This exhibit is not intended to be a comprehensive, beginning-to-end survey of the history of the automobile. The museum simply does not have the resources – financial or physical – to include every single car of significance throughout history. What we do have, however, is a unique collection of almost 400 cars to draw upon.
Some of these cars, such as the Citroën Traction Avant, were selected because of their continuing influence in the automotive industry. Others like the Jaguar E-Type, were chosen because of their timeless, sculptural beauty. (It doesn’t hurt that, under the skin, the E-Type was also quite advanced!) The Austin Mini and Volkswagen Beetle were selected not only for their unique solutions for moving people, but also because of the far-ranging effects they had on society, both here and in their respective homelands.
One cannot consider the automobile without context. Look around you – every single car in the museum represents someone’s “A-HA!” moment. If one takes the time to learn a bit about the circumstances – economic, geographic, political - surrounding each car in the collection, then they can begin to make a lot of sense. (Well, most of them, anyway!) Each was the product of its time and place, of need, of desire, and as you’ll find, sometimes even political ambition. Some were conceived to “show the world”, while others were simply trying to find a new solution to an old problem – moving people and things from place to place.
The effects of the automobile on society, especially here in the United States, are not trivial. Prior to the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (the Interstate system), begun in 1956, travel between major cities was not casually undertaken. In post WWII America, the automobile, coupled with the Interstates, certainly contributed to suburbia, shopping malls, drive-thru food, social isolation, the decline of small retail and the rise of the superstore, urban decay, a larger National Park system, soccer moms, urban and suburban sprawl, a dependence on foreign oil, and more. In a way, it may be said that Detroit killed itself, making so many good cars at affordable prices that people moved farther and farther from urban centers. Increasing oil prices brought the auto industry to its knees, significantly impacting mono-industrial cities. We are only now beginning to look to replacing streetcar and light rail lines that were torn up in many cities in the 1950s.
I hope that this exhibit leaves you knowing a bit more about these cars and the conditions surrounding their creation. Perhaps you can think of a few cars we could have added, if we had the room. For instance, Ford’s Model T mobilized a nation, inexpensively; the Lotus 38 revolutionized motorsport; the Honda Z360 gave America an early taste of what the Japanese manufacturers had to offer; and the Lamborghini Miura was first in a line of outlandish and often beautiful Italian Supercars. What’s on your list of influential automobiles?