Conran Octopus £75 (384pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Cars, By Stephen Bayley

Dream machines of an auto-erotic age

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?

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003