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Motor museums exhibit industry's shame: a record of failure

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In her 1909 book Woman and Car , Dorothy Levitt concluded a list of dos and don'ts connected with the new pastime of motoring by reminding ladies going on a motor trip 'not to forget to carry a small revolver'. That advice has, of course, long since been forgotten, but there are still undercurrents to the history of the motor car that bring the use of a revolver to mind.

For instance, have you ever wondered where all the abandoned experiments of the motor industry end up? Like that disturbing human mutation you saw the other day in the big kilner jar in the anatomy department, they end up as exhibits in museums.

And according to Burke and Price's Guide to Motor Museums of the British Isles (published by Veloce, price £7.99) there are thousands of such motor museums in Britain alone and probably a million in the whole world, and they are all different.

They range from scruffy roadside attractions, like the one I paid US$5 to get into in Florida years ago that barefacedly claimed to have the actual John D Rockefeller Cadillac that went down with the Andrea Doria on show, to the awesomely clean British Motor Industry 'Heritage Motor Centre' at Gaydon in Warwickshire, that really does have the only MGB GT with a wide angle rear view periscope sticking through the roof instead of a standard rear view mirror. The only thing Gaydon does not have is good faith, and that is the problem with all motor museums, from John Haynes' delightful collection in out-of-the-way Sparkford, to the monster Montagu Motor Museum with its stately home attached.

Why soullessness should be the condition of the former V-bomber base at Gaydon (just off the M40 at junction 12), is hard to understand.

On the face of it it has everything on its side. It does not have a poky or inaccessible site with no parking, but an enormous piece of airfield amounting to 26ha, laid out with an imposing axial approach flanked by provocatively posed Land Rovers and rusting old machine tools strewn about in a fair imitation of sculptures that make you think.

It also has a not very old building by Temple Cox Nicholls of Birmingham that encloses an enormous 12,000m 2semi-circular top-lit museum hall with more than 200 cars in it that are so shiny that they must have been polished with live chamois.But most of all it has exhibits that really tell a story.

But there's the rub. The story they tell is by no means as bland and value-free as the relentlessly cheerful information panels standing next to the cars and the discreet sidebar videos would suggest. Gaydon is overwhelmingly a tale of the British motor industry's missed opportunities, disregarded talent, half-baked compromises and downright stupidity that leaves a bad taste in the mouth long after the visitor has left the heartbreaking display of sheet metal, glass and plastic that is all that remains of numerous mock-ups and prototypes that should have made it into production but never did.

So much talent was squandered on the Mini, for example, with half a dozen major upgrades that could have made it a bestseller again put aside because it was always cheaper to go on selling it with all its faults uncorrected right up to the bitter end.

Not every motor museum makes this point so naively - the Ferrari museum at Modena certainly does not - but this one at least should stop marketing itself as a tourist attraction forthwith - a task which, judging by visitor numbers, it appears to be none too successful at doing anyway - and revert to the role of a design management and marketing school with a lot to be modest about.

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