BLOOD ON THE SPATS

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The Passenger: in a new series, Jonathan Meades considers the architecture of cars. He begins with the Tatra T87—the car of choice for lesbian vampire movies

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

"Le Rouge aux Levres"—aka "Daughters of Darkness" (1971)—is unquestionably the greatest lesbian vampire movie ever shot in an art-deco hotel in Ostend. A platinum-blonde Delphine Seyrig plays a reincarnation of the 16th-century serial killer Elizabeth Báthory. She drives a mid-1950s Bristol 403. The casting of this car seemed inspired. Curvaceous amplitude doesn’t lessen its sternness. Its exoticism comes with a gust of the hothouse and, despite borrowing liberally from post-war BMWs, it is supremely, dandiacally English—like flagellation, Beardsley and green carnations. 

Many years after seeing the film, I was wandering round a sculpture park in Antwerp with its director, Harry Kümel. I mentioned the car. He shook his head in regret. The Bristol had got the role faute de mieux. Kümel’s obsessional preference had been for an immediately pre-war Tatra T87. He had scoured western Europe for one but they were all behind the Iron Curtain. And the properties I had ascribed to the Bristol were emphatically not what he had sought. The Tatra, however, was (a) manufactured in Koprivnice, 100km north of Countess Báthory’s sanguinary castle, and (b) had a central and sinister dorsal fin, spats over the rear wheels, no rear windows. Those were the properties which a Belgian surrealist believed that a Vampire Car should manifest. 

As in lurid art, so in life. I have never opened the bonnet of the car I have owned for five years, a Citroën C4 VTS: I’m not sure if I even know how to open it. I bought it because it was fast and because I liked its looks. (Not as much as the looks of earlier Citroëns such as the DS, the SM, the CX: but they are now toys for amateur mechanics with infinite patience and infinite pockets.) It is by their appearance that cars—as long as they do their job—should be judged. Their designers owe a duty to the canons of beauty which, although they are of course fluid, ought not to be regarded as entirely relative. That duty is routinely neglected, currently in favour of whatever virtues 4x4 tanks and counter-intuitive callypigian blobs are supposed to possess. 

We shouldn’t despair. At the very point in the late 1960s when car design was wedded to hard, martial edges and an almost vorticist sharpness, the German manufacturer NSU produced the RO-80, a mechanical and financial catastrophe. No matter: it was sleek, subtly curved and aerodynamic—though it stopped short of adopting the hyperbolic streamlining of the Tatra T87 and its late-1930s coevals. 

Indeed, it looked forward. It anticipated, may even have fomented, the softness that, 20 years on, would inform the commonplace styling of Mondeos, Calibras, Astras, Sierras, Lagunas, Ibizas, Armadas, Cordobas, Corridas, Fiestas, Laredos, Fuegos, Sciroccos—names intended to delude us that we are sipping horchata on a vine-dappled terrace rather than cursing in a snarl-up in Surbiton or the Elbe Tunnel. It may be a metal box going from A to B, but it isn’t just a metal box. It is capable of casting a spell—or it should be. 

For cars are mobile architecture. They are as much part of our constructed surroundings as glass façades, polished travertine, graffiti’d concrete and buddleias growing out of crumbling brick. The performance of cars does not affect us collectively any more than the performance of buildings. Like buildings, cars are invested with a gamut of non-utile characteristics, with symbolism, with associational mulch, with anthropomorphic cuteness (look how that radiator grille grins!), with a sheerly sculptural purity, appreciation of which is not marred by even the most noxious gust of exhaust.

Yet most talk about cars is boastful pseudo-science, blokeish discourse or gearbox machismo: cars turn men into cab drivers. It passes unacknowledged that we are all passive motorists. The patterns of our daily business and our strolls are at least partly determined by these ubiquitous missiles. Which one of us would not prefer to be crushed by a sinuous Jensen 541R than a maladroit, steroid-enchanced SUV apparently designed by a distant ancestor of the primate at the wheel? 

These risible, and risibly named, vehicles will not be with us for ever. Fashions change. Typically they react against their predecessor. The finned, chromed, white-walled-tyred monsters of America in the 1950s gave way to "compact cars". Compact in comparison, that is. The same will happen again. 

A designer scratching around for inspiration, searching for a happily forgotten obscurity, might come upon that vampyric Tatra and recognise that this supreme example of dark-ages futurism could provide a source worthy of plagiarism. The limited rear visibility is of little moment in an age of radar and on-board CCTV. The Honda Insight and a couple of Citroëns excepted, spats on rear wheels have been absent from the vocabulary of car design for almost as long as spats on shoes. Two or three generations have grown up in ignorance of their suave bondage. And as for that single fin…Goths need transport too.

Jonathan Meades makes programmes for the BBC on culture, architecture and food.

Picture Kitchener Lord