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The role of the car in exemplifying and accelerating change over the past 130 years is being celebrated in a special exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which opens this Saturday (23 November) and runs until 19 April 2020.
‘Cars: Accelerating the Modern World’ was two years in the planning and features exhibits from around the world, some not seen in the UK before.
It stands out for not only showcasing 15 diverse and sometimes obscure cars from across eras, from Karl Benz’s Patent Motorwagen No 3 through to Audi’s Pop.Up Next concept from 2018, which can move on the ground and in the air using giant drone-like rotors, but also for tracing the car’s position and role as a catalyst in society.
Among the highlights of the thought-provoking displays are the concept cars, with an emphasis on how the automobile came to be celebrated as a medium to depict the future.
General Motors’ Firebird I, essentially a gas-turbine plane on wheels, made in 1953, is present as the poster vehicle of the genre, while a model of Ford’s nuclear-powered concept of 1957, the Nucleon, is displayed as testament to the free-thinking opportunities that new power sources brought into an altogether more innocent world.
Away from the actual cars, from Model T to early Mustang, all the way to the Paykan, Iran’s national car, there’s also an emphasis on how the car changed the landscape around it and shaped attitudes.
Oblique as a reference it may be, but one display highlights the 1970s Alaska Oil Game, which was designed to be played much like Monopoly and which celebrates building vast oil-pipe networks across the untouched landscape in order to unlock oil fields and win.
It’s fair to say attitudes have changed over the years.
Another section considers the car’s role in accelerating mass-production techniques, posing examples of how this was initially regarded as progress, and celebrated as such, but pausing on how it came to represent the challenges of unionisation and now one of automation and robotisation.
So too the exhibition juxtaposes the obsession with going fast against the challenges of safety. There’s no judgement, but by displaying various crash-test dummies, plus Graham, a somewhat grotesque model of a human evolved to withstand car crashes, the question is neatly posed as what other inventions would be tolerated and celebrated in society as much as the car if they were the root cause of so many deaths and injuries?
A comprehensive exhibition of 130 years of the car it is not. But as a deeply thought-provoking display delivered with a lightness of touch, and at a time when the future of the car is so hotly debated, this is a must-see event.
Images: Max Edleston