AUTHOR, CRITIC AND AUTOMOTIVE DESIGN ENTHUSIAST, STEPHEN BAYLEY MUSES ON THE BEAUTY OF CARS
In our The Beauty Of… series we look at beauty outside of the world of makeup and hairspray, inviting individuals working across different fields to muse on what they find beautiful. From the exquisite symmetry of radiology imaging to gory tropes of horror. Here, author, critic and automotive design enthusiast, Stephen Bayley muses on the beauty of cars.
In 1955 the philosopher Roland Barthes, who had no interest in cars, visited the Paris Salon de l’Automobile for the first time. Here he saw the new Citroen DS and was surprised into writing the finest prose ever written about a car.
Citroen knew they had created something astonishing: so as not to compromise the visitor’s perception of the car as a pure, uncontaminated form, it was displayed on a pylon, the wheels were removed and the arches filled-in.
The effect was purely sculptural and inspired Barthes to say that the new Citroen was, “the best messenger from a world superior to Nature”. There is no better definition of ‘design’.
Cars are not art because, like movies and rock music, their creation is a collaborative one and we cling to the idea that art must have an individual auteur. But cars have usurped the traditional role of art: they project collective yearnings and present an aesthetic proposition to the world. Besides, artists, today may be interested in many things, but beauty is not necessarily one of them…..
The Citroen DS was the most astonishing production car ever seen: un objet superlatif. It would astonish still if launched today. To Roland Barthes, it was “the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement”. He added that, “Smoothness is an attribute of perfection”.
The story began in 1938 when Citroen’s chief engineer, Pierre Boulanger, briefed his team: “Study all the possibilities, including the impossible,” he said. Boulanger was killed in 1950 while testing the car, but the objectives had been established. The voiture de grand diffusion was to be “the world’s most beautiful, most comfortable and most advanced car”. It was a project of national significance: “to show the world that….. France could develop the ultimate vehicle.”
The body was drawn by Flaminio Bertoni, an Italian sculptor who had exhibited with the Futurists and Surrealists. Technical innovations included a plastic roof, an automatic clutch, self-levelling suspension and power brakes running off a unique high-pressure hydraulic system. The ride and comfort were as unsurpassed as its beauty was unprecedented.
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