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Sideways with Stephen Bayley

by Stephen Bayley

Except in unusually ideal circumstances, the ones that scarcely exist in Europe any more, I don't much enjoy driving. And nor, under any circumstances, do I have a taste for speed. So people often ask me why I am so fascinated by cars.

The answer is simple. It's aesthetics, although nothing about aesthetics is very simple. Speak to a philosopher and they will tell you there are two sorts of aesthetic response: first, the direct one, and secondly, the associational. Cars inspire both.

The direct aesthetic response is purely sensational, that alchemy of form, detail and colour which, bypassing the cognitive part of the brain, moves us automatically. I mean, perhaps, our response to shapes. And the best shapes are usually curvaceous ones. No one, for example, has ever been moved to tears by a parallelogram, but a lascivious curve on Franco Scaglione's Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale reminiscent, perhaps, in our lizard back-brain of a woman's hips, is another matter...

The associational response is rather different and altogether more conscious. Paolo Conte sang that a proper car should smell of paint, leather and sex and, of course, the good ones always do. But sometimes they smell of vinyl and canvas as well. I believe that the essence of good design is the ordinary thing done extraordinarily well; a humble Fiat 500 or a Citroën 2CV is at least as interesting to me as a throbbing 800 horsepower carbonfibre supercar.

Never mind an austere Gmünd Porsche that, associationally, puts me in mind of clever German laboratories, colonic irrigation and the intoxicating whiff of a pine forest. The associations of a little Fiat or Citroën suggest a lovely Tuscan strada di campagna or a long, deserted French N-road with dappled sunshine through the plane trees on the way to dinner. Of course, a Ferrari 250 evokes the Moyenne Corniche on the way to Eze, but that's not so much another matter as another aspect of the same thing. It would, by the way, have to be navy blue with tan upholstery.

When he was still President of Ferrari, I had the chance to ask Luca di Montezemolo what was the absolute essence of his cars, and he said: massimo edonismo. And hedonism is an essential part of aesthetics. Cars might not actually be art, but in the way they move us and summarise collective yearnings, they have in recent years usurped the role of art. I love it that Roland Barthes in his essay about the then-new Citroën DS said that car design was "the best messenger of a world above Nature".

So, zoom to Monterey and the stuff of dreams. There is a rare Alfa Romeo 8C 2.9 on sale. Never mind that this particular car was once violated by the insertion of a plebeian Chevrolet V8, the restored car has reverted to a gorgeous and pure Italian elegance. Carrozzeria Touring (whose name was inspired by the Eighteenth Century 'Grand Tour' of English milordi) always understood the essentials of automobile beauty... in its gentlemanly sense. Nothing here need be added, nor taken away, to make it more perfect.

Another car full of Anglo-Italian associations, but with a red-sauce American accent, is the original AC Cobra being auctioned at Pebble Beach. Here is a car that's the automotive equivalent of a Beat Generation counter-culture classic. The style of the donor John Tojeiro AC Ace had very clearly been inspired by the 166 MM Ferrari Barchetta: neat, purposeful, compact, correct. But with Carroll Shelby's insertion of a burbling Ford 260 V8, it was promoted to another register. People are still reproducing Cobras, which tells you all you need to know about the desirability of the original.

Then there is Ferrari, as there always will be. These cars effortlessly commute across the frontier between art and industrial production: the metal-bashing Scaglietti always spoke of making 'reproductions', or interpretations, of Pininfarina originals, an expression that immediately put his work into the arena of art.

In Monterey you will see a Scaglietti-bodied California Spider and a 250 GT SWB Berlinetta. Never mind the glorious roll call of names associated with 250 series Ferraris - Boano, Colombo, Bizzarrini - these two cars establish the inviolably perfect stereotypes of the front-engined cabriolet and the closed GT. Aesthetically, they will never be bettered.

I say that, but then my attention is drawn to a 1958 Porsche 550A Spyder in Gooding's Pebble Beach sale. This is not so far away from James Dean's famous 'Little Bastard' that perished with its driver in the Californian desert at Cholame, after a collision with a Ford station-wagon. Great cars suggest national characteristics and the wonderfully stripped-back Porsche reminds me of architect Heinrich Tessenow's principle: "The best is always simple, but the simple is not always the best". This is what I mean by associational aesthetics, although the little Porsche is also as beautiful as a hand-turned titanium lock-nut.

Then again, why are there relatively few American cars at Pebble Beach? Alfas, Ferraris and Porsches are all very well. But I still enjoy a '58 Chevy and when I see one I think of Robert Lowell's lines in his great poem 'For the Union Dead': "Everywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease". We'll find a Bel Air at Monterey one day.

Gentlemen, this is what we are all into. May I mention The Beach Boys? "With Naugahyde bucket seats in front and back/ Everything is chromed, man, even my jack." Thus the glorious simplicity and complexity (and ever-present erotic suggestiveness) of car aesthetics: suggestion, sensuality and desire. It's really all about dreams... and in dreams begin responsibilities.

Stephen Bayley is an author, critic, columnist, consultant, broadcaster, curator and founding director of the influential Design Museum. Over the past thirty years his writing has changed the way the world thinks about design. We recommend his latest book, 'Death Drive - There Are No Accidents', published by Circa. See http://circapress.net/titles/death-drive