La Bella Macchina

By Ross Kenneth Urken


While the automobile has long been admired, indeed fetishized, for its beautiful appearance, the internal combustion engine is an oft-neglected aesthetically

pleasing entity whose pulchritudinous properties warrant further scrutiny. Whereas, for example, the curvature of a BMW’s Hofmeister kink – the C-pillar dipping ever so, almost choreographically – stimulates endorphins in even the most amateur gear head, as does the swooping front fascia of a Lamborghini Aventador or the rotund caboose of a Jag XKSS, the motor itself remains out of sight – wallowing in oblivion.

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes focuses, of course, on external automotive beauty, saying, “I believe the automobile is, today, the almost exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals.” But peel back the distractions – the showy tail fins of a ’59 Caddy Eldorado, say – or a Jeep’s rugged seven-bar style grille; under the hood lies the true spasmic heart of artistic refinement. The geometric elegance and gyrational fluidity make the internal combustion engine (ICE) – and let us lament, in a world of fuel economy, the dying V-12 – a curvaceous architectural wonder, whether static or dynamic.

A hulking, symmetrical chunk of glacier – it is at once intimidating in its heft but elegant, sleek. A metallic golem face, transfixing in its cragginess, it is brashly topographical and vaguely mythical. The ICE is all light bulb-shaped shoulders and lean muscle – an intricate, coronary chamber. From the time Leonardo da Vinci described a combustionless engine in 1509, until Siegfried Marcus introduced the first modern internal combustion engine in 1864, it has maintained classical structural virtues while employing revving modern vice. The ICE is, indeed, a sculptural piece of art. Snatch a V8 from a ’55 T-Bird, and stick it on a pedestal at the Whitney Biennial. Call it what it is – a masterpiece.

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