Stephen Bayley’s ‘The Age Of Combustion’ Tells The Seductive Story Of The Motor Car

Steve McQueen in his Jaguar XK-SS on Sunset Boulevard in 1963 as featured in ‘The

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 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 them all confirmed my belief that it would not be intellectual slumming to take cars seriously,” he writes as he introduces his latest book “The Age of Combustion”. Thereafter for Bayley “raising cars to the level of art, even applied art, grew into a preoccupation,” so much so that in 1982 he managed to display a motor car, a dark green 1947 Saab 92, in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum — 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 of his columns entitled “The Aesthete” which featured monthly for over a decade in the classic car magazine Octane. The essays take on a myriad of topics. We learn of how, in 1924, Ettore Bugatti modelled his engine first in wood to make sure the proportions were right for the Type 35. There is a chapter on dissecting the concept of luxury in the context of cars. Then there is Zelda Fitzgerald’s account of her not-so-pleasant American road trip with Scott. There are columns on ugly cars, hypercars, showrooms, wheels, noise, a shortlist of history’s greatest (mostly Italian) car designers and a whole essay dedicated to the original Fiat Cinquecento, a car Bayley describes as “low cost, but high culture”.

The essays are laced with smaller bites of information. How, for instance, the racing driver Francis Turner was killed in 1933 while testing Buckminster Fuller’s three-wheeled Dymaxion. It turns out the architect and inventor didn’t bother too much with mastering aerodynamics and proper engineering so his prototype lifted at speed making it impossible to steer or brake as Turner was to tragically discover. Elsewhere, Bayley takes on the architectural tale of three key car factories to include the Fiat Lingotto Turin facility and its cinematic pista. The vast concrete space with spiral ramps at each corner that rise five-levels to the rooftop racetrack was designed by a naval architect by the name of Giacomo Matté-Trucco who was inspired by the theories of the Italian Futurists.

Meanwhile archive black-and-white photography punctuate the essays. There is a fantastic shot of Brigitte Bardot behind the wheels of her Simca with director and then husband Roger Vadim passing by in his Lancia Aurelia B24 while filming the sexy “Et Dieu… créa la femme” (And God Created Woman) in St Tropez. Incidentally (and something I certainly didn’t know) Bardot lent her initials to the Ferrari BB512. Elsewhere, we see a smiling James Dean 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 picture from 1971, the singer Rod Stewart looks amusingly into the camera as he perches on his Lamborghini Miura — arguably one of history’s most exotic motor cars.

“The Age of Combustion” is a lovely book and Bayley is a natural raconteur. His writing is erudite but also light and fun and hugely engaging, forever weaving his immense pool of knowledge on architecture and design and cinema and literature and life into multiple narratives. Or to quote the industrial designer and former Ford creative director J Mays: “No one articulates the Theater of Design like Stephen Bayley.”

Bayley tells me for him cars and architecture are much the same thing. “A car is the second most expensive thing you are likely to buy after your house and involves at least as much ingenuity in its design as a building,” he emails as I mention I’m reviewing his book. “And I had always wanted to rescue writing about cars from the dungeon of snobbery to which conventional academic art historians had committed it. Octane gave me that chance. With a whim of iron and no attempt at consistency other than my continuous fascination with wheeled vehicles, I found that in over ten years I had written perhaps 150,000 words which, one way or another, approximated to the most consultant commentary on car design ever.”

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

This is a celebration of the motor car, of car culture, with all its vices. And as the name suggests, it is also a farewell note. Or as Bayley himself writes in the introduction chapter: “Truly, we are at the end of an era. You are reading this in the last days of Age of Combustion, an art historical period as precise, as meaningful and as productive of fascination and beauty as the Rococo or Baroque. Of torment and distress too. Perhaps every era has its scary Inquisitions.”

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

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