My car obsession bordering on fetish sprang from being an alienated overweight child with a feeling for aesthetics and speed but no notion of art (or sports). Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s was shaped more by Road & Track than Art & Auction, which left an indelible mark and lasting passion. Since I moved to the UK 8 years ago, I have bought and sold nearly 70 cars, admittedly 99% of the time for a loss; save for a 1964 Imp moved on for £1,500, which was what I paid. I am not vastly bothered by the lack of return since living with such a varied cast of stable mates has a more palpable yield in the way of visceral enjoyment; and live with them I do, the nose of one rests under my desk. I have the lungs of a mechanic but don’t know how an engine functions. To first sit in a car, smell it, see and touch the lines, turn the key and drive is like meeting a great new friend or listening to a catchy tune for the first time—you get a feeling of familiarity that plants deeply in the mind.
Sadly, driving in the UK throws up a few immediate obstacles for me, namely I have never attained full perceptional abilities and confidence to navigate the UK’s ultra narrow two-way roads that barely meet the criteria for an alley in the USA. That makes passage through the curb restrictors of the Hammersmith Bridge on the school run a daily source of anxiety. I go through lots of sets of rim. As a result, the first and foremost parameter when choosing every car I have owned is width. Next, my pathological fear of getting lost, which in grid-less London makes it all but impossible to find anything other than the local newsagent (located at the end of my street). Lastly, my neurotic distaste for the paralyzing pressures of a road test for my license at this stage of my life: call it old-dogs-new-tricks syndrome. The right to legally rely on the New York documentation still in my wallet has long since lapsed (like an old condom). Let’s keep that tidbit amongst ourselves, please.
Besides collecting and admiring cars for most of my life, I have launched a series of adventures in the world of commissioning cars with the hope of producing limited run editions. Victor Gauntlett, a former owner of Aston Martin said: “Can you make a small fortune in the automobile industry? Yes, if you start out with a large one.” Never one to focus too much on sound advice, I began with Zaha Hadid by commissioning two iterations of a car, a more conceptual three wheel version; and, with the idea of production and marketability in mind, a subsequent more traditional layout of 4 wheels. We ended up with two non-functioning 1:1 scale models that have been exhibited worldwide, and now have more frequent flier miles than I do—one of which is now in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The car creation gig got me lecturing and thesis advising to a sometime hostile audience at the Royal College of Art, Vehicle Design Department, which is among the very best. I say hostile because when it becomes apparent from time to time how out of my depths I am, the students are none too shy about letting me know about it.
With the thought of an overlapping car, art and architecture show, there have been additional renderings by the likes of Kenny Scharf who designed a cartoon car come to life; Vito Acconci: a car based on the airbag which looks like the Nike sneaker of the future; and Arik Levy, an industrial designer who penned a faceted vehicle more like a menacing military machine. There have also been commissions of boats by Zaha (motorboat) and Rem Koolhaas (hybrid sail and motor), the first of which is less than a year away from completion. To be frank, I don’t even particularly like boats or water for that matter, but the upside is a climate of much less regulatory hurdles for seaworthiness. And, more importantly, lower points of entry from a financial perspective. Who would be my dream collaborators of the future? It could only be the people I am working with already—I’d be hard-pressed to imagine better.
About the art-car connection, I believe anything done extraordinarily well is art—I don’t differentiate between a fork, a car, a sculpture or a painting. I want to live a life fully integrated and not characterized by (false) hierarchies. In Octane Magazine, Stephen Bayley said “if you want to know about the beliefs, fears, desires and preoccupations of American in 1957 you would be far better off studying a Chevy Bel Air than a David Smith abstract sculpture of the same year.” Besides the point its amazing UK car magazines undertake to discuss art at all (and its not just Octane)—I am fairly certain no US mag ever has or would; the author is misguided. Bayley states art doesn’t make you feel alive like a car with, quoting Tom Wolfe: “freedom, style, sex, power, motion, color, everything.” But why must the two be mutually exclusive? Great art has all the attributes Wolfe ascribed to cars, while certain cars are sculptural and more. Yes you can’t drive a painting, but you can’t bed your Bugatti either.
Five of my favorites:
1. Porsche 911 Carrera RS 2.7 M471 (Lightweight), 1973. Left hand drive (LHD) bought in Germany, 50k km, unmolested, one of 200 ever made. Purchased from a Nazi memorabilia collector extraordinaire, located 90km outside of Nuremberg (favorite Gestapo hunting grounds), probably one of most original cars of its sort in existence. Prior to delivery, the seller phoned to determine if he might ask a personal question, which was: “Are you Jewish?”
When the car was delivered, it came with Jewish star stickers on the doors emulating how racing drivers decorate their vehicles—though typically not with religious signifiers. He also included a bottle of champagne with again, a Jewish star hand-drawn on the box. When I queried him about such antics, he told me his collection of Nazi memorabilia did not make him a Nazi; but, that he was rather a “true German”, which was an entirely different matter altogether. Though I didn’t fully understand (or appreciate!) why, I guess he meant it to be reassuring. He even forwarded images of his mannequin clad collection, which I believe is a Federal crime in Germany still, and surely a new definition of creepiness. I must really love cars.
2. Porsche 911 Carrera RS 2.7 M471 (Lightweight), 1973. Yes, another of the same as above, a few years after I was massaged into selling the previous by the IRS. But by the time I found this replacement white car with green stripes, the market had moved so much I had to pay more for less. These cars are among the Holy Grail of Porsche aficionados for the purity of design and rawness of drive. Seat hardware and ducktail spoiler alone are enough for me. The upcoming 40th Anniversary of the model kicks off with celebrations launching in September 2012 and carrying on throughout the year. Though my mechanic is usually a stickler for details on his myriad inspections, I noticed going over old racing photos of the car that there had been an antenna, but the hole had since been welded and painted over—a no-no for originality and almost amounting to crime. Now whenever I see the front quarter panel, driver’s side, my eye darts to the covered space, seeing something not there.
I’ve watched specialized mechanics on all fours painstakingly spend hours inspecting every screw holding these cars together, flashlight in hand. The degree of minutia is numbingly mindboggling: here you have the anorak on a whole other level. This car is, according to the seller, “ex-Eugen Strahl (former Le Mans Driver for Team Sauber) with
89,800 km from new, original body, original engine, matching numbers, chassis number untouched original production number untouched, the 2nd owner kept the car for 30 years, original seats, interior, steering wheel and rims. This is an authentic, numbers matching, original 1973 M471 Lightweight, one of 200.” Let’s hope. Someone just told me of the total of 1,580 Porsche 911 Carrera RS 2.7 Touring and Lightweight models, there are at any given time 4,500 for sale.
3. Rover Mini, 2000. A red car from Mini Bristol Company, since bankrupt; I finally sold it for £6k vs. about £23k total cost after making extensive modifications; with more than 2 years of ownership it still is my longest held vehicle to date. The classic Mini was the first industrial design as desirable to the rich as poor yet affordable by both. The mechanical and aesthetic changes I made culminated with a feature in Mini World Magazine. Considering the seriousness with which the Brits take their cars and car culture, this was a more prestigious accolade than The New York Times cover.
Previously in the same publication, I came across the work of Stuart Gurr, proprietor of VMAX SCART, to undertake the mods to my mini. When I only recently asked Stuart the meaning of the acronym, he responded: “VMAX – Vehicle Maximum Velocity; SCART – Specialized Competition, Automotive, Research, and Testing. And what’s Rove?” He’s a smart mechanic and a smartass too. Actually, Stuart is a true generalist like a country doctor from another era and he’s become a dear friend. With many pre-purchase inspections under his belt, he is also my seeing-eye dog: as once the key turns, I lose interest. Under my tutelage, Stuart took an Eliza Doolittle-esque interest in art and went from learning about the contemporary art world to actually making interesting and more than competent works, some of which I just exhibited in the show Friends & Family at Rove Gallery in London.
4. Lancia Delta Integrale Evolucione I, 1991. 60k miles, good history, two owners one being the original from Italy and one in UK, two replacement bumpers, some foam holding radio in, warning light on for water (which seems to be leaking), bad roof paint but original panel and no rust. £13,850 delivered. Less than fondly, my wife refers to this car as an angry pit bull. Rare as hen’s teeth, and in stop and go traffic with turbos whining on full song, it’s manic. Just don’t try and use two electrical things at same time like the radio and heat—it is Italian after all. I have changed the color of the wheels (and not even because I scraped them) and cooling vents three times already, my version of Pimp My Ride.
5. PORSCHE 911 964 RS, 1992. Maritime blue, 22,609 km, LHD, comfort model (vs. hardcore, stripped out Clubsport), original panels undisturbed, and a half roll cage dealer fitted around purchase time.
Original paint on whole car Including wheels with exception of drivers side wing – story of factory repaint around purchase time that cannot be verified but is believable.
Like the last RS that came nearly 20 years before, this is a street legal hardcore racecar for the road, but in my case bought as much for the triple blue seats—I do like blue. It’s a very focused and unforgiving driving experience where every cigarette butt can be felt in the butt; and, as importantly, there are the inimitable seats.
I am such a fan of the Porsche blues (forget Yves Klein and Muddy Waters) that I commissioned early conceptual artist Billy Apple to make a work based on the many variants. The result is called: “FROM THE ROVE CARS COLLECTION. A painting by Billy Apple completed September 2011. Three painted blue stripes (Porsche Maritime, Monaco and Riviera Blue) on primed linen with white text. Two pack clear coat over colored base coat and computer cut vinyl text Cedar stretcher 1000 x 618mm,” to be exact. Not to mention I’ve inspired and commissioned quite a bit more car related art from Brian Clarke to the Bruce High Quality Foundation. Who said you can’t have your cake and eat it? Just not in one of my cars.