Exhibition reviews

Accelerating the Modern World at the V&A review: A thrilling ride through automobile history

The car’s influence spans far beyond travel, discovers Sean O'Grady

Thursday 21 November 2019 10:58

What, you might wonder, is a woman’s cloche hat doing in an exhibition about cars? One answer is because the curators of the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum have done a superb job of what car people call “packaging” – the maximum amount of information and entertainment into the smallest possible space. The other answer is that it’s one of many underappreciated and surprising results of the rise of the automobile.

In the 1920s, when increasingly sporty cars would travel at sufficient speed to blow the fashionable wide-brimmed hats of the Edwardian era off he heads of their wearers, the radical, simple, streamlined shape of the cloche would stay put no matter how fast the Bentley was going.

In the same spirit – the influence of the car on wider industrial design – we find the sexiest meat slicer in the world brought out of the V&A’s archives and placed on display for a rare public appearance: a 1934 “streamliner”, by Egmont Arens and Theodore C Brookhart. To complement it the visitor will also see film of the Chrysler Airflow model of the same time, arguably the world’s first aerodynamic production car.

More dramatically, visitors will come face-to-face with the real-life but almost sci-fi Tatra T77. This monster was produced in pre-war Czechoslovakia, the work of engineer Hans Ledwinka and pioneering designer Paul Jaray. It is like a sort of mutant VW Beetle; much bigger, with a huge air-cooled V8 engine in the back, and a distinctly Volkswagenish face. Elsewhere there’s a 1945 (yes the date is telling) example of one of the first Beetles, so you can judge the resemblances for yourself. It is said that Ledwinka’s work influenced Ferdinand Porsche’s people’s car.

Indeed, looking around the place, it is remarkable how many of the early names in the car industry are still around. Why? Being ruthless might be one reason. There’s a Model T Ford, the first mass production car, alongside dramatic images of the vast Ford Rouge river plant in Michigan – 16 million-square-feet large and with at least 100,000 staff working there – and striking too, in some truly brutal battles with the company, Henry Ford’s private security force and the police during the Great Depression.

The curators had the bright idea of raiding the collection of American car union boss of the 1940s, Walter Reuther. Reuther’s collection includes a leather cosh that was used by striking workers during a bitter dispute in 1941, United Auto Workers Union posters and an example of a very early industrial robot.

There are a lot of familiar names around – including the compulsory 1888 Patent-Motorwagen No 3, by Karl Benz, ancestor of today’s Mercedes-Benz and indeed every other automobile. It is famous for that reason, but it should be even more celebrated because it was the first vehicle to go on a “road trip” – the 66 miles between Mannheim and Pforzheim in Germany.

All the way through the exhibition you get a strong understanding from a relatively few well-chosen items of what impact the car has had on virtually every area of life beyond just travel. The oil, plastics and rubber industries, the techniques of mass production, industrial relations, workers’ rights and the modern “science” of time were all directly impacted by its invention. Michelin, for example, invented their famous guides to make people drive further and, thus, buy more tyres. They helped the booksellers and the hoteliers, too, and sadly, helped cause misery in the Congo for mistreated labourers.

The most disturbing apparition on display is beyond doubt Graham: a latex sculpture created for the Transport Accident Commission of Australia to represent how human beings might evolve to survive car accidents. Thus, to reduce whiplash and neck injuries, he has a gigantically thick neck, and a flat face to lessen the damage down by slamming into a windscreen. His enlarged skull contains more fluid and ligaments to protect the brain; and his multi-nippled chest creates a sort of inbuilt airbag effect.

Being a fan of the original 1959 Mini, I was disappointed not see it represented here, but then it would be very easy for someone to curate a cars event to just populate it with the “usual suspects”. This is not the V&A way (there is no Mini, no gorgeous Citroen DS or Rolls-Royce Ghost, no bestselling Toyota Corolla or little Fiat 500). There is, though, an example of the micro-cars that preceded the Austin Mini; tiny vehicles built to motorise a Europe still crawling out of the wreckage of war and coping with the first oil crisis, in 1956. There is also the Messerschmitt KR200 “bubble car” that allowed the demilitarised German industry to move from fighter planes to little cars.

At the other end of the market, opulence, conspicuous consumption and craftsmanship are exemplified by a 1920s Hispano-Suiza coach built with a “skiff torpedo” body by Jean-Henri Labourdette​ in 1922. You’ll love the flying stork bonnet mascot.

Brendan Cormier and Lizzie Bisley are to be warmly thanked for making the most of the V&A’s subterranean gallery space. I can, then, indulge Cormier for putting the Iranian Paykan in as well. This was a version of the British Hillman family saloon, built under licence for the Shah, and a car Cormier has a personal link to. It is a fine early example of the globalisation of the car business – again another huge trend advanced by the auto sector. There’s an accompanying period video celebrating the Paykan, with Iranian and men in pre-Islamic revolution Iran in western clothes singing and dancing together, a jarring scene of a progressive future that never arrived.

Behind the scenes look at Dior's exhibition at the V&A

Car nuts will be delighted to see some familiar friends in this exhibition and learn a few new things too. A sceptical, even hostile visitor who just sees the car as a generic appliance to get from A to B in an environmentally unfriendly fashion, might also see our three- and four-wheeled friends in a different, more positive light.

An autonomous, electric-powered flying car made by Italdesign with Airbus and Audi marks the finale: a car crossed with a giant drone. Seems like a fine future to me.

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World runs from 23 November 2019 - 19 April 2020. Tickets are £18 and you can buy them here.

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