MoMA –– Cars on the Walls

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 01/2022
  • posted in: Great Garages

Here are nine autos you could start your art collection with.

They’re beautifully parked at the distinguished Museum of Modern Art in New York City, world renowned for its modern and contemporary holdings in painting, photography, design, illustrated books, films and other collectibles.

America’s first museum devoted to modern art, MoMA opened on November 7, 1929, in the Heckscher Building in Manhattan, through the dedication of Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of mega-millionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who, ironically, disliked modern art. The first exhibition that month comprised paintings by masters such as van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat.


Twenty-two years later, MoMA scheduled its first car exhibition, 8 Automobiles, in 1951. This and immediately ensuing exhibitions discussed the subject largely from an aesthetic standpoint, explains Paul Galloway, the collection specialist for the museum.

In this spirit, one of the 20th-century’s great architects, Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), compared motorcars to ancient Greek temples, and linguist/philosopher Roland Barthes echoed that, likening them to “the great Gothic cathedrals . . . the supreme creation of an era.”

But when the museum began its car collection in 1972 with the first entry, a 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT, curatorial interest broadened. “Increasingly over the years, we’ve come to see cars as objects with a multiplicity of meanings beyond just aesthetics,” he said to Motor Trend in 2019. “There’s engineering, of course, and how they tap into broader stories. It’s how they look, how they’re put together and how they’re objects of industrial design but also great magnets of cultural history.”


The most recent exhibition, which closed January 2, Automania, was based on the 1964 Oscar-nominated Automania 2000, an animated Halas and Batchelor film that examined cars as material possessions, transportation changers and style makers but also as elements in deaths, traffic and ecological horrors.

In the exhibition audio guide, Andrew Gardner, a member of the curatorial team with Galloway, referenced “these stunning specimens of both rare and mass market vehicles alongside artworks and design objects that amplify a richer and thornier story about the way car culture has reshaped our lives for better and for worse.”

These included items as basic as various street signs designed by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir for British roads in the 1960s; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1898 print L’Automobiliste; Lily Reich’s 1930s designs for a tubular-steel car seat; photographs of American car factories (c. 1930–32) by Margaret Bourke-White; Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1955 drawings for a “Road Machine”; Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times (1963) by Andy Warhol; and a Jorge Rigamonti 1966–70 photo collage illustrating environmental destruction in Venezuela.


Juliet Kinchin, the lead curator of the exhibition, said: “Cars have reimagined mobility, connecting us across great distances at ever greater speed, but this increased freedom and economic empowerment have come at the expense of tremendous human suffering and environmental damage,” she says.

“Throughout the 20th century, the car has inspired innumerable examples of innovation, social transformation and critical debate among designers, architects, artists, filmmakers and photographers,” she adds. “We really wanted to address the conflicted feelings of compulsion, desire and rage that have developed in response to cars and car culture throughout the 20th century,” Kinchin said in the exhibition audio guide.

Framing the Cars


“The key that we always try to emphasize now is that MoMA doesn’t have a car collection,” Galloway explained in a 2019 interview with Motor Trend. “We have a design collection, and in that design collection there are some cars.” The museum’s Department of Architecture & Design also includes objects such as telephones, tea pots and furniture.

All nine cars share one feature: “[They] connect the legacies of their design and manufacture to broader stories about art, the built environment and culture in the 20th century,” he says. “Each is an icon in its own right and each offers the chance for delight, nostalgia and reflection on the lessons learned from our complicated relationships with these machines.”

Now that the exhibition has closed, they have been returned to storage. “However, we look forward to getting our cars out on view again in the future,” Galloway explains.
Let’s take a look at them in order of acquisition:


1946 Cisitalia 202 GT (Acquired 1972) –– This was the first time that an art museum in the U.S. placed a car in its collection; MoMA had featured the same Cisitalia model for that first car exhibition in 1951.

When talking about the Cisitalia to Motor Trend, Galloway said, “[I]t’s kind of an outlier in our collection because it’s one of the rarest cars. Every other car is the opposite of rare; they’re very common, like a Jeep or a Beetle. But the Cisitalia, only around 200 of those were made. They were handmade, and it was a much more of a craft-oriented process . . . [I]t was a barn find that Pininfarina [Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina] restored for us . . . .”

The car features monocoque construction and a unitized shell. “The beautiful sculptural form really [marries] engineering to overall shape in a highly aesthetic package,” he says.


1990 Ferrari 641/F1-90 (1994) –– “Ferrari had poached John Barnard from McLaren and brought him on to the Ferrari racing team to redesign their car,” Galloway said to Motor Trend. “This was the first Formula 1 racer to include paddle shifters, which now are ubiquitous on cars but at the time were really revolutionary, freeing the driver’s hands from the stick shift and keeping them on the steering wheel.

“[The paddles also] fractionally increased shifting speed, and that was a really tremendous advantage. And also, you get the carbon-fiber shell, and all these other advances that were happening in Formula 1 racing in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This particular car just really powerfully encapsulates that centrality of engineering and pushing technology to its bleeding edge.”

1963 Jaguar E-Type Roadster (1996) –– Designed in 1961 by Sir William Lyons, Malcolm Sayer and William M. Heynes, the car was the most beautiful in the world for Enzo Ferrari; the “XKE” is the only British car in the MoMA collection. “It is the definition of the sexy car—it’s all soft curves, and it speaks to speed,” Galloway told Motor Trend.


The E-type and the Porsche 911 are two examples of racing coming to the public roads. “There is this very clear trajectory from the race track to the driveway,” he says. “And then it’s this spectacularly beautiful aesthetic form.”

1959 Volkswagen Type 1 Sedan ‘Beetle’ (2002) –– Ferdinand Porsche designed the legendary car in 1938, and more than 30 million were built until the car maker ceased its production in 2019.

“It’s a symbol for so many different eras, so many different people,” Galloway said to Motor Trend. “On top of that, it’s a spectacularly successful design that has really well-rationalized construction. It’s practically indestructible with its rear-mounted air-cooled engine that’s so weak and yet so capable at the same time,” he explained.


“And it’s also the beginning of the Porsche family legacy of design that goes from Ferdinand Porsche to Ferry Porsche and on and on that comes through to the present day. The Beetle is the [MoMA car] that has the most cultural heft to it because it’s so international. So many of these other cars are very much tied to their country, but the Beetle is truly global.”

1953 Jeep (2002) –– This famous military vehicle is the only American car in the collection.

“The history of how it came about is fascinating and touches on the retooling of factories for wartime production and also in creating this standardized form that’s highly adaptable and highly utilitarian and extremely well engineered,” Galloway told Motor Trend.


“It really becomes an instrument of American power and goes around the world as a symbol of American engineering and American industrial might. And then it continues to have a very long life after the war. The visual model for this vehicle still dictates [the look of] Jeeps made to this very day. As a symbol for American machine art and machine aesthetics, there’s nothing better.”

1998 Smart ForTwo (2002) –– “This thing comes about in the ’90s. Originally it was the Swatch car, and the idea was that you’ve got a completely customizable thing — you could swap out body parts to change the colors like you could with a Swatch watch. And it was this vision for the ultimate city car,” Galloway said.

“It sort of takes us back to the microcars era of the 1950s, when you could have this super-tiny, very fuel-efficient car that you could park anywhere, that was very easy to move around and was highly adapted to an urban environment. It also pushed technology, using plastic for body panels, making it as solidly yet cheaply built as possible.”


1965 Porsche 911 coupé (2017) –– This and the Citroen DS below were on view for the first time at MoMA during Automania.

This car, originally shipped to California, continues the legacy of Porsche design from the Beetle and adapts racing technology to the street, similar to the E-Type Jaguar following another legend, the D-Type. “It builds on a lot of the design language established in the Beetle and makes it basically a racing vehicle, one that is beautifully designed and beautifully executed,” Galloway explained, noting that it represents German design transplanted to the U.S.

This “survivor” 911 is the only one of the MoMA cars with original paint and interior. For value, “it makes no difference to us whether a car is worth a hundred bucks or $100,000,” he added when talking to Motor Trend. “To us, it’s ‘What are the strengths of the design? What is its cultural relevance? What kind of stories does it tell, or allow us to tell?’”

1968 Fiat 500 Cinquecento (2017) –– “[This car] . . . is often conflated with the Beetle even though they are wildly different kinds of cars,” he said. “The Cinquecento is truly a city car, and it’s three feet shorter in length than the Beetle, and when you put them side by side, you really get a sense of just how much bigger the Beetle is.”

Galloway explained: “The Beetle was conceived as a car for the masses, a car for the people, but it was still quite a robust car. The Cinquecento was really tiny, and it straddled this line between a compact car and a microcar. Yet it still is big enough and ample enough to fit four people, and it gets tremendously good gas mileage.”

The car was perfectly suited for the 1950s urban Italian market; GDP and purchasing power were accelerating, but parking spaces were stalled. As a result, Dante Giacosa, the lead designer for Fiat, made the interior as simple and spacious as possible, he also said. “Even more so than the Beetle, there’s a very clearly rationalized interior that makes perfect sense for what it was intended for.”

1973 Citroën DS23 (2018) –– Designed 1954–67, this is the French representative in the collection and its first four-door sedan. “When you pronounce it ‘DS,’ that is French for ‘goddess’” said Galloway in the audio guide. When talking to Motor Trend, he said, “It’s tied to so many different things, such as French diplomatic service and the presidential cars, and it’s this executive sedan, which is a type of car that we didn’t have in our collection.”

It combines beauty with innovative technologies for its time, including a fiberglass roof to lower the center of gravity and make it less top heavy for great handling, a hydraulic suspension automatically adjusting for potholes and movable headlights on the later models.

“We felt the DS was really spectacular, especially when compared to sedans being made in places like the United States at the same time,” Galloway also said. “We thought this one was so far and away a more successful design.”

Thanks to Olivia Oramas, publicist for The Museum of Modern Art, for her assistance on this story. If you or someone you know has a GreatGarage and would like it to be considered for an upcoming issue, please email us at