Books: Sex, Drink and Fast Cars - Stephen Bayley

Written by Kurt | Sunday, 10 August 2014 19:02

I am so fortunate to have several charity shops near where I live, with an excellent Oxfam providing me almost every Saturday with excellent consumption opportunities to the benefit of the less fortunate. Heaps of £1 books and vinyl records as well as nicely priced suits and analog camera bits and bops have made their way onto the already limited space I have available on my shelves. Thankfully, on some occasions Oxfam is also able to satisfy my motoring needs. This Saturday I came across a curiously titled book called 'Sex, Drink and Fast Cars'.


I had not heard of its author, Stephen Bayley, but one brief look on the interweb after buying the book enlightened me as to his pedigree. Let's just say that it raised expectations, according to the Guardian; 'he is indisputably one of the world's best known commentators on modern culture.' Well, needless to say I thought that giving his 112-page booklet on 'The creation and consumption of images' of the car a try was the least I could do this weekend.

While Bayley certainly has a gift for writing well and putting observations on paper it soon became apparent that the book fails to offer anything approaching a well-rounded examination into the car's position in culture and society. This might have something to do with the fact that the book contains material that has 'appeared with slight differences, in the Tatler, the Observer Magazine and Motor' before. The fact that it runs just 112 pages might have something to do with it as well. But surely this should not be an excuse to publish a book of questionable repute.

The book appears mish-mash of ideas, with too many loose ends, whilst paragraphs do not seem to logically follow one another. On more than one occasion I found myself looking, after flipping a page, if perhaps a page was torn out of the book, wondering if I had missed an important section detailing things that lead up to an argument set out on the next pages. The book feels, unfinished, a rush job, ill-researched at some points. It could have been much better, as it's clear Bayley should know one or two things about the car's meaning in society.

The book only manages to offer what might be referred to as pseudo-intellectual bla bla. Lots of quotes from intellectuals and artists, yet only a feeble effort is made to connect the dots between these thoughts and the author's own arguments (where there is an argument at all). Bayley, for example, draws in Barthes, Marinetti, Picabia and other modernist figures to lend some clout to the story, but only really scratches the surface of their works and their importance in explaining the car's position in society.

On the other hand, the continuous use of the same industry expert to give explanations doesn't inspire much confidence in this book being an authoritative account either. Whilst Uwe Bahnsen, then head of Ford Europe's design department, certainly has some interesting things to say they add, more often than not, little to the arguments made.

Perhaps the most ill-researched paragraph in the book is on the subject of the Audi 100 launch in Britain, where Bayley feels it necessary to note that:

"The audi was promoted with a sophisticated press and television campaign using the Nazi tag,'Vorsprung durch Technik' (Progress through Technology) ... emblazoned like proud heraldry above their Ingolstadt factory gates."

Which is fundamentally not true, while it may be argued that it reappropriates those Nazi slogans as 'Kraft durch Freude' and 'Arbeit Macht Frei', the slogan first appeared in 1971 in an advertisement for an NSU Ro 80. Quite a few years after the war.

Admittedly, there are some seriously interesting observations too, consider this on p. 79:

"Although the 'traditional' British car interior, with its walnut and leather, is modelled on assumptions about country house architecture best understood by Jungian analysts (but confirming C.P. Snow's observation that nine out of ten British 'traditions' date from the second hald of the nineteenth century), other influences have joined architecture in the evolution of the car interior. These influences have rarely been avant-garde, perhaps because automobile production has often occured in military towns which had manufacturing experience of making armaments: it is no coincedence that Turin, home of the Italian motor industry, also houses Piedmont's greatest arsenal. Similarly, André Citroën made munitions on Paris's Quai de Javel before he made cars there."

With bursts of interestingness like the paragraph quoted above it meant this book was still an enjoyable read, but it fails rather spectacularly in what it appears to set out to do; investigating the 'meaning of cars' in any depth beyond the ordinary. Simply put, while there is some sex and some fast cars, there's definitely no drink. Time for a pint!

Bayley, Stephen, Sex, Drink and Fast Cars - The creation and consumption of images (London: Faber and Faber, 1986)