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Why sports cars are works of art

September 28, 2018

Sleek and elegant, powerful and fast: the Museum Kunstpalast shows classic sports cars from the 1950s to the 1970s. Curator Barbara Til explains why they are part of the history of European design.

Ausstellung PS Ich liebe Dich. Sportwagen-Design der 1950er bis 1970er Jahre
Image: Oliver Sold

Düsseldorf's Museum Kunstpalast's exhibition "CARS – Driven by Design. Sports Cars from the 1950s to the 1970s" runs from September 27, 2018 through February 10, 2019. 

DW spoke to Barbara Til, head of the museum's sculpture and design department and the show's curator, about classy cars of that era.

DW: Thirty cars mounted on pedestals, showcased like sculptures — are these sports cars works of art?

Barbara Til: Yes, sports cars are art because they have this very sculpted look and because the desire for aesthetic design was a key argument, in particular concerning luxury sports cars.

What were your criteria for choosing the cars that eventually made it to the show?

It wasn't just their beauty, many of the cars included in the exhibition actually polarize. Take the Lamborghini Countach: It's angular, geometric and aggressively martial. Some people like that and others don't. But it is a car that has definite sculptural contours. Such cars set the style for automobiles to come.

Ferrari Pininfarina
Classic style: Sergio Pininfarina observes a Ferrari model in TurinImage: AP

Are the cars presented chronologically?

The show starts off with a 1946 Cisitalia Berlinetta created by Italian automobile designer Battista Pinin Farina himself. That car really is exemplary for the 1950s. a sports car with integrated fenders and headlights. Before WWII, fenders were almost always bolted on.

But the cars in the exhibition weren't just influential concerning style, they also boasted extraordinary design details.

Were Italian designers like Battista "Pinin" Farina, who designed famous sports cars for Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, always a step ahead in international car design the 1950s and 1960s?

Yes, they were. Turin, Bologna, and Maranello in northern Italy are the classic strongholds of first-rate automobile design — that's also true for fashion, furniture and interior design. So yes, the Italians set the tone. They also worked for German automakers. Giorgio Giugiaro for instance designed the VW Golf compact car.

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How did these designers work? Did they create sculpture-like models to get a feel for the contours?

That varied. Some designers, including Franco Scalione, worked entirely without models, others drafted their plans and then built wooden models. Whatever the approach, it was always very hands-on and sculptural.

Why did you restrict the exhibits to the 1950s through the 1970s?

That was the Golden Age of automobile manufacturing, in particular for sports cars. Then the oil crisis forced German and Italian manufacturers to put on hold production of powerful gas-guzzling sports cars, followed by a focus on security aspects, also in sports car manufacturing. For a long time, everything was possible design-wise and no one ever asked, is that safe? Many of the cars in the exhibition are anything but roadworthy, and they are hard to drive.

Auto Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
A legendary design: the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLImage: Daimler AG

The early sports cars were not very luxurious or comfortable, unlike today. Does your show trace the history of sports car design?

The cars were still bulky and angular in the 1960s through the early 1970s, just look at the AC Shelby Cobra, a real race car and powerhouse, but economical. We also have a Ferrari California — it looked like a race car but it has a luxurious interior. Just take one look at the dashboard.

How important were colors? Are some colors typical for the era?

That's an important aspect of the show. There's no doubt, in the 1950s, the trend ran to muted pastel colors. Cheerful, light colors, but muted. We've got a lovely sky blue Alfa Romeo on display, a typical color for the '50s.

Colors were more vibrant in the 1960s and 1970s. The sports cars were wider, more aggressive-looking, painted orange or bright green. They drew attention back then, and they draw the visitors to the exhibition today, too.

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