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May 10, 2021

As the consequences of internal combustion engineering become ever more apparent, what do we do with the iconic cars of the past? Retrofit them with electric engines? Put them on display in museums?


Driving or owning a car is becoming an ever greater moral dilemma these days. A typical passenger vehicle emits about 8,887 grams of carbon dioxide per gallon of gasoline, which amounts to about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year assuming an average fuel economy of 22 miles per gallon and around 11,500 miles driven. And this does not even take into consideration the energy required to produce and distribute the cars and the gasoline. All those emissions contribute directly to global warming. Cars also create noise pollution, congest our streets, and kill approximately 1.35 million people per year. But, as with so many things humans do, we know something is irrational and against our own interests, yet we do it anyway.

Vintage car enthusiasts will know that the fuel economy of, say, a 1976 Porsche 911 Carrera or a 1961 Bentley S2 Continental is likely far worse than 22 miles to the gallon. But should you be in the privileged position to collect such a coveted item, you are likely not driving it anyway. Rather than tooling your Bentley along the winding rural roads of south Yorkshire, you keep it in climate-controlled storage and just occasionally look at it or show it to friends. If you’re a dedicated enthusiast, you might take it to automobile shows, but you would still not be driving it there. Instead, the car is carefully secured in an enclosed transport vehicle and carted to its destination.

1976 Porsche 911 Carrera

As much as I like looking at a beautiful car, I always prefer to drive it to fully appreciate its glory. It’s what the thing was made for. Car museums and showrooms are my guilty pleasure, justified by the knowledge that they long predate today’s concerns regarding automobile dependency and environmental degradation. And I can justify the confinement of certain cars on platforms or behind velvet ropes when they are too historically important, unique, or expensive to risk-taking on the road. Their destiny—unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your view of things—is to be showpieces.

1961 Bentley S2 Continental

In 1951, New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged what was for it a rather unusual exhibition, 8 Automobiles: An Exhibition Concerned with the Esthetics of Motorcar Design, sponsored by Ford Motor Company and the Studebaker Corporation. In his introduction to the show, MoMA architecture curator Alexander Drexler remarked, “The eight automobiles in this exhibition were chosen primarily for their excellence as works of art, although no automobile was considered for inclusion unless its mechanical performance met the highest technological standards.”

Drexler’s insightful essay was one of several pieces of writing in the exhibition’s accompanying publication, all of which considered cars as utilitarian objects and yet so much more. The very idea of bringing together the famous 1939 “razor-edge” Bentley, a 1949 Pininfarina Cisitalia, a 1948 MG (Morris Garage), and a 1939 Mercedes next to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (1914–26), Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889), and Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was a bold statement that underlined MoMA’s modernist vision. It raised many eyebrows and created enormous controversy. The New York Times demanded to know: “Has the Modern Lost Its Way?”

Cover of the publication 8 Automobiles: An Exhibition Concerned with the Esthetics of Motorcar Design, 1951

Theodor W. Adorno, the iconic German twentieth-century philosopher, invoked the automotive industry specifically in his Negative Dialectic of 1966. His idea, very briefly, is that many inventions in the history of civilization that seem to benefit us later turn out to be a disaster. Case in point: humans invented the wheel, and from there invented the car, yet with the invention of the car, we also invented the car crash and millions of dead drivers, passengers, and pedestrians, not to mention the other deleterious outcomes enumerated above.

Suspended in Dialectical Play, Theodor W. Adorno (1963)

Another famous fascination with car crashes was Andy Warhol’s. In 1962, Warhol began a series of silkscreens based on front-page newspaper stories depicting fatal car crashes, the Death and Disaster series, which also included plane crashes, electric chairs, race riots, suicides, explosions, and other mayhem. Warhol was mesmerized by the human impulse to seek out death and disaster and find it simultaneously captivating, entertaining, and numbing. As he stated in a 1963 Art News interview, “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect.”

Andy Warhol, Car Crash (1978)

J. G. Ballard carried forward Warhol’s fascination with car accidents in his infamous novel Crash (1973), which speaks of car-crash fetishism: the protagonists become sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car crashes. In 1996 David Cronenberg turned the book into a feature film of the same title. He called it a “pornographic movie about technology.”

Just between Warhol’s first car crash series and the publication of Negative Dialectics, Ralph Nader published his iconic and disruptive book Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which contained many ugly revelations about the US auto industry’s woeful lack of investment in safety: cars at that time were basically machines of death. Nader’s book was tremendously impactful, triggering a fundamental change of attitude. Auto manufacturers began to market their cars not only for design, speed, and convenience, but also for their safety features.

Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile (1965)

Cars persist as a fertile source of fascination for many artists, from Frances Picabia, who was obsessed with their speed and owned 127 vehicles over the course of his lifetime, to Gabriel Orozco, whose famous La DS (1993), now in MoMA’s collection by the way, is a Citroën DS with its central third surgically removed. Another artist riveted by cars—or more precisely what is left of them after various excisions—was John Chamberlain, who made hundreds of sculptures from crushed and pressed automobiles to reveal both their stately grace and expressive plasticity, but also the brute force required to shape car wrecks into sophisticated sculptures. Shortstop (1957) was his very first piece in this long series; it features the fender of a 1929 Ford found in the yard of his painter friend Larry Rivers.

John Chamberlain, Shortstop (1957)

Beyond MoMA’s 8 Automobiles, specialized car displays have existed since the late 1920s. The first Concours d’Elegance (Competition of Elegance) for horseless carriages (the term dates back to seventeenth-century France, when it referred to gatherings of horse-drawn carriages) took place in 1929 near Italy’s Lake Como. It was not until the 1950s, however, that these events gained a massive following. The most famous ones are in Pebble Beach and Hillsborough, California, but many more take place every year all over the world. These are usually open only to cars in absolute mint condition. Enthusiasts come together and enjoy seeing the cars in person, while the latter are judged based on their condition and rarity.

Many car manufactures have created their own museums. Some of the finest ones are Porsche’s in Stuttgart, BMW’s in Munich, and Alfa Romeo’s in Milan. Yet the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is my favorite because they program the shows just like art museums do: they have a permanent collection of some of the most interesting cars ever made and also present temporary themed exhibitions. Collection presentations might feature vehicles involved in historical events, head-of-state vehicles, or the personal rides of Hollywood legends. The temporary exhibitions often have humorous or indulgent themes—I fondly remember Scooters: Size Doesn’t Always Matter, and What Were They Thinking? The Misfits of Motordom, which as you likely imagine was devoted to bizarre, out-of-the-box design innovations.

The high-performance vehicles we today call supercars did not arrive until the 1950s, and their mechanical and design specifications have evolved from era to era. This is the section of the Petersen where every enthusiast’s heartbeat quickens. Highlights include a 1952 Ferrari 212/225 Inter Spyder Barchetta; a 1955 Mercedes 300 SL Coupe; an ultrarare 1956 Jaguar XKSS; the legendary 1968 Lamborghini Miura P400; a 1971 De Tomaso Pantera; a 1994 Bugatti Eb110 GT; and the 2005 Maserati MC12.

Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles

And even the Petersen, a literal monument to the extreme fetishization of the automobile, concerns itself with the non-fossil-fuel future with its displays devoted to the history of electric cars and their development. With the limits of internal combustion engineering becoming ever more apparent, the industry has taken on the challenge of bringing electric vehicles into the mainstream, first via gas-electric hybrids like the 1997 Toyota Prius, then pure electrics like the 2008 Tesla Roadster.

I am unsure whether to be surprised or unsurprised that some vintage collectors are actually now speaking of retrofitting their beloved Jaguars, Maseratis, Shelbys, and Lancias with electric engines. If they choose not to, will a day come when the vehicles are no longer legally drivable and just be works of art?

Luigi Ascari lives near Como in northern Italy. He worked as an engineer at the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello for most of his life. In 1998 he started his own car restoration business, which he now runs with his son, Marco, focusing specifically on MGs and Alfa Romeos from the 1970s and 1980s. Business is booming.


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