Street cars all named desire

Laurence Alster cruises round an exhibition to gawp at the real stars of the Hollywood film sets. Given that the motor car has been the engine for so much social change throughout the 20th century - in terms, say, of its influence on shopping, leisure, health and even international affairs - it seems strange that study of the subject should be confined to further education college technology blocks. After all, there's so much more to know about cars than how to mend them.

The thought occurs after only a few minutes spent at the huge Haynes Motor Museum at Sparkford in Somerset. A second thought comes soon after: row upon row of gleaming vehicles make a route plan necessary, not least for teachers. Aimlessly traipsing round risks a steep increase in the student drag coefficient, but a quick tour of the lesser exhibits with stops at sites of special meaning should easily sustain interest.

So, bearing in mind that all the exhibits have in common one indispensable feature - the engine - it seems right to start with a look at a car's innards. Sounds unpromising? Not with the 1946 Humber Snipe chassis. Pop 10p in a slot, and the cutaway engine, gearbox and power train burst into life, giving an insight into vehicle propulsion.

This done, there are lots of options. Visitors can chart changes in car design from the originals to today's supercharged motorway cruisers. Or, perhaps, study the development of car streamlining, or the decline of the British motor manufacturing industry. Then again, there is plenty of scope for speculating on the social meaning of cars, an exercise best begun in the American section.

This is where visitors gawp at dream machines known from decades of Hollywood films. A 1936 Auburn 852 Speedster, for example, is a later version of a model much pictured with Marlene Dietrich.

But it is the more recent American behemoths that most beguile young visitors. Set against Fifties and Sixties rock 'n' roll hits, they tell all about the times in which they were made. Wraparound windscreens, big rear fins and rocket tail lights make the cars look more suited to an aircraft hangar than a garage. Which was just the intention: less a means of mobility than cars of macho fantasy, they were created by American post-war wealth and fuelled by cheap petrol. Their styling reflected a confident consumerism expressed in the "dollar grin" of the chrome radiator grilles that other countries could only boggle at. Or, ill-advisedly, try to imitate.

In the same way that a young Cliff Richard was but a pale shadow of Elvis Presley, the 1960 British Vauxhall Cresta, with its chrome and flashy two-tone finish, was a Cadillac wannabe.

Some cars, though, had the confidence not to compete. Stately Rolls-Royces of various vintages indicate a disdain for transatlantic in-your-faceness. But even they cannot compare with the museum's pi ce de resistance, a cobalt-blue, 1931 Duesenberg J that overlooks the main hall. Valued at just under Pounds 1 million, it is the last word in hand-crafted, motorised elegance. Like many the luxury cars - Jaguars, Daimlers, and Aston Martins - on show, it contrasts not so much with the Minis nor the strange bubble cars, as with a prehistoric motorised rickshaw.

Powered by filth-spewing two-stroke engines, these are the poor people's taxis of the Far East. Teachers looking for a symbol of the chasm between ourselves and the Third World should stop here. These vehicles represent so much more than first sight would suggest. The museum, though, seems scarcely aware of this. With each exhibit fronted by a name plate showing only the manufacturer, model and year of production, visitors aren't encouraged to speculate on the meanings of what they are looking at.

Generally, the place is a bit dull. Some old adverts and motoring mementoes are not great backdrops to this splendid collection. All of which means that teachers will need to do preparation before a visit. The museum offers free tours to teachers who intend to take parties along, and some good educational worksheets are available.

A party of Year 9 pupils from Wadham community school in nearby Crewkerne thought the place worth a look. Having designed question sheets on the school's computer network, they were investigating topics as varied as wheel technology and museum layout. They loved the place, especially the American section.

Asked to explain, they gave the look car buffs reserve for those who don't know a wheelbrace from a Wankel engine. "Easy," they chorused. "America is just bigger and better, that's why."

Haynes Motor Museum, Sparkford, near Yeovil, Somerset BA22 7LH. Tel: 01963 440804. Adults Pounds 4.50, children Pounds 2.75, school groups (under 16) Pounds 2.25 per pupil. One free teacher for 10 pupils

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