration between the beautician and the mortician". How can the 1948 Cadillac 61, or a 1951 Lancia Aurelia B20 GT, or a 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL or a 1998 Smart car be anything other than cultural marvels? Their ramifying beauty is magnified by their perfect stillness; a stillness accentuated by a narrative hyper-mobility that can connect, in a trice, Ike Turner's 1951 hit, "Rocket 88", with Sam Philip's early funding of Elvis Presley, and the 1949 Mercury that featured in Rebel Without A Cause.
Mind you, who else but Bayley would then dare to suggest that the 2003 BMW 5 was a neo-baroque "disruption" comparable to Cubism? The damn thing looks like a cross between a Mondeo and a Volvo S80. Oh dear, I've just Clarkson'd, haven't I?
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 2 This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
- 3 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 4 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 5 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Spectre: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming James Bond movie
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
The Casual Vacancy finale review: Superb cast, luscious cinematography - shame about the confused ending
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut