Almost a flying car — the General Motors 'Firebird' of 1953.

THERE have been a lot of complaints about exhibition ticket prices around the world. It’s rare for the major museums to charge less than RM100 per person for an exhibition. In New York, just to get into the Metropolitan Museum now costs US$25 when it used to be free. Or if you spend US$32, there is the promise of an unidentified “souvenir”.

The Louvre is so busy, it’s having to turn visitors away, and that venue has always charged a lot. As so many of the Louvre’s visitors are from Mainland China, business could be down at the moment.

Over at my favourite London museum, the Victoria and Albert, the charge for admission to “Cars: Accelerating the Future” is still slightly below the global top-museum average. Even better, it’s possible to see one of the most exciting exhibits for free. Approaching the entrance is a bewitching E-Type Jaguar. If anyone doubts that there is art in car design, this is the model to look at — in a gorgeous colour that I can’t name.

AUTO WONDERLAND

The drama of this exhibition is apparent before you enter.

From that point onwards, money has to be spent, but it is an unexpected wonderland. Not just a history of cars, it is about how they have affected human existence. It’s hard to imagine any invention that has made as huge an impression.

There are many city councils around the world that are determined to ban cars. The urban landscape will be definitely be cleaner as a result, but it will be missing out on this vital link in life on the planet. Cars are our own little world, and a much safer and more comfortable world than the pioneers would ever have expected.

The first production car ever made was a Benz of 1886. It had a top speed of 16 kmh.

The exhibition features the first production car ever made. Those who associate the Benz name with luxury will be shocked by this vehicle from the 19th century. Modern viewers are likely to thinking more modern when they agree with Janis Joplin when she cried “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”

The exhibition has much more than the production cars that we’re used to seeing in Malaysia. There is, for example, a flying car. Don’t expect these to clog up your neighbourhood anytime soon, though. What we will all be familiar with is the opening section, titled “Going Fast”.

Cars are all about feeling liberated, which is what speed used to do before cameras and automatic limiters and alarms came along. The culture of racing cars was widespread in the past, whilst now it is a niche pursuit. We don’t even have Formula 1 at Sepang any longer.

The other side of cars is status. They don’t have to be fast if they look impressive. At one point, to own a car at all put the owner in a special position. They were the definitive consumerist product. Henry Ford oversaw the transition from hand-crafted excellence to production-line cost cutting: “Any colour as long as it’s black.”

This 1922 Hispano-Suiza is still the last word in luxury, the choice of Hollywood stars of that golden era.

The magic was not lost. Collectors of vintage cars would prefer to look at the sumptuous 1922 Hispano-Suiza to the functional Model T, and yet Ford underpinned a whole economy. The Hispano-Suiza uses wood in a way that would break the heart of lovers of Morris estate cars or those surfer “woodies” that were so popular in the Sixties.

FROM HUMDRUM TO VIBRANT

Low-rider customisation is the kind of pimping that Malaysian rides have mostly avoided.

The exhibition explains phenomena that didn’t occur to me at all, such as how did colour become part of the car package? It seems to have been General Motors taking up an opposing view to Henry Ford.

GM created an Art and Colour Studio. Cars went from humdrum to vibrant. From there they went into the sub-cultures that don’t exist so much in Malaysia or Europe but were huge in America. Above all were the Californian “low-riders”. There’s one on display and it’s easy to see why it never caught on here.

The paintwork is both laborious and provocative. If you’re not pulled over by the police, the religious authorities will certainly want an explanation. These are the four-wheeled equivalent of Mat Rempit, except that appearance is more important than speed.

Both subcultures are experts in their own way, but the exhibition isn’t interested in two-wheel transportation. There is the occasional foray into three wheels. Sadly, the plastic three-wheeler that features in Mr Bean is not on display here as it has been replaced by something even flimsier from Germany.

Supreme example of art and mechanics. This E-Type Jag is seen alongside a 9th century Buddhist Wheel of the Law.

There is not a lot from Asia. Japan gets in a look in, and that’s just about it apart from a very strange video about a car that was created during the time of the Shah of Iran. It looks a bit like a prototype of the Proton Saga, with a catchier promotional video. They’re probably not celebrating it much these days.

The future is a major concern of this exhibition. We’re seeing a lot of changes at the moment — mostly to do with air quality. This will sound like bad news to viewers of the old Top Gear team and petrol heads in general.

The internal-combustion engine has been around for more than a century, so it will be quite a wrench. When it comes to speed and efficiency, boring old batteries are probably the way ahead.

We shouldn’t mourn the passing of petrol any more than early motorists were too concerned about horses. Without doubt, appearances will continue to matter to everyone except Henry Ford, turning in his cryogenically frozen grave.

Follow Lucien de Guise on Instagram, @crossxcultural