The Art of The Automobile

For many people the car is a status symbol: an indicator of wealth, success, social standing or identity. For many more, it is simply a workhorse: a tool to get from A to B. Often neglected, even maligned, it is to some a necessary evil; and to others an unnecessary one.

As an enthusiast even I have to admit that our century-old love affair with the automobile needs to be curbed, controlled and put into context, in the interests of sustainability (for as The Dalai Lama has said: ‘If we are to be selfish, let us at least be intelligently selfish’). But here I want to make an important and oft-dismissed case (outside the esoteric circles of ‘car culture’) for the automobile as art; in the hope that in the quest for a greener, more sustainable future, we do not run roughshod over our cultural heritage and in the process lose some important examples of our ingenuity, and moreover, our creativity.

Art in Form

Back in May we reviewed the 2011 Turner Prize (the UK’s biggest and arguably most prestigious annual art award). If ever there was a forum in which the definition of art was hotly contested, The Turner is it. Previous Turner nominees include Damien Hirst’s bisected cow and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed. Far from me to besmirch the work or reputation of any Turner Prize artist – I’m little qualified to do so – but given the controversy surrounding some of their much-publicised works, I defy anybody to look at the accompanying pictures of James Hetfield’s ‘Slow Burn’ (a 1936 Auburn Boat-tail Speedster reworked by Rick Dore Customs in California) and argue that it is not art.

James Hetfield’s ‘Slow Burn’ 1936 Auburn by Rick Dore Customs.

Pictured here at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2010, in ‘Slow Burn’, Dore has taken the already beautiful lines of Gordon Buehrig’s classic 1935 streamline moderne art deco design, and restored and reworked it into hand-built automotive high art. I would defy any sculptor in any medium to create a more aesthetically beautiful form than this: the car embodies the concept of movement in static form.

James Hetfield’s ‘Slow Burn’ 1936 Auburn by Rick Dore Customs.

As for controversy, what could be more controversial than holding up an automobile, beloved of small boys (or men who act like small boys) and scourge of 21st Century ecopolitics as high art?

Like much high art, some examples of automotive design which rise above the mass-produced and mundane to achieve aesthetic greatness come with accompanying high-dollar price tags and exclusivity. But this should not take away from the imagination and creativity that has been poured into them; especially those examples from an earlier period of automobile manufacture when designs were first produced in clay, then steel was beaten, rolled and hand-formed on wooden bucks by craftsmen to produce the final coachwork. And like much of the rest of the art world, this rich cultural heritage should not be seen as the exclusive domain of the monetarily rich.

1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, Goodwood Festival of Speed.

1967 Shelby Mustang GT500 (‘Eleanor’), Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Not far from the prestigious Baltic gallery where The Turner exhibited last year, in the car park of an out-of-town shopping centre, a group of car enthusiasts of various ages, genders and social backgrounds gather periodically to show and to look at original and modified cars. There is no formality to the gathering; no publicity and no prizes are awarded. Like all art, there are good and bad examples, and those judgements only exist in the very personal eye of the beholder. But here, in these humble surroundings, there are as many and varied examples of personal passion, artistic vision and creativity as you’ll find in many art galleries.

The Nazi Party’s peoples car – the iconic VW Beetle, here reworked in a So-Cal (Southern California) custom style, with a Gulf colours paint scheme from 1960s/1970s Porsche racing; this is pure home-grown automotive post-modernism. Pictured in a Gateshead retail parking lot.


Art in Function: The Beauty of Engineering and the Poetry of Motion.

Even if you’re not a ‘motorhead’, everybody knows one: somebody who seems to eat, breath and live cars, motorcycles and internal combustion engines. For many it’s hard to understand and easy to denigrate: loud, lairy and stupid, there can’t really be any merit in this fascination can there? Well for some of us, it is not only an artistic interest but a spiritual one.

‘The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a (motor)cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean ourselves.’ – Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974.

We all know the old clichés about small men and big cars, and the suggestions that a powerful car is an extension of a certain appendage; but this sort of psychological analysis seems to have its roots in feminist and to some degree environmentalist thinking; and whilst it undoubtedly has some truth perhaps in certain cases, for me it is both simplistic and wide of the mark.  For me the automobile is not primarily about power, it is about freedom. Whether you analyse this in terms of the primitive, nomadic instinct to travel, hunt and gather, or the more visceral sensations of fight or flight, the automobile has become a powerful extension and a facilitation of some very fundamental and primal aspects of particularly (but not exclusively) the male psyche. Nothing compares to the personal freedom to wander granted by the automobile in the 20th Century; or the thrill and exhilaration of the speed it can deliver.

Enthusiasts work on the injected V8 engine of a McLaren Can-Am racer, Goodwood Festival of Speed.

On an engineering level, there is something beautiful about the design and function of the car. To some the internal combustion engine is a dead, cold, lifeless yet polluting thing; but to many of us it is a living, breathing entity; as much alchemy as science. For whatever we know or appreciate of the intelligence behind the design and engineering of the machine, in its ever-increasing complexity it often takes on a life of its own, with unexpected results, for better or for worse. People have devoted their lives to endless tinkering and tuning of an engine, with the same reverence, intelligence and purity of purpose as a sculptor, a painter, a writer or poet. The efficiency, performance or power is simply the end result of a journey of discovery. This is the psychology of the builder or creator.

1970 Porsche 908/3, Goodwood Festival of Speed.

‘Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after, is just waiting.’ – Steve McQueen, Le  Mans (1970).

Of course there is a more visceral and less analytical aspect to the pursuit of performance: for the driver there is the sensation of speed and sometimes competition. Motorsport allows men to don the modern armour of the firesuit and crash helmet, and engage in gladiatorial contest in a way which is absent from most other ‘sports’; most notably in respect of the omni-present danger of serious injury or even death. This might seem hard to understand and difficult to condone to many; but again I believe it engages at a very fundamental level and restores perhaps some element which is missing from modern life otherwise; the element of real risk. It is even more paradoxical when you consider that perhaps (as with the martial arts) many racers are not simply competing with each other, but with themselves – constantly pushing, prodding and challenging themselves and their machines to see if they succeed and overcome or come up short. Not many people test themselves like this at all; let alone in such a very direct way.

1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, Goodwood Festival of Speed.

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that we all race our cars this way on a day to day basis; but just as some test themselves by climbing, exploring or pushing the limits of endurance and ability in other ways, to suggest that nobody should do it (even by creeping stigmatism, intolerance and legislation) seems awfully short-sighted.

Of course, as a civilisation, we need to curb our dependence on fossil fuels, make more efficient use of raw materials and natural resources, pollute less and find far more efficient ways to get our masses from A to B than our gridlocked roads filled with private cars (or, as in my own personal case, simply commute and travel less by car on a regular basis). But I think there will always be a place for the car in our collective culture; for the beauty of design, the intelligence of engineering, and the thrill and poetry of travel and motion. It is hard-coded in our DNA, and to lose it altogether would be to lose another small but fundamental part of ourselves to sometimes dubious and fleeting modern thinking.

Indeed you only need to look to other cultural references for further evidence: from the music of The Beach Boys (Little Deuce Coupe, 1963) and Bruce Springsteen (Racing in The Street, 1978); Jack Kerouac’s beat novel On The Road (1957) and Richard C Sarafian’s existential road movie Vanishing Point (1971); Robert Mitchum in Arthur Ripley’s Thunder Road (1958) and David Hockney’s painting of Mullholland Drive (1980); right through to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). The car is embedded in our culture, as icon, art form and anti-hero. A necessary evil for many perhaps – but even then a little piece of ourselves we can not deny. For many of us however, it is our passion; a fundamental part of what makes life worth living.

A NASCAR cup-style race car from the Richard Petty Driving Experience stands idle, begging to be driven, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nevada.


So next time you get out of your car, however humble, spare a thought for the designer and engineers whose creative vision navigated the ever-increasing maze of economic and social demands and compromises to bring you home. All cars may not be art; but there is certainly art to be found in the automobile.

Heaven is an empty highway,
No jams, no limits, no red stop signs,
And all around it open country,
Bathed in blue and gold sunlight,
My engine it will sing so sweetly,
My wheels will barely touch the ground,
The blacktop will rise up to meet me,
My tyres will barely make a sound,
The open road, an open throttle,
An endless ride, an endless tank,
And in my mirror a window sticker,
Which reads: ‘Tuned by God – With Thanks’

Filed under Art