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'Cars: Accelerating The Modern World' Review - V & A

23rd November - 19th April 2020

Standard Ticket - £18.00

Concessions - £16.50


The first thing you see when you enter the realm of the exhibition is the prominence of retro futurism: grand imaginings of what today should be; the future envisioned by the past. There’s an undeniable influence of aviation in this futuristic conception of automobiles, of streamlined curves, glass bubbles and jet engines, most prominently displayed by the GM Firebird.

Patent-Motorwagen No. 3, Karl Benz, 1888. Image courtesy of V&A website.

The exhibition offers a comprehensive outlook not only on the history of the car, but on its impact in shaping the surrounding world that gave it life. Through a dim path and subtly focused lighting, it takes you on an immersive journey, guiding you through the different facets of automobile history and the role each played to form the world we see and experience today. In slowly revealing piece by piece the causation behind our reality, it offers a modest form of enlightenment to the viewer, and demonstrates the profound and often overlooked impact the car has had on shaping our world.

Following the envisaged future, the exhibition immediately thrusts you into the real one, presenting a jarring contrast between idealism and reality. Through an immersive panoramic display, a point-of-view experience of driving through London is sped up at hyper-speed, in an effect that borders on hypnotic. Step forward within, and the targeted sound and erratic visuals will overwhelm your senses into a trance-like state, the sheer intensity making it difficult to let go. This is the 21st century through the lens of the automobile, encapsulated at its most intense by the high-density metropolis that is London. Fast-paced and hectic, with a ceaseless influx of overwhelming stimuli, it offers a portrait and a subtle critique on the nature of modern life.

Further exploration reveals some truly impressive specimens curated: perched in front of me on its three wheels was the Benz Patent Motorwagen, widely considered the first car ever made, in a condition anachronistic of its age (1887). More reminiscent of a bicycle than a car, its advantage lay not in its speed at merely 10mph but its endurance, its ability to traverse longer distances without fatigue. Following its origins, the beginning of the automobile’s long-held racing pedigree is explored: the craving for speed and how this further drove the evolution of the car. From the emergence of street racing to its prohibition in the name of public safety, the exhibition details the origins of automobile racing, and the formation of the first racetrack in the world: Brooklands. The seemingly inevitable intertwinement of the automobile with social issues of the time came in the form of gender rights, with women driving and competing with men, until they were banned from formal competition of the basis of their gender. The first races, the Gordon Bennet Cup began in 1899 eventually leading to the formation of the grand prix, with a stunning example of the winning car in 1937 on display.

An advert for the GM LaSalle from a series showing the car in various European locations. Illustrated by Edward A. Wilson, about 1927. © Courtesy of General Motors Company, LLC. Image courtesy of V&A website

However, such thrills were often limited to those of high means, and an exception to this emerged in the form of the iconic Ford Mustang in 1965, bringing high-performance to a relatively affordable price point. Having never had the pleasure to see an original Mustang in the flesh, the pristine condition of the example on display was breath-taking and it possessed an unmistakable presence - it exuded coolness, whatever that was. The chrome trims on it were so shiny that their inscriptions were illegible.

The exhibition then delved into something that would fundamentally change the world forever and define industries, the first ever mass-produced car: the Ford Model T. It would go on to revolutionise the mass-production of goods through its assembly line method, eponymously termed ‘Fordism’ and ‘usher in a new industrial era of mass-production’. Though this came with enormous increases in productivity, it had its downsides too, with poor working conditions often prevalent, leading to the formation of unions and ‘a global discussion about labour’. From its beginning to present day, the stark contrast between the manual labour of the past, and the primarily automated, roboticised factories of today is highlighted by an enormous display of a modern BMW factory.

Perhaps a fundamental point the exhibition makes is the way the modern world has been designed and built around cars being the primary mode of transportation. This is most present in countries such as the U.S.A, where the Interstate Highway System was formed, with public transportation possessing significantly less infrastructure, something often attributed to lobbying by the automobile industry. Further down is an animated infographic, charting the evolution of highways in Europe from the beginning of the 20th century, to the present day, showing the drastic progress made in just one century.

Messerschmitt, KR200 Cabin Scooter Bubble Top, 1959. © Louwman Museum – The Hague. Image courtesy of V&A website.

Further along, the exhibition incites a discussion about forms of energy in relation to the automobile, charting the emergence and beginning of the global reliance on fossil fuels and how this shaped the world around us. The logistics of oil are explored in visual demonstrations of critical supply routes and chokepoints, showing 20% of the world’s entire oil supply passing through one narrow channel - the Strait of Hormuz. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from politics and makes brief remarks to the conflict that has resulted from oil, with specific mentions to the middle east, and how vastly wealthy countries have been made as a result of the commodification of oil.

In today’s world, it would be impossible to mention oil without climate change, and the exhibition does just that, observing shifting the attitudes towards oil over time. A particularly noteworthy example, perhaps before the true impact of fossil fuels had reached the public consciousness, was an advertisement proclaiming the ability of oil to ‘melt 7 million glaciers’, by Humble Oil in 1962. In the year 2019, over 50 years later, the mere existence of such an advert seems surreal when you consider the threat oil poses to our very existence and way of living. On similar lines, adjacent to the poster is a display with a yellow countdown and a presidential address, reminiscent of a doomsday clock. President Carter’s solemn warning during the 1979 energy crisis, in hindsight, offers a bleak view into an alternative future. If there is a critique to be made here, it is the lack of acknowledgement that some oil companies were aware of the environmental impact. However, in such a public exhibition, shaming such companies would be to really make a statement, and would be wholly unexpected.

A few truly flawless specimens of iconic cars are displayed: the VW ‘Beetle’ - the people’s car, a Fiat 600, and a Paykan of Iran, before reaching the grand finale of the exhibition: the future of the automobile. A concept from Audi, Airbus and Italdesign takes centre stage, a manifestation of the future in store for the automobile. It’s defining characteristics: electric, autonomous, flying and shared-ownership, and offers an exciting an insight into what’s to come, overlaid over the burning ashes of today’s world.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor

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