Personal Luxuries

My other pipe is a Porsche

From carbon-fibre dining tables to aerodynamic shoes and pipes with cooling fins, motor racing is giving wheels to a remarkable array of spin-off designs. Nick Foulkes surveys the line-up.

October 12 2011
Nick Foulkes

‘‘We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machinegun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

So wrote Marinetti in his 1909 Futurist Manifesto, and how modern he must have thought himself. After all, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which had been exhibited at the Louvre for decades, was over 2,000 years old, while the speeding motor car represented the technology of tomorrow. Probably Marinetti was not so much denigrating the famous sculpture, as the staid culture of Academic Art that prevailed in the late 19th century.

The irony is, of course, that motorsport – both the early 20th century’s transcontinental city-to-city “death races” and the Formula One circuit today – recalls a sport that predates even the Nike of Samothrace: the chariot race. It is not too much of a leap to say that the emotional involvement of the modern motorsport fan is as complete as that of the crowds in Ben-Hur. And, just as the iconography of the charioteer was found on a variety of objects, including bowls and oil lamps, so the design cues of motorsport have spread far beyond the track.

Indeed, the hunger for anything, however humble, that has been involved in the sport today is so great that those very F1 pistons enjoy virtual immortality in their afterlife, when their connecting rods are mounted and sold as paperweights (£344) by the likes of Ferrari. But then, Ferrari has proved particularly adept at leveraging the brand equity, or whatever it is that marketing people say to describe rolling out a huge range of associated merchandise – everything from cameras (a collaboration with Hasselblad, £22,799) to laptops (with Acer, £858).

Indeed, so deeply has the culture of motorsport permeated the popular consciousness that it is even creating a school of architecture, with Abu Dhabi announcing in 2009 that it was to construct a landmark waterfront building – The Wing – inspired by the front wing of an F1 car.

Motorsport enjoys a near-universal, demographics-defying popularity, and it is estimated that it enjoys a global audience of around 500m. So, the range of items runs from the cheap baseball caps that, like replica football strips, signal a tribal allegiance to one team or driver; to some of the most intricate and involved engineering practised today: watchmaking.

My personal theory is that the male brain has an area that is particularly attuned to machinery. Many middle-aged men will remember playing Top Trumps as children and familiarising themselves with the then-abstract concepts of horsepower and cubic capacity. Well-made watches throw up plenty of statistical information, which, added to the importance of time in motorsport, make timepieces fecund territory for design cross-fertilisation.

Today, a link with a top automotive marque is almost an axiom of horological marketing, and it was pioneered in the modern sense by the late Gino Macaluso of Girard-Perregaux, whose innovative Girard-Perregaux pour Ferrari watches, though discontinued in 2004, remain among the most interesting. I also like to think I did my bit when I took Breitling owner Teddy Schneider around the circuit at Le Mans while Bentley was still racing there – after which, the Breitling for Bentley concept (from £6,380), one of the longest-running such partnerships, got off the starting grid.

Since then, performance cars have teamed up with watch brands to create some intriguing pieces, such as the Aston Martin watch by Jaeger-LeCoultre that also doubles as an electronic key fob (to order, about £26,700). And when it comes to high-speed metal, Parmigiani’s watch for Bugatti (£218,000) also deserves a mention for its innovative layout, allowing the wearer to appreciate the mechanism on the wrist; while at around £250,000, the latest Ferrari watch by garage-brand Cabestan is pricier than some of the eponymous cars.

Hublot has taken the concept and brought it to the next level. Thus, as well as a link with Morgan cars, CEO Jean-Claude Biver has forged a partnership with the sport itself, making an officially sanctioned F1 Hublot (£17,400) that bristles with design cues from motorsport cars – for instance, a bezel that looks like a brake disc and the use of carbon for case design that mirrors the material’s role in the sporting arena. Made in strictly limited runs, the first series of 500 oversold by six times, helped by the publicity of controversial advertising featuring a bruised Bernie Ecclestone, who had been mugged for his Hublot.

The man who did much to proselytise the crossover of materials from motorsport to horology was Richard Mille, whose watches have borrowed not just the technology but the philosophy of motorsport. He specialises in ultra-light, extremely technical watches, and before his Rafael Nadal piece he made an RM006 (€210,000) for Felipe Massa, who was wearing it when he crashed in qualifying during the 2006 season. “Weighing” a virtually weightless 43g before the strap is added, its lightness meant that it was still working after the impact... unlike the car.

Mille has also learnt the value of flexibility from F1. Sometimes his tourbillon arms are in a V shape, rendered more flexible and less likely to deform or break under stress with multiple cutouts; while his use of a single arm gives the tourbillon the capacity to flex on impact. By contrast, the carbon nanofibre used for the baseplate provides a solid and rigid foundation far superior to traditional watchmaking materials.

Nor is watchmaking the only field to appropriate carbon-fibre material, precisely for the properties that attract Richard Mille. Interior designers and architects are able to make startling use of it in stairs; the visual mass of, say, a spiral staircase almost disappears when it’s executed in carbon fibre.

And in 2008, furniture designer Terence Woodgate made graphic use of its load-bearing potential with a carbon-fibre dining table (£33,600) that was 3m long and just 2mm thick at the edge. He worked with F1 design engineer John Barnard to bring off this coup. It was Barnard who created McLaren’s first carbon-fibre chassis three decades ago, yet the material still has a modern look.

There is an intriguingly oxymoronic quality about the high-speed motor-racing world inspiring items as static as architecture and furniture. Nevertheless, the architectural qualities of these machines fuel the creative fires of furniture designers, as the F1 chair designed by Alexander Christoff shows (still at concept stage – expected price about €2,000). The design isn’t to every taste, but the automotive inspiration is in no doubt.

Elsewhere, a vintage Bugatti racing car finds a hyper-modern expression in Luzzo Bespoke’s Bugatti desk (£150,000), which picks up details such as the louvred panels and honeycomb radiator of the Type 35, while the interior of the drawers is lined with engine-spun aluminium similar to the original dashboard, and the removable crank handle jutting from the front adjusts the height of the desk.

Alan Sawyer, design director at Luzzo Bespoke, explains that the desk was machined from solid aircraft-grade aluminium, of which he has direct experience working for some of the major luxury car brands. “We make bespoke parts for Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Morgan, McLaren and Spyker. For Rolls-Royce, this runs to such things as drinks cabinets, humidors and fridges, and we make the engine-spun interior trim for Bentley, Spyker, Morgan and Bugatti.”

The idea for a desk based on a classic car came to him at the Goodwood Revival and he alit on the Bugatti because “my neighbour has a Type 37 and I could take hundreds of pictures of it”. It is not just the design cues that are Bugatti-like – so is the £150,000 price tag. Moreover, Bugatti itself seems to find the furniture flattering; it approached Luzzo Bespoke to show the desk at August’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and is considering a licensing agreement for the desk and other Bugatti-inspired products.

And while this is one of the newest automotive-inspired products, McLaren’s sartorial tie-in with Hugo Boss celebrates its 30th birthday this year. Supported by a sporting sponsorship that has deepened over the years, the German apparel brand makes the clothing for the 135 members of the McLaren team, and also has a commercial collection of Boss Black McLaren jeans, blousons, jerseys, polo shirts and accessories (from £89), pitched to midmarket motorsport fans who want to wear the dream and can afford more than a baseball cap, but cannot quite part with thousands of euros.

Cult Parisian shoemaker Pierre Corthay easily charges that much for his bespoke shoes, and has made F1-inspired footwear for an art installation and for clients. “One of my first real bestselling lasts was for a man who was totally nuts about Ferrari and F1, so I made him an aerodynamic-shaped shoe,” explains Corthay, adding, “When you look at the front of an F1 car, it is very sharp.”

Indeed, Corthay can view the entire foot through the metaphor of a front-engined Grand Prix car of the mid-20th century. “The pilot is at the back part of the car and it is like a shoe: the place where you put your heel is the back part and then you have all this long front with the engine underneath and the engine under the long front part of the shoes is the arch of your foot and toes.”

By the 1960s, however, rear-engined cars dominated, and there are those who feel that from then on beauty and style began to ebb away from the sport. Certainly, the growing popularity of pre-war motor-racing posters – the sort of things that would have appealed to Marinetti in their day – testifies to a powerful nostalgia for a vanished era. Posters promoting Grand Prix racing at Monaco are the most evocative and sought-after.

“Eight were created between 1930 and 1937. Robert Falcucci did the first three; Georges Hamel the other five,” explains Simon Khachadourian, chairman and owner of the Pullman Gallery, who has been dealing in vintage automobile art since 1974.

“They were put up to advertise an event and then ripped down. It’s rare to find them in great condition and I try to pay whatever it takes to get them. They are such good things to have – they are what everybody wants.” The examples he has for sale are priced between £22,000 and £26,000. “Of course, it continued after the war, but by the time you get to 1960 they become overloaded with sponsors’ messages and the cars are less attractive because they are mid- and rear-engined, rather than with the long bonnet.”

At such prices not everyone wants, or can afford, to hang works like these in their garage or study – but nor do they want a cheap reproduction of an image so well known that it is the automotive equivalent of Monet’s water lilies. And it is for such vintage motorsport fans that Khachadourian came up with the idea of commissioning artists to create new posters in the old style, which have been selling briskly at Pullman Editions for £395 each. “What would you rather have: a fake Rolex or a beautiful Swatch? I know what I would.”

Indeed, the rising prices of Grand Prix posters are mirrored in the sums that can be achieved for the work of early-20th-century automotive illustrators such as Frederick Gordon Crosby. However, it is possible to get into original automotive art from living artists for comparatively affordable prices.

Jamie Knight, group head and managing director of motoring at Bonhams, cites prices between £2,000 and £20,000 for the work of Dexter Brown (whose abstractesque images are instantly recognisable), the technically precise Nicholas Watts and impressionistic Alfredo de la Maria. Once again, these artists work in the sport’s history, featuring legendary racing marques and models of the past.

Indeed, it is notoriously difficult to come up with objects that will appeal to both vintage enthusiasts and ultra-modernists. On the whole, companies such as Porsche Design tend to stress the forward-looking nature of their products, viz the high-tech, high-performance description of the Hydro Tec leather jacket: “The lamb nappa leather is laminated with a water- and wind-resistant membrane that is also breathable. Welded seams make it waterproof in all types of weather.”

However, this is not to say that Porsche Design has not tried to link the tweedy tastes of the world of vintage cars with modern design cues, uniting the two worlds in a truly remarkable product: the Porsche Design pipe (from £310). Who knows – maybe go-faster styling can resurrect pipe smoking. A word of advice, though: don’t try to light up in the pit lane.