Where does the car go from here?

"Cars: Accelerating the Modern World" at the V&A attemtps to answer that question.

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I am not the proud father of any children. I don’t have an armchair that I can be found in during all non-working hours, I don’t have trouble talking about my feelings, and I don’t love Jeremy Clarkson or collecting coins or stamps. And yet, I found myself on Tuesday afternoon walking through the V&A’s latest exhibition: “Cars”. 

The future of the car is one of the most underrated discussion points of our time. It’s something that vast numbers of people in this country use on a daily basis and rely on to do pretty much everything – underpinning how we get to work, see friends, and even do things like buy food. But over the last 15 years, the way we view the car has changed: with increasing awareness of their environmental impact, the way they decrease wellbeing due to traffic and pollution, and the growing movement of city-livers hoping for more pedestrianised spaces. Now, more than ever in history, what the hell is going to happen to this thing we have become so reliant on feels completely up in the air and little has been done to make dramatic changes to how we move in the world that takes the traditional car out of it. 

“Cars: Accelerating the Modern World” tries to tackle this topic by telling the story of how we got here – looking at the car from its inception in the late 19th century to today’s driverless vehicles. It delves into four particular categories: how the car whet our appetite for speed, its effect on manufacturing, how it brought about new ideas about design, and its role in creating a global reliance on oil. “Cars” essentially takes you on a journey from Ford to Suez to Silicon Valley.

Even as a non-car lover, it’s hard not to enjoy “Cars”. There are glossy 1890s Benzes, racing Firebirds, army trucks, and low-riders, with atmospheric sounds from each era blaring in the background. It’s literally flashy, with signs, videos, and old advertisements on nearly every wall, featuring stylish garments worn by both men and women specifically for driving. There are genuinely surprising pieces on display, like naked human models, radios, and chairs designed in the wake of the car popularisation of “streamlining” and the exhibit even features “Graham”, the human model designed to survive any car crash, which became a viral meme in 2016

Photo courtesy of the V&A

While the exhibition does go the whole hog on the car’s story, it doesn’t glorify it – the section on oil in particular shows the grim reality of war and gross wealth. It uses clever data visualisation to show the astonishing amount of money destroying the world over oil and uses old pro-oil propaganda to show how much destruction it’s caused (such as one ad eerily bragging about how one oil company “supplies enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier!”)

Although it doesn’t necessarily hurt the enjoyment of the exhibition, there are two things that stand out as missing. First, the discussion of the car’s potential obsolescence, with no mention of pedestrianisation in the exhibit itself (although it does get some airtime in the accompanying book, costing a steep £30) and little mention of the backlash against the car beyond a film playing at the very end. And second is a serious look at women and minorities, which are shoehorned into the exhibit in a largely half-hearted way. 

Lizzie Bisley, one of the curators of the exhibition, tells me: “We definitely wanted the exhibition to bring women in, so we’ve tried to do that quite consciously. We’ve got film relating to women racing car drivers in the 1920s and 30s and the earliest car in the exhibition was the first automobile ever produced, made by the German engineer Karl Benz and is perhaps most famous for having been driven by his wife on a 60-mile journey, which was the first-ever use of a car on a long-distance journey. So, again, you have this woman at the very beginning of that story of cars being used for recreational driving.” 

Despite its flaws, though, “Cars” attempts to answer an important question. “The car is at this almost crisis point, where everyone knows it’s going to have to change but no one knows what that’s going to mean or what that’s going to be,” Bisley says. “We want to look back at what’s happened and where the car’s come from, and hopefully that can inform the discussions about where things can go from here.”

And beyond answering tough questions, and putting the powers to be to trial, it’s just a lot of fun. “Cars” manages to please viewers well beyond the dad demographic.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.