Can classic cars also be seen as high art?

Photography Credit: Ken Neher

The real focus of motorsports to me has always been those who invent and physically create the magnificent assemblies of kinetic art we call racing cars. On-track competition certainly defines the best, but only in those fleeting segments of time when the checker falls or a timing light verifies that split second’s finest. 

Great art, though, seldom fades. I recently placed a beautiful scale model of Bill Schindler’s mid-’40s Kurtis-Offy midget racer, built by the famed Caruso family, on a shelf in our living room. My wife, Gayle, soon asked why it was being given such a place of prominence. The only answer I had was that the car is a great piece of art with good history which I want to admire on a regular basis.  

The primary job of an automotive designer is to design a car that accomplishes its stated goal. That can be as complex as winning races or as simple as providing an economical mode of transportation. Once accomplished, their next task is to make the vehicle aesthetically pleasing. 

Successful examples of fire-breathing, three-dimensional art are a couple of the late-1930s Touring-bodied 8C 2900 Alfa Romeos, Dan Gurney’s 1967 Spa-winning V12 Eagle, and any of Harry Arminius Miller’s astounding 1930s-era Indy winners. 

There’s no certain way to determine which years of motorsport provided the greatest advancements. In each significant era, the exact same sense of innovation, dedication and passion were needed to create the best. If there was ever any limiting factor restricting excellence, it certainly wasn’t in the minds of those focused on seeking the answers for victory, but only in that era’s existing materials. 

This was especially so in the early 1900s, when such now-common items as steel, gasoline, unrefined oil, aluminum and even carbonized rubber were only uncertain concepts in the minds of those in racing’s peripheral realms. Those embryonic industries, sometimes spurred by motorsport, would eventually change the world. Every unique material that would eventually alter history had its own dedicated visionaries with parallel determinations to rise above their peers. 

The importance of collecting and displaying racing’s greatest examples of engineering art is that they remain permanently available as tangible evidence of each significant era. Every masterpiece can then be examined and appreciated by those who never had the good fortune of age or opportunity and privilege of seeing it in action. 

If time and world events permit, cars like these should remain on display in publicly available private collections or museums for the educational benefit of all. For those of us who just dream of possessing such treasures, it’s still possible to own or collect highly detailed scale models. And that curious obsession in itself becomes a form of appreciation that can take on a reverent life of its own, with favored examples quietly reminding us of those who made history by creating great art.

The momentary fame and glory in the winner’s circle for these cars is rightly deserved, but the real and lasting satisfaction remains in the mutual pride shared by those creative artisans and designers standing just outside the sphere of flashing lights and showered champagne. In the long term, it’s always the art and beauty of excellence which remains.  

All through my life it’s been a rare privilege to be around, and sometimes to even interact with, some of those talented individuals who created the best. These opportunities have made my life in motorsport what it is and remain shining examples of what is possible. In the end, though, it’s always the great art that endures to remind us of who, what, where and when.

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J.A. Ackley
J.A. Ackley Senior Editor
6/22/22 10:56 a.m.

Cars as art? Of course. The Modern Museum of Art (MoMA) thinks so - and they seem to have a reputation of knowing what art is:

msterbeau Reader
4/8/23 7:47 p.m.
J.A. Ackley said:

Cars as art? Of course. The Modern Museum of Art (MoMA) thinks so - and they seem to have a reputation of knowing what art is:

Not only that, but the fact that both the interiors and exteriors of most cars involve artists/designers in their creation solidifies the idea that they are a form of art.

Automobilist New Reader
9/7/23 1:36 p.m.

Right after Tony Parella bought SVRA, my wife and I were chatting with him in our pit at Auto Club Speedway (Her: 1969 Beach Formula Vee. Me: 1971 Triumph GT6)

Tony (very cool guy) reached into his pocket and pulled out a neat leather & bronze bracelet and gave it to my wife. It reads: "Some People Collect Art. We Race It."

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