Car designs of the past present a rich social history; they were our streetscapes, our travelling spaces, and our past ideas of how things should be better and more exciting. Whilst designers focus very much on tomorrow, casting an eye backwards to remember, celebrate, and learn from the past in car design is a valuable as well as pleasurable thing to do — something we appreciated last year in particular whilst visiting two unique collections.
Not many people work in car design and don’t have a passion for the subject, and we are no exception; it’s a privilege to love your discipline. Sitting near the top of this privilege is an occasional perk we enjoy: following a meeting with a client design group to then get to see a variety of different in-house collections (or sometimes more widely accessible adjacent museums). Late last year we enjoyed losing a few post meeting hours in two particularly memorable collections which led us to think how maybe the historic value of car design is a bit overlooked by the wider world: there are many art galleries and museums full of antiquities, but not so many collections that celebrate car designs of the past, despite our street-scapes being filled with car designs of the present.
Most recently in Turin we had an almost exhaustingly rich hour and a half pouring over and sitting in(!) old Lancia and Fiat designs in the still new FCA Heritage Centre in Turin that houses an almost comprehensive back-catalogue of both brands. Highlights included the brutalist one-off Lancia ECV2 that was the 1988 full-stop to the lineage of Delta-based rally cars, and whose unlucky timing meant it never competed — its vast turbo boost gauge is just the coolest thing…
A total counter-point was the sublime Lancia Aprilia, a well known classic design with its distinctive long wheel-base and boat-tail rear, but we’d not seen before the most delightful interior feature of a cord-pull dropping down from the ceiling within easily reach of front occupants to then pull up a rear-screen sun-blind with.
Two decades later and there was the elegant and simple interior of the Lancia Flavia with a delightful surprise of an unusual close-to-hand switch panel on the left of the steering wheel. Two decades later again and the Fiat Vanzic concept showed such a totally new take on interior architecture (see main article image, above). An embarrassment of riches where choosing highlights is a challenge, but the ancient Lancia Gamma Tipo 55 race car is our last here for the way it teaches us something about honesty and innately good proportions.
Earlier in the year we were up at Jaguar’s splendid new design studio at Gaydon, and obliged to park next to the adjacent British Motor Museum that now houses hundreds of post-war British designs cheek-by-jowl on two floors of a warehouse-like space called the ‘car collection’, a stone-throw from the main museum exhibition building. Once ubiquitous, but now incredibly rare, fine designs like the Mk1 Triumph Toledo and Austin / Morris 1100 rub shoulders with one-off prototypes like Alex Issigonis’ experimental straight six engined Metro (not shown), and the ungainly SD2.
On another level exotic Jaguar concepts like the original XJ220 show car — with gull wings and far longer than the later production version — and the still conceptually unique RD6 reminded us of innovative directions Jaguar chose not to take not long ago.
Amongst the many classic Jaguar designs we all know so well were a few rarities like the SS1 Airline Saloon — actually the most shooting brake shooting brake ever! In the main museum, the dramatic Austin Zanda concept by Harris Mann was a modernist highlight (as well as being another shooting brake) few people know.
In previous years we’ve had meetings with many other clients that have enabled us to see other museums and private collections. In Gothenburg we enjoyed being reminded in the Volvo Museum of both definitively boxy designs such as the 144 and 740, and also the brand’s obtuse coupe variants including one-off 263GL prototype: a proper hunchback. In Tokyo we were lucky enough to have local designers take us around the History Garage: a Toyota enterprise, but one that reaches to include many non-Toyota designs too, the upright first generation Mazda Carol being the design that somehow most fascinated us.
Probably the most impressive car museum in the world is the BMW museum in Munich: the building in its own right is an exceptional piece of architecture, but it stands even higher for the way that it is designed to show off BMW cars so well and to guide visitors on a chronological flow of wheeled sculptures. Twice after Munich meetings we’ve walked around marvelling at this cathedral of cars, and whilst being reminded of the form of mid-seventies series cars was a potent experience, it is the Z1 that somehow occupies the most hallowed ground — so fresh and pure and rich yet without frippery, a true high water mark.
Maybe the most personal car collection we have been lucky enough to be shown around (by three different design directors over the years we have visited) is that of Pininfarina. Unlike other collections, their designs span many brands. The interior of the original mid-engined Ferrari P6 prototype (that preceded the 365GTB4 BB) was a modernist highlight few have ever experienced, but then standing next to the original wooden former for the famous Modulo show car that is in turn next to founder Battista Pininfarina’s personal Lancia Florida 2, takes some beating.
There have been other glimpses too, rare pre-war Bentleys, a McLaren F1s laid bare, a mint first generation Ford Transit and 1st generation Audi 100, and surprises we shouldn’t tell of varying from a warehouse in Asia full of moribund seventies and eighties cars from the client brand presumably awaiting restoration for a museum one day, to show cars spanning three decades forgotten in a now defunct building in Birmingham, to two classic sports cars so petite that their Germany design studio has space to leave them in a corridor, to the courtyard in France replete with the most perfectly sculptural twenty year old theme model.
Car design as a discipline faces forwards, perhaps further forwards than most other areas of the industry. But it is great to see and be reminded of old car designs, not least those once familiar and now rarely seen. At a time when luxury brands are re-issuing past designs as ‘continuations’ — notably Bentley, Aston Martin, Jaguar— and others are more consciously remembering the value of their design heritage as evidenced in ‘reimagined’ show or low volume production cars — most recently BMW, Hyundai and Porsche — so the value of these collections of old car designs increases. Car design is not just for the street-scape of today, but collectively forms an important part of peoples shared history and societies’ cultural capital. Perhaps just as art and architecture from the past is often held up by exhibitions and documentaries for the wider public to appreciate, so perhaps some of the many car designs of the past should be more often curated in a similar way to reach a wider audience. Car designs have a place as museum pieces.