The 130-year history of the car may be comparatively short to other inventions, however, it has dramatically influenced and changed the world. Bringing together fifteen cars of the last century or so, the Victoria and Albert Museum tells the story of the design and impact of the car from the very first to a concept flying car of the near future. Whilst some of the cars are recognisable, it is the first time many of them have been on display in the United Kingdom, making the exhibition Cars: Accelerating the Modern World a must-see for car enthusiasts.
The world’s first practical car is generally considered to be the Patent-Motorwagen created in 1886 by Karl Benz (1844-1929). The first version was designed shortly after Benz successfully developed a petrol-powered two-stroked piston engine in 1873. The engine was mounted at the rear of a three-wheeled automobile that was steered by way of a rack and pinion mechanism. The body of the vehicle was made from steel tubing with wooden panels and spoked wheels. Later versions allowed room for passengers, however, it never went very fast, approximately 10 miles per hour at the most.
To publicise the new invention, Benz’s wife Bertha (1849-1944), whose dowry financed the enterprise, took the Patent-Motorwagen No. 3 for its first cross-country drive, covering around 60 miles. Although it was slow, Bertha proved its practicalness, however, there were a few issues. On more than one occasion, Bertha had to clean the carburettor with her hat pin and the brakes quickly wore down. Nonetheless, the seed was sown and many were already dreaming of faster cars and the potential idea of car racing.
By 1905, cars were already able to reach speeds of 100 mph and races were being held throughout the world to find the fastest drivers. Many of the early speed races took place on the sandy beaches of Florida between Ormond and Daytona Beach. As a result, the area has been nicknamed “the birthplace of speed”. One of the first drivers to go over 100 mph was Arthur MacDonald who reached 104.65 mph in a Napier 6 on 24th January 1905, winning him the Thomas Trophy.
In Europe, drivers competed for the Gordon Bennett Cup for automobile racing established by James Gordon Bennett Jr. (1841-1918), the publisher of the New York Herald. The phrase “Gordon Bennett”, which signifies exasperation or shock derives from the same man. The trophy was awarded in 1900 until 1905 when the French Grand Prix was established. The first Grand Prix was held in 1906 and today’s Formula One World Championships is a direct descendent.
Back at Daytona Beach, races were still being held on the sand including a race in March 1929 that saw the world land-speed record broken at 231.45 mph. Known as the Golden Arrow, the Irving-Napier car was designed by the British automobile engineer John Samuel Irving (1880-1953) in an attempt to take back the speed record from the Americans, which it achieved by 24 mph.
The Golden Arrow, which was driven by Major Henry Segrave (1896-1930), was designed to go much faster with a streamlined body and pointed nose. The record was achieved on the very first drive, however, Segrave wanted to drive again in the belief it could go much faster. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to prove its potential because the beach was closed later that day after a fatal crash of an American driver. Segrave was killed the following year whilst attempting to set a water speed record and the Golden Arrow, which now lives at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, was never driven again.
Despite having invented the Grand Prix, the French were dismayed that the majority of the winners drove German cars such as Mercedes-Benz. Determined to win the title, the French government encouraged local manufacturers to build a car fast enough to beat their German rivals at the Grand Prix. With an incentive of a million franc prize, Delahaye automobile constructed the Type 145, which was painted blue with a red and white victory stripe. At the 1938 Grand Prix in Pau, Southwest France, the French racing driver René Dreyfus (1905-93) drove the Delahaye Type 145 to victory.
As the races got more competitive, car manufacturers began to realise the vehicles designed according to the principles of streamlining performed better than those that were not. Hungarian-born Paul Jarau (1889-1974) was one of the designers in the 1920s who argued streamlining would enhance the performance of automobiles. To prove his point, Jaray collaborated with the Czech company Tatra to design the Tatra 77 (T77).
With the assistance of the Austrian automobile designer Hans Ledwinka (1878-1967), Jaray produced the first aerodynamic car. Their main aim was to reduce air drag, which they achieved by reducing the height of the body and tapering the back into a fin shape. Although the engine was slightly smaller than previous cars, it amazed spectators when it managed to easily reach speeds of 90 mph. Jaray’s success led him to work with many car manufacturers, including, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Ford.
Streamlining became popular with other products and not only vehicles. The 1920s and 1930s saw a new visual culture develop, which involved creating aesthetically sleek designs to replace the bulkier designs of the past. Fashion was particularly hit by this new wave and ladies wear became tight-fitting and elegant. Clothing was not the only industry to adopt the streamlined look, telephones, chairs, clocks and so forth all became slimmer and more compact.
With streamlining, cars could travel faster than ever before. Even before this was put into practice, the UK government feared for public safety and limited driving to 20 mph on all public roads as early as 1903. This was later raised to 30 mph but accidents on the roads were steadily increasing. Nonetheless, people still wanted to experience the thrill of speed and companies continued to develop fast cars.
To allow drivers the opportunity to drive at speed, the British entrepreneur Hugh Fortescue Locke King (1848-1926) opened and financed Brooklands, the world’s first purpose-built private racetrack for cars, in Weybridge, Surrey in 1907. Up until the Second World War, both men and women competed to reach new speeds. Although women were not allowed to enter formal competitions, they demanded the rights to drive, arguing that driving was about skill, not strength. Amongst these women was Jill Scott Thomas (1902-74) who was the first female to drive around Brooklands at the average speed of 120 mph. She “…drove like a man handling big fast cars with great verve and enthusiasm in days when women were not supposed to do these things. Yet she was essentially feminine…” (SCH Davis, Atalanta -Women as Racing Drivers)
By the 1950s, speed was becoming a problem on public roads, which was not helped by the new breed of popular automobile, the “muscle car”. The Ford Mustang Fastback was one of the relatively affordable “muscle cars” with a powerful engine that allowed people who could not previously afford fast cars the opportunity to experience the speed of luxury sports cars. Despite being popular, people criticised these cars, claiming they encouraged reckless driving, which would, in turn, cause more road fatalities.
To tackle car-related deaths, car companies started developing safety innovations, which are now legal requirements. The German company Bosch introduced electrical systems, such as headlights and horns. The Swedish company Volvo pioneered seatbelts, which had a major impact on driver and passenger safety. As time went on, new technologies were added to cars, allowing the vehicle the ability to control some of the driving, taking some of the responsibility away from the driver.
Although the Ford Mustang is famous for its speed, it was a long time before Ford jumped on the streamline design bandwagon. From 1908 to 1927, the Ford Motor Company’s best selling car was the Model T, which is also considered to be the world’s first affordable automobile. It was also the first mass-produced car, which is what made it so much cheaper than other car models.
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
– Henry Ford
Henry Ford (1863-1947) was an American industrialist who, not only founded the Ford Motor Company but also developed the assembly line technique of mass production, which changed the world. Ford was inspired by meatpacking plants in the Midwest, which gradually butchered carcasses by passing them from one team to the next, each with a different job. As a result, the main job was broken down into small tasks with one person in charge of a particular section. By incorporating this idea into his factories, Ford’s staff were able to work simultaneously on car parts that eventually got put together at the final stage of the assembly line. Although each person’s job was rather repetitive, it proved to speed up production, which allowed the company to sell the cars at a lower price.
The annual output of the Model T continued to rise and by the time it was discontinued in 1927, Ford had sold over 15 million around the world. At the time, 55% of drivers owned a Ford Model T, which is a record that has never been beaten.
Mass production caught on in other industries and soon it was not just cars that were produced through an assembly line. Everything from furniture to architecture adopted “Fordism”, which increased output and created more jobs – that is until robots were invented. By working long hours on repetitive tasks, workers’ health began to deteriorate, particularly when strenuous tasks were involved. To alleviate the problem, robots were installed to perform more demanding tasks. Unfortunately, this resulted in a loss of jobs and, in the 21st century, workers are still struggling to negotiate a way in which robots and humans can effectively collaborate.
Although the Model T allowed people of all classes to own a car, the elite prefered to stand out in the motoring world. They requested luxury, customised cars, such as the “Skiff Torpedo” designed by the Spanish company Hispano-Suiza. Over 2000 luxury cars were produced by the company, each made bespoke for every rich customer. On display at the V&A is the “Skiff Torpedo” bought by the benefactor Suzanne Deutsch de la Meurthe (1892-1937) at the Paris Auto Salon in 1919. The car was very expensive but showed the world Madame de la Meurthe was a wealthy woman. Other people who ordered a Hispano-Suiza included Constantine I of Greece (1868-1923).
Another way to demonstrate your wealth was to have a mascot on your car bonnet. Some makes of car still have these today, however, between 1920 and 1931, the French designer René Lalique (1860-1945) produced a series of mascots made from glass. Costing hundreds of pounds each, these glass creations were designed to be screwed into the radiator cap and could even be illuminated by an electric light if desired. Although these mascots were much admired, it was not long before even the most careful of drivers realised how dangerous life on the road was for the glass sculptures.
Bespoke cars could be produced in any colour the client desired, however, the customers of the Ford Model T could “have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” This was because the black paint was much more economical than other colours. It dried quickly, which was important in assembly line manufacturing.
The American company General Motors, which was founded in 1908 by William C. Durant (1861-1947), looked for ways to easily and cheaply change the colour of a car. Collaborating with the chemical company DuPont, they created “Duco”, a quick-drying paint suitable for cars that could be produced in many different colours.
With their new colour palette, General Motors produced the LaSalle Roadster, which was styled to look like a luxury car but was much more affordable. The V&A displays just one of the many colours in which the car was mass-produced.
Other companies began to produce their cars in multiple colours, allowing customers to choose their preference rather than make do with what was available. In 1955, Chrysler launched a car specifically made for women, made, ironically, by men. With a pink exterior and interior, the Dodge La Femme had a simpler dashboard and came with a range of accessories, including a rain hat, coat, umbrella, handbag (pink, of course), cigarette case, mirror and make-up. Today, a female-targeted car is an extremely sexist idea and it was not until the late 1950s that women were first introduced to design teams.
The “Damsels of Design”, as they were called, were hired by General Motors to help design cars that would be attractive to women. Unfortunately, this largely involved gimmicky things and many women got frustrated and left the industry.
With so many colour ranges available, the chairman of General Motors, Alfred Sloan (1875-1966) proposed the policy of “annual model renewal”. Based on the fashion industry, which changed its lines every season, Sloan believed they could sell more cars if they continuously updated the previous year’s model. The inner engineering stayed the same, but the appearance changed regularly, tempting people to buy the latest design. Colour ranges and annual updates were introduced to other industries as well, which is why there seem to be several new smartphones or computers every year.
On the other hand, Volkswagen decided not to produce new designs each year and boasted of their VW Beetle’s iconic unchanging appearance. By advertising themselves in a self-deprecating way, mocking the annual model cycle, Volkswagen grew in popularity and saw an increase in sales.
The VW Beetle came about after the Second World War. In 1937, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), who was a great admirer of Fordism, hired Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951), the founder of the Porsche car company, to design a “car for the people”, i.e. Volkswagen. Hitler believed everyone in Germany should have access to a car and used this idea as propaganda for the Nazi Party. Whilst production began in 1938, it had to be temporarily halted due to the war during which time Porsche’s talents were used on the production of tanks and weapons. It was only after the British reopened the VW plant that the VW Beetle became widely available.
By the end of the war, it was clear that the world’s petrol resources were not inexhaustible. Something that was once abundant was showing signs of running out and society was beginning to face up to the potential of a future without oil. The way engines were powered needed to change and experiments began with lithium batteries and electricity. Unfortunately, the search for sustainable fuel continues today.
Before anyone realised the dangers of nuclear waste, Ford put forward a concept for a car that could be powered by a small nuclear reactor. Rather than needing to refuel, the car would be recharged after 5000 miles. The biggest problem, however, was no one had worked out how to make nuclear fission more compact to fit into a small engine, therefore, the car was never built.
Another attempt at an eco-friendly car was the Messerschmitt KR200, which was produced after the 1956 Suez Crisis that saw a steep rise in oil prices. With a smaller engine, the “Bubble car” as it was nicknamed needed less fuel to run. With two front wheels and one rear wheel, less power was needed than if it had four wheels like most other cars. Unfortunately, only two people could fit in the car and the passenger had to sit behind the driver, therefore, it was not practical for families.
In the 130 years that cars have been around, they have reshaped society and geography. Initially, the few paved roads were unsuitable for driving and many more were needed to avoid congestion. Between 1920 and 2020, motorways have drastically altered the landscape of countries across the world. Green fields have been converted or divided by strips of tarmac and roads have eaten their way through mountain ranges and under bodies of water.
Whilst some people grieve for the loss of nature, other cultures almost worship cars. Racing drivers are an obvious example and car shows are another. In Britain, people meet up to show off their cars, particularly old-fashioned ones that are still in peak conditions. The same type of thing is done on other continents, for example, the Latino communities in LA. The V&A displays an example of a custom paint job on a 1962 Chevrolet Impala Convertible. Although it is rarely used on the road, Tomas Vazquez, a member of the Imperials, one of the biggest lowrider car clubs in the world, gave the car new life when he repainted it and added creative decorations in memory of Imperial members who have passed away. As a video in the exhibition shows, Vazquez takes great care and pride in the car, which he named Tipsy, and takes her to numerous car shows.
Since cars are updated annually, there is the constant question of “what next?” There are more and more cars on the roads each year and the petrol issue is becoming a greater problem every day. Buildings and farmlands are destroyed to make room for more roads to try to accommodate the number of vehicles. Engineers are trying to find a new method of powering cars, for instance, electricity, but even that has its flaws. Another popular idea is the future of flying cars.
The idea of a flying car is not a new one. The first vehicle in the V&A exhibition is the General Motor’s Firebird 1 concept car from the 1950s. Inspired by jet fighter planes, the car was designed like a plane with a cockpit and gas turbine engines that promised a speed of 200 mph. As it was only a concept, the logistics had not been fully worked out and the car never flew. Today, however, a flying car is much closer to reality than it was 60 years ago.
The exhibition closes with a vision of the future. At least four ideas are being contemplated for the future of the car: electric engines, driverless abilities, on-demand services and flying cars. The Pop.Up Next concept car combines all four ideas in one design. The car, powered by electricity, has the ability to drive on roads. A computer inside would be able to connect to people’s smartphones in order to be booked for a ride and be instructed upon the destination – no doubt it would have the latest voice recognition software. Finally, when attached to a strong propeller-like device, the car would supposedly fly.
After being shown cars of the past, visitors are left with this vision of the future. How will the car develop over the next decade, the next century and even further into the future? We wait and see.
Cars: Accelerating the Modern World is open until Sunday 19th April 2020. Tickets are £18 and under 11’s go free when accompanied by a paying adult.
My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify.
If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!