Beauty, love, lust, sex, death, ‘The Age of Combustion’ is an ode and a farewell to the motor car

James Dean in his Porsche 550, Vine Street, 1955 © Bettmann via Getty Images

In 1920 F Scott Fitzgerald took what turned out to be a rather rocky road trip from Connecticut to Alabama in a used Marmon so Zelda could rekindle with her childhood in the south. His upbeat account of the eight day adventure were later published in book form as The Cruise of the Rolling Junk. Zelda was less generous with the journey writing simply: ‘the joys of motoring are more-or-less fictional’. When building his 1924 Type 35, Ettore Bugatti modelled the engine first in wood to make sure the proportions were right for the car. In 1933 the racing driver Francis Turner was killed while testing Buckminster Fuller’s crazy-shaped three-wheeled Dymaxion since the architect and inventor didn’t bother too much with mastering aerodynamics and proper engineering so his prototype lifted at speed making it impossible to steer or brake as Turner was to tragically discover. The Fiat Lingotto Turin facility and its cinematic pista were the work of a naval architect by the name of Giacomo Matté-Trucco who was inspired by the theories of the Italian Futurists.

These are just some of the myriad of topics gathered from the car-besotted century by Stephen Bayley in his latest book The Age of Combustion – an edited selection of his Octane column, The Aesthete. This is a hugely engaging book and Bayley is a natural raconteur. His writing is erudite but also light and fun – forever weaving his immense pool of knowledge on architecture and design and cinema and literature and life into multiple narratives. Or to quote the industrial designer J Mays: ‘No one articulates the Theatre of Design like Stephen Bayley.’

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