In the early 1990s, when one of the world's leading art museums hung racing cars on its walls, it seemed like an iconoclastic and even shocking move. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York ran a show with the baldly self-explanatory title Designed for Speed: Three Automobiles by Ferrari. A quarter century later, such an exhibition would be mainstream.
First of the three cars was the 166 Barchetta, one of the oldest surviving of Enzo's cars. Then an F40, at the time only seven years old and looking rampantly fast. The third was a 1990 Tipo 641 – later generally known as the F1-90, conforming to Ferrari's simplified race-car naming schedule.
The exhibition emphasised the depth of technology in the Formula One car, by also showing its dismounted carbon fibre tub, rear suspension, “paddleshift” gearbox and V12 engine. The public – and rival teams – seldom get a good view of those assemblies.
The F1 car was a gift to the museum from Ferrari, and it has remained there ever since. It was also part of a 2002 exhibition, AUTObodies: Speed, Sport, Transport. Formula One fans will delight more and more to see it, for it's now regarded as one of the most beautiful racing cars of any era. Aesthetics, and so art, follow function.
Of course, the mythology around this car is only boosted by the fact it raced with one of the great driver line-ups, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. Prost took five wins that season. His championship bid was quashed only at the season's end when he was notoriously crashed out by Senna at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix.
Alongside the F1-90 and its parts, MoMA showed some of the technical sketches that began its design process. Those are from the hand of John Barnard, who was Ferrari's Technical Director up until 1989 and had designed the preceding Tipo 640, F1-89.
That car was a return to the V12 for Ferrari after the turbo era, and also innovated with the paddle-operated semi-automatic transmission, a Ferrari development that soon became standard across the field, and fed into road cars.
As Barnard said in the audioguide to the 2002 exhibition: ‘I like to make my cars look good, so I'm careful to get the lines and shapes to flow together, whilst complying with technical requirements.’
The F1-90 at MoMA used a slightly longer wheelbase than that of the car from the previous year. Cooling for the V12 and gearbox was improved, and a mid-season engine swap gave it 580bhp at 12,750rpm from 3.5 litres.
Some of the bodywork's straighter lines mutated into very subtle curves. The aim was aerodynamic efficiency, but the result was also a car of clean, spare beauty. A beauty that most fans think has been lost with the complexity of aerodynamic aids on more recent cars.
In short, the F1-90 bore a gorgeous elegance, but still managed to speak eloquently of its ferocious performance. The press release for the original exhibition quoted a spookily prophetic phrase from Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto of 1909: "We say that the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed."