There’s a lot to say about what makes cars cool: They’re fast, they serve a practical purpose, and they can be downright gorgeous.
But the best explanation we’ve ever seen (and which we just came across) comes from French philosopher and literary theorist Roland Barthes.
In his 1957 book “Mythologies,” Barthes (1915-1980) examines a variety of modern topics, including professional wrestling, soap powders and detergents, red wine, and the Romans in films.
One of these essays is dedicated to the Citroen DS, widely recognised as one of the best and most beautiful cars of all time.
Without mention of cylinders or horsepower, Barthes explores what makes the DS (a play on the French word “Déesse,” for goddess) such an unusual vehicle, calling it “first and foremost a new Nautilus.”
But it’s the first line of “The New Citroen” that really caught our attention, because it applies to cars in general:
I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.
It’s the best explanation we’ve ever seen of what makes cars so remarkable and important. Like massive cathedrals in large cities (more in Europe than the U.S.), they are omnipresent, but in the background. They serve a practical purpose, but most people appreciate them from the outside. You rarely know who made them, and it doesn’t matter anyway. (The DS, for the record, was designed by Flaminio Bertoni.)
Since the 1950s, and especially in recent years, cars have become more homogeneous and less interesting (though also more powerful, comfortable, safe, and reliable).
But the truth Barthes explored in “Mythologies” holds. Cars are more than machines. They are major cultural creations.
You can — and should — read the whole essay here.
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