Exploring the wide collection of vehicles on display in the British Motor Museum
had a yearning to know more about classic cars ever as a child. This doesn’t mean that I ever ignored modern or futuristic cars and other vehicles. My interest in the history of car design and manufacturing prompted me to collect a number of miniature automobiles and magazines about cars over the years. The story of my love for cars starts where mostly all stories start – home. My father’s very first car was a grey British Mini Austin that he bought circa 1975 for Rs 11,000. He continues to tell people how he once drove nine people to the old Lahore airport to see off my mother’s Dadi who was leaving for Hajj. He sold the car for Rs 16,000 in 1979 to import a Toyota Corolla from Japan.
I also remember playing on and around a rusted off-white Volkswagen Beetle, casually parked in the neighbourhood for years, with deflated tyres, being reclaimed by nature bit by bit. Many a horror story was associated with the German machine, a two-door, rear-engine economy car, affectionately known to the public as Foxy. A doctor in the adjacent housing colony had an old giant Land Rover from the ’70s. In winter, he would put a gas heater under it for a few hours before turning it on.
Hence began my life-long love affair with cars.
On my recent visit to Birmingham, UK, I learnt about the British Motor Museum in Gaydon, Warwickshire. With immense excitement, I decided to pay a visit to the museum during my short stay in the country. The impressive purpose-built museum was once the home of a significant British car manufacturing company – the Rover Group. It was designed by the company in the 1980s to serve as an exhibition and storage space for over 250 vehicles and two million photographs, business records, brochures and drawings. The collection on permanent display begins with the impressive yet basic model of a safety bicycle, designed and developed by John Kemp Startley in 1886, who gave it the trade name Startley Rover. This model’s success and popularity later led the firm to change its name to Rover Cycle Company.
The next product on display was the 1896 Wolseley Autocar Number One designed by Herbert Austin. The tri-car looked like a bath chair, with the occupants sitting back-to-back and the engine underneath the seats. This car’s top speed was just 12 miles (19 kilometres) per hour. It has an 1,018cc engine. Nearly 125 years later, a 1,000cc car nowadays can run at 120 kilometres per hour.
Another car that caught my attention was the enormous 1950 Daimler, known as the Green Goddes, a drop-head coupe from the post-War range. I felt overwhelmed by the car’s scale, design and fluidity of the ergonomics inside out. The dynamism of the car’s interior with a jaw-dropping eight-cylinder, 5,460cc engine must have promised a colossal experience to its first owner, an opera singer named James Melton from New York. Green Goddes was initially priced at £7,000, roughly equivalent to seven million pounds sterling in 2022. This goliath was placed next to the tiniest ever created two-door saloon car, the 1959 Morris Mini-Minor, proudly designed by Alec Issigonis. This informed curatorial decision certainly makes sense, creating visual impact and a creative scale experience.
An array of cars/ jeeps was displayed in the main central hall, in the midst of awards, shields, gold medals, newspaper stories, ads, announcements, posters, advertising campaigns, documentary films, safety helmets and gloves, technical drawings, historical photographs and prototypes - you name it. Right beside the central hall, there were a few glass-walled rooms showcasing the 1931 BMW Dixi, Vintage Austin 7 Ruby Morris Eight, and other exciting models from these world-famous car manufacturing companies. Looking at various models of Morgan, Lotus, Triumph, McLaren, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, MG and a few other concept cars gives one a rare view of an implicit timeline of material cultures, human preferences and makeshift within the timeframe of just three to five decades. These cars never entirely made it into production. Several touch-screen panels allowed me to investigate in depth the design process of these might-have-been cars.
The Film and TV cars zone, another fascinating section, showcased the most popular vehicles to have appeared in films. These included the fabulously pink FAB 1 from Thunderbirds, the Land Rover Defender used in the opening sequence of James Bond’s Skyfall, the Land Rover Judge Dredd City Cab and a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future 2.
A dedicated Jaguar zone featured an exciting selection of vehicles representing some of Jaguar’s finest sports and racing cars. These cars are owned by the Jaguar Heritage Trust and are a small sample from its collection of some 150 historic vehicles. The vehicles regularly displayed in the Museum include a 1950 Jaguar XK120, the 1988 Le Mans-winning Jaguar XJR-9, a 1953 Jaguar C-type, the only surviving D-type prototype from 1954 and the XJ13, the only one of its kind in existence.
Their record-breaker display features four of the world’s fastest MGs and some images from films with these fabulous cars in action. MG was first designed by Cecil Kimber in the 1920s and manufactured in England. Several owners later, the company became a subsidiary of BMW. However, it still carries the emblem of a British car. MG SUVs have recently gained popularity in Pakistan amongst mid-career professionals.
There was another section with blue timeline graphics called Time Road which instantly drew my attention to it. As I walked along the Time Road, I experienced how motoring has changed since 1896 – the roads, cars; even the fashion. When and how cat’s eyes were first introduced and installed, when first driving tests were given and where the first motorway was built in the UK – I learnt it all and more. I also came across valuable information about enforced motor insurance, highway code development, MoT tests, speed cameras and the implementation of seat belts law, among other things.
While looking at the grandeur of the motor car industry, I constantly thought about the time when I attended the famous degree thesis show of the Royal College of Arts (RCA), when graduating students from its vehicle design programme developed a prototype of a concept car for a futurist world. It was speculative and based on the principles of intelligent mobility, yet quite plausible.
As a design academic and researcher, I often wonder why Pakistan never designed a car from scratch, instead of always adapting to imported technology and aesthetics. Artists like Omer Gillani have suggested futuristic vehicles in their artwork. Still, no one has tried to design a practical or even a concept car at any of the product design departments in our art/ design colleges. Perhaps the bigger question is not the design part but whether or not we have a market opportunity for these design graduates. (Will they be forced to flee to the countries where jobs in this field are secure?). One can hope for the best. As Alexandra Paul quotes, “The cars we drive say a lot about us”.
The writer is an art/ design critic. He heads the Visual Communication Department at Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts & Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.