Not For Sale: Car Museums

A sermon about why car museums are to be avoided if you like old cars.

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Every car museum I have visited in the last 2.25 decades has been a disappointment. Cars are inherently space-consuming selfish monsters and even when they are caught, killed and pinned to plinths this quality does not diminish. They need plenty of room, alive or dead.

Alive, the car needs sufficient space for portly passengers to open the doors and affect egress without having to close the door behind them, at a minimum. And dead, in a museum without sufficient space, the car can’t be assessed properly. You need to stand back, fold your arms (essential) and try to gaze at the vehicle with Gestalt theory in mind.

First look at it as a set of parts and then as a whole and then as parts, alternating. This is done by looking just above the roof and then concentrating on the entire object while trying to keep your eyeballs still. It’s not easy. If you want to see the car in its entirety while looking directly at it, you need about fifteen metres between you and the body work.

In stark contrast to this demand, most museums allow two metres, sometimes even less room. The Transport Museum in Coventy, England, packs the cars in as if the place was a carpark. Some cars you can see the front and back of, some the front three quarters. None stand alone with room to breath as they once did in the design studios.

Rather better is the Schlumpf Musueum in Mulhouse, France. But while the cars are spaced quite nicely, they are parked in angled rows and roped off. You can’t see the side profile of any car not parked at one end of a row or another. And the last time I was there, the cars were dusty. This would be unacceptable in a shop and unacceptable in your garage and so it is not right in a museum.

Imagine visiting the Louvre and finding Peter Paul Rubens’ The Apotheosis of Henri IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Médicis coated in grey particles. You don’t travel to the Louvre to see The Apotheosis of Henri IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Médicis obscured by dust and so similarly you don’t travel all the way to Mulhouse to find the French President’s CX Prestige hiding under what looks like the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag.

Finally, for the most part, car museums show specimens that are uninteresting to those of us who truly like cars as design objects and not as totems of status. I don’t care at all for Formula 1 or racing cars. And though of passing interest, the elite of road-going cars are not that fascinating and anyway tend to be well reported and well-preserved. It’s the banalities that I want to see, reminders of how unusual the past was. A Ferrari 347 Mondialissimo was always an special car and wealth is timeless. Wealth then is the same as wealth now.

But a Subaru 1800 is a detail of yesteryear that has vanished from the world as completely as unicorns, nymphs and goblins have done. I want, then in my dream museum, to have 250 cars selected for their ordinariness, lovingly polished and placed on plinths with a 10 metre clearance to the next exhibit. Such a museum would barely scratch the surface of what could be shown but it would be a start.

Until such a time as this museum is built I am staying away from automotive museums as I can’t bear the disappointment or the frustration. Better is to go on a trip to a foreign place and just look at the vehicles parked on the streets.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

7 thoughts on “Not For Sale: Car Museums”

  1. Having a partner whose interest in cars is slight, I haven’t a huge experience of car museums. I visited the Science Museum and Beaulieu as a kid but my adult life visits have been opportunistic drop-ins whilst passing – off the top of my head, the Schlumpf Collection just after it was opened, the Haynes Museum in Somerset and the Turin Museum (see Galleries). And I did have to visit the Brooklands Museum once, for work reasons.

    Of course I could be more forceful and self-indulgent, but the fact is I agree with Richard. Cars which can seem fascinating on the road can look rather sad sitting in a Museum. A bit like a whale dead on a beach. The problem with exhibiting cars, as with exhibiting Etruscan pottery, is that you need to imagine them in context. Cars are best seen moving but, if not, parked in suitable environments. If I see a car, I’m not really satisfied with Richard’s crossed arms pose, or standing chin in hand going ‘Hmmm’. I want to walk around it and fiddle – open doors, click switches, sit, roll down windows, go Brrrmmmm! I want a used car lot.

    Schlumpf was interesting because of the dustiness. That was in the early 80s, is it really still like that? Haynes (this was 15 years ago) was more the rows of tightly packed cars variety and I can’t remember much, except a room of entirely red cars – which is hardly an interesting theme. The exhibits at Turin were exhibited with reasonable room to view and great effort had been made to put them in context, but then you find that their context might not be yours.

    Also, returning to a comparison with other museums, many cars in museums give the same impression as mummies in museums. They might have been cars once, but they will never be driven again. Their engines are seized, their paint is brittle and their tyres are wooden. As you say Richard, they are dead. The Traction Avant in Turin with thick crazed paintwork was a strangely depressing sight.

  2. I generally agree with Richard’s sentiment. As a child, I visited two car museums: the old BMW Museum, which I mostly remember for its intriguing 1970s concrete architecture (which left a mark on my younger self even without me being aware of the architect’s name, Karl Schwanzer, which sounds very rude in German), and the Rosso Bianco collection, which, back in its day, was among the biggest Ferrari museums in the world and only left the impression of being huge, dusty, packed and boring on my young mind.

    In recent years, I revisited the BMW Museum and went to Mercedes-Benz’ shrine to their great and not-so-great achievements, which obviously benefitted from the Swabian marque’s truly rich heritage and actually was worth the visit. The BMW Museum, on the other hand, felt more “commercial”, and could only boast the odd concept car and prototype to tickle my fancy. Alas, most of that stark concrete architecture had been lost during the revamp a few years ago. I guess I’ll have to watch Norman Jewison’s Rollerball again to get another glimpse of that (as well as Maud Adams’ cheekbones).

    The true standout, however, was, on the face of it, a mere makeshift interim solution. During the renovation of Turin’s car museum, a number of car exhibitions were put at Turin’s exhibition hall, a fantastic structure designed by Pier Luigi Neri and worth a visit even without any cars involved. But there were cars involved, and what cars they were… it was an embarrassment of riches! Priceless prototypes by all the Turin carrozzierie, which were not cordoned off and given the space necessary to work their magic. The cars and their surroundings were spellbinding and the entire experience was far removed from any car show or car museum I’d ever visited. I’ve taken some photographs which I’d love to share (as soon as I get to understand the gallery’s uploading modus operandi, that is).

  3. My sermon neglected the Benz museum near Stuttgart. This does indeed allow a lot of space for each car and for that I was thankful. What M-B neglected to do their was show sufficient largeness of spirit to show the cars that had just gone out of production, as if the “good cars” are always from a distant, dim past. If I was the owner of a 1989 Mercedes 190D and I saw my very own car in the museum, I would be thrilled to know my car was not just something Benz sold but something Benz still believed in. And maybe a bit of humility in car museums: imagine if Alfa Romeo´s museum featured an Arna or 90 with the admission that they didn´t always get it right. Or if Benz´s museum featured a Vaneo. “Mercedes tries to make fine cars but sometimes even we don´t live up to our high standards but we hope that we can learn from our mistakes. As David Bowie said, If I haven´t made good three mistakes in a week, then I am not worth anything.
    We think the Vaneo was just not good enough to be a Benz.”

  4. While I prefer a car to be in its dynamic environment, the opportunity to investigate a static example of something rare is something I rather like. You also are quite often left alone to think about why something was made that way rather than have “one of those types” expressing their knowledge on how the series 3 shared its windscreen with a DKW and how that simply brutalised the designer’s intention over your shoulder as they do in a show or a “revival”.
    A very nice New Zealand chap I recently met suggested that I visit a museum in Dunedin where they have an exhibit on motorcycles. It was empty bar some school kids who were drawn to the large Harley Davidsons and trail bikes which they could sit on, while their mothers made approving noises and swiped at their telephones. They had a Britten on display there on a pedestal, and no-one was paying it any attention. Perhaps the world’s most advanced motorbike, made in New Zealand of all places being appreciated by only me. I loved it. I looked at all the castings, the welds, the suspension all of it- and wondered what made John Britten choose that solution. I’ve done this in many museums where exotic and unusual cars and bikes are on display.
    While I appreciate the Subaru 1800, it was a compromised resolution (like all mass manufactured products) not an inspirational solution. Museums afford me the opportunity to explore someone else’s mind.

  5. Car museums can be stagnant places – a little bit like biographies in that often the mistakes and foibles are excised in order to provide the illusion of unbroken success. As Richard points out, a museum including the less favoured models is providing a balance. Neglecting to do so is a little like watching a period film where everyone drives pristine cars from the exact period – no real-life street-scape was ever so rigidly mono-dimensional.

    However, seeing older cars on the open road is an experience that now lacks the context of it’s contemporaries. Old cars become imbued with the roseate glow of nostalgia, which can often prevent us from seeing them fully – we merely view the shadow of what was. A ghost amongst the new machines.

    My recent experience of car museums were similar to Richard and Sean’s – access and the ability to take the entirety of the vehicle was an issue in both places. However, I understand the issues of space museums face – cars take up a lot of room, especially if you are going to give them the space to ‘breathe’. The Heritage collection at Gaydon is on a massive site, yet suffers in places from this problem due to the enormous number of cars it houses. However, for those with a penchant for the more mundane, it is one of the few places where an Austin A40 Farina rubs shoulders comfortably with a TE Alvis.

    Does anyone get the balance right? Maybe the curators need to be more creative or are we just expecting too much from an industry that in this country at least, did a very passable job of running itself into the ground..?

  6. Looking at that picture of an original Sierra, I rather wish there was a museum that had an original, unused example of every car built. Sitting in a knackered 30 year old Sierra bought for £120 on eBay, it would be impossible to understand its appeal. But I would like to sit in a squeaky new one and smell the fresh vinyl. By law, a copy of any UK publication must be deposited with the British Library. It’s a pity that car manufacturers don’t do the same. I know cars are larger, so maybe a suitably sized island (the Isle of Wight?) could be annexed for such a use.

  7. Once upon a time there was just such a car museum. It was called the Patrick Collection – (presumably named after someone called Patrick) and it housed everything from an unused Ford RS200 Group B special to one of the last Morris Ital’s – and just about everything in between. It should have been a huge draw, but a few short years ago, the entire collection was auctioned off and dispersed to the Scirocco’s and the Bora’s. (Okay, I did mean winds. Look, it was a literary device – a somewhat clunky one I accept, but do you really have to sigh like that?) Anyway, it is a great shame, but our modern world seems to have developed a marked aversion to depth. Oddly enough, I can still smell the aroma of a Brand new Ford of that era. I love (loved?) the smell of polymers in the morning…

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