Grand Basel: excellence in motion

The Ultimate Show for Automotive Masterpieces?

grand basel classic car exhibition

The clockwork perfection of Basel throws you. So clean, so calm, full of neat little parks and discreet Swiss businessmen snaking their way across the Rhine in luxury sedans. It’s known for Art Basel, luxury watchmaking fairs, and a general feeling of pleasant civility. Not really a place which comes to mind when you think about motoring and the cult of competitive motorsports.

However, Grand Basel would have you think differently. In fact, the illustrious advisory board would have you believe that the atelier (or at least a monumental Herzog & de Mauron exhibition space) is the perfect location for the machine cult to conduct its worship. It’s the first show of its kind, promising to place the automobile in a cultural, architectural, and artistic context. It features automotive excellence from the past, present, and future, including (amongst others) showcases of work by Car Designer of the Century Giorgetto Giugiaro, Gio Ponti, and a pornographic amount of Pininfarina. Each of the 113 exhibits has been picked with an eye on cultural meaning, conceptual innovation, condition, provenance, rarity and value. The tagline is “Celebrating Excellence in Motion”; the elevator pitch – “the ultimate show for automotive masterpieces”.

Could Grand Basel deliver on its own claims? In search of the answer I found myself in a cavernous darkness of concrete and steel, punctuated by shining blocks of light. In each of them stood a vehicle on display, surgically clean and silent. In front of me was a thick-set brute of a motor with flared wheel arches and aggressive contours. It was an exceptionally rare Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante from 1987, the first British muscle car, designed to bring American rivals to heel with a combination of sheer power and good looks. I’d seen and heard one in the flesh once. Monumental.

The only thing was that this beast, like all the other cars here, was roped off, sitting immobile and perfect on a white platform under bright lights. It felt odd. As I had walked through the exhibition in the morning, with only a trickle of visitors present, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of strange nostalgia, a kind of disappointment in the solitude. I yearned for engine noise, for the cars to come alive.

Dwelling on this, something made me lean in close to the Aston Martin. Suddenly I caught the powerful smell of the leather and engine oil radiating from the car. I had a flashback to standing at the prow of Richard Wilson’s 20:50 at the Saatchi Gallery. The blunt smell of the crude oil patiently but dominantly filling the room had struck me then, hinting at a magnitude of latent power far beyond me. For a moment I felt the same awe. The machine was no longer a dead lump of metal and rubber, but a promise of motion and explosive power. It seemed to say: I’m more than an artwork.

I was inclined to agree. With a painting or sculpture the effect occurs in your mind. With an automobile, the form may be beautiful, but it is made to move in the real world under control of a human being. And the effect is physical as well as emotional and intellectual.  You feel the G-force in your body. You smell the fumes. You feel the surge of adrenalin as you fight for traction. That is the ultimate essence of the car, evoking a full spectrum of sensations for everyone from the engineers who design and test it to the ultimate owner. The human touch completes it. Walking round the displays at Grand Basel, looking at aerodynamic features suspended in still gallery air, only reinforced that feeling.

During the same weekend as Grand Basel, the Goodwood Revival was happening back in England. It was fortuitous timing. While a Ferrari 250 GT SWB was on display in Basel in a dark room as a cultural artefact, almost identical cars were being thrashed round a circuit in Chichester by grinning owners covered in engine oil. I’d occasionally check for updates from the races; I was addicted to the humanity of the battles for position, to the passion and competitive spirit with which the connoisseurs back at Goodwood approached their racing machines with little care for the odd scrape. I struggled to reconcile a static car exhibition with that spirit.

However, the longer I spent walking around Grand Basel, the more the character of the vehicles and the stories behind them seeped through. A worn seat here, a magazine left in the glovebox of a Lamborghini, a smeared fingerprint on some internal glass, a seat and pedalbox set up for a not very tall racing driver. It all began to connect. And as the hall filled with people excitedly talking about the objects and taking photographs, the mood of the exhibition changed. Grand Basel became a living, contemporary showcase rather than a quaint collector’s museum.

There was a certain amount of childish excitement in meeting icons you’d only ever seen in magazines. I’d never been close to an original Ferrari F40. I took the time to let the design soak into my memory – the stark redness of the Rosso Corsa paintwork and the unapologetic gashes of the NACA ducts (adapting the low-drag air inlet found on jet aircraft to a racing car), all in a package which was much smaller in real life than it had been in my imagination. There were other thrills too – from the rapid 918 Spyder, Porsche’s hybrid hypercar, to the iconic Bugatti Chiron, to the Benetton B194-05 Formula 1 car driven by Michael Schumacher himself to win his historic first world championship. The curation of the exhibits was second to none; you simply wouldn’t see so many exceptional vehicles in one place anywhere else. I couldn’t be a cynic about that – and the crowds seemed to agree.

As I left the exhibition, I heard a commotion. A cyclists’ protest had gathered outside. With smoke and flares they chanted slogans against cars polluting the environment. It was clearly directed against the glorification of the motor car Grand Basel stood for. In a way it brought into focus some of the challenges for automotive culture now and in the future: not only sustainability and environmental concerns, but other ways in which the industry is changing: the arrival of electric powertrains, the rise of self-driving vehicles and the death of the internal combustion engine. It’s somewhat ironic that the format of Grand Basel, which appears to glorify the petroleum cult, obscures the fact that a number of the modern performance vehicles on show were actually hybrid or electric – for example, the latest Tesla Roadster – and this trend for change will only continue.

grand basel cyclist demonstration
Photographer: Armin Biehler

So what to make of Grand Basel? One thing the format does is make you reflect on the essence of being a passionate collector or automobile connoisseur. If you look at the wildly differing manifestation of automotive culture at Grand Basel and Goodwood, or compare car culture with the modern art scene, there is a commonality. It’s not just about the objects. It’s about being involved in a community of like-minded, passionate people for whom the objects are a means of expressing shared values and experiences. So perhaps taking a priceless vehicle round a track, as well as showing it off in a gallery, are two sides of the same coin.

If there is one thing my time at Grand Basel did impress upon me about car culture in the modern conception, it’s how a simple mode of transportation can tie together everything from your raw competitive instincts and desire for adrenaline, to artistic appreciation of design and engineering, to environmental sustainability, in a culture which is at once deeply rooted in society and tradition while reacting to constant technological and social change.

Excellence in motion indeed.

Grand Basel was held from 6 – 9 September 2018 in Basel, Switzerland, and will be coming to Miami Beach between 22 – 24 February 2019 and Hong Kong later in 2019.