Classic Cars as Modern Art

The concept of the classic car has evolved from a niche area of interest for a specialized, and therefore reduced, audience, to a widely recognized form of art—the blend of design and technology combining to create what no longer is just the perfect machine, but the perfect expression of the accomplishments of civilization.

The road to recognition has been long and patchy, despite a promising start in the days immediately after World War II. The MoMA was the first art museum to focus an exhibition around the art of carmaking, all the way back in 1951 but, even though motor and transport museums have proliferated since, they have always emphasized the technical aspect of the industry. Remarkably, half a century would have to go by before automotive creations were again placed within an artistic context and appreciated for their artistic merit, this time as part of the permanent collection of the Pinakothek der Moderne in Muncih, inaugurated in 2002.


Poster of the first car exhibition at an art museum, 1951. Photo:


The new millennium has brought with it the reinterpretation of the role of the car industry in the cultural landscape of western society, and a number of exhibitions in the last decade have succeeded in shifting the home of the motorcar from the garage to contemporary art museums on both sides of the Atlantic.

Needless to say, this development has seen the price of classic cars rise dramatically, as they have come to be regarded the equals of other iconic designs of the XX century. At the same time it has also provoked the emergence of a category that is still very much in the making: the motorcar artistic masterwork. Over the past decade we have seen a shift in the paradigm of what constitutes such motorcar artistic masterwork. Up to now, the criteria to classify a car as remarkable were based either on technical specifications—torque, top speed, acceleration—or on largely mundane considerations: was it “pretty,” who owned it, what celebrity was killed in it.

But the perfect motorcar, the artistic masterwork, must boast a bit of both: it must be a combination of technical expertise and technological inventiveness with cutting-edge design conceived not only to make the functioning of the machine more efficient, but also to provide a more enjoyable—an enviable—drive. With this in mind, we presently embark on the unprecedented task of mapping the landscape of the motorcar industry to identify the cars, the brands, the designers and manufacturers who together contrived to create truly special products—the sort of automobiles which not only provided fun, comfort or joy at the time but which, with time, have proven to be true gems of our age.

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