top of page
  • Writer's picturetimeless travels

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World, at the V&A

By Theresa Thompson

How it all began: Benz patent motor car, model no. 3

What is an exhibition about cars doing at the V&A? You’d not be the first to ask. Once you’ve got over that surprise, an exceptional exhibition lies in wait, not only for the diverse and often beautiful cars on display, but also for the interwoven stories about design and the automobile's impact on the broader world in the short 130-year history of the car.

So, a story about the power of design to change the world: perhaps not such an anomaly at the V&A, after all. The V&A’s director, Tristram Hunt, addressed this, saying with a smile, “ the horror of purists and the confusion of petrol heads” the V&A is “delighted to welcome the car as a model of design into the museum of Raphael, Julia Margaret Cameron and Turner.”

But then, claimed curator, Brendan Cormier, “No other design object has impacted the world more than the automobile. This exhibition is about the power of design to effect change, and the unintended consequences that have contributed to our current environmental situation.”

There are 15 cars and 250 objects on show. Among them, the first production car in existence, a Benz Patent Motorwagen 3 from 1888; an autonomous flying car; an attention-grabbing converted low-rider from California; and a 1950s Firebird concept car. All of which are juxtaposed with an assortment of products, from fashion to graphics, photography and film, to draw connections to innumerable spheres of design and public life.

In ‘Going Fast’, the first gallery, all eyes go to the sleek white silhouette of the Firebird, one of a series of four concept cars designed by General Motors in the 1950s, and on show in the UK for the first time. Its design was directly inspired by aircraft fighter planes of the period, and it incorporates cockpit seats and jet engine technology to suggest a future in which driving is a “fluid almost flight-like experience.”

In this opening gallery, we see a future imagined as a world of liberated movement and technological progress. Cars meant speed and efficiency; cars meant freedom; they meant travel, independence, and so much more. The urge to go faster not only pushed the design of automobiles, but also shaped a visual culture and aesthetic that dominated the first half of the 20th century. Around the turn of the 20th century competitions like the Gordon Bennett Cup, and later the Grand Prix, led to a new culture of motor racing, which in turn drove the quest for speed and design in the automobile industry.

The exhibition is quite female-friendly, rather pleasingly. Pathé news clips projected above the displays show women drivers racing around the Brooklands race track in Surrey. Called the 'Ascot of Motorsport' in its heyday, it was quite the place to be seen in your new outfit, whether that’s the latest raciest fashion for the spectator, or the driver’s own - Jill Scott Thomas’ deep red racing cap is displayed and a 1938 portrait of her dressed head to foot in red, with lipstick to match.

French advertisement (1934) for the Czech Tatra T77

A gargantuan bottle-green Tatra T77, a mass-produced car made in 1934 by the Czech company Tatra according to the principles of streamlining, introduces the move towards streamlining that spread to other designs, for the home, the manufacturing industry, and in fashion.

A woman’s cloche hat is one result of the shift towards streamlining. The style developed in the 1920s and 30s as a practical answer to the problem of the wide-brimmed hats fashionable in the Edwardian period flying off when the wearer travelled at speed. Cloche hats were now de rigueur when driving at higher speeds in the new sportier cars. To us today, the style may seem demure, yet it was radical back then, offering a new streamlined ‘fast’ silhouette.

Cloche Hat. Miss Fox, 1928-29© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Female-influenced design is explored elsewhere too in designs of cars and accessories for women, and designs produced by women themselves (a photo shows a group at General Motors in the 1950s, dubbed the ‘Damsels of Design’). In 1955, Chrysler launched the Dodge La Femme, a car designed (by men) with pale pink exterior paint and interior fittings. There was also a pink cigarette case, handbag, brolly, and so on to match.

However, at the same time as speed, streamlining, and manufacturing (factory design, assembly lines, unionisation, and automation - all explored in the show) was developing, so too was the tension between two opposing forces – the desire for the thrill of speed and the imperative of safety.

The section ends by looking at car safety and accident prevention programmes. The desire to design for speed and style-consciousness shifted (in some) towards design for safety. Two exhibits were particularly disturbing: a screen showing the number of traffic deaths globally this year, going up second by second: 1,194,950... The other was Graham, a latex model created in 2016 for the Transport Accident Commission of Australia, whose features were grotesquely enlarged to absorb impacts, rather like a human air bag.

As this exhibition motors along it throws up debates at every corner, debates that have peppered the car’s surprisingly short history.

The V&A curators speak of this exhibition as a “look through the rear view mirror”, and this being a fascinating moment in which to focus on the car. Attitudes and awareness are changing rapidly. And the show in its latter stages doesn't altogether ignore the climate crisis, the need to rethink. Two screens offer more numbers later on. One shows numbers of cars produced this year: 68,774,859 when I was watching and rapidly advancing. But the one that was most staggering was the number of barrels of oil left in the world: 1,525,766,507,805 - but unlike the others, this clock was ticking down.

A three-wheeled Messerschmitt ‘bubble car’ shown nearby, from 1959, was one of the first efforts to address fuel scarcity (the cost of oil the concern, following the 1956 Suez Crisis), says the display text. Micro-cars became a popular and more environmentally friendly alternative.

Onwards and upwards: Pop.Up_Next_Pop.Up Next © Italdesign

The show ends with the future - and with a 2018 flying car prototype co-designed by Italdesign with Airbus and Audi. The Pop-Up Next autonomous flying car combines an electric chassis, a pod, and a drone - in which to beat traffic congestion; passengers can just nip into the air and fly away.

To my mind, the V&A has stolen a march on other venues in the capital with this exhibition. Cars: Accelerating the Modern World is a modern, relatable look at the 20th century’s love of the automobile and its concomitant problems...


Cars: Accelerating the Modern World

The Sainsbury Gallery (entrance via Exhibition Road),

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Showing until 19 April 2020

For more information see:


bottom of page