Coming out of this show, I was nearly run over on that weird road that runs past the V&A which looks pedestrianised, but all drivers treat like a regular street. There’s a metaphor there. For more than a century, the world has been in thrall to the car, and it’s still out to kill us. ‘Cars’ doesn’t shy away from that hard truth, but it doesn’t stint on why we love motors, either. There are ravishing examples here in the shiny flesh, from an E-Type Jag to a Hispano Suiza with crafted wooden bodywork like the hull of a posh yacht. In its early years, the car was other: it was like a boat or a plane or a teardrop. It was exclusive, for the super-rich. The arc of this show traces the way that the car was democratised but preserved its mystique, how it remains a vehicle of the imagination and the possible.
But actually, it’s not an arc, it’s a circle. Because now the car needs a new concept; the old one has run out of road. By 1920, Henry Ford had made the car available to the common man; he’d done so by aping Midwestern meatpacking production lines and deskilling the specialist, putting an economic timebomb under car towns like Detroit in the process. By 2020, the legacy of that has portrayed the car not as a symbol of freedom and potential, but of the insatiable raping of the planet for resources: steel, rubber and – above all – oil. There’s a ticker in the show that flips over with the number of cars being produced (about one a second); another displays global road deaths this year (a million and counting). It’s like standing in the headlights.
‘Cars’ is a beautiful show, don’t get me wrong. There’s a gleaming red Mustang like the ’60s rendered as a sleek metal cock; there’s an ominous matte-olive VW Beetle from 1945 – Hitler’s pet project finally jump-started by the occupying British army. Most intriguing are video stories of car cultures from around the world: a South African girl who recovered from bullying by ‘spinning’ (doing doughnuts in a beat-up BMW 3 Series); the Latino low-riders of LA; the oddball Japanese cult of customised lorries.
As you exit through a door styled as a puddle of oil, you are presented with a final, contemporary concept: the Audi Pop.Up Next. It’s driverless. It’s electric. It… wait for it… flies. The wheel has rotated back to the beginning of this compelling, conflicted relationship. This is a fascinating exhibition but it hasn’t changed my personal opinion: I like cars; I hate driving.