Cars: Accelerating the Modern World review, V&A: nimbly straddles both the serious and light-hearted lanes   

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

Cars are a guilty pleasure. They used to be symbols of freedom and speed, but those joys aren’t unsullied any more. At opposite ends of Cars, a new exhibition at the V&A, two screens tell different truths: one shows the number of vehicles built this year (68,588,056, at time of writing), the other the number of oil barrels left in the world ​(1,525,851,726,857). One ticks up, one ticks down.

“Each day,” boasts an advert from 1962, “Humble Oil supplies enough energy to melt seven million tons of glacier!” Happier times.

The show is a blend of aesthetics and history. There are 250 objects on display, and the best have the glamour of the interwar years. Seek out the sketches by Jeanne Paquin, for instance, of Twenties motoring couture, or the sleek glass “mascots” of falcons and greyhounds, designed to be lit from below. Spaced around the exhibition are 15 vehicles – no, you can’t get in – which include an 1888 Benz Patent-Motorwagen 3, the first mass-production car, and a 1924 Citroën autochenille, fitted with tracks for a 20,000-km desert trek.

You reach the section on oil last. First, you’re shown prototypes, designs and models – nostalgia for futures unlived. Some are quaintly repetitive – we’re now living in the month in which Blade Runner (1982) is set, but we don’t have flying cars, despite a century’s worth of dreams.

The stranger visions are best. In a languid 1988 drawing by François Schuiten, a man cycles a “tripode aquatique” over a lake.

In a 2013 digital collage by Olalekan Jeyifous, it’s AD 2081 in Lagos, and another is wearing an Ikiré Jones suit by a cel-shaded waterfront.

There are less attractive sides to this story, but they’re tamped down in the show. Yes, the pioneers of motor-racing were women as often as men; Camille du Gast and Dorothy Levitt deserve some fresh renown. But history didn’t get sunnier: no woman has competed in a world rally event since 1985, when the great Michèle Mouton retired, and over in Formula One, it’s 43 years since a woman lined up on a grand prix grid. 

Likewise, the story of the car is more gruesome than this; you sense an eye for the family audience. There are moments of solemnity, featuring three-point Volvo seat-belts, and Ralph Nader’s industry-changing book Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which castigated carmakers for their corner-cutting ways. But the concessions to death by machine are drowned in the chirpy general design, with flashing lights and reflective walls and voiceovers fighting for your ear.

Cars is torn between appearing light-hearted and putting on its teacher’s face. It’s desperate to be both, and to its credit, it largely succeeds. Besides, there’s no need to pretend that these machines are simple to love or hate.

But be sure to linger a while in the pockets of quiet joy: a video of dune racers speeding across Dubai at night, or a silent film of a single corner at the 1904 Gordon Bennett Cup. Leave history aside for a moment, and just enjoy the way they move.

From November 23 until April 19 2020. Details: vam.ac.uk