Beauty replaced by brand management

The era of sports cars that offered carefree speed, glorious power, the spirit of adventure and dreams is long gone, argues Stephen Bayley
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Our nature, Pascal said, lies in movement. Complete calm is death. And that, you could say, is the appeal of the classic sports car. Vivid sensations, stronger sounds, richer meat, better looks.

Our nature, Pascal said, lies in movement. Complete calm is death. And that, you could say, is the appeal of the classic sports car. Vivid sensations, stronger sounds, richer meat, better looks.

There was a time, long ago now, when the sports car was all that the automobile could be. All the dreams of movement, speed, air, freedom, youth, delight and travel promised by the gasoline buggy were captured in the designs of two-seaters. How cruelly they are mocked by the get-out-of-here, ugly bunch of sportscars we have today.

Show me a 1955 MG-TF and I can explain how car design is a branch of architecture: exquisite, miniature and dense with meaning. Show me a Chrysler Crossfire and I would have to lament how this interesting vernacular art form has degenerated into a sickly adjunct of brand management with more in common with pet-food advertising than with building, sculpture or with poetry.

We find the sports car so evocative because it reminds us that there was once a time when driving was a privilege, not a chore. Driving fast and well (not always, but in the right hands, the same thing) was a legitimate activity with a set of disciplines and skills, not so very different, perhaps, from the social games of tennis or squash. Hence the invocation of "sport" for this type of open two-seater. The suggestion was of higher purpose, better athleticism, greater refinement, more sophisticated ends.

Indeed, the sports car business was competitive, but it also had a gentlemanly langour: before it started stuffing brute Ford 289 cubic inch V-8s into its pretty Ace to make the Cobra, the AC car company of leafy Thames Ditton was still using a two-litre six that had been designed 44 years before in 1919. How very curious and quaint this looks today when pitilessly modified Japanese saloons drive harder than Ferraris.

Two things altered the circumstances of the sports car. The first began with the Mini-Cooper and evolved into the Volkswagen Golf GTi: by the mid-Seventies a functional, technically advanced, small front-wheel-drive car inarguably offered a better platform for modifications than a type that was a throwback to the Thirties. And then there was legislation. At exactly the same time that the Golf GTi was setting new standards of commodity, firmness and delight, timorous Americans, fearful of crashing, lawyered the open-top car out of existence.

You want to see the end of an era ? Look at the very last MG-B. What started its development as an elegant, low-slung shape had acquired jacked-up suspension and grown crash protection so as to resemble, as once was said of The National Gallery extension, a carbuncle on the face of an old friend.

With all purpose stripped from its style, the popular sports car died. The ghost was evacuating the machine, leaving behind a parody rather than a tragedy. But today we have a new generation of sportscars. Advanced structures and active restraint systems have taken the wind out of the safety argument, a surely as aerodynamics and baffles have taken the wind out of the hair.

But all the evidence says it is impossible now to design a beautiful example of one. The reason is our culture cannot sustain them. The flat-capped technicians who worked on the great sportscars cannot have imagined a world of double-yellow lines, road charging, CCTV surveillance, VAT, car tax, environmental lobbies, jams on the A286 even at seven on a Sunday morning, builders vans that cruise at 110mph, hatchbacks that do 150mph.

Their world of performance was determined by twin carbs and twin cams, perhaps a wooden-rimmed steering wheel. Their world of function was determined by the realistic notion of a sporting drive, making a journey just for the sake of it.

Thinking about this now and bringing to mind an image of the feline successor to the MG-TF, the 1955 MGA -- to my eye one of the most beautiful British cars ever made -- it all seems as wistfully elegiac as A.G. Macdonnell's England, My England, the sensational 1942 novel about a hopelessly lost civilisation.

The values that created the classic sports car are now extinct. This is the reason why beauty appears to be so elusive to it designers. Anything that is made betrays the beliefs and preoccupations of the civilisation that made it. Today our beliefs and preoccupations do not accommodate carefree journeys, but are more concentrated on a form of high-tech survivalism.

Instead, the sports car has become a totem of a less attractive set of values. Where once it represented a form of personal freedom, now it more accurately describes an enslavement to redundant values: this is a mortuary not a fashionable catwalk.

It shows in the poverty, possibly even the bankruptcy, of sports car design. Searching for something that is no longer realistically in reach, there is a sense of desperation in current efforts.

The most aesthetically successful sports car of recent years has been the Audi TT. Its replacement will be essentially the same design, only scaled-up a little. We are at the very end of Imagination Street.

You see the malaise everywhere. The new Mercedes-Benz SLK strives for effect. Like the more ambitious SLR, it fails to achieve the aristocratic authority of its predecessors. In place of mastery there is vulgarity. The original 300SLR of 1954 was inspired by racing car details, but interpreted them with great subtlety, adding new elements to the language of car design. Today's cars mimic a McLaren's nose with as much art as those children's bedspreads recruit Thomas the Tank Engine. What enfeebled imagination wants such a tendentious device ?

Or take BMW's failed Z8: this had to ape the 1957 507. The recent Z4 is more successful, but few regard it with much affection. Designer Chris Bangle's recourse to waffle is an intellectual reflection of his own speculative rhetoric about the "flame surfacing" he has employed. When designers start doing the job of art critics, you know we are talking last refuges and scoundrels. His latest sports car, the 6-Series cabrio, has, for all its striving, perhaps less visual presence than any BMW ever made.

And talking of surfacing, there is Ferrari. Surfacing is the tactile sense which a great designer invests in the major sculptural elements of a car's body. In the trade, getting it right it is considered the greatest of accomplishments.

A long association with Pininfarina has given Ferrari a rich backlist of compellingly beautiful cars, but the hideous Enzo is evidence of a new poverty. Its only aesthetic asset is shock. And the new Scaglietti is a travesty: the worst wheel/arch fit since the Mini Metro and a face that looks mean and pinched. And although it is named after the maestro of panel beating, the Scaglietti has surfacing which J Mays described to me as "embarrassingly amateurish".

Ferrari can still claim to fulfill its brief to itself of making the most "extreme" cars, but it has lost any claim to be a professor of beauty.

It is not simply idle nostalgia to look at the period between the mid-Fifties and the late-Sixties and say this is when the most beautiful sportscars were made.

That MGA, or its contemporary, the Lancia B24, were cars with original shapes and fine details. They were at the the beginning of a period that ended with the Jaguar E-Type and the Ford Mustang, a period that was the last moment it was possible to take an entirely innocent delight in the hedonistic possibilities of the automobile.

You do not need to be a cryptologist or ethnographer to understand why designers today tend to doodle trucks and vans rather than sportscars. Our nature may still lie in movement, but now it is of a much more utilitarian style.

So who will be first designer to develop a drop-top, two-seat SUV?

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