The past present and future of Automotive

Museums National Car Museums

Impressions from the Italian national Auto Museum in Turin

Last summer I had a chance to visit the Italian National Auto Museum, located in the city of Turin in the heart of the Italian automotive industry and home of FIAT. A few months earlier, I already got to see the Dutch national museum (the Louwman Museum), that has set the standard for all car museums. As some of the most prominent cars of the Louwman Collection were born in Italy, it seemed thus like a good idea to visit Turin, when I spent a few days relatively close to the city. It might be worth noting, that the museum is not the only automotive attraction in the city of Turin. The greater area used to host the magnificent Bertone Collection, before it went bankrupt, and the Pininfarina museum can in principle still be visited (even if per rendezvous), but they did not respond to my approaches. In addition,there is a smaller factory museum in Turin, operated by FIAT.

The Museum is located in a modern and elegant building at the outskirt of the city. The website is also very informative and also extensively available in English. The Italian organisation skills are however well illustrated by the lack of associated facilities. I mean, what is the least relevant thing that a car museum at the edge of the city would never need: bingo! A car park. So there is zero chance of parking (for their defense, the Museum’s parking is filled with restoration projects), and the area is certainly not abundant of parking possibilities, despite the remote location. There is a car park a few corners away, but I decided to park in the nearby square, without risking a flexible interpretation of parking rules. With that I am done with critics, as the Museo is truly impressive, where you can easily lose almost a whole day.

The newly constructed building is free of imperfections, even when measured against the best, like the major German manufacturer’s museums or Louwmans. The MAuto is among the most stylish Museums I’ve ever seen and the technical implementation is also excellent, I reckon it is the most child-friendly national car museum with its interactive and entertaining installations.

The exhibition starts at the upper level of the museum, with a travel through the first decades, with the disappearing horses (excellent show with a fading projection of horses) and a replica of the Belgian Jamais Content electric car (which was the first car to exceed the speed of 100 km/h) and the finest of the Italian automotive industry that hit the road before the First World War. The idea was to recreate the atmosphere of a mechanic’s workshop, and kudos to those who thoughtfully placed the mirrors under the cars to allow a more thorough look at their mechanics. The section’s cinematic and visual aspects are just of wam-up for things to come.

The time travel continues in the 20’s  with a beautiful scenery reflecting developments in technology and fashion. Screens project images of leading futurists who chose the automobile, the plane, and the love for risk and hazard as symbols of their movement – which was striving for the future and for modernity. A suggestive multimedia installation illustrates these years’ mechanical developments. The highlights for me were the 1914 Rolls Royce 40-50 Hp; the 1931 Cord L-29 and the 1929 Isotta Fraschini 8A (one hell of a beast).

Subsequently, an installation with a Military theme brings a strong shift with a Jeep on the centre stage. But with another striking change, we enter into the post war decade with culminating technological and design finesse that will hit our senses from every direction. The museaum describes this period as the Italian Revolution, well illustrated by the two exhibited cars, the 1948 Cisitalia 202, and the 1954 Fiat Turbina, a test prototype equipped with a gas turbine and an airflow body.

This was paired with the French revolution, in the form of a Citroen DS, that seemed like it was about to take off.

The stylish adventure continued with a series of dioramas shifting continents and topics. The first really interactive segment approaches in the form of the interior of a 70s style Hippy VW bus accompanied by an appropriately decorated Citroen 2CV. This was the first section where the young children will start to have a better time than their dad, but this is just the beginning.

Altogether, the MAuto is among the best car museum for children (at least among all the A -listed major museums, I saw so far). By the 80’s, the world moves towards the oil crisis, which forces manufacturers to rethink their approach to the car. These years are represented by the 1980 Ferrari 308 GTB Carburatori by Pininfarina, the 1972 Iso Rivolta Lele F, designed by Bertone and the NSU R0 80, with twin-rotor Wankel engine that ultimately devastated a famous innovative brand.

The next section illustrates the different societies, cultures, politics, economies of the east and the west. In the setup, the rational and poor economy cars admiringly look at the luxurious and shining custom-built cars just behind Check Point Charlie. On one side, small cars circulate, such as the Trabant and Syrena, two small Eastern economy cars with an old-fashioned design. On the other side, one of the gems of Western capitalism drives by: the red 1973 Ferrari 365 GT4, facing the 1987 Trabant 601, the symbolic car of East Berlin and guarded by the 1957 GAZ-M20 Pobeda, a car produced in the USSR.

The fall of the bipolar world the exhibition arrives at the ‘90s, to the years of globalization and the dismantling of financial and cultural borders. These are also the years of the realisation of the need to protect the planet. The stage divides the Society a dark side made of oil, traffic, pollution and deterioration (and Mad Max-like junk cars), and a bright world, where energy comes from renewable energy sources and our lifestyle is not incompatible with environmental protection (but their light-coloured cars are also as ugly as deep sea creatures).

Arriving downstairs, the next floor is dedicated to interactive programmes, MAuto is among the most interactive car museums I ever seen (the sample is quite extensive). 

I particularly liked the technical details of mechanical engineering, the monorail that illustrates various stages of production and a set of personal screens to show the evolution of advertisements over the decades. The next site is a stylish steampunk recreation of living quarters with cinema, or living room, it feels like the movie Robots come alive in Turin. This section plays a vital role, as lures the kids away while dads get completely overwhelmed by the next historical racing section.

The next segment is probably the most impressive part of the Museum, accessible via a corridor honouring the greatest pilots and their trophies.

On the right side, about a dozen of the greatest pilots ever lived welcomes the visitors, and on the left, their main trophies and cups. The corridor leads to the main hall, defined by a parabolic race track that glorifies the myth of speed. Surrounded by a dreamlike and colorfoul projection of animations, all the racing cars of the collection from any period (from 1906 to 2007) are racing together towards the finish line.

On the other side of the track, four pits showcase four different periods in car races (with a fairly good geographic balance for the protagonists). The exhibition guides through the ages illustrating the technological evolution and an atmosphere.

Cars include the DTM legend Alfa 155, the Lotus Renault driven by Senna, or the Ferrari that brought Gilles Villeneuve quite a few victories.

When I finally decided to descend to the last floor, I was overwhelmed by the impressions, so the calm dark downstairs corridors provide a bit of a post orgasmic chill. The next session assumes the role of the scientific and educational corner of the Museum. MAuto is really proud of its interactive installations, and with a good reason. Simulators, technical demonstrations and scaled down models illustrate many aspects of car making.

This is complemented by a major hommage section on car designers. The goes beyond the usual (Italian) suspects, such as De Silva, Gandini, Pininfarina or Giugiaro, but the curators also included international legends, such as Tjaarda, or Bangle. This is not a best of list or a wall of fame, all these designers also contributed to the exhibition, by donating objects and providing replies to standard questions that are the building blocks of the obelisks (e.g. on what they value or which car they would have wanted to design, if they had a chance).

The MAuto in Turin is a special place for automotive pilgrims. Its variety and comprehensive exhibition make it a perfect destination for fans of automotive history, and the neighbouring Pininfarina Museum should dismiss any remaining doubts about the trip (if one can get in). The area where MAuto excels, is the interactivity and consequently the ability to accommodate children who will follow the exhibition with great interest. It is impossible to be the best in everything, but the interactivity and the magnificent style of the museum allows it beat some of the top contenders for the best museum title.

PS: MAuto was also among the “Big Five” motormuseums that sent a lovely three-car delegation to the 2017 Interclassic Brussels.

I particularly liked this event for the efforts the organisers have made. The five museums showcased their cherished pieces, and I got to see long-gone brands, whose memories are no longer kept by business operations.  While BMW or Ferrari can easily afford to run a museum (or even sponsor events, like the 2015 Interclassic Maastricht whose main theme was the 100th anniversary of BMW), at the 2017 Interclassic Brussels, I could see treasures from long forgotten brands, like Cisitalia, Panhard, Talbot or Minerva. 

A non-partisan yet active car-maniac.