A sermon about why car museums are to be avoided if you like old cars.
Originally published on 31st January 2014, the editor has selected to re-issue this piece, partially because it carries a fine profile shot of a Ford Sierra (making it vaguely topical) but primarily because it is an amusing, well crafted article – even if the author’s principle argument is somewhat debatable.
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 is 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 bodywork.
In stark contrast to this demand, most museums allow two metres, sometimes even less room. The Transport Museum in Coventry, 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 breathe as they once did in the design studios.
Rather better is the Schlumpf Museum 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.