Stephen Bayley’s “The Age Of Combustion” Tells The Alluring History Of The Automobile

The only real difference between the disciplines of architecture and cars, said Nikolaus Pevsner, is that one is a “static controlled environment”, while the other is a “mobile controlled environment”. The late historian was speaking at the University of Liverpool where the young Stephen Bayley was studying architecture. “Thus, the greatest architectural historian of all has confirmed my conviction that it would not be an intellectual slum to take cars seriously,” he writes, presenting his latest book “The Age of Combustion”. Subsequently for Bayley “raising cars to the level of art, even applied art, became a concern”, so much so that in 1982 he managed to exhibit a car, a dark green Saab 92. from 1947, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London – something that had never been considered before.

Bayley is a writer and critic and founding CEO of the Design Museum in London. “The Age of Combustion” contains an edited selection from his columns titled “The Esthete” which has featured monthly for over a decade in the classic car magazine Octane. The essays cover a multitude of topics. We learn how, in 1924, Ettore Bugatti first modeled his engine in wood to ensure the proportions were correct for the Type 35. There is a chapter on dissecting the concept of luxury in the context of cars. Then there’s Zelda Fitzgerald’s tale of her not-so-pleasant American road trip with Scott. There are columns on ugly cars, hypercars, showrooms, wheels, noise, a shortlist of the greatest car designers in history (mostly Italian) and an entire essay devoted to the Fiat Cinquecento. original, a car that Bayley describes as “low cost, but high culture”.

The essays are interspersed with small tidbits of information. How, for example, racing driver Francis Turner was killed in 1933 while testing Buckminster Fuller’s three-wheeled Dymaxion. It turns out that the architect and inventor didn’t care too much about mastering aerodynamics and proper engineering, so his prototype stood up at high speed, making it impossible to drive or brake. , as Turner was tragically to discover. Elsewhere, Bayley tackles the architectural history of three key auto factories to include the Fiat Lingotto Turin factory and its kinematics track. The expansive concrete space with spiral ramps at each corner that rise five levels to the rooftop racecourse was designed by a naval architect named Giacomo Matté-Trucco who drew inspiration from the theories Italian futurists.

Meanwhile, archival black and white photographs punctuate the essays. There is a fantastic shot of Brigitte Bardot driving her Simca with the director then her husband Roger Vadim passing in his Lancia Aurelia B24 during the filming of the sexy “Et Dieu … created woman” (And God created woman) in St. Tropézienne. Incidentally (and something I certainly didn’t know), Bardot lent his initials to the Ferrari BB512. Elsewhere, a smiling James Dean is seen in his 1955 Porsche 550 (pictured here), shortly before the tragic crash that was to end his life at the age of 24. In a cheeky 1971 photo, singer Rod Stewart looks amusedly at the camera as he perches on his Lamborghini Miura – arguably one of the most exotic motor cars in history.

“The Age of Combustion” is a beautiful book and Bayley is a natural storyteller. Her writing is erudite but also light and fun and extremely engaging, forever weaving her immense pool of knowledge about architecture and design, cinema, literature and life into multiple narratives. Or to quote industrial designer and former Ford Creative Director J Mays: “No one articulates the Theater of Design like Stephen Bayley.

Bayley tells me that to him cars and architecture are pretty much the same thing. “A car is the second most expensive thing you’re likely to buy after your home and involves at least as much ingenuity in its design as a building,” he sends me as I mention that I revise his book. “And I had always wanted to save the writing on cars from the snobbery dungeon into which mainstream academic art historians had engaged it. Octane gave me this chance. With an iron whim and no attempt at consistency other than my continued fascination with wheeled vehicles, I discovered that over ten years ago, I had written perhaps 150,000 words which in some way on the other, came close to the most consulting commentary on automotive design. “

I ask Bayley how he made the selection for “The Age of Combustion” and after revisiting the pieces, which is his favorite? “My selection system was completely random,” he admits. “My favorite is no easier to decide than a favorite kid, but ‘Pagoda’. Or “Tom Wolfe”. Or ‘Probox’. Maybe “Retrocausality”. But probably Stirling Moss.

It is a celebration of the automobile, of automobile culture, with all its vices. And as the name suggests, it’s also a farewell note. Or as Bayley himself writes in the introductory chapter: “Truly, we are at the end of an era. You are reading this in the final days of Age of Combustion, a period in art history as precise, as significant and as productive of fascination and beauty as Rococo or Baroque. Torment and distress too. Maybe every era has its frightening Inquisitions.

“The Age of Combustion – Notes on Automobile Design” by Stephen Bayley is published by About.

Read reviews on “The ultimate collector cars” and “Women in design


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Kevin A. Perras

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