Cars should be as viewed as public art


Cars should be as viewed as public art

MAX DU PREEZ writes about his obsession with automobile design and showcases some of his favourites.


STRUISBAAI on the Overberg coast is one of my favourite places. Or rather, let me say it could have been my favourite place, but every time I go there the architecture of most of its houses assaults my senses.

I take offence because houses and buildings are structures and forms that dominate our landscape — I have no choice; I have to look at them. There is a special place in hell for “architects” who have “designed” many of the houses and other buildings, especially in our coastal towns.

I feel the same about cars. Whether you drive to work, to the store, take a long journey or get stuck in traffic, you mostly see cars; they are visually dominant. What a wonderful opportunity it would be to treat these pieces of sculpture creatively as public art.

But now most cars look the same, European, Korean, Chinese and American. Boring, unimaginative, sometimes just plain ugly. Like two-tone shirts at an AfriForum braai, or rugby shorts and flip-flops on male students in Stellenbosch.

I am no petrolhead. I don't particularly care what kind and size of engine a car has and what the specifications or performance are. For me, a vehicle should first and foremost be a three-dimensional piece of art, a sculpture.

Today's cars are mostly rotten art, even anti-art. To me, this is one of the transgressions of the modern era.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Citroën DS still sets the standard

I have had a near-obsession with car design since I was young. As a child, I had a heated argument with my father when he switched from Ford Fairlanes to Mercedes-Benzes. In those years the Mercedes were ugly — with two exceptions, which I will get to.

My taste is very European and British, but especially Italian. The Eastern countries and America are just not on the same level.

Enzo Ferrari supposedly said the Jaguar E-type was the most beautiful car ever made. It was certainly an iconic design, but forgive me if I don't include it in my top 10 list. I never desired an E-type; too poncey for my taste. I would much rather have had a 1961 Jaguar 3.8 Mark 2.

The car I desired most was the Citroën DS, made between 1955 and 1975. It was — and still is — the most revolutionary car design.

This true piece of art was designed by the Italian sculptor Flaminio Bertoni. There wasn't a car like it before or since. Bertoni threw all design orthodoxy out the window and gave free rein to his imagination from the nose to the tail.

The creator of the Citroën Traction Avant and DS, Flaminio Bertoni

We are talking about 1955, people. Why has no car manufacturer ever shown so much creativity again? Bugatti and Lamborghini sometimes produce supercars with unusual lines, but that doesn't count. There is a good chance you will never even see one of those cars.

Bertoni was already older, but when he was still wet behind the ears he designed the beautiful Traction Avant, the DS's predecessor, produced from 1934 to 1955. It was the car with the most beautiful lines of its time.

Between these two models, Citroën also made a small car equally at home on the farm and in town, and in my opinion a worthy piece of sculpture, even if only due to its uniqueness: the 2CV or Ugly Duckling.

It was cheap and minimalist. Citroën's head of design, Pierre-Jules Boulanger, instructed his team to design a “toute petite voiture" (very small car) that could drive over a ploughed field with a basket of eggs on the passenger seat without breaking a single egg. From 1948 to 1990, 3.8 million 2CVs were made, and it almost became a symbol of Frenchness, like a man with a lush moustache, a beret and a Gauloise cigarette between his lips.

Ledt: Citroën Traction Avant. Right: Citroën 2CV

Today's Citroëns are as vanilla as any other brand. In 1976, Peugeot bought 90% of the company and today Citroën is owned by the Stellantis group, which also manufactures Alfa Romeos, Vauxhalls, Fiats, Jeeps, Lancias and Maseratis.

Less revolutionary than the DS, but so striking that the basic design still influences the latest models 75 years later, was the Porsche 356. It was designed in 1947 by Ferry Porsche, son of the company's founder, Ferdinand.

In 1963, Ferry Porsche adapted his design with the Porsche 911, one of the most recognisable shapes in the car world and a name still used today. Designers Anatole Lapine and Harm Lagaay made minor changes to the 911 until 2004, and the latest versions are the work of Michael Mauer, Porsche's current head of design. The 1963 model is still the most beautiful to me.

Left: Porsche 356. Right: Porsche 911, 1963

The Gullwing takes flight

We know Mercedes-Benz today as the company that makes cars to reflect the owners' status rather than to please the eye. There is no room for creative adventurousness.

But in 1954, Friedrich Geiger and his design team gave birth to the 300 SL (super-leicht) Gullwing, the world's first supercar and still one of the most sought-after collectibles.

It was small and very fast (250km/h), but earned its place in the design Oscars with gullwing doors that open upwards and its unusual lines.

The Gullwing was replaced in 1963 with an even more beautiful small sports car, one that gives my eye more pleasure than an E-type: the MBW 113 or 230 SL. It was the creation of the French designer and artist Paul Bracq.

The emphasis was on style rather than speed, and it was one of the few cars that also worked as a convertible. I once saw the 230 SL, later the 250 SL, described as “the equivalent of Coco Chanel's little black dress, a car of timelessly elegant appearance and philosophy". Just so.

Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing
Mercedes 230L

After 1971, Mercedes changed the SL's shape to a car in which a moustachioed man with a midlife crisis, a gold chain around his neck and a shirt unbuttoned too far would feel at home.

Being an impoverished journalist, I could never dream of owning a Porsche 356 or a 230 SL, but in 1983 I bought one of my other design icons, and a few years later, another: the Lancia Fulvia.

The Fulvia was simultaneously chic and cheeky, with the most beautiful rear end of any car ever, small and low to the ground. It was designed by Piero Castagnero and manufactured in Turin, Italy, between 1963 and 1976, initially as a rally car, and a very successful one to boot.

Lancia Fulvia

Lancia lost all its style and quality after it was taken over by Fiat in 1979. I also owned a Lancia Beta and a Monte Carlo, but they were Fiat junk and I quickly got rid of them.

I have also owned a few Alfa Romeos, the most beautiful of which was the 1300 Junior GT. It was a good example of how simplicity can be particularly beautiful. The current Alfa 4C is quite attractive, but in creativity it doesn't come close to the flamboyant 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Lungo Spider.

Left: Alfa 1300 Junior. Right: Alfa Lungo Spyder

Then there is my other old favourite, built in 1966 by a small car company in England: the Jensen Interceptor. The design was so timeless that a company started rebuilding old Interceptors in 2010 with new engines and parts.

Jensen Interceptor

Beetles and Kombis making history

The design of certain cars is assessed on how long they were offered for sale and, in some cases, whether the basic design was followed in later new models. The VW Beetle was the most recognisable design for decades because it was entirely different from any competitor's, but I find it more interesting than a piece of sculpture.

The same goes for the Mini and the Fiat 500, both successful and slightly unusual designs that were revived years later in adapted forms, but neither of which makes my heart beat faster.

The Volkswagen Kombi surely deserves a mention. It was first built in 1950 and not only played a significant role in history and social movements but was also imitated dozens of times.

VW Kombi 1950

In Kroonstad, where I grew up, the Saab 93 was quite popular in the 1960s. Most people thought it was an ugly but reliable and cheap little car. I thought it had an exceptional, innovative design. It reminded me of the Volvo PV544 with its round back, although the station wagon version, the Duett, was more aesthetically attractive.

Above: Saab93. Bottom left: Volvo PV544. Bottom right: Volvo Duett.

It is strange to me that so many manufacturers are reluctant to use the station wagon design. Mercedes and BMW occasionally have a station wagon, and it always looks better than the sedan. Audi's most beautiful car is the S6 Avant.

Another favourite from my younger years is the Studebaker Lark, a simple, unpretentious design with a lot of attitude.

Studebaker Lark

Otherwise, I find few designs from America exciting. Well, there is the Ford Thunderbird from the late 1950s and early 1960s, but maybe I am biased because in 1985 I drove from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon in a rented 1960 Thunderbird convertible, an old fantasy I could live out. The original Ford Mustang from 1965 was also special, but look at the Mustangs of today.

Above: Ford Thunderbird 1950s. Bottom: Volvo Ford Mustang 1965

Some of the most special car designs were for utility vehicles rather than sedans or sports cars. At the top of this list is the old Land Rover Defender with its iconic brick design, introduced in 1948 as Britain's answer to the Willys Jeep. It served in many wars, also as a fire truck and ambulance.

I never really needed a 4x4, but I was in love with the reserved macho simplicity of the Defender and have owned a 110 and a 90 — my short-distance 90 had BMW's wonderful 2,793cc six-cylinder engine. A dream of a car. (The new Defender looks more like something you'd drive to church on Sunday to impress the neighbours.)

Land Rover Defender original

The closest the Americans came to the Defender's class, besides the old Willys Jeep, was the Jeep Wagoneer/Cherokee and the 1953 F100 pickup. The Japanese tried hard with the indestructible Land Cruiser — the new luxury version, the Prado, is quite striking if you have R1.5 million to spare.

Above: Jeep Wagoneer/Cherokee. Below: latest Toyota Prado

Can we at least raise a cheer for the guy who designed the three-wheel Messerschmitt KR200 microcar, produced from 1955 to 1964? There is still a company that makes a three-wheeler: Morgan in Britain, which makes excellent new cars that have us longing for the glorious 1930s.

Above: Messerschmitt KR200, 1955. Below: Morgan 3-wheeler, 2023


BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.