A whoop of exhilaration surges through the audience as a pick-up truck rises on to the stage through a trapdoor, its gleaming streamlined body emerging through swirling clouds of dry ice. There are laser beams and pounding rock music as a pair of robotic arms mime the balletic movements of welding and spraying its bodywork. A blast of air comes from a hidden bank of fans and a dramatic rumble shakes our seats. This, a thunderous voice tells us, is the Ford F-150 pick-up, officially the best-selling vehicle in US history.
I am watching this spectacle in the 4D cinema of Ford’s River Rouge factory in Detroit, where the whooping audience taking the tour of the plant is being treated to a story that, unlikely as it sounds, has all the drama of a Hollywood movie. This factory changed not only mechanised production, but the world as we know it. Boasting its own docks, an electricity plant, a steel mill and a whopping 100 miles of railroad track, River Rouge was the biggest factory in the world when it opened in 1928. It even had its own fire stations, a police force and a fully staffed hospital. During the depths of the great depression, it still managed to employ 100,000 people.
But today, River Rouge is a shadow of its former self. Half of the 1,200-acre site has been sold off to other companies. The Ford plant now mostly comprises a single shed, its roof is planted with sedum – flimsy eco-camouflage, given all the gas-guzzling trucks trundling off the production line within. Ford has decided to abandon sales of its smaller cars in North America, concentrating instead on SUVs and trucks – at a time when such vehicles have been found to be the second biggest contributor to the rise in CO2 levels. Recent analysis found that if SUV drivers were a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions.
This astonishing rise and fall is reflected in the city beyond the gates. Detroit’s population once topped 1.8m, scattered across a freeway-threaded sprawl that could comfortably fit San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan within its boundaries. That same area now accounts for a third of that number, along with scores of abandoned homes. The very invention that made Detroit – and changed everything from urban planning to fashion design and the climate – has also lumbered the city, and the world, with an intractable legacy.
“The history of the car is a history of unintended consequences,” says Brendan Cormier, who made several visits to Detroit as research for a show that’s about to open at the V&A in London. Cars: Accelerating the Modern World represents the first time in the institution’s 167-year history that it has tackled the automobile, a surprising omission for what curator Cormier calls “the single most important designed object of the 20th century”.
The lapse is partly because cars have always been seen to be more about science, technology and surface styling, making them an uncomfortable fit for the illustrious museum of craft. This exhibition, says Cormier, aims to examine their broader social and historical context, shining a full beam on the astonishing impact cars have had on everything from the formation of labour unions to toasters. g (One, called the Toastalator, looks like something Jack Kerouac would have driven.) And Detroit is the best place to see all this first-hand.
Driving across town from the plant, past blocks of overgrown lots, we arrive at the Walter P Reuther Library, whose reading room displays an imposing 1930s mural. Two muscular workers, one male and one female, hold hands in front of an industrial scene in which autoworkers confront scowling managers. In one corner, a group of mobster-like heavies can be seen beating a stooped figure on a bridge, while another is pushed down the stairs.
This is The Battle of the Overpass, a clash between union leaders and Ford management that took place in 1937. It became one of the most important events in labour history. Among the beaten was Walter P Reuther, leader of the United Automobile Workers union (UAW), who had organised a “Unionism, Not Fordism” campaign, demanding fair wages and a shorter working day.
Ford’s henchmen were lead by Harry Bennett, a caricature of a thug who kept lions in his fortified estate. When Bennett unleashed his muscle, newspaper photographers were waiting and their images, splashed across front pages the following day, caused public sentiment to turn against the company. A sit-down strike, also depicted in the mural, had an even greater impact, leading to the full unionisation of the US auto industry. The UAW provided a model for other organisations and became the largest union in North America.
“The UAW played a major role in developing the American middle class,” says Cormier, who has negotiated loans from the union’s archive, including graphic posters from the 1950s and 60s. One, depicting a robot pushing workers off a building, has the slogan: “Fight automation fallout.” The same battles continue today, as workers face plant closures across the US as a result of stiff competition from Asia and a global decline in car ownership.
At this critical point for the car, the show will reveal how some of our current challenges aren’t as modern as we like to think. At the General Motors Heritage Center, a great hangar full of gleaming vintage specimens on the outskirts of Detroit, we find the Firebird, a 1950s concept car that looks like a missile on wheels, with a bubble-topped cockpit bulging from its curving fuselage. The car – which will appear in the exhibition – wasn’t just an exercise in going faster. It embodied the embryonic idea of driverless driving, boasting an “electronic guide system that can rush it over an automatic highway while the driver relaxes”. It’s not hard to see why it didn’t take off: these futuristic vehicles were to be guided via radio by men in watchtowers a few hundred metres apart, mapping the best route from their bird’s eye view.
A little further down an eight-lane highway, we arrive at the GM Tech Center, designed by Eero Saarinen in the 1960s as a modernist corporate campus, complete with an enigmatic silver dome where new designs are still inspected in secret. “Just as Versailles was designed to be seen from a horse-drawn carriage, this place was designed to be viewed from your moving car,” says GM archivist Christo Datini, as we glide around the vast ornamental lake in his gargantuan Chevrolet Suburban. The comparison isn’t so far-fetched: the centre houses treasures that have proved just as influential as a gilded Louis XIV chaise.
In the archive are reams of original design drawings from GM’s glory days under Harley Earl. As the first director of the company’s Art and Colour Section, Earl is widely regarded as the godfather of modern car design. In an industry that had only ever been guided by the functional necessities of engineering, Earl introduced the concept of styling bodies and interiors.
First he hired dazzle camouflage artists, who had painted ships in the second world war, to make bodies look more sculpted. Then he went on to develop such purely aesthetic features as tail fins and pointed chrome bumpers, both inspired by fighter jets. He also ushered in the strategy of the annual model update, which GM liked to call “dynamic obsolescence”. This was a way of using design to encourage drivers to upgrade their cars more frequently – a tactic that quickly spread to practically every other product in the world.
Earl looms large in the section about making the modern consumer. He is pictured with his “Damsels of Design”, another marketing ruse that emphasised the role of his (small) team of female designers, as a way of appealing to women buyers. As he put it in a 1958 press release: “The skilled feminine hands helping to shape our cars of tomorrow are worthy representatives of American women, who today cast the final vote in the purchase of three out of four automobiles.” Less loudly trumpeted was the fact that their role was limited to seats and fabrics.
The damsels may have been used as a cynical promotional tool, but elsewhere the exhibition will show how cars have been a means of empowerment, with such racing drivers as Kay Petre and Jill Scott Thomas becoming powerful symbols of the suffrage movement. Subcultures are also explored, in the form of wildly customised lowriders and souped-up muscle cars, while the future of environmentally conscious mobility, and the eventual demise of personal car ownership, will be thrown into sharp relief by attitudes from the 1960s. A shocking advert for the Humble Oil Company from 1962 proudly boasts: “Each day Humble produces enough energy to melt seven million tons of glacier!”
Museums, you could almost say, are where cars now belong.
• Cars: Accelerating the Modern World is at the V&A, London, from 23 November until 19 April.