Categories of Cool: The Case For Automotive Art

Cars are a fascinating subject, filled with history, contradiction, and wonderfully enigmatic stories. The utility of the automobile strongly contributes to its contradictory nature. Few other machines come to mind that is so widely used by the public for their utility. On the other hand, there is no comparably utilitarian machine that is quite so celebrated and personified.

When was the last time you heard of a local washing machine club get-together? Can you recall a dishwasher being described as beautiful or a refrigerator as a work of art? Have you ever heard of an oven having soul?

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure there are interior decorators and appliance fanatics that could cite just such occasions, but such instances are nowhere near as prevalent as with automobiles. Herein comes the enigma; cars clearly evoke emotional responses from large groups of people, sometimes polarizing other times galvanizing. Every so often, an automotive creation comes along that the community as a whole regards it as something to behold. So, what exactly is it that makes said creation so appealing? Is there a recipe for making a cool car?

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Photo: Benjamin Caschera for Automoblog.net.

Warm Reminiscence

Unlike the Utilitarian examples of clothes and dish washers, one does not have to be a fanatic to appreciate certain cars. People who don’t know motor oil from blinker fluid will most likely find a specific model of the car they are drawn to. Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a large role in the appeal for many individuals. Perhaps a beloved uncle owns a 1956 Chevy Bel Air and, when you see one, it brings back memories of that time your whole family piled in and drove to the annual hot air balloon rally.

Maybe your great-grandmother owned a classic two-tone 1964 Volkswagen Beetle, so the very thought of one stirs the loving emotion that used to envelop your heart when she would tenderly smile while sneaking you a bit of fine Swiss chocolate, as your parent’s attention was directed elsewhere. It’s quite unlikely that a refrigerator will cause elicit similar reactions.

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Photo: Benjamin Caschera for Automoblog.net.

Jet Fighter Formula

Wistful memories aside, some automotive fabrications have an intrinsic charm that allures an overwhelming number of people. Could it be purely aesthetic? Could a designer simply hit all the right visual ques and make a car a legend remembered for all eternity as a work of art? The Jaguar E-type is a fine example, a historically beautiful object of vehicular refinement. The man responsible for this conception, Malcolm Sayer, was outwardly influenced by the aviation community (of which he was a member), heavily integrating cutting edge aerodynamics and sleek jet fighter designs. The overall appearance was equally as important as the performance, which for its day, was tremendous (and it’s still a blast to drive).

To this day, the E-type is considered by many to be one of, if not the most beautiful car ever made. Enzo Ferrari himself has been quoted saying so. It is hard to argue against, with the calculated balance, formulaic curves, and mathematical proportions seamlessly molded together with elegant flowing lines. This Jag is so visually appealing that it’s one of only two road cars in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent design collection. If there is a formula for beauty, Sayer may have discovered it.

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Photo: Benjamin Caschera for Automoblog.net.

Breakneck Beauty

One could argue the E-Type was beloved not just because of its astounding beauty; the E-Type was also faster than the Ferrari 250 GT and for a third of the cost. From the very inception of the automobile, masterful feats of engineering have produced high-speed machines that continue to be uniformly glorified. For example, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, Aston’s DB4, Lamborghini Miura, Ferrari GTO 288, Porsche 959, Ferrari F40, and the McLaren F1 are some of the most heralded cars ever made.

Once again, these cars are not simply stunning, but at the time of their introduction, each was the fastest road going vehicle in production.

Today, some cars reach levels of speed and quickness that are purely astonishing. It seems every new sports car hits 60 in a blistering 3 seconds or less, and any car with a top speed under 200 is child’s play. A car like the Bugatti Veyron SS is not universally regarded as pretty, however when looking at the engineering alone, denying the cool factor is challenging to say the least: 1,200 horsepower produced by a W16 engine, coupled to a four turbo induction system. That is SIXTEEN cylinders! FOUR TURBOS! More horsepower than TWO Ferrari 458s. It is an automotive marvel that is undeniably cool from many perspectives

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Although this is not a Bugatti, the equally impressive SSC Ultimate Aero was the top speed title holder successor to the Veyron and predecessor to the Veyron SS. Photo: Benjamin Caschera for Automoblog.net.

Humble Designs

What about cars that are neither attractive nor powerful yet garner mass followings? The VW Beetle may fall into this category – its simple design is anything but striking, and why would it be? “The people’s car” began life with a whopping 25 horsepower, but by the time its run concluded, more than 21 million examples had rolled off the many production lines across the globe. And in over the sixty years of manufacturing, the power had only been increased by another 25 horsepower. Although the flat four-cylinder rear mounted engine is interesting, it’s far from a technological wonder, but nevertheless, the bug is revered worldwide.

Less extreme cases that may fall into this paradigm consist of the Mazda Miata (MX-5), Subaru WRX, Volkswagen MKII Golf/ Jetta, BMW E30, Datsun 510, and many, many more. None of these cars have the sex appeal of the Jag or the herculean power of the Veyron, yet throngs of folks adore and praise these seemingly mundane vehicles.

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Photo: Benjamin Caschera for Automoblog.net.

Automotive Cuisine

If you have driven any of the “underpowered” and plainly stylized cars mentioned, you’ll notice one common thread: regardless of drivetrain, these cars are just plain fun. The bug’s charm is its simplicity; you truly feel the mesh of the gears engage with each shift as the tiny motor chugs along. Subaru’s legendary AWD inspires superhero-like confidence in any weather. If you can drive a Mazda Miata through a twisty chicane without an ear-to-ear grin, you may want to check your pulse for signs of life.

These cars each have a different personality; some exude certain magic at a mere glance, while the true essence of others is not revealed until driven. Furthermore, what some find attractive, others find repulsive. The recipe, it would then seem, is as varied as the multiplicity of cars ever created. Does all this conjecture mean there is no recipe for a cool car? No, it means you don’t have to eat a decadent dessert every meal, every day, or have spaghetti for breakfast. So there is no singular recipe, but the basic components are the same. It just takes the right chef to know how to mix the ingredients to create something astonishingly delicious.

Benjamin Caschera is a car nut in every sense of the word. His eclectic writings range from rants on traffic and wrenching on $500 cars, to adulation of the finest classic and/or latest hyper cars. Follow and heckle him on Twitter and Instagram: @TheBoringCarGuy

Cover Photo: Jaguar Land Rover.