Arts feature

Cars are our cathedrals

Stephen Bayley hails the automobile - a miracle of technical and artistic collaboration - and mourns its demise

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

Imagine for a moment Harley Earl, head of design at General Motors, Detroit’s wizard of kitsch. Standing before him, in his studio, is the cetacean bulk, nipple-coloured pink paint, churrigueresque chrome ornaments and rocket-ship details of his 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Seville Convertible. He is talking to his acolytes, as attentive as Rubens’ studio assistants in Antwerp 300 years earlier. Earl is describing his stylist’s art, the astonishing formal achievement of the pink Caddy. He says, pointing perhaps to a tail fin: ‘I want that line to have a duflunky, to come across, have a little hook in it, and then do a rashoom or a zong.’ Our language lacks a vocabulary to describe what cars do to us. So Harley Earl had to invent his own. It’s poetry of a sort.

Poets themselves have not much sung ‘The Age of Combustion’. The A23 has not found its Homer. And maybe now it never will.

There are some solitary wonders. E.E. Cummings’s 1926 poem ‘She Being Brand New’ treats clutch slip, piston slap, burning smells, shuddering motions and grinding gears exactly as if they are metaphors of sex. Which, of course, in a way, they are.

Forty years after Cummings, Tom Wolfe essayed his trademark sesquipedalian style when, on his first assignment as a journalist, he described what cars meant to street-racing Californian kids: ‘Freedom style sex power motion colour everything.’

But more often literature has been disdainful of the car. ‘Dark was the day when Diesel/ conceived his grim engine that/ begot you, vile invention…/ metallic monstrosity,/ bale and bane of our culture,/ chief woe of our commonweal’, wrote Auden. Maybe this is exactly what Auden thought on his frequent and convenient tipsy trips home in a taxi powered by Dr Rudolf Diesel’s Rational Heat Engine.

John Betjeman also thought the car was risible. Driving a ‘firm’s Cortina’ was the very mark of lower middle-class wretchedness. The poet laureate also wondered why steam power had generated such architectural wonders while petrol none. Alas, Betjeman, our apostle of tea and crumpets, had not met the painter Ed Ruscha, who saw monumental beauty in the banality of gas stations.

More positive, or at least engaged voices have included Heathcote Williams, who said that an alien observing traffic from space would assume that intelligent life on earth was the automobile, which picked up and spat out its human fuel. These same traffic patterns would also seem, from a distance, to be miracles of intelligent cooperation and decorum.

This year is the 60th anniversary of literature’s most remarkable encounter with the automobile. At the 1955 Paris Salon de l’Automobile, Citroën revealed its Voiture de Grande Diffusion, roughly ‘mass-market car’, although it was anything but. Citroën had been bankrupted by the genius of its founder, who believed that ‘from the moment an idea is worth having, no one cares what it costs’. The ‘DS’, as it became known, was a deliberate attempt to restore the company’s fortunes. It was also conceived as a morale-booster for the French nation, just emerging from postwar austerity.

Thus there was much self-consciousness in the presentation of the new car. Although Citroën’s chief engineer had said ‘nous ne soucions pas de l’esthetique’, they had employed a sculptor to shape the body. This was Flaminio Bertoni, an Italian with direct connections to the futurists and the surrealists. Bertoni’s design was so sensational that Citroën presented the car on a pylon, without wheels, so that Michelin rubber would not compromise the aesthetic effect.

The Citroën DS
The Citroën DS

Gina Lollobrigida was hired as an ambassador and wooed Paris-Match journalists, who raved that it appeared to have come out of an atomic research lab. ‘Voici la Bombe Citroën!’ the headlines shrieked at a time when atmospheric nuclear tests were commonplace. More poetically, if you say ‘DS’ the French way, it sounds like ‘Goddess’, a name that immediately evoked the spiritual instead of hot oil. And this turned out to be exactly how the car would be understood.

One of the keenest visitors to the 1955 Salon was a young academic grammarian from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. His name was Roland Barthes and he had no particular interest in cars, although he was beginning to turn his attention to the semiotic analysis of subjects ‘most unlike literature’. Barthes was taken with the spirituality of the DS, which inspired him to the sovereign observation that cars today are ‘our cathedrals’ in that they are everyday objects, made by anonymous artisans, but retain a level of magical appeal for the population as a whole.

Barthes wrote beautifully about the ‘objet superlatif’ and its ‘wondrous shape’. He was amazed at the way the cutlines worked and how metal panels merged into windows. It was, he said, ‘the beginning of a new phenomenology of assembly’. It was the ‘exaltation of glass’. And the Citroën was, in Barthes’ fine words, a perfect definition of what design could be: ‘the best messenger of a world above that of nature’. Or pure artifice, if you prefer. Or perhaps even art.

If the 1955 Citroën DS were introduced tomorrow, it would still astonish. But nobody is planning anything quite so audacious. The Goddess speaks of a different world, where cars were used not as journeys from A to B, but as places to lounge, at speed, between lunch and dinner. Look at the early advertising literature and you see cross-sections of the car full of well-dressed people en route to cheerful destinations.

So, 60 years on, it is melancholy to think of a culture with no space for pleasure. It is even more melancholy, as we imagine our Goddess rolling along the sunny RN7 in the shadow dapple of plane trees, to think of the approaching Autonomous Car: the robot automobile. Apple will not let its designer Jonathan Ive discuss cars in public, confirming a suspicion that a driverless iCar is coming soon.

The Autonomous Car will bring many benefits. Driven by data, journeys can be aggregated and intelligently planned with less waste. Traffic lights and other encumbering street furniture will disappear from the landscape. You may never again have to think about parking because the car will not rest. Additionally, like W.H. Auden, you may return to your vehicle blind drunk and avoid the wrath of the law.

But something, possibly even something spiritual, will have been lost. Future apex-predator braggarts may claim ‘My car is more autonomous than yours!’ but, essentially, all ideas of pride in ownership, status, prestige, discreet sexual display and, indeed, spirituality will have been removed from the formula of the motorist’s life. That might be wholesome, but it is not very poetic.

I was talking to Stefano Pasani, a leading ophthalmological surgeon in Bologna and, incidentally, an authority on Lamborghinis. Through an elegant pince-nez Dr Pasani told me we are too hard on the car. ‘Why do you think life expectancy is longer now than a century ago?’ he asked. And his answer was the accessibility provided by motorised ambulances.

This genie of mobility, and its cousins freedom and pleasure, was released by Henry Ford, who created his first gasoline buggy to escape from the crushing boredom of life on the farm. André Citroën added European values to Ford’s workaday contraption. True, modern roads are a travesty of liberty and motorised mobility is fiction, but in dreams begin responsibilities. When you look at a 60-year-old Citroën DS, only the dullest person could not see great beauty, magic and charm. The Age of Combustion left behind some magnificent cathedrals.

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  • davidshort10

    I cannot imagine why any publication is still commissioning this sort of Bayley ’80s rubbish. Perhaps it’s because the Spectator’s md is stuck in the 80s. Britain has 29 million cars, almost 1 in 2 for every man, woman and child. You don’t have to be Ken Livingstone to realise it’s time to stop eulogising the motor vehicle and introduce some kind of policy to reduce the numbers and their usage. Farage goes on about hundreds of thousands of immigrants and do we have room for them. Do we have room for millions of large lumps of metal and rubber which are bigger than human beings and take up so much space, even when they are not polluting the air we breathe.

    • Felixthecat

      Calm down Greenpeace. I know liberals don’t like cars because they offer people immense personal freedom – and that just won’t do.

      • davidshort10

        What country do you live in? I am not ‘Greenpeace’. Far from it. Cars do not ‘offer people immense personal freedom’. They did decades ago. Not now. They offer delay and frustration. I use cars when I need them. I use taxis in the various cities that I am in for my work. Currently that is in a big West African city. I get to where I am going and let the driver eft off. I don’t need to park. I get dropped off at the office. When I am in the UK, if I need a car, I hire one. When I am in London, I only hire one when I know I have parking. Otherwise, I use Zipcar or black cabs. To and from the airport I use a car service. When i’m on the way to the airport, I can use the phone, read, even be drunk, then I get out of the car, walk over to the terminal and don’t need to find a parking space and pay thru the nose for it. For longer distances in the UK, I use a train or a plane. You will be stuck in ‘traffic’. Not realising of course that the ‘traffic is you’. My point is that all political parties, right wing as well as left, have to realise that, far from there being to many immigrants, here, there are too many fucking cars. And people waste so much money on them. They are just so much fodder for the car industry. I would imagine my bank balance is a lot healthier for not spending money on a depreciating asset.

        • David: Come to America. The roads are broad here. We love the road. Gas is affordable, cars of different styles are there for you to choose: it’s a den of sin on wheels. Also you can play music like this and drive for miles without pressure:

        • Jon Low

          Cars are gorgeous. More gorgeous than a bracelet or a bauble. Or a smelly horse.

          • In2minds

            Cars are gorgeous, indeed. I still hanker after a Trabant but they are a bit smelly though not as bad a horse.

        • Paul

          Not everywhere is London, or any other big gridlocked city. You don’t like owning cars, fine, but you use the black cab, one of the most polluting vehicles in the UK, causing unnecessary smog and respiratory illness. I don’t like sitting on dirty buses and cancelled or delayed trains. Stop projecting your own issues onto everyone else, others have a perfectly good reason to own and drive cars and it’s really none of your business, oh, and stop swearing, it’s childish.

    • Gerschwin

      Fear not, if we melt down cyclists we can use them as fuel.

    • Nicholas_Keen

      Rubbish. Happiness is a full tank of gas and the open road ahead. Who are you (and who is the thieving government, for that matter) to say that I waste money on my car, David? Patronizing BS.

      • davidshort10

        Enjoy you traffic jams. I hope you are not as drunk as you are now when behind the wheel, you sad twat.

        • Nicholas_Keen

          Actually this “sad twat” doesn’t partake, but judging from the time difference I might draw my own inferences from the tone of your response.

    • Mr B J Mann


      So “Britain has 29 million cars, almost 1 in 2 for every man, woman and child. You don’t have to be Ken Livingstone to realise it’s time to stop eulogising the motor vehicle and introduce some kind of policy to reduce the numbers and their usage”.


      Down to the levels of some of our more progressive, car-hating, greeny EU friends?!?!?!

      Here’s an extract from a world league table, which level would you like to reduce numbers down to:

      Motor vehicles – excluding two wheelers – per 1,000 people:

      5th Iceland 747
      6th Luxembourg 741
      10 Italy 682
      14 Spain 593
      15 Norway 591
      16 Germany 588
      17 Japan 588
      18 Austria 585
      19 Poland 580
      20 France 578
      21 Switzerland 573
      22 Lithuania 560
      23 Belgium 559
      24 Finland 551
      25 Portugal 548
      26 Greece 537
      30 Netherlands 528
      32 Sweden 520
      33 UNITED KINGDOM 519

      But we are “ahead” of:

      38th Denmark with “only” 480 per 1,000 people!

      • Mr B J Mann

        The reason these countries aren’t as clogged up with traffic as the UK is that they have much more motorway and other main and distributor roads as we do.

        And that’s why they can cycle in their city centres!

    • Mr B J Mann

      “Do we have room for millions of large lumps of metal and rubber which are bigger than human beings and take up so much space, even when they are not polluting the air we breathe.”

      There aren’t that many buses, surely, are there?!?!

      And trains in the UK don’t have rubber inserts in their wheels!!!!

      Just because whenever you see a reference to reports of the harm to health from “traffic” and “transport” pollution over a photoshopped shot of a smoking car exhaust you immediately jump the conclusion it’s cars that are to blame doesn’t make you right:

      The “traffic” pollution referred to in reports on lung disease comes from buses and diesel trains and the power stations that fuel “electric” trams and trains.

      When they refer to “transport” they are including SHIPPING!!!!!!!

      And the reports on cancer hot-spots on roads were centred on BUS garages, depots and terminii!!!!

      And a study for the NHS contemporaneous with the lung disease ones reported that there were neither any health, not any environmental, reasons for restricting car uses in cities!

      But don’t let the facts get in the way of an anti-car rant, will you?!?!?

      PS As someone else has pointed out, taxis are almost as bad as buses and power stations when it comes to your health.

      And as a psychlopath’s encyclopaedia that a cycling fanatic once directed me to pointed out: on a whole of life basis cars are five times as polluting than cycles.

      Which means that a modern, catalysed, lean-burn engine car carrying five is no more polluting than a bicycle.

      In fact it was probably decades ago now that Saab showed that its latest cars could take in the polluted air behind a bus and exhaust CLEANER air than it took in!!!!!!

      And as for a full people carrier!

      And even a trainspotters’ mag admitted a while back that a full saloon was more economical and more environmentally friendly on a London to Scotland run than taking the train!!!!!

      But, don’t worry, most of that cycle pollution is only killing kids in China, so that’s alright then!!!!

      PPS And don’t start on occupancy:

      Typical bus occupancy is something ridiculous like 9, yes, NINE!

      Don’t forget that even in the rush hour it leaves the garage, or perhaps even the terminus empty, fills up as it approaches the other terminus, and then runs back nearly, if not completely, empty!

      Then spends the rest of the day until the next rush hour not just depreciating, but wearing itself out, wasting fuel and polluting the atmosphere running backwards and forwards empty for most of the time.

      And taking up the time of a driver paid out of taxpayers funds (read the £50 BILLION pa in EXTRA ADDITTIONAL Road RELATED Taxes drivers pay ON TOP of their ORDINARY CITIZENS taxes).

      And, quite often, monopolising an otherwise empty 24 hour bus lane!

      So what’s the occupancy of a bus lane compared to a car lane (or a railway track for that matter)?!?!?!

  • WellRead29

    53 Year old American here. I just purchased my 10th car since my first acquisition, a 1972 Banana-Yellow Chevy Monte Carlo which I bought for $1100 in 1978. It was noisy, heavy, unreliable, scary fast, drank gasoline at a prodigious rate, and way too big on the outside for the amount of space on the inside. But it was freedom, just as surely as the Black Pearl was to Captain Jack Sparrow. I so loved that machine.
    My current ride? A larger on the inside but quieter on the outside 2012 Toyota Camry. Quiet, quick enough, extremely competent, sips fuel in very small bits, is a non-descript gray in color, and will easily last for 200,000 miles without any issues. OH, and I spent $18k on it used (with 25k miles on).
    Comparing the 2 is like comparing Australopithecus to Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Still roughly the same critter, but WOW what an improvement.
    My how the world has changed!

    • Gerschwin

      But if it was a 1957 Chevrolet Corvette!

    • Nicholas_Keen

      I’d take the Monte-Carlo now, rattles and all, but for me it would be a ’69 Camaro Z28 with 302 small block, or failing that a ’70 Chevelle SS. You can have your Toyota, the most lifeless drive on the road today.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “way too big on the outside for the amount of space on the inside”
      So Tardis in reverse?

  • There are some solitary wonders. E.E. Cummings’s 1926 poem ‘She Being Brand New’ treats clutch slip, piston slap, burning smells, shuddering motions and grinding gears exactly as if they are metaphors of sex. Which, of course, in a way, they are.
    I loved that poem. All the same, and for all its suggestiveness, it is nothing like my very dusty memories of human intimacy. (Yes I’ve been married more than 20 years: connect the dots.)

  • Stuff the poets. Jeremy Clarkson said some dozen-plus years ago now, about the Aston Martin: ‘it’s fast, it’s beautiful, and … it’s British’. He won my heart, the old bastard.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    First article on the automobile since Moses was a boy, and Stephen squanders the opportunity on this piece of pointless nostalgia. Definately not what it used to be.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    American cars of the ’50s and ’60’, didn’t stop, didn’t handle. Poor ground clearance. Much too big for anywhere but the United States, and even then …

  • Jonathan Tedd

    Drive a 1970 Ford Galaxie 500 coast-to-coast USA in 1989. I was 22. I’ll always love America and Americans.

  • Mr B J Mann

    “True, modern roads are a travesty of liberty and motorised mobility is fiction, but in dreams begin responsibilities.”

    Picture the scene:

    You think there are too many cars on the roads…………… ooooh, perhaps twice as many as there should be…..

    So you try to discourage half of drivers from driving…….

    And succeed with measures such as:

    Pedestrianizing half the roads……

    Guess what, the traffic on the remaining roads is the same as it ever was!

    But you’ve also, with all the road closures, un-necessary restricted turns at junctions, having to get round the closed off roads, one-way systems that makes drivers travel several times as far to get from A to B as they need to, made them go, say, five times as far as they should have (remember if you just make them go the other three sides of the block each time, you’ve tripled journey length):

    So now traffic is five times as heavy before your “improvements”!

    But, to discourage car use, you’ve also slowed traffic down, using things like traffic “calming”, lowered limits, built out bus stops and crossings and endless “safety” islands which prevent traffic getting past cyclists, milkfloats, street-cleaners, mis-phased traffic lights and pelican crossings that stay on red so long an old codger on a zimmer frame can cross, “run” his errands, and get back before the lights change back to green, etc, etc, etc.

    Let’s say, oooohhhhh, you’ve managed to cut traffic speeds from the 30mph you would have with green wave traffic light programming to the speed of the horse and cart, or, rather, the speed a horse could get up to for a short while dragging a cart, so that if you wanted consistently “fast” (7-8mph) transport you’d need a dozen teams over a day, with the accompanying mountain (literally) of manure and lakes of urine (and the ensuing millions of deaths).

    So you’ve increased traffic by four times.

    That’s ANOTHER four times: 5 x 4 = 20, YES, TWENTY! TIMES!!!

    But what happens when you get to where you want to go? You can’t park!

    They don’t allow modern buildings to include any, never mind adequate parking.

    Remember the Millennium Dome?!

    Remember the London Olympics, unless you were riding in a Zil Lane?!?!?!

    Some people claim that half the traffic in central London is people circling looking for a parking space:

    So that’s ANOTHER TWO times: 5 x 4 x 2 = 40, YES, FORTY!!! TIMES!!!!!!

    Ahhhh, you might say, but that’s central London, not every town is like that, never mind every village!

    But when you travel, do you want to battle through all the road “improvements” in the middle of every city, town, village and hamlet on your route, or do you want to go direct on a 21st, or even 20th Century road system, and then cut back into the centre of your choice (and have a look at the multi-lane dual CARRIAGE-ways planned for London and the South-East before the war, the FIRST World War, to cope with HORSE congestion!):

    So say you drive through 5 urban centres on your way to your destination:

    Then that’s ANOTHER FIVE times: 5 x 4 x 2 x 5 = 200, YES, TWO *HUNDRED* !!!!!! TIMES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    All thanks to the “planners”.

    How could they get it so wrong?

    Well, I once saw an advert for trainee transport planners in a major metropolitan area.

    Guess what qualifications were required?


    Just an “interest” in transport “issues”, and we can all guess what that’s code for!

    Imagine if you went to a doctor with congested arteries, and he prescribed a course of leeches and other bloodsuckers to drain the blood out of your arteries because he believed your arteries were congested, not by restrictions and blockages and narrowings, but because there was too much blood in them?!?!

    And yet these parasitic planners claim to be able to improve traffic by strangling the arteries of the nation through which the life-blood of the economy is trying to flow?!?!?!

    And if anyone thinks I’m exaggerating, try any permutation of figures you like and see what you come up with!

  • Ahibar

    Classic cars, and the ones from the 50′ and 60′, need their literature. Great article!