Nicholas M Tolhurst
Shifting Gear: Design, Innovation and the Australian Car
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Federation Square, Melbourne…until 12 July
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The first word I learnt to read was written in chrome across our toilet cistern. It spelt ‘Brent’. At the age of four I watched my father shave in the morning and asked him what the word said, as I traced its silver letters with my finger. I soon learnt to identify ‘Humber Hawk’ on our own car and ‘Customline’ on the Ford next door. With 1950s chrome lettering as my primer, cars were imprinted on my brain — I was a duckling for car design.
If you are a baby boomer, you are historical. Your past is at least a half a century old and has been recorded and stored like no preceding generation’s. The past 50 years are pretty much all online, as younger folk find when they mine the Internet and come up chirruping a Hermit’s Hermits song as if it were only just released.
Design tells the story of our lives. Tony Ellwood, Director of the NGV says:
‘Shifting Gear is the first major exhibition of Australian car design and is exclusive to the NGV. As part of the NGV’s commitment to showcasing design, this exhibition uncovers how the modern automobile is far more than simply a means of transport; it is a sophisticated design object that reflects contemporary aesthetics and social values.’
Shifting Gear has just opened at the NGV at Ian Potter. It’s a small and coherent display that showcases how Australia can punch above its weight in design and, for automotive design buffs, it’s a thinking person’s drool and we have Harriet Edquist (Director RMIT Design Archives) to thank.
Victoria and South Australia were the source of many fine coachbuilders in the early 20th century. The ability of these buggy makers to translate designs of compound curves into metal bodies is astounding. Note the elegant twist on the mudguards of this early (Chitty Bang Bang-esque) Tarrant. It takes remarkable skill to design and execute such virtuosic, mirrored curves. The curves may not be necessary — flat arched mudguards would probably be functional, but, don’t these look damn good. It’s all about design.
The evolution of car design is the increasing sophistication in the use of compound curves expressed as metal objects, the like of which has no real precedent. On the scale of car design, the sweeping, continuous flow of curves in all directions are emblematic of the 20th century itself. The GMH EFIJY is a case in point — not a straight line to be seen.
It has a direct lineage in the GM Silver Streak (1938) which is an Australian design built over a Pontiac chassis — the design itself a combination of form and function to meet local conditions (long distances, luggage space and streamlining to keep petrol costs down).
What a happy face! Cars have faces. Not all faces are attractive. The latest BMW Mini Countryman and Paceman are a (possibly) unintended homage to another classic British car, the 1950s Austin A40, which has one of ugliest grimaces seen on a car. (Submit your own examples to Weering.)
The only sadface car in the NGV exhibition is Hartnett’s 1949 Tasman sedan. The father of the FJ Holden, Harnett’s own design for the FJ was rejected by Detroit, who imposed their own design (the iconic FJ is not in the exhibition, because it is not an Australian design). Perhaps that rejection was a good thing. The Tasman is a wee car with a depressingly flat face. The body is hand built, which is perhaps why there is less virtuosic use of compound curves in the design, but it does look like something Noddy might drive on a bad day. Hartnett’s design did not make it to commercial production.
For performance enthusiasts Shifting Gear has a room of red racing cars (vroom!) next to a display of three iconic Aussie muscle cars: the VH Valiant Charger R/T E49, coupe 1971–73; the HQ Holden Monaro GTS, coupe 1971–74; and the XA Ford Falcon GT (RPO83), coupe 1973, (the ‘scare car’ that lead to the cessation of such high-performance street cars, because any fool could get hold of one).
You can find them all on YouTube because, if you are notching around 60 yourself, your history is on YouTube somewhere. But nothing compares to actually seeing these vehicles in the metal; nothing except to be able to touch them, run your hands over their curves and trace out their names in chrome.