Car as sculpture, car as performance
A Lamborghini Miura is the automobile equivalent of Shakespeare – and that is not because both are considered to be the acme of their respective art. Rather, it is because they both are texts, and from these texts emerges a performance (and vice versa). The work as a whole is constituted from these two opposed parts: the text as a physical repository of experience that has been preserved, and the performance which is ephemeral, vanishing in the instant of its creation.
This two-fold nature may appear self-evident in the world of theater, but it equally applies to the car. On the one hand, we have the car as sculpture: the three-dimensional form in sheet-metal. It is the closest thing we have to Bernini in the modern age. The exterior of a car is so valuable that collectors will pay millions for a rusted out shell of a Bugatti that has been molding in an Alsacian garage since 1938. All the other things might be missing – no engine, no wheels, no seats and no wing mirrors, but as long as the hull can be salvaged, it is worth a boatload. I would argue that this is because the exterior of the car is the text: its summation of signifiers. Even in a state of decrepitude, it is still incredibly valuable – in the same way that a handwritten copy of Richard III is incredibly valuable, even if half of it has been eaten away.
On the other hand, there is the car as performance. By this I mean the ungraspable, unrecordable sensory experience of driving; of witnessing it driven. To see a Lamborghini Miura driving is to see a piece of theater: to hear the throaty growl of its twelve cylinder engine, to smell the poisonous sweetness of leaded-fuel exhaust, to see how it luxuriously weaves in and out of corners, the weight rocking from one side and then the other. Only when we understand these two halves in dialog – the car as sculpture and the car as theatre – can we fully understand its significance.
Perhaps this is why most people shake their head when they read that some multi-millionaire has paid a fortune to restore an old car – if only they could smell the old leather and hear the sound of that engine.