Design & museums: Can't get this thing out of reverse

Any style you like so long as it's retro. Richard Williams goes behind the wheel of the latest Stephen Bayley vehicle and explores its love of the past
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU doubt that automobile design can say something important about the specific culture from which it springs, consider the phenomenon represented by the packaging of two recently launched British cars, the Jaguar S-Type and the Rover 75. Both are not merely named after a model from a supposedly more lustrous age of British vehicle manufacture but are being projected as reproducing the specific virtues associated with them.

For those old enough to remember the originals, the new models are full of styling themes and details subtly evoking their predecessors. For the younger end of the market, a more direct approach is adopted. The TV ad for the Jag, for example, is particularly explicit. Film of the mid- Sixties car is intercut with footage of the new one, leaving no prospective purchaser in any doubt that the S-Type incarnates the louche hedonism of a bygone age, much as - no, make that exactly as - Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels updated the mood of Get Carter.

What this appears to say is that Britain is unable to put all its faith in the present and the future, but must rely on the crutch of the past. The Rover and the Jag are executive family saloons aimed at the sector of the market dominated by BMW, Audi and Volkswagen, but to look within them for the kind of modernist instinct characterising the M5, the A3 or the Passat, whether authentic or superficial, would be a waste of time. They are being pitched on another level entirely, in effect as part of the heritage industry.

Curiously, although both brand names are powerfully redolent of England, each is now under foreign ownership: Jaguar is part of the Ford empire, while Rover is owned by BMW. So the nature of these cars may have been the outcome of a foreign assessment of Britain's character and standing in the world. The global product planners in Dearborn and Munich may have factored in not just the Austin Powers syndrome (the enduring international appeal of Britain's Swinging Sixties and its defining artefacts) but the less obvious example of the Morgan, an idealised Thirties sports car which is built with continuing success by one of the very few remaining independent British motor manufacturers.

All this is a significant reflection of a broader national crisis. Like the Labour Party's strategists earlier in the present decade, Britain's car designers are locked in a struggle between tradition and innovation. But whereas the politicians invented a compromise, disguising mundane policies with an adventurous image, the engineers have embraced retrospection as the quality with the greatest appeal to their target market, raising the question of what we want Britain to be and to represent as it enters the next century.

This may be the real text of Moving Objects, an exhibition subtitled "30 Years of Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art". Although it is an corporate event, in the sense that it expresses the work of the RCA's vehicle design course (whose graduates are to be found in numbers in the studios of many major manufacturers) and is sponsored by Ford, it is also recognisably the work of Stephen Bayley, who created the original Design Museum at the V&A just over 10 years ago, and whose automotive passions will not be unfamiliar to regular readers of men's style magazines.

Moving Objects is not primarily a history lesson. It is an observation of the theory and technique of modern car design, with illustrations and examples in every dimension, from a room full of real cars to comparative displays of components (fuel caps, wing mirrors, light clusters). There is a lot to read, much of it educative, in the copious and well designed captioning that accompanies the exhibits. But Bayley is a romantic and a hero-worshipper, and he wastes no time in leading us into the presence of such post-war giants as Dante Giacosa, Harley Earl, Raymond Loewy and Giorgetto Giugiaro. The era of pure aesthetics is beautifully expressed on the one hand by the mascherone of the 1954 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint, the full-sized wooden buck on which the panel-beaters of Milan turned Franco Scaglione's drawings into a masterpiece in aluminium, and on the other by a publicity photograph for the 1959 Chevrolet Impala, posed with its enthusiastic owners in front of erect Minuteman guided missiles in the Mojave Desert.

These prefatory statements, and a wall filled with tangential inspirational items from a Fender Stratocaster to a parrot's skull, are succeeded by rooms full of more practical materials and demonstrations. These include a filmed demonstration of "tape drawing", the medium in which the designers create the first outline of a new car, and a room full of paint samples, where we learn that cars were almost invariably finished in black in the early years of the century because, in the days when their paint took almost four days to dry, black's thermal qualities helped speed up the process.

The business of safety, personal and environmental, receives passing consideration, along with that of gender orientation in design and advertising. The views of Ilya Ehrenburg and Ralph Nader are given an airing, and prominent British designers, posed in front of a Trabant and a Ferrari Grand Prix car, participate in a video debate which attempts to answer the question: "Is there a conflict between idealism and economy?"

But these are inevitably swallowed up in the heady rush of metaphysical wisdom - "Cars are rolling sculpture" (Arthur Drexler), " today are almost the exact equivalent of the great gothic cathedrals" (Roland Barthes), "When you get in a car it should be like going on vacation for a while" (Harley Earl) - and, conclusively, by the wholly irresponsible joy of a roomful of recent "concept cars", as the industry calls its one- off prototypes intended to provide the inspiration for future production models. In among the imposing Lincoln Sentinel, a car fit for a president to be assassinated in, and the VW Noah, a high-tech people mover, sits the Ford GT90, which combines the crouching menace of the Le Mans-winning GT40 of the mid-Sixties with the radar-defeating angles of the F117 Stealth fighter. I got almost as much pleasure from looking at it as I had from being told, in the room devoted to the concept of colour, that Pittsburgh Plate Glass, one of the world's largest suppliers of vehicle paint, manufactures no fewer than 500 shades of black.

`Moving Objects': The Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7, to 19 September. 10am-6pm. Fri 10am-9pm. Closed Wed. (0171-590 4198)